Golden Skate

New short program a ‘release’ for Duhamel and Radford

Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford

Canada’s Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford perform an exhibition piece at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships.

As they commence their seventh season as a team and second as reigning world champions, the already-energetic Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada have a little extra charisma in their cross cuts motivated by the results of their unwavering competitive spirit.

It is often said that one’s true character is revealed under stress.

“Eric and I are competitors and when we go to competition and the stakes are high and the pressure is high and all of our competitors are there, usually that’s when our best performances have come out,” says Duhamel, reflecting on the team’s performance at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships in Boston.

Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford perform their Free Skate at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships

The pressure was amplified by the depth in the pairs field, many of whom the Canadians had not met competitively earlier in the season due to injuries and sanctioning.

“It’s exciting, as nerve-racking as it was heading into this year’s worlds compared to last year’s because there were so many good teams,” says Radford during the Hamilton stop of the Stars on Ice tour earlier this year. “And knowing it’s all going to happen in that moment on the day. It’s there for everybody to take in that moment.”

With the return of the Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia, the arrival of Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, as well as the steadily-improving Wenjing Sui and Cong Han of China, coach Bruno Marcotte sensed the uphill battle his duo faced in defending the world championship title versus their odds in 2015.

“When we were in Beijing, every coach would come to us, to me and Richard (Gauthier) and say ‘This is your year, this is your year,'” he recalled. “No one was saying that this past year in Boston. Nobody.”

“Going into worlds last season (2014-2015), we were the distinctive favourites,” noted Duhamel. “We knew we could make a mistake and probably still win and it was ours. This year when we were backstage, we thought we might be fifth, we might be sixth, we might be first, we might be third…we didn’t know.”

Of all the competitors, the Canadians were most keen for the scheduled head-to-head battle against the Russians in the grand prix series. However, the showdown was thwarted when Tatiana injured her foot and the team had to withdraw.

“We were really looking forward to NHK Trophy to compete with Tatiana and Max,” says Duhamel. “It was driving us forward. We were very motivated, so it was disappointing not to have them compete there.”

Continuing to Push the Technical Envelope

Duhamel and Radford have long been known for pushing the technical boundaries. At the rate they’re going, any boundary is beyond sight. Side-by-side triple Lutzes in the short and long programs and a throw quadruple Salchow in the long program are now staples of their skating.

Last year, they attempted the quadruple Lutz at the start of the season, but the feat wreaked havoc with the throw triple Lutz which the team attempts in the short program to maximize their base value. The ISU does not allow a throw quadruple in the short program. The team missed clean landings of the throw triple Lutz in the short and long programs of the Grand Prix Final and short program at the Canadian National Championships.

“The triple got worse because it’s hard to go from four rotations to three rotations on the same jump,” coach Richard Gauthier said of the throw triple Lutz in the short program versus the planned throw quadruple Lutz in the long program. “She was starting the rotation too soon. She was getting confused in the air.”

So the big trick has been shelved for the time being, however, the team is not resting on its laurels and continues to push with a new throw jump: the triple Axel. Gauthier says training of the huge throw is going well and they plan to attempt it at this week’s Skate Canada training camp in Mississauga, Ontario.

“For me for right now, yes she is landing some. Some on, some off,” he shared. The coach is wary about tipping his hand and unveiling the maneuver. “When she does it at the camp, then it’s going to be out everywhere so people will know she is doing it. If they (competitor teams) hear they’re doing the triple Axel, they can give it a try, but it takes more than a month to be able to land it.”

Beyond the training camp, Gauthier is noncommittal about competing with the throw triple Axel.

“We’ll let the season go a bit and then we will decide half-way through if it’s worth it to give it a try or not. If she lands it with a touch down, we will probably put it in.”

It’s all part of a bigger plan to continue to widen the gap between Duhamel and Radford and the rest of the world in the short program. Gauthier calculates the team could be as much as five points ahead of the rest of the field with the addition of a throw triple Axel in the short program.

“It’s mostly to get the short program,” he said of the Axel attempt. “When this is done, the long program becomes a lot less stressful for them.”

The training comes with bruises, but Duhamel often toughs it out.

“She has falls where I think, ‘That must hurt’ and she gets up and says she is okay,” says Gauthier.

Marcotte, also Duhamel’s husband, has been known to intervene.

“With Meagan, I don’t want her to get hurt and if something is not safe for her, I will tell her,” he explains. “If something is off one day, I will say, ‘That’s enough for today and we will reassess tomorrow.’ She is good with that.”

Gauthier says the team’s lack of injuries is no accident. He credits their throw jump technique in comparison to the Chinese. The Canadians don’t skate full speed going into the jump. Before takeoff, Duhamel does not get away from Radford, so he can throw her as hard as he can. And Radford’s feet do not leave the ice.

“We call them throws, but they’re more assisted jumps,” Gauthier said. “She does the jump and he assists her.”

“Eric is not carelessly launching me in the air and hoping I survive,” says Duhamel in agreement with her coach. “He wants me to be able to land it, so he has to be sure it’s placed in a specific way. When I land, I’m very strong. I’m not a noodle.”

Duhamel says the maintenance of her health and wellness keeps her strong.

