Just before the music starts, Nadine Tougas glances skyward and blows a kiss towards the heavens.
It’s become the choreographed signature of the season for the Nova Open synchronized skating team. This kiss, this sentimental Irish kiss, for their own Linda McGirr.
“Every time we did that, in every program, it was in Linda’s memory,” says team captain Tougas.
“It is for her.”
No one ever saw it coming. Hours after Nova returned home from the 2014 Skate Canada Synchronized Skating Championships in B.C. with a fourth straight Open title, McGirr, a beloved teacher who had dedicated her spare time to Nova for more than a decade, told her family she was feeling unusually tired.
“At competitions, she was always the last one to bed and the first one up, she was always doing something for the team,” says team coach and choreographer Marie-France Sirois. “It was just who she was. We thought that was why she was tired. We never thought it could be anything else.”
McGirr went to the doctor for what she thought would be a routine check-up.
Instead, what followed was the devastating news that she had been diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer, and she did not have much time left.
Linda McGirr never went home again. Instead, she went straight to the hospital. A month later, she was gone, at just 51 years of age.
“The last thing she did in her life was with this team,” Sirois adds. “That is how much she loved us. That is how much she loved this team.”
“We didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye. We honestly thought we still had lots of time with her…”
McGirr seemed to have a profound effect on everyone she ever met, whether it was her students at Champlain College Saint-Lambert, where she taught for over 30 years, or her skating families at CPA Brossard and the Nova Synchronized Skating Club. Even after her daughter, Caroline, stopped skating with Nova a few years ago, Linda’s bond with the team only grew stronger.
In her final days, McGirr found comfort in the Celtic music she had listened to her entire life. Her battle was brief yet courageous.
And then she was gone.
At her funeral, several of McGirr’s favourite Irish songs were played, including Danny Boy. As she struggled to hold back the tears, Sirois found herself captivated by the music.
“It was such a sad day, but that music…” says Sirois of the funeral, before pausing.
“Beautiful music for a beautiful person. It was then I decided we would honour her with our program.”
Without a chance to bid a final farewell to McGirr, Nova created their own goodbye, set on their terms, to their music, their program and their season.
Sirois, looking to find that perfect balance for their four-minute routine, began listening to Irish music night and day. Once she decided on the songs, Sirois brought in Hugo Chouinard, renowned in skating circles for his music design mastery, to build a medley that opens with a moving Celtic rendition of Amazing Grace and culminates with a toe-tapping Riverdance number.
Once the music was cut, Sirois turned to esteemed Quebec designer Josiane Lamond to create the team’s Celtic-inspired outfits. She also enlisted the help of Montreal Irish dancer Martin Côté, who has performed all over the world, to work with her team.
The final product was an exquisite four-minute labour of love that kindled a year-long tribute, culminating with Nova claiming their fifth consecutive national Open championship two weeks ago in Quebec City.
“It was very emotional, and people came up and told us we were able to pass on that emotion to the story,” adds Tougas. “I will never forget this moment.”
“Linda inspired us right up until the end,” admits Tougas. “Each time we performed the program, we let her know, ‘This is for you. Enjoy.’”
“She loved to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and loved everything Irish,” says Sirois, adding she was always inspired by the famed Riverdance program of Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz. “Her sense of humour helped make her who she was. She always had us laughing.
“I just wish we would have done this program when she was still here with us.”
“It has been very emotional, but we want people to remember her, to talk about her and let people know what she meant to us,” Sirois continues. “I always tell the girls to skate for themselves – not for their parents, not for me – but for themselves.”
“This season it was different. Something was missing. They were also skating for someone else.”
In Quebec City for the national championships, their first without McGirr, Nova taped a photo of their beloved manager on each of the team’s hotel room doors.
On the final day of practice, as Nova went through one last dry run on their biggest stage of the season, a lone bird glided into the arena, circling high above the ice for a few minutes.
The moment was not lost on anyone.
“Someone said ‘it’s her. She’s here,’” says Sirois.
“It almost felt like a sign that she was still with us.”
Some things are just not meant to change.