When figure skating made its debut at the 1908 London Olympics, it was a summer event. Needless to say, a few things have changed since then.
The advent of the Winter Games has moved figure skating to a more ice-friendly time of year. And Canada, which didn’t enter a skater in 1908, has become a world power in the sport.
That prowess will be on full display next month in Sochi, Russia, when Canada unleashes one of its deepest Olympic figure skating squads yet, with podium contenders in nearly every event.
Canada has won 22 Olympic figure skating medals to date. Sochi represents a chance to boost that medal count in a big way. The introduction of a team event – countries will enter their best skaters in a combined push for a medal – has added another opportunity to boost Canada’s already promising medal chances. With its overall depth, Canada is considered one of the countries to beat.
“We could get five or six at these games alone if everyone skates to their potential,” pairs skater Meagan Duhamel said as the Olympic team was unveiled in Ottawa on Sunday.
“We have a medal possibility in almost every discipline after the team event, and maybe two medals in some disciplines – which would be absolutely amazing.”
Canada may be a hockey nation, but that sport offers just two medals at the Olympics. When it comes to upping the total medal count, one or two sports usually emerge in every Olympics as crucial sources of hardware for the country.
At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the speed skaters were that engine, driven by an experienced squad that captured multiple medals. This time around, it could be the figure skaters bearing more of the load.
Michael Slipchuk, the high-performance director for Skate Canada and a former Canadian champion, is targeting three medals for the team. That would equal the number of figure skating medals that Canada won at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Slipchuk’s estimate is conservative because he doesn’t want to let expectations run wild.
“Do we have the potential to possibly get more? Yes,” he said. But he doesn’t want to set a number that “puts undue pressure on skaters who don’t necessarily need to feel that burden.”
But if everything goes right, Canada’s skaters know they could be looking at a few more medals.
“The addition of the team event to the Olympics is amazing, because Canada is such a strong, well-rounded country,” Duhamel said. “We have a great man, we have a great dance team, we have a great pairs team and we have a great lady. So we don’t really have a weak link.”
In the men’s event, defending world champion Patrick Chan, 23, leads the quest for the podium, along with 23-year-old Kevin Reynolds and 21-year-old Liam Firus. Chan is favoured for gold against a strong Japanese contingent led by Yuzuru Hanyu, while Reynolds has the ability to put up big numbers and could earn a medal if other skaters falter.
The women’s event will showcase one of the youngest tandems Canada has ever iced. Kaetlyn Osmond, who turned 18 last month, will be joined by Gabrielle Daleman, who turns 16 today. The women’s event may be the only discipline in which a medal is not expected. After Joannie Rochette stepped away from competition following her emotional bronze medal in Vancouver four years ago, the program has gone through a reset with younger skaters. Osmond said she is just hoping to improve the surprise eighth-place finish she nabbed at last year's world championships, and would be elated to score higher.
The pairs event will showcase three tandems, led by 28-year-olds Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford; Kirsten Moore-Towers, 21, and Dylan Moscovitch, 29; and Paige Lawrence, 23, and Rudi Swiegers, 26. The Russians are favoured, but Duhamel and Radford are podium contenders, and Moore-Towers and Moscovitch proved this at the national championships that they deserve to be in the medal conversation, too.
Ice dance will see defending Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue, 24, and Scott Moir, 26, attempt a repeat, along with Kaitlyn Weaver, 24, and Andrew Poje, 26, and the team of Alexandra Paul, 22, and Mitchell Islam, 23. Virtue and Moir are on a collision course with their U.S. rivals Meryl Davis and Charlie White for the ice dance gold, while Weaver and Poje are also podium threats.
Another reason figure skating will likely play a prominent role in Canada’s medal haul in Sochi is the timing of the team event, which begins Feb. 6, a day before the opening ceremonies, and finishes on Feb. 9. There is a chance Canada’s first medal at the 2014 Games – perhaps its first gold – may come from the figure skaters.
“It’s a great opportunity for us, because we’ve never been competing that early before,” Slipchuk said. “We’re looking forward to an opportunity to hopefully jump-start the medal count.”
Chan, who arguably faces the most pressure of any skater heading into Sochi as he tries to become the first Canadian to win gold in the men’s event, said early success in the team competition will help alleviate some of the stress on the team as the skaters gear up for the separate events starting a few days later.
However, Chan said he won’t be too focused on the running tally of Canadian medals in Sochi, because that could have a detrimental effect.
“I’m more approaching it as I’m going and doing my own job. In a way you have to be selfish and think ‘I’m not caring about how Canada’s doing as a whole’ because everyone’s doing their job individually, and it takes stages of one event at at time. I have to do my job, the bobsledders have to do their job, the lugers have to do their job, the hockey players have to do their job,” Chan said.
“If we all start thinking ‘Oh my god we have to beat the Americans or the Russians in the medal count,’ you’re just adding pressure that is absolutely unnecessary and it’s not going to help me when I get on the ice.”