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Meagan Duhamel spins in the air Wednesday during practice with pairs partner Eric Radford in Mississauga. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Meagan Duhamel spins in the air Wednesday during practice with pairs partner Eric Radford in Mississauga. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canadian figure skating championships

Southpaw figure skaters face a different set of challenges Add to ...

Being left-handed can be a boon for athletes. Scientists have even shown that southpaws are overrepresented in sports such as boxing, fencing and table tennis – suggesting left-handed athletes may have a natural advantage.

This is not always the case in figure skating.

In a sport where spinning and twirling are requisites, lefties are odd ducks.

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They are easy to spot at competitions, like this week’s Canadian Tire national championships: Southpaws turn the wrong way.

“We’ve had our fair share of collisions,” Alistair Sylvester said shortly after winning the junior pairs title Wednesday with partner Hayleigh Bell – both are lefties.

The junior titles are the prelude to the senior competitions, featuring five-time Canadian and two-time world champion Patrick Chan and 2010 Olympic champion ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, whose competitions kick off Friday and Saturday, respectively.

Figure skaters who are considered “left-handed,” don’t necessarily all write with their left hands, but they do feel most natural jumping or spinning in a clockwise direction, which also means they often skate around the ice rink in a clockwise direction. Right-handed skaters, which make up at least 90 per cent of competitors, spin and jump in a counter-clockwise direction.

The difference is most apparent during warm-ups, when a bunch of skaters, or pairs, get on the ice at the same time and try to limber up and practice a few elements. The poor lefties are the ones skating against the tide.

Norm Proft, officials program manager for Skate Canada, describes the plight of the left-handed skater this way: “You’re like a salmon swimming upstream.”

This difference, understandably, makes other skaters are little nervous.

“We’re always like, ‘We don’t want to be on the practice with them!’” said Meagan Duhamel, who, along with partner Eric Radford, will defend their Canadian title beginning with the senior pairs short program Friday. (Duhamel was referring to Paige Lawrence and Rudi Swiegers, the only left-handed pair competing in the senior group.)

Nobody really blames the lefties, of course. Everyone understands it is just the way they were born.

“We don’t mean to get in each other’s way. It’s just that our patterns go one way, and their patterns go the other way. It’s natural that you bump into each other more,” Duhamel said.

Aside from being a little accident-prone, being left-handed in figure skating doesn’t affect one’s ability to compete. The judges don’t care if you spin to your right or left. There are plenty of top-notch clockwise skaters in the pantheon of greats, including Toller Cranston, Rudy Galindo, and Johnny Weir.

In pairs and ice dancing, however, left-handers have one distinct problem.

At the best of times, athletes scour the country – or even the continent – to find a partner who suits their body type, skill and temperament. Adding a rare spin preference to the mix makes the pool of possible matches even smaller – which is why left-handed pairs skaters are so rare.

“It’s just so lucky for this to happen,” said Bell, who was paired up with Sylvester three years ago.

“They were very lucky to find each other, and also have the same talent levels,” added Kelly Johnson, who choreographed the programs for the pair, who train out of the Mariposa School of Skating in Barrie, Ont. – the same club where Elvis Stojko, Jeffrey Buttle and Brian Orser trained.

For Johnson, the pairing brought about its own set of challenges.

“It takes me a little bit longer to do things … as a choreographer you have to think everything in reverse.”

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