Olympic silver medallist and seven-time Canadian champion Patrick Chan tells CBC Sports why he took a year off — and about the challenge of returning to compete.
There was no argument, no “Yes, but what if I did this…?”
It was very clear that I wanted to take a year off. I just needed some time. An Olympic year, for some who don’t know, is much later. Everything is pushed back. So I made the decision immediately after [the 2014 Winter] Olympics not even to go to Worlds in March because I knew that after that I’d be playing a catch-up game to prepare for the next season.
Looking back now, if I had competed last season I would most definitely be burnt out this year, and I would not be very motivated to compete. It was a very easy decision to make, and I think a well thought through decision, as well.
I had already made the decision to maybe take my retirement right after the Games. I’d never looked to the future, never looked to the next Olympics in Korea — never even thought about it. Honestly, the end of my chapter was the Olympics. So making the decision to take the year off wasn’t the hard decision, the decision to come back was actually the hardest decision.
Whether or not I actually wanted to come back and compete again.
I had a little hint of [wanting to come back] in the closing ceremony in Sochi, when Russia handed over, in a way, the Olympic Games to Korea. I kind of took a moment to look around, and observe. I did a lot of that, in those Games. I observed what was happening around me a lot more than I did in Vancouver [in 2010]. It was apparent to me that if the Games were next month or next year, I would definitely go.
And I paid attention to that — to feel so strongly that I wanted to go to another Olympic Games, putting aside the time it would take to get to that point. So that stuck in my mind.
But the decision to come back was a gradual process. I was in the midst of shows, talking to Kathy [Johnson, my coach] regularly, and talking about my experiences in the shows, and how it felt to skate. And just skating, not talking about competition. It wasn’t a blatant question, just a developing idea in my mind, and Kathy’s mind, how great I felt on the ice performing. How different my skating was, having done so many shows in that one year.
And I felt like I had something to show, something new to bring to the table if I did choose to come back — and that kind of sparked the possibility of coming back to competition. I just had something to show, something new, and I felt like I was refreshed.
Stepping back on the ice with competition in mind was very frustrating. As a show skater, you’re in good shape but you’re not in competition shape — nothing close to it. It’s a very different type of lifestyle, different training; you don’t have a six-minute warm-up, you just go out and perform. And you’ve got to be on.
Then, it was about coming back home, and having to buckle down and start with choreography. Luckily, Kathy and I played it smart, and we booked very early with [world-renowned choreographer] David Wilson to work, in June, to get the programs done early so that I can go home to Detroit, where I train, and take the time to chip away at them. And not to just throw everything on the plate and be like, “Alright, let’s try and crank out these programs perfectly in a month.” I really gave myself enough time to get through those frustrating days and just say, “It’s okay, it’s early, I have a lot of time.”
So there was no moment of panic; it was all very scheduled and regimented, which is what I missed about training for competitive skating. I was trying to lose weight, and gain back my triple Axel, my quads — just little things, nothing crazy. I’m not even working on new things, just getting all of my old stuff back.
All of that wore away at me, but luckily I had Kathy around to constantly be my support and remind me that, “Wait, this is early. You don’t have to land a quad and land a triple Axel and do a clean long program in the first or second week that you’re back. It’s really normal, what you’re going through.”
She was obviously right. I’m at a point now where I’m still chipping away at it. Nothing’s perfect at the moment, but I feel strong and motivated, and confident that my jumps are feeling more consistent, and that when it comes to the day of competition I can churn out a quad without any frustration or stress.
There was one moment when I thought, "It's too much!" It was after coming back from doing my last show in Japan, and it was time to really buckle down and start running through sections, and connecting the little dots of the programs. It was the week before [Kathy came to Detroit], and I called her in panic mode, being like, “Why am I doing this? I shouldn’t even be coming back. This is so stupid, I’m so frustrated. I don’t even know why I’ve considered coming back, I should have just let it go.”
And I remember, she was like, “Call me right now.” And I was, like, “No, I don’t feel like talking!” It was a very set mentality, that day, that I shouldn’t be doing this.
But Kathy has always been my biggest supporter. She’s dealt with my best days, my worst days and my in-between days. I just had to take a step back and realize how early it was in the year, and how much more work I have than anyone else that I’m competing against because I’ve lost my jumps, and I have to regain the physical pathways and the mental pathways for these jumps.
I’ve got to relearn it all. It was honestly like learning how to bike again; I just started going. And things are better now.
My year off allowed me the time to look back at my career and what I achieved — the three world championships, the two silver medals at the Olympics, all the national titles. I’ve never had a year just to tell myself, “I’ve done this much work.” You forget because you’re constantly thinking about the next season, and preparing for the next season, so you don’t even have time to look back at the great things you’ve done so far.
So that’s one thing I’ve learned: to look back and realize I have nothing really to prove anymore. I’ve proved everything to myself, I’ve had a great sucessful career, and being on tour was helpful because I realized people really enjoy my skating and want me to keep skating.
It also gave me a chance to mature as a skater in the shows. Learning different choreography in the group numbers, my individual numbers; you become very versatile as a skater performing in shows. Learning to deal with choreographers I'd never worked with made me realize how much I love performing in front of an audience.
There’d be days that I’d be practicing, doing show practice with my fellow cast members, and I’d be a bit shy to do my show programs because I just wasn’t confident in them, and then the minute I was in front of thousands of people in a huge venue, I felt like I could be that character that I need to be on the ice, or this character I’m trying to portray in this music. It was so easy for me to get in that comfort zone and I made that connection.
Why don’t I make that connection with competitions? I should be enjoying it, I should be turning it on and being, like, "Here I am!” Nothing to be shy about, nothing to be scared about, and I think that the short program that I have this year is a great path to that kind of mentality and approach to competition.
But I will miss the freedom to do whatever I want. The freedom to literally look at your calendar and be, like, “Oh, I have two weeks here? I feel like going to Bahamas to go deep-sea diving.” Any adventure I want to go on, it’s available.
And the friends and adventures you go on with your castmembers in shows, it’s so different from competing. Especially at my age now, living on my own, and being very self-sufficient, you enjoy those tours way more than as a young castmember.
Not competing, I missed the order, and the schedule I had every morning. It might get old after a while, but at the moment, after having that year off, it’s great to come back to some order and to, "Alright, I’m coming home, I have my food in my fridge that I know I’m going to cook for dinner, and I know what I’m going to cook for lunch tomorrow, I know what I want for breakfast; it’s all very organized." And maybe it’s the OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) part of myself coming out, but it’s nice. And being in a physical shape that I’m not usually in, it feels great. I feel revitalized.
The other thing I’ve realized is, every day after I finish practice, I just feel so accomplished. There’s a huge of feeling of “Oh wow, I worked really hard today and I’ve accomplished so much, and I achieved my goals."
— As told to Pj Kwong
(Large photos courtesy Getty Images)