LONDON, Ontario -- Patrick Chan said he didn't care about breaking the world record for points in a figure skating short program, and there's no reason to doubt him. Wednesday night, performing before a home crowd, the two-time defending world champion simply needed to get his head together, not to mention his quad-triple jump combination.
During his determined, graceful performance, Chan said he felt "a surge through my boots. ... I wanted it so badly that it could go terribly wrong or it could go amazing." The crowd rose. He nailed his final spin combination. His score of 98.37 distanced the field and set him up to become the first man to win three consecutive world titles in more than a decade if he can follow through in Friday's free skate.
Chan has left fine shavings of uncertainty on the ice all season -- still in the top tier for sure, but missing a certain edge. And he knew the sport wasn't going to wait around for him to solve his malaise. The quad jump has moved from elective to required, and not just one per program. Some men are talking about doing two in the short and two or three in the free skate next year, and the field is deep enough to include many who layer real artistry onto athleticism.
The 22-year-old Chan said he had gotten to a point where he was dreading his run-throughs at the rink and felt he was not in a supportive environment. "I wondered if I wasn't trained enough or mentally tough enough," Chan said. So about a month ago, he abruptly left his training base in Colorado Springs and migrated to the Detroit Skating Club -- not switching coaches or revamping his program, but simply changing his venue. He called it a "leap of faith" that enabled him to start fresh physically and mentally. That leap apparently was enough to strengthen his legs.
The biggest surprise of the night Wednesday came from pint-sized 19-year-old Kazakhstani skater Denis Ten, whose previous best finish in a major international event came in the 2002 World Choir Games, a musical competition in which his team placed second. Dapper and self-contained, the tuxedoed Ten executed a crisp short program that kicked off with a quadruple toe loop and featured a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combo later on.
Ten, an ethnic Korean, was born in Kazakhstan but trained in Russia for much of his early adolescence to take advantage of the better facilities and coaching there. After finishing 11th at the Vancouver Olympics, he moved to Southern California to work with veteran coach Frank Carroll (and share the rink with 2012 Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek, whom Ten called his inspiration). Ten has made gradual but steady progress through the ranks since.
"His quality is superb," Carroll said of Ten, but said he needed more good old-fashioned cardio fitness and got there by doing more complete run-throughs of programs instead of the segments or "vignettes" he was used to in Russia.
"I became more professional," Ten said of his training under Carroll. Ten also spoke touchingly of wanting to plow a path for younger skaters in his country, recalling that he started out on outdoor rinks and tiny patches of ice in shopping malls.
The entire men's field lives and dies by the quad now, and the U.S. men were no different.
National champion Max Aaron landed his opening quad Salchow and elected to follow it with a double toe loop in combination rather than a planned triple, an audible his coach Tom Zakrajsek thought was wise from his post behind the boards. Aaron saved the landing on his other big jump, the triple Axel, and attacked the rest of his program, set to a percussive excerpt from the soundtrack of "TRON: Legacy," with the same assertiveness he showed at the U.S. championships.
Notably improved footwork helped Aaron earn a personal-best score of 78.20. That landed him in eighth place, an admirable result for a 21-year-old skater still on a steep learning trajectory on the world stage.
His Boston-based U.S. teammate, Ross Miner, skating last in a field of 34 right after Chan's impossible act to follow, fell on his quad and finished 14th. The American men's prospects of retaining a third slot at the 2014 Olympics -- already a long shot -- would have required a combined placement of 13 or less, which appears unreachable now.
Aaron's evening began inauspiciously when he fell twice during his warm-up, the second time on a quad attempt gone wrong. He hit his head against the boards but quickly picked himself up and gave the crowd a thumbs-up. Years of youth hockey helped him shake it off, he said: "Coming out for the actual program, it really made me focus and really narrow in."
Zakrajsek said for the record that he did check Aaron's pupils in the locker room: "He told me, 'Tom, I know, I've had a concussion before, I'm good.'"
The number of men who have made quads appear "not that special anymore" in this week's practice sessions has been impressive, Chan said, as Ten nodded in agreement. Chan was joined in the top three by fellow Canadian Kevin Reynolds, a gifted jumper who said he has worked hard the past few years on bringing more finesse to the table but threw a second quad into his program at the spur of the moment Wednesday night. It's clear this crop of skaters is intent on spending as much time airborne as possible.