Chan Tapping His Way Back To The Top

The first sight of three-time world champion Patrick Chan in comeback mode after a year off was this: performing to “Mack the Knife” in a chilly Vaughan arena, his opening pass was a wonder, with his patented big strokes, a big hop, his body flying, his arms spread out and up. He filled the rink with that opening pass. It was as if he was announcing, with his body movement: “Here I am. It’s me. I’m back.”

And back with a difference.

How so? He’s skating to vocals for the first time, competitively. He’s bringing what he learned from his year of skating in a flurry of about 40 shows, night after night. He’s more engaged with the audience than ever. He’s found a new charisma. He’s left behind the intensity of being intense, not that he won’t be. But he’ll skate for the love of it this year. He’ll see where his hard work takes him. And he’ll train differently, with more confidence, smarter, preserving that soon-to-be 25-year-old body, one of the oldest out there these days.

“He’s going to make this big comeback,” said choreographer David Wilson. “I’ve got to hand it to him. It takes a lot of courage for him to do it, but he seems really keen.”

Chan admits that the seeds of his comeback were planted at the closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, when the Russians handed off the Olympic mantle to South Korea. “I was thinking in my mind: ‘I don’t want this to end,’” Chan recalled. “’I don’t feel this is a good ending. It’s the end of a chapter, but I want to begin a new one.’”

He doesn’t know, truthfully, if he’ll continue to 2018. He’ll take it one year at a time. But it’s the ultimate intent. He never knows what will happen. Now, he has to pay attention to recovery. The body takes a beating in this sport. “I want to conserve my body, so that when I go to a competition, I can really be fresh and keep up with the young guys,” he said.

Most of all, he wants to leave a mark on the sport, and this season, hopefully “a breath of fresh air.” He’ll do that with his new “Mack the Knife” routine, which is meant to show the love of skating, despite the intensity of competition. It won’t be just about the quads, although he knows you can’t leave home without them.

The routine harks back to his year of touring last season. He’s learned much from that experience – particularly confidence. Chan says he’s learned a lot from skating with Scott Moir and his command of the ice. “That’s a skill you learn only over time and with experience and honestly, that’s been the greatest experience for me this past year,” he said.

On the ice, Wilson wears red gloves, which accent his movements all the more. He shows Chan the way. “Add some personality in your fingers,” he says as he demonstrates Mack moves to Chan, but at the same time, his shoulders are moving, too. David Wilson came up with the idea of skating to “Mack the Knife,” firstly thinking of a traditional version with Bobby Darin’s iconic work. But then he heard the Michael Buble version and thought: “It was too irresistible.” Besides, Buble is a Canadian. And Chan has met him.

Coach Kathy Johnson first suggested the idea of having Chan learn the essence of tap dancing, to inject that flavour into the showy piece. Wilson found a friend, Lucas Beaver, an artistic everyman who was originally to have spent 1 and a half hours a day in the studio for four days with Chan. But Chan loved the work so much that he ended up working with Beaver for three hours a day for five days. “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Chan said. “Harder than taking hip hop or really high-level ballet.”

It’s tough for a skater accustomed to stiff boots to adopt the movement of tap. In tap, a dancer lets the ankles relax and “dangle in a way, yet show strength,” Chan said. He will not tap on the ice. He’ll bring the swagger of it, though.

“He’s become in the last six days, quite the little tap dancer,” Wilson said. “His new name is Twinkle Toes. But my friend Lucas said he learned tap faster than most dancers who had not done tap before.” Chan is now a full-fledged hoofer, with an entire routine on the floor. There are videos.

Chan’s free program is actually an altered version of the Chopin medley he used last year to win the Japan Open, his only competition of the season. Actually, Wilson found three Chopin pieces that seemed to belong together, as if the composer wrote them in the same mood. The first piece is called “Revolutionary,” a tip of the hat to Chan’s singular style of skating. “It was a labor of love for me,” Wilson said.

But it’s been reworked, with some new elements and tweaks. Chan calls it a more “advanced” version and the new difficulties of it frustrated him at first. “I already had my burst of frustration, because it’s so hard,” he said. “Skating is getting so difficult now, with all the men doing quads. I guess it’s kind of my fault. I kind of asked for it.” But from this past season, he’s learned important things: to trust that it will come, as does the choreography-learned-in-a-hurry in shows. And that a relaxed approach is best. He learned that at the Japan Open last season, when he realized there was no need to worry, he did the event, and sped off for a year of fun.

Before his choreographic session with Wilson, Chan spent eight days surfing in Costa Rica, as a last blast to his year when he didn’t have to worry about injuring himself. Now it’s time to buckle down. He knows he’s far from being fit, but Wilson says Chan can get that in order quickly. He’s determined to work hard, which will help him to relax later.

And anything that happens from now on in his career? “It’s all whipped cream and cherry on top,” Chan said.

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