There is just over a week before the figure skating season starts with the first of six ISU Grand Prix events taking place in Ontario, Calif. From a Canadian perspective there will be four men participating at different times in four of the six competitions, including 2011 world champion Patrick Chan.
I don't think there has been a time in figure skating where the competition on the men's side has been this tight. In trying to predict the outcomes of last year's worlds, there were as many as eight men who were in contention for the top spot. It seemed that the competition was being defined less by the ability to do a quad jump and more about having it as an ordinary element, in addition to superior skating skills and an outstanding ability to perform under pressure when it counts.
"I think in my day of men's skating, it seemed a lot about jumps, a lot about the number of jumps and number of rotations in the jumps and you had to skate clean," said Canada's Brian Orser, the 1987 world champion and two-time Olympic silver medallist. "That was it. You had to skate clean."
Orser, now a coach, was at the top of his game heading into the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary, and knows better than most the challenge of duplicating success.
"I think when you are on top you have everything to lose and that is kind of a different mindset. You know you have everything to lose and you tend to think a lot more than you did before, when you're on top."
How many times have we heard from people who make it to the top, that getting there isn't nearly as difficult as staying there?
In conversation with Chan, he admitted to me that matching his success from last season is the main focus.
"Winning the world championships was one thing, trying to win it again is something completely different," he said. "I want to beat last year's world champion."
Chan vs. Chan
It's interesting that he would choose to see himself in his current incarnation as world champion as his biggest challenge. It's a pretty tall order as Chan not only won worlds, but he earned three Guinness Book of World Record citations for highest short program, free program and overall total scores.
He isn't the only man who is targeting the top of the podium. This upcoming season signals the return of 2010 Olympic champion Evan Lysacek from the United States. Former world champions, Daisuke Takahashi (2010) of Japan and France's Brian Joubert (2007), want nothing more than to regain what they once had, which becomes more and more difficult as the rest of the field has caught up.
One of the strategies seems to be getting the programs out early before the Grand Prix series begins in order to determine any weaknesses and be able to fix them ahead of the season.
This doesn't come without risk as a poor performance early in the season can expose a champion's vulnerabilities. In the case of Joubert, who competed at France's showcase competition for its elite skaters, he was beaten by Florent Amodio, leaving him wondering - as was reported - if he should stay with this season's free program or go back to an earlier and more successful one.
With Takahashi, skating in the ISU sanctioned Japan Open and finishing in last place would indicate that he has some work to do.
In the crowded men's field there are others who are looking to reach that top podium step. Takahiko Kozuka of Japan is the 2011 world silver medallist and can match Chan step for step in musicality, expression and skating skills. Skaters like world bronze medallist Artur Gachinski of Russia, Spaniard Javier Fernandez, Czech Michal Brezina, Japanese Nobunari Oda and American Richard Dornbush all have their sights set on the world's best.
"Now, men's skating is about the total package. It's the versatility in skating: the jumping, spins, the quality of skating. Usually the winner is a skater's skater like Patrick Chan," said Orser.
If a skater wants to be on the podium at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, this is the season to make a move.
The climb to the Olympics starts now.
This is the third in a series of season previews by CBC Sports figure skating analyst Pj Kwong. Read her ladies preview and pairs preview, and look for her story on the and ice dance discipline next week. You can email Pj here and follow her on Twitter @skatingpj.
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