Tears began to flow from Michelle Long’s eyes before the music even stopped.
As the 22-year-old put the finishing touches on her free program during the recent Canadian Tire National Skating Championships, Long’s emotions got the better of her, and she wept, an ear-to-ear smile etched across her face.
No, Long didn’t leave Kingston with a medal tucked away inside her suitcase.
She didn’t care. Sometimes, triumph isn’t measured in gold, silver and bronze.
By the time Richmond Training Centre stablemate Gabrielle Daleman stepped off the top step on the podium clutching her first Canadian senior women’s gold medal, Long, along with coaches Robert Burk and Danielle Rose, were long immersed in their own perfect euphoria.
“I can’t stop smiling,” Long beamed minutes after her free program in Kingston.
“This is something I have dreamed of since I was a little girl. To finally be able to make it to the Canadian championships and skate a personal best in the free skate, I am just so happy right now.”
The record book will show that Long finished seventh at her first national championships.
What it won’t show is her story.
Although she went through the CanSkate program at an early age, Long didn’t start skating competitively until she was a pre-novice 15-year-old. It’s just been the past four years that she has seriously chased her goal of competing for a national title.
“I really wanted to focus on my dream, and make it to the Canadian championships,” she says. “That was all I wanted. Nothing more.”
That rather ambitious vision seemed to hit a roadblock in December 2013, when, competing at Skate Canada Challenge, Long came achingly close to earning a berth in the 100th national championships in Ottawa, Ont.
But close wasn’t good enough. Instead of competing, she bought a ticket and travelled to the nation’s capital to watch.
That experience was a painful one, Long admits, but it also steeled her resolve.
“That was a big disappointment,” admits Long.
“That Challenge was tough to take. I wasn’t sure if I should continue or not. That was one of the toughest moments, watching those first couple of groups (in Ottawa) and knowing I should have been there.”
This past December, at Challenge in Pierrefonds, Que., she wouldn’t make the same mistake again, finishing fourth to punch her ticket to Kingston.
“She is a friend with an incredible work ethic,” says Daleman, the newly minted Canadian women’s champion.
“I couldn’t be any happier for Michelle. No one works harder than she does.”
Her unlikely story is even more astounding when you consider Long balances her training by holding down three serving/bartending jobs and part-time studies at York University. On a typical day, she is up at 7:00 a.m., and goes non-stop. By the time she leaves work, it is after 2 a.m. the next morning.
Less than five hours later, she is up to do it all again. All for the love of a sport.
“The passion she has for skating is truly a joy to see,” says Burk. “Michelle can go as far as she wants to go. With her drive, she can keep going up. We keep telling her ‘we believe in you.’ You can see it in her eyes.
”She now knows what we’ve known all along. She is good enough. Now we just have to get her there.”
“It’s special,” adds Rose. “You don’t see that very often. When someone has that much love, that much passion, you have all the time in the world for them. What we see at practice is national level. Now everyone else can see it, as well.”
Five years ago, when Skate Canada International was staged in Kingston, Long attended the event with her mother, rubbing shoulders with a few skaters during the week.
It was then she began to dream.
“Back then, I never really saw myself here,” Long concedes. “It seemed so far off, so unlikely, but I kept pushing myself.”
Five years later, she was back in Kingston. This time, she wasn’t watching from the seats.
“I’ve never skated in front of this kind of crowd before. It was just surreal. To be out here, to see it all happen, to step out in front of those TV lights….”
She pauses, choking back the tears again.
“In the end, it was bigger than I dreamed. It’s a feeling you can’t explain unless you’ve experienced it.”
The dream may have been realized, but Long insists it is just the beginning. She is asked where she envisions herself a year from now.
“On the podium,” she say, not missing a beat.
“On the national team. Why not?”
Why not, indeed.
Michelle Long doesn’t have time to concern herself with odds.
Follow Michelle Long on Twitter @TheMichelleLong