Conrad Orzel, wrapped in a sheepskin vest, took his opening pose at the novice contest of the Canadian Tire National Skating Championships and quickly began to rumble.
The program? “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” a 1966 spaghetti western in which a trio of gunslingers go on the prowl to find buried gold.
Orzel didn’t find the gold that January day in Kingston, Ont., (he won the bronze medal), but his effort was a triumph nonetheless. It was a testament to his grit that he was there at all. For a skater so young, he learned a big life lesson last season.
Orzel, of Woodbridge, ON, was as ready as he could be heading to Challenge the previous month but just before the event, suffered a torn ligament in his left leg and also an avulsion fracture, in which a piece of bone chips away from the main part of the bone as a result of a fall, or a muscular contraction that is stronger than the forces holding the bone together.
The young skater had no idea just what was wrong at the time. He just knew it was very painful. Coach Eva Najarro found out about it the day before they were to leave for Challenge. Then during a morning practice, Orzel approached her, close to tears, and said he just could not spin on his left foot.
This was just not like Orzel. He wouldn’t jump at those practices, either. And he loves to jump, more than anything. “It was like he wasn’t there,” Najarro said. “I know that he loves practices, because he likes to show off. He wants to show what he can do. I knew there was really something wrong with him. He was just skating around.” Massage didn’t help. She gave him the option of withdrawing.
Spins were not always Orzel’s forte, but they were improving. But he took on an extra challenge by having Najarro recreate all of his spins to take the pressure off the left leg. “He was not able to do the spiral on the left foot, so we had to change it totally to a backwards entry to the spin,” she said. “We revamped, basically on the practice at Challenge.”
In other words, Najarro had to change his spins from forward to backward entries. Najarro’s skating daughter, Alexandra, who knows all about dealing with injury, had a chat with Orzel, and bucked him up psychologically.
When Orzel got off the ice, he had qualified for nationals. The tears came, Najarro, too. “It was just so emotional,” she said. “We were both pretty stressed about it, because it was really hard to watch him.’
“I just wanted to try my best,” he said. “That was my goal for nationals, nothing more.”
He took four weeks off after that event. Immediately upon returning home, a doctor told him that he didn’t know how he had skated at all. He was still not fully healed when he went to nationals in Kingston.
Another problem surfaced too. Orzel was sprouting like a weed, and he outgrew his boots. He had to also try to break in a new pair before Kingston. “I just wanted to try my best,” he said. “That was my goal for nationals, nothing more.”
His good, bad and ugly was all that and more. He landed seven triples. “I was very proud of what I did,” he said.
Currently, Orzel is fine. He has healed. There is no more pain. And now he’s trying to create the next chapter of his career. He did win a gold medal for novice men at the Canada Winter Games. But now he’s pushing on.
He knows what he wants. When he was three, he started in CanSkate at a local club and Najarro spotted him. What was most remarkable about the young boy in front of her was that he wanted to skate. “The thing that caught my attention was that here was a 5-year-old boy who already knows what he wants to do,” she said. “That’s rare.”
Orzel said he became interested in skating because that’s what Canadians do. “I think I was thinking of growing up to be a hockey player,” he said. “ But then once I saw the high-end skaters jumping and that really got me into it.”
His heroes are Elvis Stojko and Evgeny Plushenko.
“He always liked to turn,” Najarro said about Orzel. “He has very quick twitch. Rotation is easy for him.”
Because Orzel has always focused so much on jumps, Najarro has been trying to turn his attention to the other side of skating: edges, details, flexibility, that second mark. And he gets it. (After all, he trains every day alongside the exquisite Roman Sadovsky at the York Region Skating Academy.) Orzel has improved already and his goals for the coming season are getting level-four spins, and level three or four footwork. “When I started, I wasn’t really a big fan because my core wasn’t strong,” Orzel said. “But now I’m getting deep into the edges and I realize that it is fun.” He also wants to get a triple Axel into his programs.
For the past year, Orzel has been training the triple Axel – and both the quadruple toe loop and quadruple Salchow jumps. The triple Axel isn’t consistent yet. “I’ve landed a few but it’s not there yet,” he said. He says he tries the quads without harness.
“I’m not a fan of the harness,” he said. “I feel like it’s an artificial feeling and I don’t feel in control of my jumps.” Soon, he’s heading off to Vancouver to work with Joanne McLeod on his quads.
Another remarkable thing about Orzel. He’s only 14.
While Grzegorz Filipowski has designed many of Orzel’s programs – Najarro likes his work very much – she is taking her young charge to Allison Purkiss this year to give him the experience of working with another choreographer.
“I think he has potential,” Najarro said. “I think his jumping abilities are amazing. I think he has a bright future.”