Figure skating is the only Winter Olympic sport in which a competitor is so alone for so many minutes, so isolated in a contained space, accompanied only by thoughts that can be as quivery as tired legs.
“There is a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other side,” said Patrick Chan, 23, the reigning three-time world champion from Canada and an Olympic favourite who has struggled with self-assurance. “It’s a constant battle between positive and negative thoughts.”
During the 2 minutes 50 seconds of the men’s short program Thursday, Chan will take the ice as the world’s most complete skater. His four-revolution jumps are airy. He seems to reach top speed with two whispery crosscut strokes of his blades. His edging and skating skills are precise and exquisite.
“He’s the most consistent at everything,” Johnny Weir of the United States, who finished sixth at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, said of Chan. “He jumps as well as he spins as well as he skates.”
And yet Chan has appeared insecure at times in his recent performances and interviews. He has developed a reputation for falling in major competitions and still receiving high scores, which his critics call Chanflation. And he bears the weight of historical disappointment: No male skater from Canada has won an individual Olympic gold medal.
Chan finished second to men’s skating’s hottest competitor, Yuzuru Hanyu, 19, of Japan, in December at the Grand Prix Final, an Olympic tuneup. At the Canadian national championships in January, Chan easily won but veered into sloppiness.
Last week, he finished third in the short program of the Olympic team competition behind Hanyu and the charismatic Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, reducing a planned quadruple-toe, triple-toe combination jump and stepping out of a triple axel.
The decisive question in the men’s individual competition, which will conclude with a long program of four and a half minutes Friday, is, “Who will wilt?” said Dick Button, the two-time Olympic champion.
The issue of composure faces not only Chan, but every male skater. Even Plushenko, 31, a four-time Olympic medalist, admitted feeling slightly dizzy before a loud, adoring home audience in the team competition.
“All of the work has been done physically,” said Jeremy Abbott, a four-time American champion who trains with Chan at Detroit Skating Club and succumbed to nerves in the Olympic team short program. “Once you’re out there, it’s all about the mental game.”
Each skater has his own method to try to calm himself and prevent a self-destructive inner voice from intruding. Jason Brown of the United States skates without his glasses, leaving him unable to see the eyes of the spectators.
“It’s all a bit of a blur,” Brown said. “It helps me perform and emote to the audience better.”
Skaters often recite key words to themselves to trigger a particular spin, jump or piece of footwork. Abbott has trained using percussive sounds of a drummer who helps golfers with their swings. The sound provides a certain rhythm for counting to six as he launches into a quadruple jump.
Abbott has also brought an inflatable bed to Sochi to help him sleep, consulted his sports psychologist during Skype sessions and moved to a hotel because he became distracted in the Olympic Village, where life seemed “more like summer camp than the Olympic Games.”
“It’s probably the same for every athlete,” Abbott said. “It’s really the doubt that drives us to succeed, because if we were all confident, we would all be complacent.”
At Skate Canada in October in St. John, Chan said in an interview that his biggest goal for this season was “landing on my feet.”
Given the completeness of his routines, Chan said, he believed that a clean short and long program at the Olympics would make for “an unbeatable program and skater.”
Staying on his feet was a “mental thing, not a technical thing at all,” Chan said. “I can do all my jumps in practice, three in a row, five out of five, four out of five.”
At competitions like the Olympics, though, he said: “It’s being able to manage the pressure, being on the ice on your own. All eyes are on you. All you hear is your music and nobody else. There’s not a word in the crowd. It’s a very different feeling to perform under those situations.”
As a teenager, Chan finished fifth at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Skating before a home crowd, he has said he felt like a “puppy in puppy day care.” But he has become a multiple world champion since then. And with his success has come pressure and expectation.
During the past year and a half, Chan has tried to take more responsibility in his personal and professional lives. He moved his training from Colorado Springs, Colo., to Detroit and began living apart from his mother, Karen, cooking his own meals, doing his own chores.
“I can go to a competition on my own and not feel like a lost puppy,” Chan said. “I really feel in control of what I need to do.”
Yet, in the Olympic team competition, while Plushenko strutted as the consummate showman, Chan stumbled through his short program. Russia took the gold medal, while Canada settled for silver.
“Patrick is the favorite and he’s also made himself the favorite, which I find refreshing,” said Tara Lipinski, the 1998 women’s Olympic champion. “People are here to win gold medals. When you say you just want to skate your best, that obviously isn’t the real truth. It’s refreshing to hear him say this is his time, this is his medal. At the same time, if you are going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk.”
Chan said he was trying to relax, to avoid becoming stressed over every element of his routines. Yet he has been asking himself questions filled with doubt. Is he as well-trained as the others? Are his quadruple jumps as worthy as Hanyu’s?
And, most unsettling, “Am I going to beat them, even if I skate my best?”