Road To The Olympic Games

Figure Skating·Analysis

Invisible wounds: Gabrielle Daleman's real victory was stepping on the ice

Success has followed Gabrielle Daleman for a long time, including an Olympic team gold medal, two national titles and a world bronze medal. But mental illness has gripped her for two years. That's why her real victory this week was simply competing at the world figure skating championships in Japan.

An athlete's career is never easy — despite what it may look like on TV

Gabrielle Daleman performed admirably at the world figure skating championships in light of her two-year battle with mental illness. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

When you watch someone skate, you think that you know them. In truth, the part that the public sees may not be who they are at all. At the very most in some cases, what you are seeing is the smallest sliver of what makes up a person.

Success followed Gabrielle Daleman for a long time, including an Olympic team gold medal, two national titles and a world bronze medal.

But an athlete's career is never easy — despite what it may look like on TV.

Daleman's struggles over the course of this season are well documented, and at times, watching her skate has been hard. Not because the skating has been bad, but because of the toll that mental health struggles can take on a person. This personal journey has been very public for Daleman. Giving your all on the ice in performance can be risky at the best of times.

You have to be strong and confident in this sport. As CBC's Scott Russell says, "Skating is unforgiving and there is nowhere to hide. Every failure is immediately apparent to everyone who's watching. Unlike a team sport, you can never take a shift off in figure skating. When you fail, everyone knows it."

When I saw Daleman hit the ice at the world figure skating championships in Saitama, Japan for the short program, I will admit to feeling a little worried. I am always on the side of the skater and with my own risk-averse personality. Frankly, I am not sure I would have made the trip here if I were Gabby. That's the difference though between mere mortals and champions.

A solid skate in the short program is what happened, and as Daleman breezed through the media mixed zone, she was every inch the confident and resolute athlete I have come to know. It gave me hope.

She didn't even mind that the next skater beat her own season's best score and moved ahead of Daleman in the standings. It was a light moment and it was clear she has come a long way.

Gripping illness

There is a protective bubble around Daleman as people seek to find the most sensitive way to approach her. It is good to see the world stepping up in this way, as invisible wounds are not always taken into account during human interactions.

The thought of Daleman's frailty is never far away for me, and as I waited for my turn to speak to her in the mixed zone, I pondered what question I would ask her.

The free skate offered up the same conundrum. I needn't have worried. Daleman's performance was better than expected as she delivered here season's best score, a testament to her determination during the program.

In Daleman's view, her 11th-place finish is insignificant. Battling back from a gripping illness is the real victory.

''The most important thing that I learned this season is that no matter what life throws at me I always rise at the end,'' she said. ''That's exactly what I'm proving here. I had the worst two years of my life and to be here and get a top-12 finish means the world to me.''

WATCH | Gabrielle Daleman's free skate:

Newmarket, Ont., skater and 2017 bronze medallist Gabrielle Daleman finished 11th at the 2019 world figure skating championships. 7:52

Daleman faced the media and was unconcerned about the emotion in her voice or her teary-eyed expression as she thoughtfully answered questions.

As coach Brian Orser could be heard saying when Daleman returned to the boards after skating, "That was a very good effort."

It was on all counts as far as I could see.

At the end of it all, Daleman's answer to my question from earlier in the week about her biggest lesson from the season sums up her path towards health and wellness.

"I am unbreakable," was all she said.

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