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Nguyen leads after short program at Canadian figure skating championships

01/23/2015 02:56 EST | Updated 03/25/2015 05:59 EDT
KINGSTON, Ont. - The infectious smile was missing from Nam Nguyen last week. A favourite to win the Canadian men's title for the first time, the 16-year-old from Toronto was feeling the pressure.

So his coach Brian Orser told him: "Skate like you own the place."

And Nguyen did.

Nguyen, who won fans and melted hearts when he participated in the skating gala of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, as a precocious, bespectacled 10-year-old, scored 81.78 points to top a field that was missing three-time world champion Patrick Chan.

Orser admitted Nguyen had a mini-meltdown last week. The young skater, who's fuelled by a sheer love of performing, wasn't loving anything.

"We've done the junior worlds and senior worlds and it's always been sort of in the hunt, and this time, there's been a lot of talk about him, a chance he could win, all that stuff, and he's starting to feel the pressure," Orser said.

"But that's life, that's the way it is. So we just had to put it into perspective, but I know exactly the feeling that he was going through. So I think just that discussion helped, his shoulders dropped a little bit."

Nguyen admitted to nerves when he took the ice, but he hid them well, landing a beautiful triple Axel, then a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination, and triple flip for virtually the only clean program in an event riddled with spills.

Jeremy Ten of Vancouver scored 77.80 points to stand second, while Roman Sadovsky, a 15-year-old from Vaughan, Ont., goes into Saturday's long program in third after scoring 73.46.

Gabrielle Daleman of Newmarket, Ont., shrugged off an illness to finish first in the women's short program.

In pairs, Meagan Duhamel of Lively, Ont., and Eric Radford of Balmertown, Ont., are the leaders after the short program, while Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje of Waterloo, Ont., are the leaders in ice dance.

Kevin Reynolds of Coquitlam, B.C., a three-time national silver medallist and member of Canada's team that won silver at last year's Olympics in Sochi, fell on all three of his jumps to finish a disappointing 12th in the men's short.

Nguyen has risen swiftly through the ranks, winning the world junior championships last spring, and then finishing third and fourth in his two senior Grand Prix events this season — Canada's top performance in men's singles.

"He has a really big season from last year to live up to," Orser said.

The absence of Chan added to the pressure this season. Suddenly, the title was anyone's for the taking. Chan, who'd won the seven previous titles — including 2012, when he scored a whopping 101.33 points in the short program — is taking the season off to contemplate his future.

Nguyen said the key to his success was "Stay normal, don't change anything, treat everything like it's a practice at the (Toronto) Cricket Club."

Nguyen, who was the youngest skater to win Canadian titles at the juvenile, pre-novice-novice, and junior levels, has finally settled into his five-foot-eight frame, as well, after a growth spurt saw him shoot up more than a half a foot in a year.

"It was really hard for me to get my jumps, especially my triple Axel because during that time, I lost it," Nguyen said of his growth spurt. "After that, I started regaining my Axel, fixing my technique and now when I have a little bit of a growth spurt going on, I know how to deal with it and know I have to push through it."

Nguyen looks back on his innocence at the Vancouver Olympics — when he skated in checked pants and big goofy glasses in a role that was meant to represent the future of skating — with fondness. He didn't know pressure then.

"I was just trying to have fun," Nguyen said. "I'm actually trying to keep the same mindset for myself, even though I am aware of the pressure now."

He's also aware of his growing popularity. His Twitter page — he goes by the handle @namnamnoodle — has 7,719 followers. He has a big fan following in Asia, Orser said.

"I've never had this kind of attention on me," Nguyen said. "It's kind of exciting for me, but also a little bit distracting. So I needed to ignore some of it, and also have some of that motivate me in practice sessions whenever I'm feeling down. . . so for me I'm feeling both."

It was a disastrous afternoon for Reynolds, who has had problems with ill-fitting skates for the better part of two seasons, and had just a month of solid training before arriving here.

"Nothing much to say. I gave it everything that I had this last year to give it a shot for this national title, and tried the best that I could, and I failed," Reynolds said. "Nothing much more to say."

Reynolds has had trouble finding skates that fit his uniquely narrow foot, and said last week he felt he had finally found a pair after trying skates of every brand.

"Incredibly disappointing to say the least," he said, fighting back tears Friday. "I want to apologize to all the people who have supported me through all of this, because they didn't deserve that performance from me. All I can say is I did the best that I could."

Reynolds announced late on Friday that he has withdrawn from the remainder of the competition.

Ten, meanwhile, decided to give his sport one last season after battling injuries for the better part of a few years.

"When I made the decision to do this season, I had a great chat with Ted Barton, who works for our B.C. office, and he said 'Would it be worth it to stay one more season and go to nationals knowing your numbers are limited at the age that you're at, to experience what it's like to compete on a national stage in front of a Canadian audience, does that seem worth it to you?'

"And it does, at that moment it clicked," Ten said.

Weaver and Poje, silver medallists at last year's world championships and Grand Prix Final champions, scored 76.26 for their Paso Doble, and are poised to win the national title after finishing runner-up four times to Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

When asked if it feels good to finally be the front-runners, Weaver said "Of course. I think we got really really good at being in second place. Now it's time to take over, and I think we're ready. We're mentally there, physically there, we're very fit right now, and it's a great time in the season for us to be performing."

Piper Gilles of Toronto and Paul Poirier of Unionville, Ont., were second, while Alexandra Paul of Midhurst, Ont., and Mitchell Islam of Barrie, Ont., were third.

Duhamel and Radford, two-time world bronze medallists, carry a huge lead in pairs into the free program after scoring a Canadian championship-record 79.50 points in the short. Luba Ilyusheshkina and Dylan Moscovitch of Toronto scored 65.15 for second, while Julianne Seguin of Longueuil, Que., and Charlie Bilodeau of Notre-Dame-du-Portage, Que., were third.

"It would have been really cool to get a nice even 80," Radford said, laughing. "But we'll take it."

"We've got a few more Canadian championships," Duhamel added. "We'll aim for 80 next year."

The 17-year-old Daleman, who has been battling strep throat, scored 62.91 points to top a field missing reigning Canadian champion Kaetlyn Osmond.

Daleman fell hard on her triple Lutz but skated an otherwise strong program.

Veronique Mallet of Sept-Iles, Que., was second with 61.19, while Alaine Chartrand scored 60.25 for third.

Osmond, a two-time national champion and Olympic team silver medallist, is sidelined for the season after she fractured her right fibula in the fall.

Friday's short program set up a tight race for the two spots in women's singles on the Canadian team for the world championships in March. The Canadian championships determine Canada's squad.

Short programs in pairs and ice dance were scheduled for later Friday.

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