“Even when my body feels good, I still see my therapist because it’s maintenance in order to prevent injuries from happening,” she says.

It’s an important lifestyle for Duhamel and motivated her foray into the blogosphere with Lutz of Greens.

“I am trying to get information out there in terms of knowledge about wellness and nutrition and it’s very much a path I’d like to go down once I am finished skating,” said the 30-year-old skater. “I would like to work maybe in preventative care for athletes in terms of nutrition, proper warm-ups, proper cool-downs, and proper training plans. I think a lot of younger athletes don’t have people guiding them in these areas right now and I think it’s very, very important. It’s as important as what you do in a warm-up session on the ice.”

The throw triple Axel is even bringing benefits to other elements.

“Now because of the throw triple Axel, the throw quad Salchow is getting so much more consistent and she is so much more relaxed,” says Gauthier. “There are times she’ll do one and I ask, ‘Was that a triple or a quad?’ because sometimes in quads, [a skater wants] to pull into rotation really tight, really fast. In her case now, she is so relaxed with the quad Salchow it is not a big issue.”

The Second Mark

This season, the team took another step artistically in finding their groove on the ice. They’re more comfortable in their on-ice chemistry and do not feel encumbered by the fact that the two are not romantically involved. The team does not have the same symmetry, long lines or romantic intensity characteristics of many pairs who have risen to the top, yet they continue to exude a compelling dynamic.

“If every single team goes for a romantic relationship, it would be so boring,” Duhamel said. “There is such a huge spectrum of relationships. There is more to a connection on the ice than looking like you’re falling in love and I think that we do a great job of showing our connection. I think that you need diversity and you don’t want to see everybody walking down the street in a blue t-shirt and the same haircut and the same color of eyes and the same shoes. You want to see variety and different things and we’ve done a great job of melding two individuals together into a team without a romantic connection.”

Choreographer Julie Marcotte has helped the team since their second season together to cultivate their unique dynamic.

“They are best friends,” she said. “They love each other and they respect each other tremendously. They are as exceptional in their relationship, just as Gordeeva and Grinkov were, but in a different way. Yes, it’s not conventional, but at the same time, what is success? It’s about being the best you can be. Not someone else.”

Marcotte works with the team throughout the year, adding touches to Duhamel and Radford’s programs here and there; making them ongoing works in progress. Gauthier sees this as an advantage in comparison to the traditional skater-choreographer relationship which is usually sometimes restricted.

“With Julie in Montreal, she sees them every week,” he said. “When she does her choreography, she doesn’t do everything first. We have a skeleton, and then from week to week, she will add on so it’s a work in progress until we get to worlds. There are things that get changed every week; minor things but that’s how you get the components to move up.”

“This year, Julie hit a home run in both programs,” says Bruno Marcotte. “They really fit their personalities.”

The short program, set to “Killer” by Seal, is a release of pressure for the team.

“As I was finding music for other skaters that was just fun and light, I had a flash of ‘You know what? Why don’t we just try to have fun this year? Why does it always have to be so serious?'” Marcotte recalled. “A lot of pressure has been put on that second mark for them because their first mark has been always their strength. As the years have gone on, there has always been a push on how to make the second mark better and a lot of stress came with it. So this year I had just had enough with that type of pressure. This music is strong. It’s fun. It’s light. It shows another side of who they are.”

And with a message of acceptance and equality, the lyrics of “Killer” strike a relevant chord with Radford, who came out in December 2014.

“Something that I’ve really liked about last season is that nobody has asked me about it and the commentators don’t mention it. It really is a non-issue, which was part of the reason I came out in the first place — to give that type of exposure where people aren’t surprised anymore. Not that people were generally surprised to begin with as I am a male figure skater, but there really hasn’t been any sort of energy or questions around it, which I like,” said the 31-year-old skater. “But at the same time, I would have maybe liked somebody to ask me about it so I can use my platform to just spread that message of tolerance that people can achieve their dreams despite whatever background they come from.”

Marcotte says the beginning and the footwork are highlights for her. She thinks the mysterious opening of just sound and no music until the second element of the program, the side-by-side triple Lutzes, creates mystery and will intrigue spectators.

“The footwork is going to be a strong, strong, strong moment,” she said. “It’s extremely musical. Each step that they do is bang on to the beat of the music. It brings out the fun and the rhythm.”

In the long program, the team will skate to “Non, Je ne regrette rien” by Patricia Kaas. Marcotte originally discovered the music last year. Impressed by both the lyrics and instrumentation, she tagged it for the Olympic year. She then changed her mind.

“The music is so, so, so good that I was scared someone else was going to fall on it and would find out about it,” she said.

While observing a recent run through, Marcotte found herself regularly saying, ‘Oh, that’s nice’ as they skated.

“Their long program is just a beautiful moment,” she said. “It brings you in at the very beginning and it carries you across until the very ending pose. It’s one of those. It’s a long beautiful thread. It’s a piece of art that just draws itself. They just draw you in. It’s mesmerizing.”

This season, the team’s international competitive debut will be Finlandia Trophy which begins on October 6. Marcotte says the pair chose Finlandia Trophy to become accustomed to Finnish crowds given Helsinki is hosting the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships later in the season. Also, Duhamel has relatives in Finland, including her grandmother.

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