Skating in the family for Eric Liu

Tiny when he won the junior men’s bronze medal at the 2014 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships in Ottawa several months ago, Liu is now inching up to the skies. The 12-year-old skater from Edmonton/Vancouver has stretched up about four inches since January. He’s now a towering five feet tall.  It seems as if it’s all in his legs.

And don’t forget the feet, too. Liu notes that since his growth spurt surged, he’s gone through four pairs of boots to accommodate the lengthening of his peds. He’s not even sure of the size he wears now. It’s hard to keep track.

But Skate Canada is definitely keeping track of him. He was one of the youngest invitees to the development camp in Markham, Ontario in April. He’s got style. He’s got the jumps. Liu is a prodigy, having landed a triple Lutz – double toe loop combination to earn his way to a medal in his JUNIOR debut in January. He looked like Nam Nguyen did a few years ago, dwarfed by his competitors on a podium. But Liu is more balletic on the ice (at the same age). Both of them are crowd pleasers.

Liu comes by his skills honestly. His father Louie (Wei) Lui, is a Chinese national who competed as an ice dancer in China at a time when China didn’t have huge numbers of skilled ice dancers. But Louie knows his edges. He moved to Edmonton while he was still a skater, tried out with a Canadian partner at the junior dance level, showed up at the Thornhill Summer Skate with her, and then had to deal with life in a new country. He faded from view.

Louie eventually married Edmonton dentist Linda Xie, and they had two sons, Eric and Aaron. Louie and the boys moved to Vancouver to study under Joanne McLeod. Not surprisingly, younger son, Aaron, is an ice dancer, skating in the powerful dance group led by Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe in Vancouver. Eric’s path to stardom (on this small scale) didn’t come in such a predictable way.

He was a hockey player first. His first gold medal came in hockey. He loved to swing that stick. But everything changed when the Liu family travelled to Japan to attend the 2007 world championships. It was a big deal. Louie’s best friend, Hongbo Zhao and partner Xue Shen made a comeback that season after Zhao’s Achilles tendon injury had scuttled their career the previous year. They roared into Japan, undefeated for the season. The Lius saw Shen and Zhao win that world title in Japan by 15 points and as Zhao finished his free skate, he knelt onto the ice and proposed marriage to Shen. What could be more dramatic?

The Lius had been sitting in the best of seats and little Eric was mesmerized by the scene, no less so because Zhao is Eric’s godparent. The little boy saw a major spectacle with an audience that loved skating. He’s met Zhao several times since, also in Canada.

It was a life-changing event for Eric. “I saw them get a lot of flowers,” Liu said. “I told my dad I wanted to do that, too.”  He loved the glitz of it. He was five years old. Toe picks it was.

His father has taught Eric how to skate, how to use his edges. And so did Edmonton coach Jan Ullmark. It shows as he slips across the ice. He’s been taught to use his arms, quite nicely actually.

Ullmark isn’t surprised by his progress. He spent an hour every day teaching figures and turns to Liu. But Ullmark was taken aback by the little boy’s knowledge of what he was doing and why he was doing it.

Ullmark had him doing a back outside edge, the first test. “Isn’t this like the entry into the Lutz?” he asked Ullmark. Ullmark was floored.

And the back double three? “Doesn’t this lead to the loop?” Liu asked him.

When Liu was only eight years old, he did a clean double Axel, Ullmark said.

McLeod, who started working with Liu two years ago, says the boy has a beautiful flow across the ice. And already he is starting to work on triple-triple combinations and a triple Axel. He has a good start, McLeod said. Now they need to work on the height of his jumps and increase the trajectory. Every day, he’s been skating on the same ice as veterans Kevin Reynolds and Jeremy Ten. It all helps.

The kid is gutsy, too, McLeod said. He’ll try anything. “Let’s talk about it first,” McLeod tells him. But he might be already half-way down the ice.

“My favourite part is doing the jumps,” Eric says. “I like the speed and being in the air.” No ice dancing for him.

Liu’s goals are big, as big as they come. His idol is Evgeny Plushenko. He believes he can be just as good as the Russian. He spills it out with confidence: he wants to go to two Olympics and win one of them.

Liu had already been to the Skate Canada development camp last year. He’s not even a newbie on the scene, at his tender age. “I learned a lot of new tips from different coaches,” he said, referring to Christy Krall, the former coach of Patrick Chan. At one point at the most recent camp, he raced pell-mell down the ice with Roman Sadovsky, two years his senior but already a senior competitor at the national level. He’s already met Sadovsky several times.

And he’s already won internationally. In late March, Liu won a gold medal at the Gardenia Spring Trophy in what was called the advanced novice boys category. He faced skaters from Japan and Italy and won by almost seven points.

He sees and knows where he has to go.

Beverley Smith

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