Liam Firus finding his way along the road to Sochi

Liam Firus, a 21-year-old Vancouverite with an enviable slip across the ice, can see an opportunity: one of those three Olympic spots that Canada has earned for men.

He wants to seize that opportunity. The trouble is, Firus has had more bumps on the road to Sochi than most.

Last year, Firus had the skate of a lifetime in the short program at the Canadian championships when he landed his first triple Axel in competition and finished third in a stacked field. He surprised himself, because he had been battling a groin injury in the weeks leading up to the event. The skate of a lifetime doesn’t usually happen after such impediments. And it was a painful injury, too. He had endured six tortuous injections of a sugar solution into his injury, meant to inflame the site, bring blood to a bloodless area and help the healing.

He and coach Lorna Bauer had considered withdrawing from the Canadian championships, but only the Sunday before the event, they decided to go. And because Firus really wasn’t trained, the long program slipped out of his control and he dipped to fifth overall. It was still his best finish at the senior national level.

His problems weren’t over, by any means, when he went home. He immediately set to work with choreographer Mark Pillay to design two new programs for the Olympic season and then he didn’t set foot on an ice surface for months.

He got six more injections, a week apart. He went to physiotherapy three to four times a week. His life revolved around rehabilitation. He didn’t get back onto the ice again until June. “It was tough,” he said. With the Olympics coming, he wanted to train like a fiend, but he knew that wasn’t smart. “I knew that if my groin was bothering me while I was training for the Olympics, I don’t think I would have a shot,” he said. “It was just so painful and so mentally hard, too.”

So restrain himself, he did. He didn’t start jumping again until late July, and that didn’t mean full-out triple Axels. It meant doing doubles, half a year before the Sochi Olympics. By the middle of August, he slowly introduced triples back into the mix. By the beginning of September, he was finally doing full programs. With five months to the Olympics, his training finally began in earnest.

He decided to step things up, by leaving Vancouver to train full time in Colorado Springs with Christy Krall, Damon Allen and Eric Shultz, coaches he’d visited sporadically for four or five years. It meant leaving his first and only coach, Lorna Bauer, behind.

Bauer has been a mentor, a force, a “second mom” in Firus’ life. She brought him from being a hockey player to a figure skater with a lovely glide over the ice. Never mind that in the early days, Firus insisted on taking figure skating lessons with hockey skates on. Grudgingly, he adopted the toe picks, with predictable results. Bauer was a coach who came to the table with interesting skills: a kinesiology degree, a high school teacher’s certificate, a skating career at the hands of Hall of Fame coach, Linda Brauckmann, and high qualifications as a pianist with music theory to boot. And she’s the sister to Susan Humphreys, the 1997 Canadian champion.

It was Bauer who insisted Firus focus on skating skills so much that she has turned a hockey player into a skater with a beautiful glide over the ice. “I’ve skated with her since I was nine years old,” Firus said. “I really believe it came from my coach, Lorna. She made me work on my skating skills and how I push the right way. ” Even now, Firus’ first session of the day involves basic skating skills and body movement, rather than jumping. It’s all about line and speed and edges.

Firus knew he needed to train with the best in the world (Max Aaron, Josh Ferris, Agnes Zawadski, Brandon Mroz, first man to land a quad Lutz)  and be motivated by the heady atmosphere in order to contend for the Olympic team. In Colorado, his jumps have become more consistent. And Bauer let him fly. “She just said, do whatever I need to do to succeed and be happy with this sport,” he said.  She will always remain close to Firus. She accompanied him to his first international competition of the year at Coupe de Nice in late October. He treated Coupe de Nice as it if was a summer competition – a couple of months late.

Firus has had to use his time efficiently to get where he is. He’s not had time to pursue quads. He did one triple Axel in the long program in France, then added a second one for Challenge in Regina, an event in which he finished second to Andrei Rogozine. “I haven’t had as much time as everybody else,” he said. “When everybody else was competing at a summer competition, I was just starting to run my programs. Every day has been a grind. I think I’ve caught up to training and I’ve got just a little bit more to go to get ready for nationals, just polishing up everything.”

Firus comes to the table with two new programs that he loves. The short program is to the romantic French classical piece Fascination. “Every time I do it, it’s so much fun to do,” he said. “I’ve been really trying to be a character in it and bring out a personality.”

The long program is ambitious and totally different: The Bolt by Dmitri Shostakovich. “It’s quite extreme, very intense,” Firus said. “It’s very powerful intense music and it’s great.”

The Bolt? Doesn’t that ring a bell? It was Brian Orser’s music when he earned the silver medal at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Even though Orser skated the music four years before Firus was born, the Vancouver skater knows all about it, how it was a shot across the bow in the famous Battle of the Brians. He’s hoping for an Olympic effort, too at the Canadian championships. He knows it will be a tough fight.

Beverley Smith

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