Sky is the limit for newly-crowned world junior champion Nam Nguyen

As far as fleeting moments go, Nam Nguyen’s first – and to date, only – encounter with three-time world champion Patrick Chan was about as brief as they come.

Two years have passed since Nguyen, then a pint-sized 13-year-old competing as a senior for the first time at the national championships in Moncton, N.B., had a chance encounter with Chan in a hallway following practice.

“He asked me where the clock was,” the newly-crowned world junior men’s champion told reporters this week.

Cue the laughter.

“It was around the corner.”

With a world junior title now in his back pocket, thanks to a pair of dazzling programs in Sofia, Bulgaria, the skating prodigy – also the youngest Canadian to win national titles at the juvenile, pre-novice, novice and junior levels – is creating headlines of his own these days. There are even some inevitable whispers, as premature as they may be, that Nguyen could one day be Chan’s heir apparent.

“Some people say I might be the next Patrick Chan, and I think that’s a huge honour,” he adds with a wide smile.

“He’s the three-time world champion and Olympic silver medallist. That’s amazing.”

“When I saw the score, it was unbelievable, that’s the highest score I’ve ever (had) internationally,” said Nam, referring to the 217.06 total score he posted last weekend.

“When I sat down, there were so many things going on in my head. I saw the score and thought, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe it.’”

Less than a week after claiming the world junior title in Bulgaria, Nguyen will be back on a plane Saturday when he makes the trek across the Pacific for next week’s ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Tokyo. Making the trip with him will be Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the gold medallist from the Sochi Winter Olympics, and world bronze medallist Javier Fernandez of Spain. Nguyen trains with Hanyu and Fernandez at the Toronto Cricket Club under two-time Olympic silver medallist and 1987 world champion Brian Orser.

If recent history is any indication, Orser is becoming the coach with the Midas touch. Not only does he have Hanyu, Fernandez and Nam in his stable, but Orser also coached Yuna Kim to women’s gold at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010.

Orser’s been around long enough to know with the Sochi Games now in the rear-view mirror, it will likely signal a changing of the guard in men’s skating.

“This is going to be the new guard,” said Orser, referring to the top finishers last weekend in Bulgaria. “The top four or five – these are the guys we’re going to see down the road.

“There is a change now happening and it’s happening sooner than anybody thought.”

In Sofia, Nguyen skated a near-flawless free program punctuated with a pair of double Axels, but when he makes the jump to seniors –whenever that may be – Orser and Nguyen know they will have to up the ante. In the coming months, they plan on working on the quad before rolling it out next season.

But Nguyen’s handlers insist he isn’t on any sort of fast track.

“Winning a junior world title is not the end – it’s the start,” reasons Skate Canada High Performance Director Mike Slipchuk.

“I think this is a big building block for Nam.”

Stealing the show seems to be in the kid’s DNA. Four years later, and people are still talking about Nguyen’s memorable cameo in the gala at the Vancouver Olympics. At recent national championships, Nguyen has won over the crowd with his ear-to-ear grin and infectious enthusiasm.

But Orser says that persona needed a makeover to introduce a big-boy image, and not only because Nguyen has grown almost a foot, give or take, in the past year and a half.

“I told him ‘OK, enough of the cute factor’,” reasons Orser.

“It was fun and it was cute, and everybody was like, ‘Oh my god, he’s so cute.’ But now you’ve got to be a big boy and you’ve got to skate like that. There has to be maturity.’”

Nguyen says Orser helps keep his feet planted firmly on the ground, and that isn’t going to change with the world junior title.

But 15-year-olds are allowed to dream, and this kid isn’t any different.

“I want to be the Olympic champion, 2018,” he says, eyes lighting up. “I want to be the first Canadian men’s champion for the Olympics.

“That would be cool.”
Marty Henwood

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