Junior skaters impress at national championships

KINGSTON, ONTARIO – Selena Zhao hasn’t had a straight and easy path to her first national skating championship in Canada: travel woes, injury, learning curves.

Born in Seattle, Zhao has become a transplanted Canadian this season, and on Wednesday, she finally found her feet, finishing first in the junior women’s short program with 50.21 points, two points more than her closest rival.

Zhao finished only seventh at the Skate Canada Challenge event leading to this competition, but she had been back on ice for only two weeks after injuring her right foot while training an ambitious triple flip – triple toe loop combination.

She had been off for two weeks, after landing “funny” on that combo. It hurt so badly, she couldn’t walk the next day. And when she did get back to work, she couldn’t train normally because everything hurt when she tried that combination again. Leading up to this event, she couldn’t practice the triple-triple version of it.

On Wednesday, she did a triple flip – double toe loop, as pretty as you please, following it with a triple Lutz. When she landed a fine double Axel, she broke into a smile and finished the program that way, skating on air.

As the week unfolds, Zhao says she is “honoured” to have the opportunity to skate for Canada at the nationals. “It’s so cool,” she said. “I’m here and it’s wonderful. This whole thing is so different to me and I’m just happy to be part of it.”

Her mother is in Kingston to watch. “It’s really cool because she was in Ottawa for such a long time,” Zhao said. And Kingston is reminding her of home. “It’s nice to see her getting in touch with her roots,” Zhao said.

Zhao’s goals this year are rather indefinable. “At the very beginning of the season, I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “You don’t really know what’s possible or not.”

Getting to some Junior Grand Prix events has been a bonus, and Zhao has learned much from them, also considering that she endured horrendous travel issues at both. At her trip to Dresden in Germany, her flight was cancelled because of a Lufthansa strike.

She’s also learned what it’s like to compete with skaters from other countries. “A big thing is confidence,” she said. She arrived in Germany, gawking at the Russian and Japanese girls, about whom she heard so much. Then she suddenly realized that they were all doing the same jumps too. “It was an eye-opener,” she said.

Justine Brasseur has learned a lot this week, too. She and partner Mathieu Ostiguy are the new novice pair champions, winning with a powerful performance and 111.63 points. The previous night, Brasseur had an unusually poor skate in the women’s novice free skate, after leading the short program – and dropped to a bronze medal. Coach Josée Picard said when her first jump in the routine was a little off, Brasseur tensed up. Picard knew that it would be a fight after that, as Brasseur became cautious. And she was.

But in the novice pair event, Brasseur and Ostiguy – skating pairs for the first time this season – delivered fine lifts, throws and jumps. Ostiguy said the twist was the hardest element for him to learn. They did a double twist here and after nationals, they will start training the triple.

“It’s a dream come true,” Ostiguy said. And about skating pairs, after refusing for so many years? “It was a great decision,” said a jubilant Ostiguy.

(Tiny) Olivia and Mackenzie Boys-Eddy won the silver medal with 108.44 points while Lori-Ann Matte and Thierry Ferland won the bronze with 103.60 points.

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