SPORTS

Return of a champion

Chouinard confronts her demons at the nationals in Ottawa

JAMES DEACON February 12 1996
SPORTS

Return of a champion

Chouinard confronts her demons at the nationals in Ottawa

JAMES DEACON February 12 1996

Return of a champion

Chouinard confronts her demons at the nationals in Ottawa

SPORTS

After pulling her green Saturn into the parking lot, figure skater Josée Chouinard bounded up the stairs of her North Toronto club with a gym bag over her shoulder and a smile for everyone.

The ice surface was busy with aspiring juniors, but most of the people who had taken rink-side seats in the coffee shop were anticipating the arrival of Chouinard, the three-time Canadian champion. It has been that way ever since the summer of 1993, when she decided that a change of coach and a move from her home in Laval,

Que., would help her bid for a medal at the 1994 Winter Olympics. That did not happen—if anything, Chouinard says, 1994 was probably her worst year as a skater. But personally and professionally, she has bounced back and, at 26, seems more optimistic and energetic than ever. “I know it sounds corny,” she says, “but I’m having fun when I come to the rink. I lost that for a while, but I have it back.”

Fun may be a luxury in most professions, but for Chouinard and many other skaters, it was the means of surviving the months of practice leading up to this week’s Canadian figure skating championships in Ottawa. “Nationals,” as the skaters call the event, determine both national rankings and, more important, who advances to the world championships, which this March are being held in Edmonton. Elvis Stojko of Richmond Hill, Ont., has already made the worlds team because he is the defending champion, but he needs a good performance in Ottawa to build momentum. Soaring from obscurity to the elite level in just three years, ice dancers ShaeLynn Bourne of Chatham, Ont., and Victor Kraatz of Vancouver hope to improve on last year’s fourth-place finish at the worlds.

The closest competition in Ottawa is in pairs, where defending Canadian champions Michelle Menzies of Cambridge, Ont., and JeanMichel Bombardier of Laval face a stern challenge from four other duos. “The teams are very even,” says David Dore, director general of the Canadian Figure Skating Association, “and it will come down to which ones come through on that night.”

Still, it is the women’s competition that boasts the most compelling story lines. Chouinard skated well below expectations at her last two major amateur competitions, at the 1994 Olympics and world championships, and she has returned from a year on the pro-

fessional circuit in hopes of finishing her amateur career on a positive note. Susan Humphreys of Edmonton, a member of the 1994 Olympic team, has recovered from a debilitating back injury and is skating better than ever. And Toronto’s Netty Kim, the surprise winner a year ago, is back to defend her title. Yet because no Canadian woman finished in the top 10 at the 1995 worlds, Chouinard, Humphreys, Kim and Jennifer Robinson of Windsor, Ont., are all fighting for only one place on the team that represents

Canada in Edmonton. And that adds mightily to the already considerable pressure on the skaters. “I know that there is only one spot,” says Humphreys, “but I am trying not to think about it.” Chouinard has already experienced the low point in her career. She had hopes for a world or Olympic medal in 1994, but they were dashed following subpar performances, particularly at the worlds. At Chiba, Japan, having placed second in the short program, Chouinard fell three times and finished out of the medals. Distraught, she used a provision in International Skating Union rules to take a year off amateur competition. “There was no way I would have been mentally ready last year because I was too disappointed after 1994,” she says. “More than disappointed—I was ashamed, and I did not know if I even liked skating any more.” Ironically, it is her struggle with pressure—along with her musicality and rapport with the audience— that contributes to Chouinard’s appeal. “Her vulnerability makes her interesting,” says her coach in Toronto, Louis Stong. “I mean, she could screw up and that makes her compelling.” She now seems unusually serene for someone who is heading for an all-or-nothing competition. She says her working sabbatical and engagement to pairs skater Bombardier, her longtime boyfriend, reminded her that there was life after amateur skating. Stong says the nonstop competition schedule as a pro helped to rebuild Chouinard’s confidence. “In terms of competing,” he says, “she now goes to the rink with a clear idea of what she wants to do.” Chouinard’s competitors have greeted her return with mixed reviews. “Sure, it would be an easier competition if she weren’t there,” says Humphreys. “But by being there, she makes the competition better because everyone else has to rise to her level.” Chouinard hopes she can provide the veteran leadership that the Canadian team

has lacked in recent years. But she is aware she has ruffled some feathers. “I am not there to take the glory,” she says. “I am just trying to finish off my career. It just took me a little longer than I expected.” Whatever happens, she says, she will leave amateur skating behind this year for the professional ranks. “I am not going to be able to walk if I keep training like this,” she says with a laugh. “I want to earn a living and enjoy life.”

JAMES DEACON