Things were looking bad for Jeff Buttle in late 2006. Many thought the Canadian figure skater had reached the zenith of his career by winning the bronze medal at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games. In August of the year, he suffered a stress fracture in his back due to over training, and was off the ice entirely for two months. Afterwards, he just practiced edges for another month before resuming full time training in November.
“I didn’t need any surgery, just rest,” Buttle recalled, “but it was difficult coming back. I felt like I was starting from scratch. I had quite a bit of pain because I hadn’t been using my back and it was tight. I had to do a lot of pain management. I still have some residual pain but I’m as fully recovered as I’m going to be.”
Buttle’s Grand Prix results didn’t give any indication that he would have a sterling 2007-08 season. Though he won several Grand Prix events, including the NHK Trophy in 2003, the Cup of China in 2004, and Trophée Bompard in 2005, he had not won in 2006 or 2007. While he was the runner-up at the ISU Grand Prix Final in both 2005 and 2006, he then missed the event for the next two seasons due to his injury. With other skaters performing well in the series, Buttle was not on anyone’s radar as a podium favorite in 2008.
The popular blonde from Smooth Rock Falls has always fared well at Canadian Nationals, winning the title from 2005 to 2007, and never finishing off the podium since 2001. But signs of impending decline were there too when he finished second to upstart Patrick Chan in 2008.
“I knew Patrick was going to be good at Nationals,” Buttle noted. “Then he came in the long program and just blew us away. It’s great to have that kind of push domestically, but it did motivate me to work even harder.”
Unless you’re a Japanese lady, not being your national champion does not bode well for the major international season. First up for Buttle was the Four Continents Championships, which has always been good to him. He had amassed a pile of medals from the event since its inception, winning gold in 2002 and 2004, but only a silver in 2007. But on a good note, the 2008 competition was in the Far East where Buttle knew he’d have impressive fan support. Just like the previous season, however, he had to settle for the silver.
“I was pleased with the result,” said Buttle of his 2008 silver medal. “I wasn’t overly pleased by how I skated, but I think it was a small improvement over Nationals. As long as things are getting better, I’m happy with that. My goal was just to improve on my consistency and have confidence going into Worlds, and I accomplished that.”
“I trained great after Four Continents,” he continued. “After looking at the protocol, we changed some of the highlights to be more judge-friendly. It was the same elements in the long program, but in a different order to try to show them off better and get more points.”
The strategy worked when it was time for the big one – Worlds. After winning the silver medal at the 2005 World Figure Skating Championships, Buttle had not regained the podium at Worlds, placing sixth in both 2006 and 2007. No one expected him to win in 2008, but he did. And he won convincingly, taking both the long and the short program to surpass 2006 World champion Brian Joubert by almost 14 points. He was the only gold medalist at Worlds to win all phases of the competition.
“It was definitely a second chance for me,” Buttle noted. “I was in the same position last year, skating last after being second in the short, but I finished sixth. So this year, what was different is that I was much more prepared. I had the intention to go out and skate my best, not worrying about what I don’t have, and just enjoy myself. I was very happy with how I skated. When I went out on the ice, it felt just like home.”
When Buttle reached the ‘Kiss and Cry’ area after the long program, he asked his coach if it would be enough. “He said yes,” recalled Buttle. “I asked ‘good enough for a medal?’ and he said ‘No, it might be enough for a gold medal’. I don’t know if I believed him. Maybe I half believed him. It was just surreal when the marks came up. I was just shocked.”
Buttle feels that his win is a testimony to how hard he has worked. Not just the jumps, but on everything. “I was fortunate to skate a clean program. I was training very hard to do that, not just the jumps. We worked whole sessions on spins and everything in between. That is figure skating – everything that happens in those four and a half minutes. It’s not just about the jumps.”
The 25-year-old shared that he became inspired with skating after watching Kurt Browning and Brian Orser. “It was about the most memorable programs. You remember the program, not what elements they did. That’s when I’m most passionate when I skate. I went out there and left everything on the ice and had my heart on my sleeve. I definitely feel that I earned the title. It put a kick in my step.”
For his 2007-08 short program, Buttle used a triple flip-triple toe loop combination complemented with a triple Lutz and triple Axel. He also used a triple Axel-triple toe combination to open his long program, which included two other combinations – a triple Salchow-double toe loop and triple Lutz-double toeloop-double loop. His solo jumps included four more triples (Axel, flip, loop and Lutz) and a double Axel.
“I’m always working on the quad toe loop,” noted Buttle. “I first landed one in practice at the NHK Trophy in 2002, but it’s not consistent. If I can get to 60 percent, I’ll put it in the program. I also started back working on the quad Salchow and quad loop last year. I started landing the quad Salchow a while ago, but had stopped working on it. I land some in practice each week, but it’s about the same as the quad toe. I’ll work on the quads more this summer.”
