A lot has changed since Elladj Baldé was a young boy, hiding his skates in a closet so that his mother wouldn’t press him to go skating.
Now it appears that the 22-year-old skater, born in Russia ( he came to Canada when he was two), has become a contender for one of the three Canadian Olympic berths for men, judging by his bold display at Skate Canada in Saint John, N.B.
It’s been a long time coming. Baldé showed promise when he won the junior title in Canada in 2008, but disappointing results, and the loss of a year because of surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament kept his name in the rushes.
In Saint John, he finished seventh overall (sixth in the short), but it was clear that the gregarious skater had donned a new attitude – and he came armed with a quad, the magic word this year in men’s skating. There was to be no tippy-toeing with this big trick: he planned to do it in both the short and long programs.
Many would inch into it, trying it in one or the other.
And when he landed the first quad of his career in the short program at Saint John, he managed a double toe loop at the end of it, despite putting a hand down on the big jump. His first quad – and he’d made it part of a combination. “It’s a big plus for me,” he said.
What the crowd didn’t know was that Baldé accomplished the feat while skating on two different boots. He got new skates four weeks before the event, but every time he put them on, he fell on his triple Axel, a jump that had been solid for him. “I was freaking out,” he said. Short program, long, it didn’t matter.
He couldn’t land it. When he looked at his boot, he could see that the blade was not in the right spot; it made his body twist in the air. He was so frustrated that a few days before the event, he thought he couldn’t possibly compete that way.
He was ready to try anything. An experiment: skate with the new, stiff boot on the right foot, and use his old, broken-down soft-sided old boot for his left foot. He landed the triple Axel and he started kissing that old boot.
Baldé knows he’ll need new skates. He also skates with his knees taped up, because he has tendonitis in both.
Two things have launched Baldé on this high road he’s on. One of them? His deep disappointment about his effort at the 2013 ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, where he finished only 18th in his debut appearance at the event. He’d earned the trip by being fourth at the national championships.
“I knew I couldn’t waste any time,” Baldé said. “There were a lot of good things to take out of, but there were a lot of things to change.” When he returned, he changed everything.
The other? Patrick Chan moving to his club in Detroit. Always friends, he and Chan became best buddies in Detroit. They train together. They hang together. Baldé goes to Chan’s apartment, Chan to Baldé’s. Their coaches work together. Baldé learns some of the off-ice dance training that Chan has learned from Johnson. Chan is training better than ever, with Baldé in the rink.
“I’ve learned so much from him, just being around him, like how to be a world champion,” Baldé said. “He does things that are similar to what a lot of other people do, but small things, like his eating habits, that makes a difference. He’s the best training partner you could ever have.”
While Baldé used to dine on fast food, Chan got him eating wild rice and quinoa. For three weeks, Baldé queried Chan: “So how many scoops of quinoa do you eat?”
Chan replied: “The one scoop of quinoa that I cook is enough for a week.”
Baldé: “Man, I’ve been eating one scoop of quinoa EVERY DAY. And it’s a little crunchy.”
Chan would watch him cook and noticed that Baldé wasn’t cooking it correctly, but he wouldn’t say anything “because it’s his way or the high way,” he said. Baldé mysteriously gained weight.
Finally Chan’s coach, Kathy Johnson intervened to tell Baldé that he wasn’t cooking his quinoa long enough. His quinoa became fluffy, Baldé enjoyed it more, and he lost six pounds, Chan said.
Since Four Continents, Baldé has changed the way he thinks about training. He has more sessions on the ice than ever. He does more off-ice work than ever. He’s paid more attention to the details of jump technique. He gets the right amount of sleep. His first thought was working on that quad, but all of his jumps have become more consistent, too, under the watchful eye of Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen, two coaches that bring an air of calmness to the rink.
Baldé landed a quad for the first time last year in practice, but never landed it again. Last May, he finally landed a quad again. And then again. And then again. And again. “It’s been going pretty well since,” Baldé said. “It’s still up and down because it’s not even been a year since I started doing them. You develop your confidence with it every time you go out.”
But most of all, Baldé finds hard work is the only answer. “There’s no other,” he said. “It’s nothing else. It’s one thing and it’s hard work and it’s believing and never giving up. That’s all it is. There is no magic trick. There’s no hoping for something to happen.”
As for Chan, he sees Baldé going through what he went through before the Vancouver Games, still feeling his way, trying on the big leagues. “Once I arrived in Detroit, I wanted to help Elladj a lot, because he has a big heart,” Chan said. “I really like him as a friend. He has so much potential.”