‘I flew 6,000 kilometres to see my son skate,” noted Dr. Pierre Gfeller. “But I don’t look.”
The rafters of the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver held the good Quebecois docotor’s gaze during the time it took for his son, Guillaume Gfeller, and his ice dance partner Andrea Chong to make two circuits of the rink during the compulsory dance segment of their Skate Canada competition last week.
His experience is not unique.
Stories abound of the strategies that parents of the competitors at the national championships use to calm a racing heart and other physical and mental signs of the anxiety they feel as their children take to the ice.
Kris Wirtz, three-time Olympian and two-time Canadian Pairs champion, told me his mother Jane would sit rigidly in her arena seat, hands tightly clasped on her lap.
He figures that she feared just what might happen if she was not in absolute control of her limbs.
One fable told in the parents lounge at the championships was of Brian Orser’s mother who couldn’t even bear to be in the seats when her famous son skated.
It is said that she retreated to the bathroom when he came out on the ice.
That, however, was not enough.
She then flushed the toilet over and over again to block out any crowd noise, signaling a possible fall, that might filter through the concrete bleacher supports.
By the time an athlete reaches the senior level of figure skating most mothers and fathers have benefited from the informal advice of other parents and their children’s coaches on the vagaries and pitfalls of the sport.
This solidarity helps to develop needed survival skills.
Still, a four-minute-long program can be excruciating to get through for even the most hardened parent who knows just how much energy and effort has been put into this pivotal component and who must just helplessly watch as events unfold.
Parents of emerging talents, though, should clearly be told what price has to be paid.
When a young athlete and his family “enter a high-performance sport,” Michael Slipchuk, Skate Canada’s new High Performance director noted, “they have to be prepared for the psychological burdens, for ups and downs, successes and failures.”
He knows this intimately.
Slipchuk competed for Canada at the World level from 1987 to 1992.
“For anyone to hit the top, it is a challenge.”
He sees people quitting before they hit their prime as one of the biggest issues in the sport of figure skating.
Keeping them on the ice isn’t just about the money.
These costs are real, though.
Ice fees, coaching, equipment, costumes, off-ice training, travel and a host of other costs can range upwards of $30,000 a year for an aspiring elite figure skater.
Money aside, the first thing a family has to decide is whether or not to support their son’s or daughter’s dream.
They should do so knowing full well what is in store for them.
Skate Canada could help out here if they want to keep promising skaters on the ice, as they say they do, by helping families prepare for what’s coming.
If a family decides to make the commitment, then they have to hold on tight and face the inevitable slips and falls.
Young athletes can get up again, brush themselves off and grow in the sport if their parents can.
Girard place fifth
The weekend saw a tight battle for the final slots on the national team at the 2008 Skate Canada National Figure Skating Championships in Vancouver.
Only 1.5 points separated the fifth position from a third-place podium finish.
Liam Dougherty, who got his figure skating start at the Takhini Arena, and his partner of six months, Mylène Girard, from Repentigny, Quebec, built on their experience as junior national champions and international competitors to quickly develop a winning program.
This was put together with their coaching team of Julie Marcotte, Daniel Belec and four-time Canadian ice dance champions Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon.
It consisted of a strong flamenco inspired Original Dance and a lyrical Free Dance to the soundtrack of The Mission.
Despite a third-place ranking in the Free Dance, their overall result was fifth.
Liam and Mylène’s finish wins them a place on the Skate Canada Senior National Team.
Michael Dougherty writes the Just Society column.