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Vancouver is starting to feel Olympic

Posted: Tuesday, February 10, 2009 | 10:48 AM

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We were at the Pacific Coliseum for the ladies free skate at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships and our sorceress of research, Barb Strain, leaned over my shoulder and passed me a handwritten note.

“It feels Olympic in here,” was all it said.

I smiled and then as Yu-Na Kim of Korea went to the ice, I uttered those very words on the airwaves. It was exactly my sentiment. The stands were close to being full and there were thousands of Canadians of Korean heritage cheering for the brightest star of winter sport their country has ever known.

Kim nailed her routine and amidst Japanese and Korean as well as a healthy spattering of Canadian flags, which decorated the venue, she brought the fans to their feet. Bouquets of flowers flew out of the air and littered the ice while the sounds of excellence resounded in the place that had once been home to the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks.

It was a stirring moment and reminded me that the so-called “Olympic” state of mind occurs not because the buildings are nearly ready or because the rings are omnipresent but instead because the world’s greatest athletes are in the house.

Quality of the field

The level of competition is what gives the Olympic city its credibility and its energy. This was the kind of feeling that pulsated in the arena throughout the week.

You could hear it in every word the skaters spoke. “It’s good to get the feel of Olympic ice,” said Patrick Chan, who dazzled to win the gold medal handily over the valiant Evan Lysacek of the United States.

It was in the quality of the competitive field. The top skaters were there from the United States, Japan, China, Korea and yes, Canada. Four Continents is a championship that has often been skipped by the best performers in the past.

Not this time. Not a chance.

On this occasion, Four Continents boasted, with very few exceptions, the skaters who will contend for the gold medals in all four disciplines come the beginning of the Games in almost exactly a year’s time. World champions like Mao Asada of Japan were there as well as the best of the Canadian aspirants who might have otherwise been excused for their absence.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the ultra-talented ice dancers, are still struggling to regain their top form. She has lingering pain in her legs from off-season surgery. But the world championship silver medallists were not about to miss an opportunity to skate in the hothouse environment that will greet them next year when it counts the most. They didn’t disappoint and probably gained invaluable experience as they delighted the partisan and delirious faithful.

World takes notice

The other thing that is truly astounding is the attention afforded these athletes when we in the media get a sniff that the Olympic season has begun.

Along with Mao Asada, Yu-Na Kim and Evan Lysacek came broadcasting entourages from Asia and America. The watchful eye of television opens a little wider when the best athletes gather in the place that will create enduring memories.

And so it is that scrums ensued as well as increased security measures and exclusive mixed zones where rights holders got the first crack at post-performance reaction.

Just as it is with the stars of sport, you get that Olympic feeling because the lights are brighter and the whole place crackles with an air of expectancy and importance. They call it a “test event” for the Games. But it means something special because it’s a test that athletes want to pass.

Impressive and telling was the performance of a 19-year-old Canadian named Jeremy Ten. He won the bronze medal at the national championships in Saskatoon a couple of weeks back in order to earn a spot at Four Continents and at the upcoming world championships in Los Angeles.

Ten is born and bred in Vancouver and you can bet he’d die for a chance to skate in the Olympics on home ice. But that’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid so this dry run was being watched carefully by the powers that be at Skate Canada.

Here’s the thing. Jeremy Ten had the skate of his life and flourished in the sizzling confines of the Coliseum. He brought the house down and took his place in the upper echelon of contenders for the podium at the 2010 Games.

Afterward, he was breathless and ecstatic. His coach Joanne MacLeod was moved to tears at the brilliance of his performance and maybe more significantly, at the young athlete’s fortitude.

“I love you Vancouver!” Ten shouted from the “kiss and cry” after he accepted his marks.

Why wouldn’t he?

The whole place is starting to feel very Olympic, indeed.

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