For nearly two decades Canadian Lori Nichol has been one of most decorated choreographers in the world of figure skating.
Nichol has seen several of her pupils go on to become Olympic champions, including the Canadian pairs team of Jamie Salé and David Pelletier (2002), the Chinese duo of Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo (2010), along with American gold medallist Evan Lysacek (2010).
With Chan, less is more
With the Canadian figure skating championship only days away, the talk heading into the event has centred on Toronto's Patrick Chan.
The three-time national champion created a buzz last week by revealing he would perform two quadruple toe loops — a jump he's incorporating for the first time in his young career.
"I've been doing programs with both quads for about a week and a half now," said Chan, who's been working with co-coach and technical specialist Christy Krall in Colorado Springs. "So we agreed there was pretty much no better time to do that kind of program than nationals. I'm super-excited to do it."
There is no doubt the quad is breathtaking when the 20-year-old nails it, which he's done on more than more one occasion this season. However, his other coach, Canadian choreographer Lori Nichol, knows any notion of Chan taking the next step won't happen if he can't overcome his struggles with the triple Axel.
The jump has repeatedly dogged Chan, who finished a disappointing fifth during last year's Vancouver Olympics.
The frustrations with the manoeuvre continued earlier this year at both the Skate Canada and Cup of Russia competitions, even though he finished 1-2, respectively, in those events.
"The triple Axel has always been a really tough jump for him — always," Nichol told CBCSports.ca. "I don't know how he did it but he used to miss them constantly [in training] and then go out in competition and pull them out.
"And that was like a false sense [because] he had never really learned a triple Axel. The technique is there and he really understands what he's doing. That's what Christy has really been working on with him is getting that triple Axel where it's [a] very consistent technique. It's also an edge jump, which, boy if there's a jump that goes wrong it's usually an edge jump. It's just something that he still hasn't mastered but it has definitely improved."
Chan did display significantly better form during his gold-medal performance at the Grand Prix Final in Beijing last December.
He landed his triple Axel in the short program, and then hit both in his free skate, although he did step out on one of the jumps.
"That is the biggest [priority] on the plate right now," said Nichol."
— Tony Care
Nichol's list of current and former students exceeds 30, but despite her hectic schedule, she added to her responsibility prior to last year's Vancouver Olympics.
After Toronto skater Patrick Chan parted ways with coach Don Laws, Nichol was asked to come on board with technical specialist Christy Krall.
The combination is working.
Chan has won two events this season with the help of his newly developed quadruple toe loop, while maintaining his artistic mastery that Nichol continues to oversee.
Nichol took time before the Canadian figure skating championship begins in Victoria on Friday to speak with CBCSports.ca, where she talked about her early years as a choreographer and Chan's progression after his disappointment at last year's Vancouver Olympics.
CBCSports.ca: Your resumé as a choreographer speaks for itself. When did you get your first real opportunity?
Nichol: I started coaching group lessons [in the early 1990s] and from that I got to coach my own students. I then needed to choreograph their programs. I became frustrated with my coaching and I wanted my skaters to have a more open view of what skating is. So I wrote letters to a ton of different coaches and [American and Hall of Famer] Frank Carroll responded. What was wonderful was I got to stand in on all the lessons with Frank. We immediately hit it off, not just personally but also professionally, and we had a lot of the same ideals. I respected him so much because he's this coach that had taught so many champions.
One night we were at his house having some wine and I said, 'you know Frank, I want to have a family. I can't possibly be a great coach, a great choreographer and a great wife and mother. I'm thinking of focusing just on [being a] choreographer. Do you think I the ability to make it?' And he said, 'absolutely.'
Six months later he phoned me and said: 'Lori I want you to come and work with this little girl that I have, she's very good and she needs your help.' So that was the beginning of the relationship that I had with [American] Michelle Kwan in 1992.
CBCSports.ca: Four years later Michelle won her first of five world titles. When you first work with a skater, how do you develop the choreography? Does the music — like Michelle's signature piece from Salome — immediately fit with them or vice versa?
