Returning to the national championships after a one-year hiatus, Canadian figure skater Patrick Chan is looking to win his eighth title over 17-year-old Nam Nguyen, who took the crown last year in Chan's absence.
The two are at very different points of their careers, and also very conscious of each other's presence, at this week's Canadian Tire National Skating Championship in Halifax, N.S.
"There's always pressure going into nationals, especially now with Nam having come very quickly up in the ranks since my year off," said Chan, 25, during a press conference.
"He's very much a contender."
Nguyen also acknowledges his opponent as a motivating factor while trying not to dwell on Chan's presence.
"I don't really think about the other skaters," Nguyen said. "Sometimes in training, whenever I'm having a down day and all the sudden it pops up that Patrick Chan is coming back for nationals, something inside makes me stress out. I can't pinpoint it exactly.
"There are days too when I think about him coming back for this competition and it motivates me to work harder because I don't want to fall behind. I want to be at the same level as him."
Chan adds difficulty, Nguyen lightens up
Chan and Nguyen have both made changes to their routines heading into the competition.
Chan has admittedly had difficulty finding his stride since making his return to the competitive circuit this season. To skate his best at nationals, he says the key is to challenge himself. He's heightened the difficulty of his long program by adding another triple Axel.
"It's definitely a very frustrating experience," Chan said of his efforts to recapture his form. "But I've really gained a lot of experience and remind myself again that this is my first year back after a while. This whole year I feel I need to be at [Olympic and Grand Prix Final champion Yuzuru Hanyu's] level but I need to be smart and intelligent and really understand the situation I'm in."
Nguyen's focus at nationals is on his skating and choreography. After finishing seventh in November's Cup of Russia, Nam and his coaches made the decision to go back to his old short program.
"The other short program I had was too serious and it was almost the same as my free program in terms of intensity level and the way it was built," said Nguyen. "I'm enjoying going back to my short program because the mood is lighter and I'm having more fun with it."
Older Chan 'still has weapons'
For the first time this season, Chan feels calm going into a competition, saying he doesn't feel he's still trying to catch up. Nationals is about more than just the win for Chan — it's about adjusting to the tougher competition and setting a precedent for what may be the last years of his career.
"Sure, I'm going for my eighth title, but I think there's a lot more at hand of what I'm trying to achieve in terms of adding technical elements and seeing how it works," said Chan. "The quality and the level of skating has increased tremendously, which can be frustrating and stressful for the older skaters, as I think I am now. It's a great challenge.
"I still have some of my weapons. I still have stuff to show that I haven't showed yet, so there's stuff to look forward to."
After years of being the underdog, Nguyen hopes weeks of intensive training have prepared him for the uncomfortable role of defending champion.
"There are some days when I feel a little bit of pressure, when I think that I'm the reigning Canadian champion going into this competition," said Nguyen. "And that never works out for me, especially in training because it messes up my whole mind game.
"Mostly, I think about just going into this competition and doing my best and showing everyone that I've improved and that I want them to see my full potential and my best skating."