Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Denis Ten: Witnessing the Extraordinary

I know this is an author blog, but I am going to have to add another entry about figure skating. I think, as an author, you need to recognize the extraordinary in real life. I first saw Denis Ten skate at the 2009 World Championships. Live. He was an itty bitty fifteen-year-old from a country that had never produced an elite figure skater, and he was in seventeenth place after the short program.

To tell you the truth, I have no memory of that short program. According to the British television commentators, he deserved better marks and I believe them; but you have to understand that during the World Championships that year there were fifty men competing. That is a LOT of gladiators and matrixes.

As an audience member, by the time the free AKA long programs roll around, you’re fairly numb from sitting so many hours and you’re prepared to stand for anyone who doesn’t fall down.

Denis Ten was better than that. He skated clean. He landed two triple axles in a year in which neither the World gold nor silver medalists attempted a harder jump. He did not pop a jump. He did not squat really low and put his hands down in what figure skating rules generously do not call a fall. He did not two-foot a single jump.

He hit.

But what was even more incredible to those of us in the audience was that this fifteen-year-old could skate to the music. And spin a la Evgeny Plushenko. And do footwork.

And we were out of our seats and gave Denis Ten the loudest standing ovation for any man in the competition outside the gold medal winning American, Evan Lysacek.

Denis placed sixth in the free skate, and probably did not make the U.S. television broadcast; but he was amazing.

And young. Training in Russia with the choreography of plausibly the most famous skating choreographer on earth, Tatiana Tarasova. (Coach of three Olympic gold medal dance teams as well as two Olympic gold men’s medalists).

We—the skating fans—knew Denis was good. Anyone at that Worlds in L.A. knew he was better than good.

But he was from Kazakhstan, and something else figure skating fans know is that there is no money, little support, and practically no political pull for skaters from most non-Russian, post-Soviet countries. In fact, there’s precious little of the latter for skaters from any country that does not host one of the six senior Grand Prix events.

It’s very, very easy for a skater from a non-Russian post-Soviet country to get lost, especially in the search to find and afford an international level coach.

Denis had a different problem. Inconsistency. He placed eleventh at the 2010 Olympics and thirteenth at the following Worlds. But what was far more frustrating for those of us watching was that he couldn’t seem to hit a program early in the Grand Prix season to save his life. These are the smaller events, and there was no question Denis had the qualities to compete for a spot on these podiums, but . . .

Disaster. After disaster after disaster.

He had changed coaches by now to Frank Carroll, who—along with coaching Olympian Michelle Kwan among many others—may have the strongest reputation in the world for helping young skaters build consistency.

Wasn’t working for Denis. Probably, in part, because he was growing up.

Then there were health problems.

And, yes, a lot of us likely were starting to think this was one of those kids who was never going to hit.

He did. Big time at the biggest skating event of 2013, the World Championships. Second overall and first in the free skate with a score FORTY-SIX points above his highest A-list mark all season. (Previously, he had not medaled in a single one of the yearly ten, A-level figure skating events—that season or in his entire senior career).

For most athletes, a silver at Worlds would have instantly made them a prime contender for Olympic gold in 2014.

But this is Denis.

Once again the beginning of the season was awful. He had to withdraw from his opening Grand Prix event due to health issues. Then he missed the podium twice, placing fourth in the two A-list events he entered.

The Olympics were billed as a two-man race, between Patrick Chan—the three-time world champion that Denis had defeated in the free skate the previous year—and Yuzuru Hanyu—the up and coming teen phenom who had finished behind Denis in fifth at the Worlds BUT had broken the world record in a Grand Prix event early in the Olympic season.

The 2014 Olympic men’s competition was in many ways a nightmare, though Patrick and Yuzuru both skated up to expectations in the short and took what most people viewed as an insurmountable lead. This left eleven—yes, eleven—men fighting for the bronze. In days gone by, such a battle would have been impossible since placements determined an athlete’s ability to move up. Today, that ability is technically based only on the score, though generally-speaking, a placement in the final competitive group—top six—is considered vital, since judges’ scores tend to rise as a competition goes on.

Denis was in ninth. He had missed on his quad in the short, but due to mutual devastation among the field, he was still within three points from third place.

Among skating enthusiasts, this battle became known as the Olympic Bronze Medal Hunger Games.

The man in third after the short program, Javier Fernandez, was the reigning European champion and the most recent athlete to have landed three clean quads in a single program.

Denis skated well in the long program. He hit his quad. Hit all the hard jumps. Fudged a couple of the easier jumps at the end, but skated with wonderful musicality and maturity and easily earned his season’s best score. He did not remain in the arena.

There is no camera footage of Denis’s reaction when he learned that he had won the bronze medal. In the end, he had one of maybe three clean (without falls) long programs among the top 13 male skaters. Denis had become the first man from Kazhakstan to win an Olympic skating medal.

Which, again, one would think would make him an automatic favorite for this year’s World Championships. Especially with the Olympic silver medalist sitting out the season and the gold medalist suffering a bad accident, as well as many falls in his early events of the season.

But this is Denis.

Fourth place at his first Grand Prix event. (Yep, behind—well, three people who did not win a medal at the Olympic games). He did not make the U.S. television broadcast (grumble, grumble).

Then a GORGEOUS short program at his second Grand Prix event in France. Only to have a wretched fifth-place skate in the long program and finish third overall. His first Grand Prix medal. Mini-hop.

This is an Olympic bronze and World silver medalist who has never WON an A-level event. Going into this year’s Four Continents Championships, essentially one of the two largest international events leading into Worlds, Denis was not on top of many skating fans’ prediction lists. Not because of his skating. As skaters go, Denis has an astounding—almost universal—respect among skating fans for the quality of his jumps, his basic skating skills, his musicality, his spins, his speed. Essentially, when Denis is great, we ADORE him.

But in five previous attempts, he had never medaled at Four Continents. This despite a huge chunk of the international field skipping the event last year due to its proximity to the Olympics. Denis competed at last year’s Four Continents. He placed fourth.

No one wanted to see him place fourth again. But to be honest it was probably the highest result most people expected from him.

He skated another GORGEOUS short program. This one even more spectacular than the one in France. People were beginning to hope. But we had been here before.

In the long program, Denis Ten landed two quads—one in a quad triple combination; two triple axles—one turned out but fully rotated; the full gambit of other jumps, including a triple singleloop triple sequence; and of course skated with spectacular spins and footwork and musicality.

He won.

He did not only win. He earned the third highest score in figure skating history.

There’s something incredible about winning an Olympic bronze medal. There’s something even more extraordinary about an athlete who—after six years on the senior circuit—knuckles down in the year after said Olympic medal, creates two fabulous original programs (neither of which is to Carmen, Swan Lake, or Phantom of the Opera), and competes. To win his FIRST senior A-level championship.