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Stars from away: A wild weekend in Korea

Posted: Tuesday, December 16, 2008 | 11:54 AM

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Why is it that you have to travel halfway around the world to discover how important the sporting heroes from our own backyard really are?

This past weekend’s Grand Prix figure skating final went a long way to demonstrating the effect that our magnificent athletes are having on the international stage. It is an enormous influence that we, as Canadians, often make the mistake of taking for granted.

On the surface, Patrick Chan and Joannie Rochette were the ones representing Canada in Goyang City, just outside the megalopolis of Seoul - a community that had hosted the spectacular 1988 Summer Olympics. But they were only part of the story.

Beyond their exploits were others who continue to weave a thread of Canadian culture in this icebound pursuit.

For instance, Carolina Kostner of Italy, the European champion has her captivating programs choreographed by a Canadian named Lori Nichol. In fact, Kostner ,whose brother Simon is an aspiring ice hockey player, has competed many times in our country and was coached for a time in Edmonton.

“I used to beg my parents to move to Canada because they have such a love for figure skating there,” Kostner told me. “I can’t wait to compete in Vancouver at the Olympics because I know it will be such an enormous event that means so much.”

The reigning world champions in the ice dance are Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Shoenfelder of France. They waited 11 years to get to the top of the podium in their craft. Now they are devising a way to stay there partly by enlisting the help of former rivals, the world championship silver medallists, Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon of Canada. The four of them have spent a lot of time training together in Lyon and upon winning their first Grand Prix final, the French duo were quick to credit their friends from Quebec.

“It means so much to learn and grow with the help of Marie-France and Patrice,” Delobel said after the victory. “Sometimes I feel like we’re all competing together.”

Schoenfelder nodded his agreement knowing that the next legitimate challenge to their crown will come from the runners up at the last world championships in Sweden, Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

Perhaps the greatest example of the influence stars from away can have on a place where figure skating is blossoming is that of Brian Orser. Twice the Olympic silver medallist and the 1987 world champion, Orser is now the coach of the South Korean star Yu-na Kim.

“I am very fortunate that this has happened,” Orser admitted from the grandstand at Goyang City before the final skate where Kim wound up finishing second to world champion Mao Asada of Japan. “I feel flattered that they embraced me because I was a bit of an unknown in this regard.”

Slightly unknown in his role as a coach - it’s true. But upon arrival at the Cricket Club in Toronto, where Orser plies his trade with Tracy Wilson, the Olympic bronze medallist in ice dance at the 1988 Olympics, Yu-na Kim and her family knew all about Orser’s credentials.

He skated in perhaps the most pressure filled situation in figure skating history against American Brian Boitano at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. It was a battle for the ages and although Orser finished second by a hair, it could have easily gone the other way.

The thing is, Yu-na Kim is the only star from South Korea and this populace nation is counting on her. She needs to know how to skate under the microscope when stakes are high. Is it any wonder that she turned to Brian Orser?

“Dealing with pressure is a process and you can’t know it until you’ve actually been through it,” Orser reckoned. “Then you get over it and you say, ‘Oh that’s what they’re talking about!’ It becomes real and something you can get a handle on.”

We were a long way from home in a place where figure skating hasn’t got much history. And yet when I surveyed the stands at Goyang Arena the walls were plastered with banners for Yu-na Kim and also for Brian Orser. The fans recognizing the foundation behind the new found star.

Then when it was over, the skaters made the way from the ice to the waiting buses and the journey to the next stop on what must seem like an ever-ending tour.

Only they must have drawn energy from the throngs who waited for them and asked for pictures to be taken or autographs to be signed. No skaters were more warmly greeted than Patrick Chan and Joannie Rochette, the Canadians who reveled in the attention.

While Yu-na Kim was whisked away in a limo under police escort, it was the skaters from away who stayed to drink in the accolades offered by the enthralled Korean fans.

I’m guessing all of them were thinking the same thing. How wonderful to be appreciated for what you do and the magic that you bring.

If only it could be like this back home.

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