So now that Shawn Sawyer has been chosen as the athlete ambassador for the 2013 Skate Canada International Grand Prix in Saint John, N.B., (appropriately enough, in his home province) what does it mean?
The 28-year-old artist (on and off the ice) is, according to dictionary’s best efforts, a diplomatic agent of the highest rank, a plenipotentiary (which sounds very important), an internuncio (it always sounds better in Italian), or an apostolic delegate, a chancellor at this important pre-Olympic contest.
Never mind that Sawyer has never been a Canadian champion, has never won an ISU Grand Prix event and didn’t make it to the Vancouver Olympics. He’s never really played the understudy, what with his incomparable flair: the incredible stretch of his legs, his flexibility beyond compare, his chameleon-like nature to portray anything on ice, his spins, his spirals, his art.
That’s what Canadian icon, Toller Cranston, spotted when he chose Sawyer to portray himself as a young skater at his tribute show in 1997, when Sawyer was an unknown 12-year-old kid from Edmundston, N.B., a paper mill town.
‘‘“Toller wasn’t a part of my past, or my present or my future at the time,” Sawyer said. “He wasn’t part of anything, and didn’t talk much to me. But he was part of me. He got who I was and who I was going to become. He just knew. And I knew that he knew. He’s a kind of person that has had a huge impact on my life without having to be there, without having to hold my hand the entire time.”
During his skating career, Sawyer was novice and junior champion in Canada, sixth at a world junior championship, three times a bronze medalist at the Canadian championships, and at his final national championships, a spine-tingling second with an inspired free skate as the Mad Hatter to the Alice in Wonderland soundtrack. He once finished third in a short program at a Cup of Russia to Evgeny Plushenko and he earned a silver medal at the 2009 Skate America behind Evan Lysacek.
“The person that is most surprised about my career is myself,” Sawyer said. “I can’t believe I actually made it to the Olympics Games, and I can’t believe I have a spin named after me [it’s the one where he raises his leg up beside his head in a straight-line, full split position.].” He was always flexible, but he’s more flexible now than ever. He’s worked at it. “Let’s say I show up at an international championship with a Michelle Kwan spiral,” he said. “I can’t show up the next year and have a normal spiral. I have to move up to a Sasha Cohen spiral.” Few men do spirals.
Sawyer has made a career out of that incredible stretch, but now he’s making a career on Stars on Ice with his concepts. People have come to expect him to emerge from the curtains “with something a little bit out of the box,” he said, and the tour indulges his abilities. “Every year, they give me a blank piece of canvas,” he said. “They say they trust me, just don’t go too crazy.”
His signature pieces as an Olympic-eligible competitor were both David Wilson masterpieces of choreography and perfect for Sawyer: his complex Amadeus routine that he used for two seasons and then, Danny Elfman’s Alice In Wonderland.
Playing the Mad Hatter holds a special place in Sawyer’s heart and in Canadian championship folk lore. Sawyer had quit skating, having missed the Vancouver Olympics. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with skating,” he said. Then one day, he saw a photo of Johnny Depp in full costume as the Mad Hatter, red crazy hair and rings for eyes, quite off the wall, really. The photo had an immediate impact. “Oh no, no, don’t see the movie. Don’t listen to the music,” Sawyer told himself.
The next day, he watched the movie and bought the CD. Then, he started to cut the music. He called up his coach, Annie Barabé and told her: “Guess what? I’m coming back!”
His Mad Hatter routine that he performed at the 2011 Canadian championships was one for the ages. He skated as if inspired.
“I have no words to describe it,” he said. “I don’t know where that came out of me.”
A standing ovation ensued. Strangely enough, Sawyer doesn’t remember skating it. He only remembers feeling as if he was going to faint five minutes before he went onto the ice. He could hardly walk.
That performance qualified him for the world championships, although he eventually gave up his spot after delays from the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. He already had commitments with Stars on Ice, which started about the same time. But in retrospective, he ranks that performance ahead of his Olympic appearance. “It wasn’t about what I was going to get out of it,” he explained. “It was just me, pouring my heart out.”
He does this in other ways, too. Off the ice, he’s an artist, too. From his childhood, he’s always sketched. About five years ago, he discovered something important. He hadn’t really liked art class. “I thought I was painting with a broom,” he said. “It was really hard for me to do details.”
Then he began to see that details weren’t important. He was already steeped in exacting skating detail through the day. His art was to be different. Now he feels a balance in his life by tossing red wine and coffee onto canvases.
“They are my two favourite things in the world,” he said. “Obviously, they stain everything I own.” He’s amazed at the variety of colours he can produce out of those two media; he even extracted a peacock blue-green from a 30 cent bottle of wine he once bought in Paris. He paints mostly female heads, necks, crazy hair. Think Lady Gaga, with an extra explosion. He’s ready to do an art exhibition, if only he had time. Currently, Sawyer spends a lot of time on the road, touring, coaching and handing on the gifts of choreography that he’s learned from some of the best.
“I wouldn’t recommend that path I chose to get where I am right now,” he said. “But looking back, I wouldn’t change anything. It’s all about perseverance and overcoming obstacles. Whatever you want to achieve in life, there are always obstacles.”