Nam Nguyen is used to skating with old people, he said.
He's done it all of his life.
At age 12, Nguyen, of Richmond, B.C., is believed to be the youngest junior men's champion in Canadian history after defeating a field of much taller men, ranging in age from 16 to 19 on Thursday night at the Canadian figure skating championships.
And perhaps he's the shortest in history too. Nguyen, all of 4 foot 9, stood on the top of the podium after winning his fourth national title Thursday night at the Canadian figure skating championships, grinning broadly in a sophisticated sparkly costume.
Beside him stood silver medalist Shaquille Davis of Thornhill, Ont., at 6 foot 1. Bronze medalist Peter O'Brien - four years older than Nguyen - stands 5 foot 9. Both snickered when they were asked to all stand together on the top step for a photo shoot.
"We're all equal," Nguyen said.
Nguyen, the son of Vietnamese immigrants Sony and Thu, won his first national title at age of eight in 2007 (after skating for only three years) in the juvenile category, with competitors who were usually in the 11-13 age range. Even at that age, Nguyen was showing a remarkable, rather adult-like ability to focus in on his job and execute it expertly. Yet he was a Grade 3 student, and clutched a teddy bear after he won.
He swept on to win the pre-novice category when he was nine against skaters who were typically 13 to 16. Two years go, he won the novice title. Old beyond his years, he attempted the junior category last year, winning the bronze medal, performing an intentionally nerdy routine, in which he wears checked pants, held up by suspenders and topped off by an enormous pair of fake red-rimmed glasses.
He got his first taste of the Olympics as a flower gatherer during the figure skating event in Vancouver. But he graduated to performer during the Olympic gala, where Olympic champion Evan Lysacek introduced him, and he ripped off a jumpsuit to emerge with his nerdy costume.
"It was exciting," he said this week. "It was my first time skating on Olympic ice. With the arena packed and being introduced by the Olympic champion, Evan Lysacek, it was kind of nerve-wracking. But it was an amazing experience."
He fell on his first jump, but the world saw him and his name was mentioned in The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. He aims to be back, competing at the Olympics some day, but because of his youth, he won't be eligible until 2018.
Already, he's too young to reap the rewards of being a junior champion. He's still too young to compete on the Junior Grand Prix circuit and won't get a trip to the world junior championships later this season.
He will turn 13 on May 20, and that will allow him to compete internationally next season.
But already he's forging ahead. Coach Joanne McLeod, who also trains senior men's competitor Kevin Reynolds, also a precocious youngster in his day, decided to ditch the cutesy routine, give him a piano concerto by Beethoven and dress him in more grown-up attire.
And this season, he's focused more on showing speed, rather than difficult tricks and this week, it has worked. Ice dancing coaches Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe gave him valuable lessons on how to rocket across the ice.
Still, Nguyen landed a triple Salchow-triple toe loop combination on Thursday night. Only one other man, favoured Garrett Gosselin, attempted a triple-triple (but fell four times and finished fourth.) And Nam does two triple Lutzes, one in combination. And he has a flair for expression, with an ability beyond his years. He did a strikingly good impression of Michael Jackson in his short program.
Nguyen said a friend of his parents encouraged them to enrol the tiny boy in hockey. But when he saw some figure skaters "doing their stuff" at a club in Vancouver, he tugged on his parents' sleeves and asked to do that, too. He gave up hockey long ago to focus on skating.
He's also set aside his piano lessons because he says he wants to place his sole focus on figure skating, to make an Olympic team. Apparently, he is good at long-range planning, too. He quit at Grade 7 in music, and once played a solo at city hall in Richmond, B.C.
He has a 6-year-old sister, Kim, who is also skating now.
His parents aren't sport-minded, he said, and they don't push him. "They're just parents," he said with a disarming smile. "Good parents. They make sure I sleep properly. They always support me, and they make sure my path is clear. They want me to go on the right path, instead of the wrong. Yeah. They love me. They make sure I do my homework."
For now, Nguyen has a lot of homework to catch up on. He admitted he hadn't started it yet. But on his website, he describes himself as a "very energetic and determined boy." Obviously.
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