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Keegan Messing jumps during practice at the 2019 National Skating Championships, at Harbour Station, in Saint John, N.B., on Jan. 17, 2019.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Keegan Messing posted a photo on social media last month of the winding Alaskan highway between his hometown of Girdwood and Anchorage that he’d travelled back and forth every day for the better part of two decades.

Boulders littered the two lanes. A long line of cars, some pockmarked from falling debris, was at a standstill.

Underneath the photo, the figure skater wrote: “Guess no practice today ... p.s. family and everyone is ok.”

The 26-year-old, who’s aiming for his first Canadian figure skating title this week, grew up in Alaska, and a few weeks ago held on for dear life through his biggest earthquake yet – a 7.0 tremblor that rocked Anchorage.

“When it started shaking, I thought ‘Oh OK, it’s an earthquake,'" Messing said. “It started shaking more violently, and I was like ‘OK, this is getting a little bigger.’ Then it felt like a freight train came through and hit us. It felt like the house jumped off the ground. I grabbed [my fiancée] and pulled her under the doorway.

“It was early enough in the morning that it was still pitch black out, so you could just hold on in the dark and listen to everything just start to destroy itself.”

Messing has climbed to the top of Canada’s men’s figure skating rankings with the retirement of three-time world champion Patrick Chan after last winter’s Pyeongchang Olympics. He captured silver at Skate Canada International in the fall, then finished fifth in his Grand Prix Final debut in December.

Messing grew up in Alaska, but his mother was born in Edmonton, giving him dual citizenship. He skated for the United States as a junior before switching his affiliation to Canada in the 2014-15 season.

He became the first Alaskan Olympian in figure skating when he clinched a spot on Canada’s Pyeongchang team.

Messing has lived through earthquakes since he was a kid; they’re a fact of life in Alaska. The big one on Nov. 30 crumbled buildings, and virtually melted roads, but there were no deaths. The aftershocks continued for weeks, including 80 nerve-rattling aftershocks that first day alone.

“It does make you look on the brighter side of life,” he said.

Messing finds himself in an unfamiliar position at this week’s nationals, which will determine the team for the world championships in Japan.

“I don’t want to say it’s a sad day to see Patrick go, but it is sad to see him go,” Messing said. “We’re definitely missing something special that he brought to the ice, and it’s definitely weird not having him there to look up to, to have someone to chase.

“And the fact I kind of inherited his position coming in here, I have the target on my back now, so it’s the first time I’ve been the person being chased.”

Messing, who was a respectable 12th in his Olympic debut in Pyeongchang, will be chased for the title by Nam Nguyen, Roman Sadovsky and Nicolas Nadeau. Stephen Gogolev, who’s just 14 but won gold in last month’s Junior Grand Prix Final, is also competing in the senior competition here.

“I am trying to approach it the same way, but there is the added pressure,” Messing said. “There is a part of you that has to love it, or you’re not going to make it anywhere. We all get nervous, but when we get out there, it’s the best thing in the world.”

While he grew up in the United States, Messing has strong ties to Canada. His great, great grandfather on his mother’s side, Manzo Nagano, was the first Japanese immigrant to Canada, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, among other historical sources. It’s believed he arrived in Victoria in 1877 aboard a British steamer.

There’s a mountain peak – Mount Manzo Nagano – named for Messing’s famous ancestor in a remote coastal area of northern B.C.

So, winning a Canadian title would “mean the world to me,” Messing said.

“I would never have thought I’d be where I am in my skating career without Canada. Even for personal standards of my skating ability, I don’t think I could have ever achieved this without Canada,” he said. “So to come here and even have a shot at the title, it’s heartwarming. And to know [fans are] behind me, it’s beautiful. I’m where I want to be, I don’t have the words for it ... it’s great.”

Chan’s retirement is part of a seismic post-Olympic shift in Canadian skating. Also gone are two-time Olympic champion ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and two-time world pairs champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. Reigning world champion Kaetlyn Osmond is taking the season off competition to ponder her future. With an eye toward a future broadcasting career, Osmond is working with the media this week in Saint John.

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