What happens in Sochi over the next few weeks will define how Patrick Chan is remembered. But it was a few fateful days last summer that prepared him for this moment.
As August drew to a close, Canada’s top men’s figure skater packed all of his worldly possessions into a car and set out for a 19-hour drive across the United States – from Colorado Springs, Colo., where he lived for the past several years, to Detroit, where he would start a new life this fall.
For Chan, Colorado represented comfort and stability: the familiarity of a long-time coach, and a mother who looked after him off the ice. Michigan represented a new start, a new chance to train among other top skaters from Canada and the United States, and most of all, a new-found independence.
If Chan was to take the next step in his career, going from the teenager who represented Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, to the gold-medal threat he now represents in Sochi, the 23-year-old knew he had to make a fresh start. Chan needed to step up his training, and he needed to capture his love of skating again.
“I took the road trip as a last chance – a last hurrah – to have fun, and just have the freedom of having all my stuff in the car,” Chan said. “My whole life in one car. Imagine that.”
It’s not so hard to fathom, since Chan’s life has been devoted to the sport for as long as he can remember. Ever since his parents put the young hockey player in figure skating in Toronto, he has seemed to possess a preternatural gift for spinning and jumping, and a drive to make the Olympics.
Now, he stands on the cusp of becoming the first men’s skater to win gold for Canada at a Winter Games.
When he steps on the ice at the Iceberg Skating Palace on Thursday, leading Canada into battle in the figure-skating team event, which is a warm up to the individual competition next week, it will officially mark the next stage in his life.
Call it the evolution of Patrick Chan, a moment that began somewhere on a highway on the American prairies.
“It was kind of a transition time,” Chan said of his cross-country trek. “I went from Colorado Springs, where I was dependent, where my mom was helping me a lot and cooking my meals, and she was always there. And driving the road trip was kind of the bridge and a transition.”
He admits he didn’t do a lot of reflecting.
The three-time defending world champion didn’t want to dwell on his fifth-place finish at the Vancouver Games, when too much pressure, arguably too soon in his career, led him to falter. Nor did he want to think about why Canada – despite producing a long line of world-class skaters such as Kurt Browning, Elvis Stojko and Brian Orser – has always come up short in the hunt for a men’s gold at the Olympics.
“It was time for me to slowly drive away from Colorado … and then slowly drive towards Detroit, and really grasp the feeling of having my own apartment, cooking my own meals and paying my own bills,” Chan said. “It was a time of transition, as opposed to reflection.”
Truth is, he doesn’t like to be alone with his thoughts.
“I’m my own worst enemy,” Chan said. “I criticize myself a lot.”
Few Canadian athletes will be under as much pressure to win gold in Sochi. Demands for a victory, after dominating the international circuit for three years, have reached a crescendo. And the fact the team event offers a rare chance at double golds has only added to the hype.
But there are any number of skaters from Japan, Russia and Spain standing in his way. If Chan is to lift Canada to the top of the podium, he knows he’ll need to rely on his experience rather than the youthful exuberance that drove him in Vancouver.
He admits to playing the rookie in 2010, walking into the athletes village agog at his surroundings, too afraid to chat up some of the other athletes, or sit at their table in the cafeteria. Now, he’s not so much concerned about anything that happens outside of the rink. He’s come to Sochi with one goal: the gold medal that has thus far eluded Canada.
He thinks back to that day last summer, packing everything in his car. “That freedom of being like, ‘Hey, I can go anywhere I want in the world. It’s my car and I can go wherever I want,’” Chan said. “It’s really a powerful feeling to know that.”
Perhaps more empowering for Chan, this time, is knowing that skating on Olympic ice in Sochi is exactly where he wants to be.