This week, many of the top Olympic contenders are giving the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships a miss, coming so close to the Sochi Games. But for rising Canadian star, Nam Nguyen, the event in Taipei City is his Olympic Games.
Nguyen is only 15 years old, and the Four Continents event represents his first major senior international competition. It’s a heady beginning to a career full of promise.
Nguyen found his way to Taipei by virtue of his fifth-place finish at the Canadian Tire National Skating Championships (which puts him on the senior national team). He climbed to fifth by virtue of a fourth-place finish in the long program, ahead of such veterans as Elladj Balde, Jeremy Ten and Andrei Rogozine. When he finished, he exuded joy – and he got a standing ovation.
“I’ve had standing ovations before, but that was nothing compared to this, because I did a clean program,” he said. “The audience understood it and I was able to show it to them.”
Nguyen very quietly slipped into fourth place. Under the format used at this event, the final groups of skaters in each discipline skated late in the day at a “superfinal”-like setup, made for television. Nguyen, who skated in the next-to-last group, competed earlier in the day, quite under the radar. Incredibly, as his older peers skated after him, Nguyen’s score held up.
His big accomplishment was to land a triple Axel at the beginning of his program. He felt relief, he said. “Then I had to remember that I had seven more jumps and three spins.” Near the end of his routine, as he rocketed past the end boards, he could hear his coach, Brian Orser, telling him to keep pushing.
His previous best (international) free skate score had been 119.15, set at the 2013 ISU World Junior Figure Skating Championships, when he was 12th. At the national championship, he blasted it, finishing with 147.46 points, for a final score of 218.43. (His personal best total, set in Mexico, is 181.04). It made his trials of the early season all worth it.
His triple Axel hasn’t been consistent all season. He started landing them right from his first competition in Thornhill in August. But during his Junior Grand Prix events, the jump seemed to evaporate.
Earlier in the season at a Junior Grand Prix in Gdansk, Poland, he had finished only 16th. Ask him about it and his voice catches in his throat, still hurting from the memory. “I didn’t know what was happening,” he said. “The practices were all right, but practices don’t count. It’s what you do in the actual part of it. I was not able to show the judges what I was capable of doing. I learned a lot from Poland.”
His other Junior Grand Prix event in Mexico City resulted in a fourth-place finish, but he admitted he wasn’t fully prepared for that event. “People around me were saying that the altitude was bad, but I didn’t really listen to them,” he said. “So I didn’t train as hard as I needed to. I learned the hard way. My legs were dead.”
Afterward, he competed at Oktoberfest in Barrie and the triple Axel came back strong and became more consistent afterwards. And with it, his confidence grew too. At Skate Canada Challenge, his nerves got the better of him, so with a month to go before Canadians, he ramped up his training. He’s increasing his repetitions.
Last season, Orser said that Nguyen took himself a little too seriously and needed to dial things back somewhat. “He’s a really intense little character,” Orser said. “He skates well and he’s happy and he’s funny and he’s silly and all those things, but he’s extremely intense, almost to a fault. So needs to lighten up a little bit, I think.”
He needed to do what his training mates – two-time European champion Javier Fernandez and Grand Prix Final champ Yuzuru Hanyu – do. They step onto the ice, and get the job done in a relaxed way, Orser said. “We’re kind of working through that,” he said. “He actually over trains, so I need to scale that back a little bit and just work out how much he’s on the ice. He actually needs to do more off ice than on ice, just to get that balance.”
Nguyen said it himself last year at the national championships: “The criteria for myself this year is to have fun,” he said. “And most importantly, I need to bring the audience in with me. It would be really boring to skate by yourself. It’s much more fun to have them skate with you.”
Skating with the likes of Fernandez and Hanyu has pushed Nguyen into wanting to land quads, too. So a couple of weeks before Canadians, he started trying quad Salchow, because his Salchow jump is so strong. Next year, he may try a quad Salchow in a competition.
And he’s grown too. He doesn’t know by how much, but it’s visible. “I kind of feel it,” he said. “I’m fighting against it.” Obviously, he’s not losing his jumps. In Ottawa, Nguyen landed a triple Axel, triple Lutz – triple toe loop, triple flip, a triple loop, a triple Lutz with an edge call, a triple Salchow – double toe loop, a triple flip – double toe loop – double loop combo, and a double Axel. He also showed off one level four and two level three spins.
The competition at Four Continents will be stiffer than anything Nguyen has ever seen: He’ll be in against world silver medalist Denis Ten of Kazakhstan (season’s best of 224.80); Takahiko Kozuka of Japan (230.95), 2010 Four Continents Champion Adam Rippon (241.24), Richard Dornbush (218.57) and junior world champion Joshua Farris of the United States. It’s a big step. Against this crew, he finished 10th in the short program with a good skate. It’s the first step.