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Keegan Messing pumps his fist after receiving his gold medal at the national skating championship, in Ottawa, on Jan. 8.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The latest: Canadian figure skater Keegan Messing en route to Beijing for Olympics after being in COVID-19 limbo

Skate Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee are doing all they can to get their top male figure skater to Beijing.

Keegan Messing has been at in a Vancouver airport hotel since he produced a positive COVID-19 test in the required 96-hour window before Team Canada’s plane was departing for China last week. He has tested negative twice since, but needs two more to travel to Beijing, and the team is hopeful he can for the men’s individual event, but time is ticking to get him here.

The figure skating team boarded for Beijing last week and had to leave Messing behind at their team hotel in Vancouver. They arranged a security guard to stand by so he could exercise in the hotel stairwell. They booked private ice time for him to train and have stayed in touch each day.

As of Friday afternoon in Beijing, Skate Canada High Performance Director Mike Slipchuk said Messing had produced two negative tests and they applied for a health certificate so he can enter China. They hoped he would produce a third and fourth negative test as required, and anticipated a best case scenario that he could board a plane on Saturday, to make it to Beijing ahead of the men’s individual event which starts Tuesday.

“The biggest challenge once those steps are done is trying to get on a plane to get here,” said Slipchuk. “It’s not easy to get here.”

Indeed it is very stressful for all participants traveling to these Beijing Olympics. They must produce two pre-flight negative tests within 96 and 72 hours of flying and then can only fly to Beijing through a select list of approved cities, including Tokyo, Singapore, Istanbul, Paris and a few others. That limits the flights Messing can use, now that the Canadian team charters have long since left. Participants who test positive close to travel must do extra tests and paperwork.

Meanwhile in Beijing, Canada’s figure skaters had to begin the first event of these Olympics without the 30-year-old Messing – the team event, which features skaters in all four disciplines performing their programs to accumulate points as a country.

It’s an event in which Canada claimed gold at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, starring veteran skaters such as Patrick Chan and ice dance legends Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. After the first day of competition in Beijing, with the team in a rebuilding mode after those retirements and more, Canada sat in sixth place, dangerously close to being eliminated.

Only the top five teams proceed to the final round on Monday and get to skate their long programs.

Messing, the Canadian champion, would have skated the men’s short program in Friday’s team competition, but instead the Canadians called on Roman Sadovsky, their No. 2. After a couple of stumbles in his program, the 22-year-old Sadovsky had the Canadians sitting eighth out of nine teams. Slipchuk said Messing’s typical scores from this season might have produced around a fourth-place finish among the men in the team event.

World championship bronze medalist ice dancers Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier followed Sadovsky, hoisting Team Canada a little higher in the standings by skating to a fourth-place finish in their portion of the team competition. Decked in bright orange sequined disco costumes, so twinkly they looked battery-powered, the two skated their rhythm dance to an Elton John medley. They suffered some technical deductions they will need to clean up before potentially chasing for a medal in their own event later in the Games.

“I think everybody was a little sad because, you know, Keegan is a huge part of our Canadian team,” said Gilles, fashioning an orange sequined mask over her plain white N95, after their performance. “But I think it also made us come together and realize that we still need to rise above it and do our job.”

Kirsten Moore-Towers and Mike Marinaro then skated the pairs short program for the Canadian team and finished fifth in their discipline, leaving Canada in sixth overall.

“We’re heartbroken. We hope he can get here,” said Moore-Towers of Messing. “I’ve been in communication with him every day. … I think he’s in good spirits. I think the best person to deal with this kind of crisis is Keegan Messing. … He’s relishing any opportunity that he gets to come here. We miss him.”

While figure skaters have become used to tight COVID-19 protocols and competitions without fans on their international events during the pandemic, having an Olympic Games with such restrictions is something else.

Instead of the booming crowds at most Olympics, there was just light applause for the skaters at the end of their team programs – mostly whoops from their own teammates. Only small pockets of local fans spotted the stands inside Capital Indoor Stadium, all spaced very deliberately from one another and showing their appreciation with only their hands – clapping or waving small flags.

The Americans lead the team event, thanks to a season-best score for superstar Nathan Chen in the men’s portion of the event.

The Canadian skaters roared in every moment that an Olympic crowd would – all the big jumps, and emphatic finishes. The Canadians are fresh off their national competition in January, which allowed no fans.

“We just did nationals with nobody, and you could hear a pin drop,” Gilles said. “So having the opportunity to have anybody in the stands to perform for is really nice, whether it’s a full crowd or just a few people.”

Madeline Schizas, a first-time Olympian, will skate the women’s short program to finish out the first round of the team event on Sunday.

Now settled in Beijing, the skaters say their anxiousness about arriving safely and staying COVID-free have calmed.

“That was a lot of added stress on our plates leading up to the Games. So I think once we arrived here and we knew that we have ticked all the boxes and you’re fairly safe,” Poirier said. “We’re still taking a lot of precautions, but I think a lot is being done to ensure the safety of all the athletes so we feel really good and we feel like we could just focus on our job now and skate.”

Slipchuk said that in a season of some 30 events for Team Canada skaters, they had no positive cases. Although Messing is not a medal favourite in the star-studded male individual event, Slipchuk believes his arrival could inspire the others.

“If he’s able to get here,” Slipchuk said. “I think it’ll be a big boost to our team.

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