Game On

The Canadian Olympic Committee officially named the figure skating team for the upcoming Olympic Winter Games at a ceremony in Vancouver on Sunday, Jan. 14, headed up by names eminently familiar to skating fans around the globe. Ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who were named co-captains of the team, are hoping to add a second Olympic title to their lengthy list of achievements. Patrick Chan is also off to his third Winter Games and Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford will make their second Olympic appearance in PyeongChang.

Scattered among the Canadian team’s veterans are a half-dozen skaters who will live the Olympic dream for the first time: Piper Gilles, Keegan Messing, Larkyn Austman, Michael Marinaro (the pairs partner of Kirsten Moore-Towers, who competed at the 2014 Games with Dylan Moscovitch), and the up and coming Québec pairs tandem of Julianne Séguin and Charlie Bilodeau.

Séguin and Bilodeau did not compete at the Canadian Championships in 2017, missing the event as she recovered from a concussion. They returned a couple of months later and finished 11th at the World Championships in Helsinki. But the duo used the hardships of last season to flourish in Vancouver when it mattered the most.

“Everything that happened last year helped us so much here,” said Bilodeau. “All those things we had to deal with, we learned a lot from that, and we came to this season with a completely different mindset … we’re really happy about that.”

Séguin is a former singles skater who, as a junior, won a bronze medal at 2012 nationals. Her partnership with Bilodeau started the same year, but she continued skating singles for a few more years. Eventually, she made the decision to focus exclusively on pairs in the 2014-2015 season, when they won gold at the Junior Grand Prix Final. That decision has paid off. Like every athlete, I dreamed of the Olympics,” Séguin said. “I don’t know if I really thought about that when I changed to pairs — I was just there to have fun and be myself. But everything happened like this, so what can I say?”

Marinaro, a former Canadian junior pairs champion and the 2013 World Junior silver medalist with Margaret Purdy, teamed up with Moore-Towers in May 2014. Heading into this competition he said they were committed to earning a place on the team. “The way our training has gone the last three months, we knew that if we came here and did what we had to do, we were pretty confident in the results and that we’d be there (at the Olympics) … we definitely felt like this was our time, ” said Marinaro.    

“It wasn’t an easy quadrennial for us. Our partnership started out slower than either of us thought or hoped,” Moore-Towers added. “This season in particular, we feel like we are the best trained that we have ever been and we might be the best trained team here.”

A decade ago, they were aspiring young American figure skaters, dipping their feet into international competition on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. Gilles and Messing have a lot of fond memories of those days, going back to their first event together in Sheffield, England, in 2008. But as fun as they were, nothing will compare to the next big moment they will get to share as Canadian teammates at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea next month.

Gilles and Messing spent their formative skating years competing under the U.S. flag, but circumstances eventually pushed both north of the border. Messing, whose mother is from Edmonton, harboured a desire to skate for Canada most of his life, but the U.S. federation would not release him until 2014. Everything since then has been leading up to this moment, with a silver-medal finish in the men’s competition — his first national medal — securing his ticket to the Games.

“After the Sochi Olympics, the U.S. was able to release me and I was able to come to Canada and skate here. It has been the best decision I have ever made for my skating,” Messing said. “It’s amazing. The amount of support they have given me is heartwarming. It really made me feel wanted and accepted, and they have made it so I could train the way I needed to train, and perform the way I knew I could perform.”

A late-night call on Saturday from his long-time coach, Ralph Burghart, (who represented Austria at the 1992 Olympics) informed Messing about his place on the team. He was still trying to comprehend the magnitude of it all on Sunday. “I couldn’t even put it into words,” he said. “I was with my girlfriend and just trying to say the words ‘I’m going to the Olympics.’ It still feels foreign coming out of my mouth. I’m waiting for it to hit me full on. At this point, it’s a dream come true and I’m living a dream.”

When his second-place finish in the men’s event on Saturday was assured, nobody was more excited than Gilles, who leapt into Messing’s arms backstage for a congratulatory hug. “We went to our first Junior Grand Prix together. We’ve been travelling together forever,” she said. “We’re both rookies. We’ve got so many other Canadians here who have been through this, and we’re just going to feed off their energy. But man, it feels good. I’ve had a lot of really funny moments with Keegan, and now we’re just making more memories.”

When Gilles was searching for a new ice dance partner, she found the perfect match north of the border in Poirier. She obtained Canadian citizenship in time for the 2014 Winter Olympics, but she and Poirier fell short of qualifying for the team headed to Sochi.

“We tried our hardest to be on that team. The cards didn’t fall the way we wanted them to, but you know what, it made us stronger,” said Gilles. “We didn’t need the Games, but we needed that fire and it definitely lit that fire. Now it was all about making this team. Things are about moments and timing, and the timing (for me) led me to Canada and I’m forever blessed.”

While Gilles and Poirier put a lock on their tickets to PyeongChang with a silver-medal finish in the ice dance competition on Saturday, it took longer for that achievement to process. “It didn’t feel real until I got off the podium last night and then we went to dinner and celebrated, and it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is happening,’” said Gilles, whose grandmother is Canadian. “And then this morning … I can’t even describe this feeling right now. I’m just extremely excited and proud, I want to represent Canada in the best way that I can.”

For Austman, the opportunity to skate for a chance to make the Olympic team right her in own backyard — her home club is in the Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam — seemed to signal that fate just might be on her side.

“The Olympics is a word that has been deep in my mind the whole season,” said Austman, who will celebrate her 20th birthday on the day between the ladies’ short and long programs in PyeongChang. “I hadn’t focused on it, because I didn’t want to get my hopes up and be let down. But it’s all I have been able to think about for the last month, because I knew it was possible. I’m just so excited for it to be done — and relieved. The Olympics is my present.”

Austman had a taste of the Olympics as a flower retriever during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, and was a part of a PNG commercial in advance of the 2014 Winter Olympics. “This feels like the correct, next step,” she said of making her first Olympic team.

Though this has been a life-long dream, Austman said it did not feel achievable until this season. She struggled at her first Grand Prix (Skate Canada), but credited her choice to spend some training time in Colorado Springs with setting her up in the right way for Canadians. That was validated when she edged out Alaine Chartrand for the third ladies’ place on the podium, behind Gabrielle Daleman and Kaetlyn Osmond.

“My coaches asked me what plans we should make after Skate Canada,” she said. “Something had to change, and I knew I wanted to go somewhere else to train. Colorado was the first place that came to mind, just because I have so many great friends there and Christy Krall is a great coach, so I knew it would be a good change for me.”

On Monday, Jan. 15, Virtue and Moir were named as Canada’s Olympic flag bearers for the opening ceremony in PyeongChang.