It was a Canadian crown seven years in the making, forged over countless hours of frustration and self-doubt.
Cynthia Phaneuf of Contrecoeur, Que., is finally the Canadian champion once again, capturing gold at the Canadian figure skating championships Saturday for her first national title since she won as a 15-year-old packed full of promise back in 2004.
"Finally, finally, finally, I have waiting so long for this moment," Phaneuf said, relief written in her wide grin. "Finally my work paid off and I have been working so hard and finally it's there."
The 23-year-old scored 111.55 points for her elegant free program to Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme By Paganini," to win gold with 172.32 overall points. Myriane Samson of St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, Que., fourth after the short program, scored 108.07 to move up to second with 157.82 total points. Amelie Lacoste of Delson, Que., scored 100.86 to take the bronze with 151.72 at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre.
Phaneuf, meanwhile, wasn't perfect, singling a planned double Axel and bobbling a triple toe loop. But Phaneuf, who was fifth at the world championships last March, was clearly the class of the field in the absence of Olympic bronze medallist Joannie Rochette, who's taking the season off to contemplate her skating future.
Phaneuf was a delicate five foot three and a week shy of her 16th birthday when a meteoric rise took her to the top of the podium at the Canadian championships in 2004 in Edmonton, where she upset six-time champion Jennifer Robinson. Robinson finished third behind an emerging Rochette, who went on to capture the next six Canadian titles.
Phaneuf went on to win Skate Canada and finish second at Skate America that season, but her career went into a tailspin not long after. She suffered a knee injury and stress fractures to her ankle and hip and was off skates for nearly a year. During that time, a growth spurt saw her shoot up four inches, and by the time she was back on the ice she said she had to learn to skate all over again in a bigger body she was unaccustomed to.
Self-doubt biggest enemy
But self-doubt was her biggest enemy. There were plenty of times she believed she'd never see the top of a podium again.
"For sure, if you had asked me four years ago, I would have said I never was going to have [the title] back," she said. "The year I was injured I was skating so bad that nobody thought I was going to be Canadian champion again. You just have to believe in what you can do and believe in yourself and tonight I can show myself that I was right to believe in myself."
Phaneuf said the feeling of unfinished business kept her going.
"I just had this little voice here that was telling me I couldn't be over with skating this way, that I had to show something more to people and to myself, and I know I wasn't done with skating," she said. "Even if I had three months when I was crying every day and I was not able to do a double Axel, I knew it was not going to end like that. I had to have something better to finish my career."
Phaneuf and Samson earned Canada's two women's berths for the world championships in Tokyo in March. Based on results last season, Canada has three spots in men's singles and ice dance and two spots in pairs.
Samson was pleased to see a Quebec sweep of the podium.
"We have a good group and a good coach who pushes us to be better competition by competition," she said.
Alexandra Najarro, the 17-year-old who was a surprising second after Friday's short program, dropped to fourth overall after under-rotating a triple flip and being downgraded on a double Axel.
The judges computers crashed Saturday after Najarro's skate, leaving Phaneuf to glide around the ice for a good 10 minutes before her performance.
"I was kind of happy [with the delay] actually, but at the end, I was like, OK, I've got to go now, I can't wait," Phaneuf said.
"But no, it was OK, at first I did a little made a little mistake in my first triple [toe loop] and I never miss. I just had to tighten up and I was right on after on the Lutz, so I was very happy about that."
Jessica Dube, a world bronze medallist in pairs with partner Bryce Davison, finished sixth. The skater from St-Cyrille-de-Wendover, Que., is competing in singles this season after Davison had season-ending knee surgery in the fall.
Dube said she woke up Sunday battling a virus.
"Until five minutes before I skated, I was sitting on a table in the medical room," Dube said. "I am just happy I got through it but I wasn't the skater I was [Friday]."