Elladj Baldé is back and he's more than grateful.
Lost to a severe injury for the past two years, the 20-year-old figure skater from Pierrefonds, Que., has carved out a small niche of admirers in Canada and junior Grand Prix circles as an exotic-looking skater with a larger-than-life personality. And explosive jumps, sometimes almost out of control. He's never boring.
He plays off the crowd, maybe too much. He's a people person, magnetic, with unrealized talent. When he won his Canadian junior title three years ago, he mesmerized four-time world champion Kurt Browning, who watched in awe from his perch on the television commentator's stand.
Two years ago, in an odd training accident in Montreal, Baldé caught his skate blade against the boards while merely skating backward. Then his body twisted. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament of his right knee. The injury required major surgery and kept him off the ice for six months.
Even when Baldé returned, he still could not do triple jumps – his favourite thing about skating – for three months. He had to start from ground zero, and spend a month doing single jumps, then another month doing doubles. Finally, when his doctor told him he was ready to do all of his triples again, Baldé went out and landed them all immediately. The next day – and three weeks thereafter – he couldn't land any of them.
It's been a roller coaster, he said. When he began competing again, it was as if he'd forgotten how. The nerves kicked in. Finally, he got back on track at the Canadian championships last January, placing fifth, enough to get onto the national team and earn international assignments, such as Skate Canada International this week.
This week, Baldé will skate from the heart, performing to a medley of Michael Jackson songs, the perfect choice for a charismatic kid.
But the long program will mean much more to Baldé, who says Jackson was his role model, the man he most admired, for years.
"It's always something I wanted to do my whole career," Baldé said Thursday at the Hershey Centre here. "Finally I have the opportunity to do it. It's not like I'm trying to be Michael Jackson. It's really a tribute to him. It's almost like giving back to Michael Jackson everything he gave to me."
He and his parents are all Jackson fans. They love the music. But Baldé said what he admired most about Jackson was his generosity of spirit. "If he could give his heart to every human being in the world, he would," Baldé said. "That's how I perceive life. That's how I want to be. I love people. I love talking to people."
One of Baldé's favourite Jackson songs is Man in the Mirror. It's the final song of the medley he will do in the long program. It's a song about looking into your heart and changing your life. Baldé chose every piece of music, for every section of his free skate.
Best of all, through Browning, Baldé met Chucky Klapow, a Los Angeles dance instructor who gave up some big gigs to dance with Jackson on the tour the singer was supposed to undertake before he died of cardiac arrest in 2009.
Baldé travelled to Los Angeles and worked with Klapow, a kindred spirit. It wasn't like work, he said.
The night that Baldé learned of Jackson's death, he was dressed all in white – much like Jackson would sometimes – to go to his high school prom. When a school director told him of the star singer's death, he didn't believe her at first.
But when he got home, the news was all over the television. He was devastated.
Now it's time, he said, to give back to Jackson.