MILAN, ITALY — In the past 11 years, Patrick Chan competed in the world figure skating championships eight times, winning three men’s titles and adding a pair of silver medals. With the Canadian legend absent from this year’s worlds, and his career likely coming to an end, there are big shoes to fill.
On Thursday, the man who finished second to Chan at the Canadian championships stepped into the void.
Keegan Messing’s sixth-place showing in the short program was, he said afterward, the best he’s ever skated, and his personal-best score of 93.00 reflected that. The 26-year-old, who finished 12th at his first Olympics last month and is competing at worlds for the first time, will be in the hunt for a medal when the men take the ice for the free program on Saturday, chasing leader Nathan Chen of the United States. Remarkable.
Typically, skaters don’t show up at their first worlds ready to grab a spot in the final group. Messing has had to absorb a lot of information and experiences in a very short period of time. Walking past him in the building earlier today, before he headed to the dressing room, I thought he seemed to be in a different place mentally. It was as if he retreated into himself so as not to notice the world and the people around him.
This was deliberate. Coach Ralph Burghart, himself an Olympian and five-time worlds competitor for his native Austria, explained: “This is a journey to get where we are now. I wanted him to keep within himself as I did this myself.”
Burghart has been working with Messing for more than 20 years, since the skater was six years old. They know each other very well.
“He’s like a son to me,” the coach said. “After all this time, I’ve learned when to push and when not to push.”
Burghart admitted with a smile that pushing or not pushing doesn’t much matter if the skater doesn’t have the requisite talent.
“Keegan understands his body and is dedicated. He also loves what he’s doing. You can’t go through everything you have to in this sport if you don’t love it,” Burghart said.
I got the sense that, once Messing left the boards, Burghart’s philosophy was to let his skater rise and fall on his own merit. The coach said after the short program that he had confidence in his skater.
“I knew it was going to be OK,” Burghart said. “I knew that from the first combination and then the second element, the triple Axel. I had a very good feeling.”
Messing, who was born in Alaska and holds dual citizenship, told me when he got off the ice that his recent Olympic experience was a confidence booster.
“Preparing for the Olympic is actually a lot easier,” he said. “You have a longer period of time, your body can come down from nationals and you can build yourself right back up.
“Worlds is probably the hardest competition I’ve had to prepare for. After [the Olympics] your body just wants to come down and crash but you have to go right back into training and keep pushing for the world championships.”
Confidence will be key again in the free program. As Canada’s lone qualifier, Messing will need a top-10 finish in order to ensure Canada gets two entries in the men’s event at next year’s worlds.
We’ll see if he can step up one more time.