Patrick Chan glides by the boards for a quick reminder from his coach Kathy Johnson, who gracefully points one hand toward the ceiling and tilts back her head in demonstration.
At first glance, the two-time world figure skating champion and the modern dance teacher who trained at Juilliard may seem like an unlikely combination.
But the 21-year-old from Toronto, who opens his Grand Prix season this week at Skate Canada International, is at ease with Johnson by his side — and that’s a good thing in a season of change for Chan.
“She has very much the same personality as I do. She is very laid back,” Chan said of Johnson. “Maybe sometimes even too laid back where I don’t have anybody to push me. But I’m at that point in my career where I’ve learned to push myself.”
In his final full season before the 2014 Sochi Games, Chan has new choreographers, two new programs, and a new coaching arrangement with Johnson.
He captured his second consecutive world title last spring in Nice, France, and literally the next day coach Christy Krall resigned citing a difference in coaching philosophies. His coaches are now Johnson — who had been assuming a larger role with Chan last season — and Eddie Shipstad.
“I never dumped anyone. It wasn’t like a nasty breakup,” Chan said of his split with Krall. “Christy decided to step down from teaching me. I didn’t imply anything for her to get fired. She definitely took the responsibility and decided to step down.
“And you know what? I believe that everybody in my career, everyone who’s brought me along and has pushed me along up to the top, has had their place in my career. And right now who I want next to me is Kathy Johnson. I want Eddie Shipstad to be by my side. Both coaches to me fulfil everything that I need to become the best in figure skating.”
While Johnson’s background is dance, she’s worked with skaters for more than a decade. She focuses on proper use of the body’s core, not just to strengthen the artistic side of performances, but also for the technical elements such as jumps and spins.
“I do things differently. If I did the same thing as most of the other skating coaches, people wouldn’t call me in to work with them,” said Johnson, whose daughter was a skater.
With Johnson, Chan has been able to take on more responsibility for his training after a program under Krall that was tightly scheduled. The new approach, Johnson said, has been a natural progression for the Canadian skating star.
“He’s maturing and finding himself, it’s always moving into that adulthood, and there has to be that moment where you ... scoot, scoot, scoot, a bit of a kick out of the nest,” she said, motioning with her hands as if she was pushing a bird. “I think Patrick really did need to take a step back and reassess what he wanted and where he was going.”
They’ve changed up Chan’s schedule to include more intense sessions for shorter periods of time. Johnson said Chan has more leeway in dictating the focus of practice.
“Patrick is extremely self-motivated, there’s never a problem getting him to the ice, or getting him to work,” Johnson said.
The summer wasn’t an easy one for Chan, who had to learn two new programs under new choreographers with very different styles than what he was used to. Chan left longtime choreographer Lori Nichol after the worlds in Nice, hiring former world champion Jeff Buttle to choreograph his short program and David Wilson his long.
Chan said he felt the need to push the boundaries to stay ahead of the pack, swapping what he knew for something new in his pursuit of an Olympic title.
“I definitely wanted to look at different areas, kind of go in different branches before I went to the Olympics, so I knew that I wouldn’t leave anything on the table and I knew I would cover all the angles and I could find the perfect formula for the Olympics,” Chan said after practice at the WFCU Centre.
“I just really wanted to see how it was to work with someone else,” he added. “It wouldn’t be right if I went to the Olympics and won without having experienced other choreographers and other types of programs and different types of movement, if that makes sense.”
Chan admits it took some time to buy into his new programs — his short program is to music by Rachmaninoff while his free program is to the Italian opera “La Boheme.”
“I think I lacked a bit of confidence. I had so many changes happen in the summer, with Christy, my choreographers ... I thought, ’Am I doing the right thing?’ It was a hard time,” Chan said.
He had a rough outing at the Japan Open earlier this month, falling four times in his long program and finishing last in the six-skater field that included former Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko and Japanese former world champion Daisuke Takahashi.
“I was glad I got to go to Japan Open and kind of get it out my system,” Chan said.
Canada’s Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir will make their season debut after skipping an event earlier this month Finland. The two were sidelined after Moir injured his neck doing a lift in practice.
Moir is back healthy heading into what he says in a “a pretty important year, the year before the Olympics.
Moir points out they’re better off than they were four years ago, when they sat out the 2009 Grand Prix while Virtue recovered from surgery on her legs to alleviate compartment syndrome.
“Looking back on 2009, we weren’t even competing in the fall, and we probably had one of our worst seasons ever and were able to come out on top in 2010 (when they won both the Olympic and world titles),” Moir said. “So it’s important but at the same time we’ve just got to stick with our gameplan and not squeeze the stick too tight, as I always say.
“Stick to what we know best, which is just competing well and relying on our training.”
Virtue, from London, Ont., and Moir, from Ilderton, Ont., also have two new programs. Their short dance is to “The Waltz Goes On” by Sir Anthony Hopkins, while their free dance is to “Carmen.”