'My heart broke into pieces': What it's like to fall at the Olympics

One of the reasons figure skating is so compelling is that one stumble can derail an athlete's dreams. How does it feel to fall on the sport's biggest stage? Meagan Duhamel and Kurt Browning open up about their low moments at the Olympics.

Browning, Duhamel open up about their low moments

Meagan Duhamel says her "heart broke into pieces" when she fell at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but she's since picked herself back up to win a pair of world pairs titles with teammates Eric Radford. (Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press)

The 2018 Olympic Games are only a year away — Feb. 9, 2018 to be exact. This is the time when the preparation starts to become real for athletes.

But figure skating can be especially cruel because, no matter how hard you trained or how well you did at your last competition, one fall can derail your dreams.

For the skater who suffers one, is a tumble at the Olympics as dramatic as it appears to those of us watching?

I asked two high-profile Canadian skaters — one active, one retired — about their memorable falls at the Olympics.


The skater: Meagan Duhamel, two-time pairs world champion

The event: Sochi 2014 pairs free program (with Eric Radford)

What happened: "I fell on the side-by-side triple Salchow jump in our long program." [3:10 mark in the video below]


What went through her mind: "The moment I fell, I knew my Olympic dream was over. I knew that I wouldn't have that special 'moment' at the Olympics, like I had dreamed of achieving, and I would definitely not be on the podium.

"My heart broke into pieces in that split second. But I still had to get up, land two throw triples and finish our long program. It was definitely a bitter pill to swallow."

Kurt Browning was favoured to win gold at the 1992 Olympics, but a fall in his short program derailed his title hopes. (Chris Cole/Allsport/Getty Images)

The skater: Kurt Browning, four-time men's world champion

The event: Albertville 1992 men's short program, which he entered as the favourite to win gold

What happened: "I fell on my triple Axel attempt in the short program." [1:00 mark in the video below]


What went through his mind: "I was not surprised by the fall. It had been created in my mind ahead of time and I only just let it happen because I could not see another outcome at that time in my recovery from a bad back.

"Once I realized I was down on the ice, at the Olympics, in front of the world, my first clear thought was to picture my house back home full of my friends all groaning at the same time and sad for me and for Canada." 

Does it hurt?

If figure skaters aren't falling in practice, then they may not be trying hard enough to learn a new element. But when it comes to competition, falling is to be avoided at all costs because of heavy penalties in scoring and the disruption it causes to the program. 

Anna Pogorilaya, the women's bronze medallist at last year's world championships, says physical pain doesn't even register when she falls.

"To be honest, when I fall in the competition, I do not even hurt," she says in Russian. "It's upsetting to me." 

Duhamel describes a fall this way: "Sometimes when you take off for a jump or a throw, you miss your takeoff or your technique is not sharp. As you go into the air you literally think, 'Crap.'"

"Sometimes you can fight to save a fall, but usually in these moments, you end up on your bum. Other times, everything feels great technically, but you aren't confident enough to hit a landing, or you literally have the bad luck of slipping off your edge.

"This is skating, after all. Sometimes a fall has no reason. Sometimes you land a jump inside a rut in the ice and you fall. That's just bad luck."

No two falls alike

For Browning, who ended up finishing sixth in '92, each fall is unique. And so is its impact.

"What happens to you when you fall is, truly, different every time," he says. "Like one kiss is never like the others. And yet they all basically follow the same sort of rules. Each one comes from a different place both in reason and emotion.

"Some falls do not matter to you personally, while another fall at a small-town carnival is a statement of your own personal wealth to yourself. Other falls just happened even though you were prepared and it can be blamed on a slip or a small mental error but nothing that takes you down emotionally. Others are because you were not prepared before the event, and those falls hurt you with regret and embarrassment.

"But the one thing that rings true about all falls is that in that split second, once you realize you went down, you want that moment back to do it right."

Bouncing back

For Duhamel, being able to find the lesson and the appropriate perspective in her failure has helped define her outstanding ability to stay competitive and enjoy success. Since her fall in Sochi, she and Radford have won back-to-back world pairs titles.

"I learned that it wasn't the end of the world. I realized how lucky I was to be at the Olympics at all. I met so many amazing athletes in Sochi after that experience, and they were all telling me about how proud they were to be at the Olympics, to represent their country and that they finished in 15th place and it was amazing. Here I was sulking about my one mistake.

"We competed in three programs at the Olympics and two went amazingly. We lived our Olympic moment in the team event where we had one of our best short programs ever [and helped Canada win silver]. My perspective changed after that Olympic experience."

When I asked Browning about his perspective on his 1992 Albertville Olympics, he said "the mind is the strongest muscle in your body and in your life."

The Olympic Games are coming. It remains to be seen whose mind, not to mention body, will be up to the task next year in Korea.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pj Kwong currently does freelance work for Skate Ontario as the Business Development manager and has consulted for Alpine Canada in media relations. She’s been a veteran stadium announcer for eight Olympic Games, two Paralympic Games, one European Games, and the Arab Games. Most recently she’s done stadium announcing for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, and the 2019 Pan American Games and Parapan American Games. Pj has worked as a freelance writer for CBC Sports since 2006 covering figure skating. Outside of the CBC, Pj has worked in Press Operations for the Toronto 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, Media Relations for the Toronto 2017 Invictus Games.

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