Lately, however, Buttle has been trying to improve his triple toeloop. “It’s sometimes good, sometimes ugly. Once I can land the quad toe, adding a triple toe afterwards won’t be too hard if I can fix the triple toe.” Buttle, however, did have the quad toe-triple toe combination in both his long and short program as far back as 2002.
Rafael Arutunian and Lee Barkell coach Buttle, who splits his training time equally between Lake Arrowhead, California and Barrie, Ontario, Canada. He has worked with Barkell for several years, and with Arutunian since the spring of 2004.
“Having two different perspectives solidified some things in my mind,” Buttle said of the dual-coach system that works well for him. “Switching from one style to another helps me identify what I need to work on to improve. Rafael has really helped me to develop consistency and increase my mental strength.”
Buttle usually trains for three or four hours a day on ice, six days a week. He also does an hour or two of off ice work every day. “I started with more strength training after my injury so I could handle more impact,” he said. “Now I’m doing more plyometrics, Pilates and ballet.”
The skater used to do competitive ballet when he was younger, but now just does it for maintenance. “I started in ballet for skating but there was a lack of guys, so I had a partner and did both duets and solos in recitals. But it got to be where ballet was fighting with skating so I had to stop.”
Buttle took his dancing skills to the ice, partnering with his sister, Meghan, in ice dancing from ages eight to 12. “That was so long ago that I don’t even remember what results we had,” he admitted. “I think we made it up to intermediate dance, but I was shorter than she was and she wanted to go on to Nationals. I think I was holding her back because after I quit, she did really well.” Meghan went on to compete nationally in ice dancing and internationally in synchro.
Buttle had actually started going to public skating when he was two. “There wasn’t much to do in town except skate,” he acknowledged, “and I was never a huge hockey fan.” By the time he was eleven, he had mastered the double Axel, and at 13, had landed both the triple toeloop and the triple Salchow.
David Wilson choreographs Buttle’s programs. “I started with David when I was young and just did what I was told. Now it’s more of a collaboration. It makes my programs better and better each year. David and I bring lots of ideas for music to the table and we don’t keep it if we don’t agree on it. David found the music for the short and I found the music for the long.”
For the last part of the 2007-08 season, Buttle used Adios Nonino by Astor Piazzolla for the short and music from the Ararat soundtrack by Michael Danna for the long. Earlier in the season, he used I Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo for the short, but now uses the music for his exhibition programs.
The music for both programs is the same as for the 2006-07 season. “I only competed them two times,” Buttle explained. “I knew from the get go that I was going to keep the long, but I got a new short. After the Cup of Russia, the judges and the federation told me I should go back to my old short. I loved the new one, but I had not competed it well, and I needed to find something in my comfort zone.”
The short program is actually a softer version of Adios Nonino. “A lot of people have skated to it before,” said Buttle, “but this version is unique. Piazzolla dedicated it to his dying father and I dedicated it to my parents who did so much for me in my skating.”
“The long program music is from a Canadian film that was on television,” he continued. “I loved the music when I saw the film. Since the music is Armenian, and Rafael is Armenian, it was a perfect fit.”
Last summer, I Pagliacci was one of the first pieces of music Buttle and Wilson listened to. “We wanted to so something more theatrical,” said Buttle, “but it was too far out of my comfort range. I loved it and didn’t want to get rid of it ,so we re-edited it to add the operatic part and used it for the gala.”
Buttle is immensely popular in Asia, where Korean and Japanese fans accord him the status of a rock star and shower him with gifts at each event in the Far East. He appreciates their interest. “I look through everything and bring some of the presents home for family and the younger skaters at the rink,” he said. “Some of the others I give to charitable organizations. I keep all the letters to write back.”
The 2010 Olympics in Vancouver will be Buttle’s last hurrah. “I’m getting up there in age and there’s other stuff I want to do,” he shared. “I have a blast in Stars on Ice and I want to do more shows while I’m still young. I only got to do 12 shows last year and by the end of the last one, I wished I could keep going.”
Buttle also deferred his studies at the University of Toronto when he started going to California in 2005. “They’ve been really good about it, but I want to finish my degree in chemical engineering. I’ve only got one full year finished now. I’ll probably stay involved in skating, probably in choreography because I’m more passionate about the creative side of skating. Working with David has made me fonder of that end of it. Every year I become more and more involved.”
The athlete trained as a judge under the old scoring system and currently serves on the Skate Canada Officials Advisory Committee. “I’ve studied the new system enough to compete,” said Buttle, “but not to judge. And we have callers come to the rink to evaluate my programs to see if we’ve interpreted the rules correctly. I doubt that I’ll judge in the future.”
To relax, Buttle listens to all kinds of music. “I like rock, classical and a variety of different music,” he said. “I also like to hang out with my friends and family. I tried to watch all of the movies that were nominated for the Oscars. I like good films in any genre.” Buttle also likes to read, mainly comedies. He also likes to go to the beach for holidays. The skater is also an active volunteer for local charities including the Alzheimer’s Society, Sunnybrook Hospital and Royal Victoria Hospital.