As a crowd watched figure skater Nam Nguyen go through his paces at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club on Tuesday, world bronze medallist Javier Fernandez of Spain walked over to Skate Canada high performance director Michael Slipchuk and said: ‘You’ve got a champion.”
No kidding. Slipchuk is feeling pretty good these days about the fact that Canadian skating has yet another great men’s singles skater in their midst. Nguyen, a 15-year-old Northview Heights Secondary School student, gave the sport in this country a major shot in the arm last weekend by winning the men’s singles title at the world junior championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, with two of the best programs he has ever skated, featuring a long program that included two triple Axels. For next season, Nguyen and his coach Brian Orser expect to add a quad.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that winning a world junior title will translate into huge things on the senior circuit, but the accomplishment certainly demonstrates that Nguyen possesses a special talent. Olympic champions Evgeni Plushenko of Russia and Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan both won world junior titles.
“Winning a junior world title is not the end, it’s the start,” said Slipchuk. “And I think this is a big building block for Nam.”
Winning the world junior title is certainly a feather in Nguyen’s cap, and great news for Skate Canada, but it also comes as a relief of sorts for Orser. The two-time Olympic silver medallist and former world champion has had incredible success in the coaching ranks — coaching Japan’s Yuzuru and Yuna Kim of South Korea to Olympic golds, and Fernandez to a pair of European titles. But he hasn’t had any Canadian international stars in his stable at the Cricket Club. Until now.
“It feels good,” said Orser. “I know I get a little criticism for not having any Canadians. But these guys have all come to me, including Nam. I’m just kind of running the business here and doing my thing. But I’m proud that I have a Canadian jacket to wear (now) and showing some success with some Canadian skaters as well.”
Nguyen hasn’t flown completely below the radar en-route to his world title, winning Canadian titles at every level other than senior (he finished fifth as a senior this season). But after a poor start on the junior Grand Prix circuit this season, there were few indications he was about to make such a major breakthrough. At a Grand Prix in Gdansk, Poland, in September, Nguyen finished 16th, with 138.87 points. He won the world juniors six months later with a score 217.06.
“That was the worst competition of my life,” said Nguyen of Gdansk. “When I got back, I had time to think about it. Physically I was fine, but mentally there was something wrong. And at that time I didn’t have my triple Axel.”
Orser said there was a very good reason why his skater struggled so much earlier in the season — a huge growth spurt.
“It’s hard for the athlete and it’s hard for some of the people around him to understand that process,” Orser said. “You just have to dig deep and push through it, because he grew a lot. I bet you it was half a foot or more. And boy, when you’re doing a sport that requires balance and coordination and all of a sudden you throw in an extra half a foot to your height ... Plus he matured and his body’s changing. I believe that is what happened through the Grand Prix season. But he was persistent and patient and he kept pushing through.”
Nguyen began turning his season around at the Nationals and then the Four Continents Championship in Taiwan, where he placed 10th in his first senior international. Now he will represent Canada at the senior world championships later this month in Saitama, Japan, though Slipchuk is quick to point out that Skate Canada is not putting any pressure on him, even with three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Toronto not competing. For better or worse, there have been comparisons between Chan and Nguyen, who do have quite a bit in common. Both are children of immigrants (Chan’s parents from Hong Kong, Nguyen’s from Vietnam), both were born in Ottawa, before calling Toronto home, and both began skating as a means to improve their hockey prowess. Though the comparisons may be unfair at this point, Nguyen doesn’t mind.
“I think that’s a huge honour because he’s the three-time world champion and Olympic silver medallist, and that’s amazing,” said Nguyen. “The fact that I’m (considered) the next Patrick Chan is just awesome.”
Nguyen trains on a daily basis beside Yuzuru and Fernandez at the Cricket Club, describing that situation as hugely inspiring, though he barely knows Chan, another one of his heroes.
“The only time, I’ve ever talked to him was at my first senior nationals (2012 in Moncton),” said Nguyen. “He asked me where the clock was.”