Sports Canada’s figure skating wave of success cresting just in time for Pyeongchang

18:58  12 january  2018
18:58  12 january  2018 Source:   National Post

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Heading into Pyeongchang 2018, Canada has earned the right to send 17 figure skaters to South Korea, which would be the largest contingent of any nation. But it isn’t just good fortune that has given Canada such a deep figure skating roster.

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File photos of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir on the podium after the Ice dance free dance during the ISU Junior & Senior Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final at Nippon Gaishi Hall on December 9, 2017 in Nagoya, Japan.© Atsushi Tomura - ISU/ISU via Getty Images File photos of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir on the podium after the Ice dance free dance during the ISU Junior & Senior Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final at Nippon Gaishi Hall on December 9, 2017 in Nagoya, Japan. VANCOUVER — Among the many factors that have contributed to Canada’s rise as an Olympic power, there is the fact that the country has taken advantage of the addition of a pile of sports to the five-ring schedule.

Canada has racked up medals in freestyle skiing, in short-track speed skating and in one of the very few sports you can do successfully while drinking beer, curling.

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But there is also a throwback sport that in recent years has seen Canada has become stronger than ever. The national figure skating team won five medals combined over the Vancouver and Sochi games, behind only the seven won by the Russians and ahead of traditional skating powerhouses like the United States, Japan and China. Heading into Pyeongchang 2018, Canada has earned the right to send 17 figure skaters to South Korea, which would be the largest contingent of any nation. Barring injuries or disastrous performances at the National Figure Skating Championships this week in Vancouver that will go a long way to deciding those Olympic spots, Canada will have a shot at the podium in all four disciplines — pairs, dance, men’s and women’s singles and the team event.

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Perhaps the most intriguing result of the just -completed Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, when it comes to looking ahead to the PyeongChang Olympics, came in pairs figure skating . To no surprise, China took the top two spots.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Mike Slipchuk considers himself a lucky man.

The high performance director for Skate Canada and a former Canadian champion and Olympian himself, Slipchuk stepped into the director’s role a little over 10 years ago, a couple of years before Vancouver 2010. As such, he’s been witness to the most consistently successful figure skating team in Canadian history, with those Olympic medals, plus a host of world championships from Patrick Chan, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. At last year’s worlds in Helsinki the Canadian women added themselves to the mix, with Kaetlyn Osmond (silver) and Gabby Daleman (bronze) earning medals, the first time two Canadian women had ever done that at that level.

“I count myself blessed,” says Slipchuk about overseeing such a roster. He’s aware, too, that this season will be something of a last ride for this group: while nothing is certain, this could be the final competitive reason for everyone listed above other than Osmond and Daleman.

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GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 19: Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada pserforms in the Exhibition program during ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships - Gangneung -Test Event For PyeongChang 2018 at I needed time to settle - Guardiola on Man City success .

“To go through with them over the last 10 years of their careers, I just feel so fortunate,” Slipchuk says.

But it isn’t just good fortune that has given Canada such a deep figure skating roster. Slipchuk’s arrival coincided with the pre-Vancouver development of the Own the Podium (OTP) funding program that allocates government support to the sports that are most likely to produce Olympic winners. Money for medals, in the shorthand.

And Slipchuk is quick to say that the OTP money has been “vital” to his team’s development. Skate Canada received about $2.7 million in the four years leading to Vancouver 2010; for the same period leading the Pyeongchang games, that number is up to about $4.6 million. By comparison, OTP funding for alpine skiing dropped from $8.7 million before Vancouver to $5.4 million for this Olympic cycle.

Slipchuk suggests that the stable funding envelope — more than stable, since it’s rising — is one of the reasons why Canada has had its best skaters stick around in the competitive amateur ranks for so long. If a skater doesn’t have to hustle a part-time job to offset training costs, it makes remaining an amateur a lot easier. Slipchuk also notes that Own the Podium “gives us the opportunity to do things that we might not have been able to do.” Chief among those, for example: Skate Canada now runs an annual high-performance camp leading into every season in which International Skating Union judges are brought in to assess the performances and programs of the country’s top skaters. In a sport where the subjective judging is involved, the chance to have a program given the once-over by the same judges who can be found on the Grand Prix circuit is invaluable. It gives skaters the opportunity to tweak certain things, to replace one element with another, to be more confident about the strength of their program before they hit the competition circuit.

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This text will be replaced. Figure Skating 101 PyeongChang 2018 housefuls Kailani Craine and

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“It just helps with feedback and with readiness, and we have found it’s a good launching pad for the season ahead,” Slipchuk says. The results would agree with him.

And so, with the senior skaters here scheduled for their final practice sessions on Thursday and their short programs beginning on Friday, Skate Canada is just a few days from naming that biggest-ever Olympic figure skating team — three slots in women’s, pairs and dance, and two in men’s. Some of those spots are already assured, but “we will have some battles for spots, for sure,” Slipchuk says. The goal is an obvious one: “We want to send the best team.”

From a Canadian historical perspective: it’s already a given that they will.

Gabrielle Daleman, left, and Kaetlyn Osmond shared the podium at the 2017 world championships in March.

A view from both sides

Slipchuk missed a shot at the 1988 Olympics when he finished fourth at the national championships. But he won the nationals in 1992 and made the Canadian team for the Albertville Games.

“It’s tough, because I’ve been on both sides of it,” he says.

Canada’s spots for Pyeongchang 2018 will be named Sunday after the nationals wrap up on Saturday night, but the performances in Vancouver won’t be the sole factor in determining who goes to South Korea. If Tessa Virtue were to come down with the flu and couldn’t skate on Saturday, she and partner Scott Moir, silver medallists in Sochi, would still make the team, one can comfortably assume.

Other spots are harder to call, as with the men’s singles, where one of four or five men are vying for the second Canadian spot alongside likely team member Patrick Chan. Slipchuck has a succinct phrase for the selection process: “heartache and happiness.”

Email: sstinson@postmedia.com | Twitter: @scott_stinson

Ex-U.S. athlete tells Speed Skating Canada of head coach's alleged sexual relationships with skaters .
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