Nichol: It's always changing. Sometimes you hear a piece of music and you immediately envision a skater to it. Hopefully it's the skater you're working with [laughing]. Then you have the right music for them. Sometimes you spend endless hours in the music studio. I work with Lenore Kay, a music researcher and editor here in Toronto, that has a phenomenal library, and we will spend hours upon hours listening to music. We dissect what makes a piece great and how it could look on the ice.
We will go through so many of my favourite pieces throughout the year that goes into a wish list I'll save for the right skater. When I had Michelle, she was very technical [with her] programs. Then she came fourth at [the 1995] worlds and realized she needed to do much more.
I had always had a fascination with the Middle East and the Taj Mahal was my favourite building. I was just fascinated with the architecture and design — that was very much my style. As many choreographers do in their first years, they kind of create the skater in the vision of themselves and that's what I was doing with Michelle.
Michelle was a terrific vehicle for it because she was interested in that. She also had exotic looks and the story of Salome was of a 15-year-old that was beyond courageous, and it was just a fun character to play into.
CBCSports.ca: You've had several Olympic champions under your guidance. In seeing a skater, or team, win a gold medal with one of your programs, what immediately goes through your mind?
Nichol: It's going to sound a little sad, but right after I'm rehashing all the little things that didn't go quite right. I'm processing it, but at the same time, I'm ecstatic that they're happy and they have their dream. It's the perfectionism that we all have to have to do well. Yet at the same time, I'm always happy for them because I've seen close up what the skaters, their families, towns and federations go through.
CBCSports.ca: Your skaters continually compete against one another in big events. Recently, Patrick and Evan took part in the Vancouver Olympics. What emotions do you experience during those competitions?
Nichol: It's an interesting scenario because you know so much about their training and about what they should be thinking. I felt I was very much like the athlete in the event, where all that mattered was the moment. So I was literally breathing, like they would be breathing. Of course, I'm cheering for all of them. I think parenting has taught me a lot of those skills that I use when I'm faced with working with several athletes in the same event.
CBCSports.ca: Last year you and Christy Krall had the added responsibility of coaching Patrick. It was a tough situation because Patrick was injured for most of 2010, and he finished fifth at the Olympics. How did you help him deal with the disappointment?
Nichol: First of all we let him have some fun and enjoy being an Olympic athlete. When you're going for a medal I think a lot of athletes forget that they made it to the Olympic Games. Yeah, there's a drive to win but sometimes you have to remember this is something you will have for the rest of your life. No one can take it away from you. Christy and I had wanted him to enjoy the Olympic village and the other athletes. It taught him so much because he saw he's not alone. He saw how hard other athletes work and he started hearing stories about all the different things they had gone through. That experience was empowering to him. And then there was a newborn motivation.
CBCSports.ca: Which brings us to his quadruple toe loop jump. While the jump isn't perfect, he's really making strides with it. At Skate Canada, he struggled in the short program, but then nailed the quad in the free skate and it seemed the weight of the world had lifted. Do you agree?
Nichol: Yes. He's been landing so many quad toes in practice and it is his best jump, which is phenomenal. When you're actually standing on the ice with him and he does that quad toe you cannot believe how fast he goes into it, how far it travels and how high it is. So he knew that he could really do it. But it did lift a weight off his shoulders and he believes he can do it in any competition.
CBCSports.ca: In introducing the quad now, he's really doing this at the perfect time, isn't he?
Nichol: Absolutely. He will be able to get a lot of experience doing this quad in the next three years [leading up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics]. He needs various experiences where he lands it and the crowd goes so crazy that he can't hear his music. Part of his brain can tell him that he's on time with the music, and then he can refocus for the next element. All that takes training.
CBCSports.ca: Moving forward, the competition is only going to get tougher on the men's side. How do you see him progressing over the next couple of years heading into Sochi?
Nichol: His eyes have really been opened after the Olympic Games. He's seeing how long it takes for things to really click. You don't just waltz in and win the Olympics and then say 'sayonara.' The journey just isn't always that easy. He's really learning and taking more ownership of every aspect of being an athlete. Obviously, consistency is No. 1. If he can be consistent, continue to evolve with his performance and interpretation [while] putting a couple of quads in, then he's in good standing.