2019 Canadian Nationals: A Preview of the Grim, Frosty Future?

Rewind to February 2018 and you’ll reach the pinnacle of Canadian figure skating. Gold in the Team event, gold in Ice Dance, and bronze in Ladies and Pairs. A once-in-a-generation confluence of genetics, talent, training, and luck arrived in the skates of Team Canada in Pyeongchang, but much of that talent retired or opted out of this season. Of the seven skaters who participated in the Team Event only one–Gabrielle Daleman–is scheduled to compete in Saint John. Across all disciplines, the wave of retirements and splits has largely washed out serious international competitors, leaving Canada at the start of a rebuilding cycle.

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An appearance at nationals would be the de facto start of Daleman’s season. After a rough outing at US International Classic in September, Daleman withdrew from both of her Grand Prix assignments, citing anxiety, depression, ADHD, and an eating disorder. If this sounds familiar, it is: Gracie Gold sat out most of the last two seasons with a similar mix of health challenges. If you’re surprised, you clearly haven’t been watching figure skating for long. This sport fuses extreme fitness demands with glaring lights, banks of photographers, short skirts, and sequins masquerading as nipple covers. It’s a wonder we don’t hear about more skaters struggling with the same debilitating set of conditions as Daleman and Gold.

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I’m going to leave the question of whether or not Daleman should compete at nationals aside. Neither I nor any other armchair critic on the internet is her therapist, doctor, coaching team, or family. We’re not in any position to decide when she’s ready to return to skating. I can also appreciate wanting to return to your sense of normal, even if an evening spent in a frosty rink performing in front of retirees wearing patriotic sweaters is an odd Saturday night at the office for most people. Daleman has announced she intends to compete, so let’s take her at her word.

Daleman is the defending Ladies national champion, and, in the absence of Kaetlyn Osmond, the top of the field in all respects. Daleman is a tremendous athlete with some stunning performances to her credit, including her free skate in the Olympic Team Event and both programs at nationals in 2018. What she lacks in subtlety she has in showmanship, but she has struggled to find programs that make use of that natural charisma. She’s relied on a short program to Carmen for three seasons running, and brought back her 2016-17 free skate to Rhapsody in Blue halfway through the Olympic season when a Gladiator program proved a total mismatch. She needs big, bold music to match her personality, and surely there’s more than Carmen to draw on. Daleman’s goal is likely to just skate the rest of the season and focus on recovery, but I would love to see her take the opportunity to reinvent herself in 2019-20.

Sidebar: I stand by my original proposal from my recap of Japan Nationals. Just give the extra Canadian ladies spot to Japan. Wakaba Higuchi or Mai Mihara deserves it more.

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Over in the Men’s event, Keegan Messing is the accidental King of Canada thanks to a string of steady performances over the last 16 months. With Patrick Chan and Kevin Reynolds announcing their retirement this year, Messing stands to inherit the title held by a venerable string of champions. As with any competition, he still has to skate the bloody thing. Messing is coming off a pair of middling performances at the Grand Prix Final, but he did make the Grand Prix Final for the first time. If he can relax back into the winsome Charlie Chaplin persona that served him well last season, he’ll be set to win. If not, he faces real competition from Nam Nguyen, who’s picked up his performance this season and won the title in 2015. Also in the mix is pint-sized Stephen Gogolev, fresh off a win at the Junior Grand Prix final and armed with a quad salchow, toe, and lutz. #spoileralert

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Retirements and team splits have decimated much of the pairs field in Canada. If you were feeling smug about Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford’s podium-topping status, wipe that smarm off your face. With Duhamel and Radford’s retirement, and the split of Julianne Séguin and Charlie Bilodeau and Liubov Ilyushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch, it leaves Canada with one serious pairs team: Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro (sauce).

To their credit, skating in the shadow of those teams the last four years prompted Moore-Towers and Marinaro to develop into one scrappy team. All that fighting paid off with their first podium finish at nationals last year as a team, a trip to the Olympics, and a career-best 6th place finish at Worlds. Consistency (what else?) has been elusive this season, but they will be the team to watch at nationals. Beyond MT & M, it will be a guessing game to see which of the other 7 pairs teams might mature into the next set of Olympians.

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Finally, Ice Dance will be the most interesting discipline to watch next week, because, as a random on Twitter so eloquently put it:

I think this is Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier’s title. I will bet my last bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and all the Christmas chocolate in my cupboard on it. After years of skating to third place finishes, their distinctive brand of dance is finally gaining traction. I love their programs, I think they’ve been criminally underrated for years, and 2019 is finally going to be their year.

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Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje may have two national titles and a bucket of international medals to their credit, but they decided to tour with Virtue/Moir & Co. this fall rather than compete on the Grand Prix circuit. They have used this season’s free dance as one of their show programs to rack up the mileage on the program, but it’s not quite the same as laying it out for the scrutiny of the technical callers. Meanwhile, Gilles and Poirier have had two Grand Prix competitions to test and tweak their programs with more judging feedback, and I think this will work in their favour.

Programming Note!

I will attempt to live-snark most of Canadian Nationals on Twitter, although who schedules events for 2pm MST on a Friday? Doesn’t CTV realize how important I am? Sigh. Those of you in Canada can find the broadcast schedule and, for the super keen, the Junior/Novice streaming schedule, here. Follow along for more Hot Takes™ and check back for recaps after the event!

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