Brian Orser, figure skating coach extraordinaire, took a break from his first class: adults ranging from middle age into their 80s.
“Actually, it’s my favorite thing I do,” the two-time Olympic silver medalist says with a laugh.
Orser will be taking a lengthy break from teaching those folks in Toronto. He has some business to attend to in South Korea: the Pyeongchang Games, where he’ll have three gold medal threats in his charge.
His resume as a coach is as sterling as it was as a competitor in the 1980s. Eight years ago, in Vancouver, he guided Yuna Kim to the women’s title. The image of Orser behind the end boards, twisting and turning to Kim’s every move, is as indelible as the South Korean’s own brilliant performances.
Then, at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, he worked with Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, who like Kim won his country’s first gold medal in his discipline. Hanyu will be back again, though he has been battling a serious ankle injury.
Orser could help another skater break through at the games: Spain’s Javier Fernandez, a six-time European champion and two-time world winner whose country never has medaled in figure skating.
And just to make sure he stays busy, Orser also will work with Canadian champ Gabrielle Daleman.
How does he manage it?
“I think the secret is we have to treat everybody as individuals,” Orser says. “Different personalities and different cultures. We do have a plan for everybody on paper and we try to follow that best as we can.
“They walk into the rink and there is an energy we have to gauge, and then based on the plan, maybe get the energy level up. Sometimes we can’t … we’re not doing it cookie-cutter style.”
Orser hardly is alone as he works with both world-class and lower-level skaters.
“No one can do this without a great support team,” he notes, mentioning in particular Tracy Wilson, an Olympic and world medalist when she competed. “There’s so much that goes into it, on the ice and off the ice.”
On the ice is where the spotlight shines, of course. This is, as Orser explains, “a really delicate time.”
An Olympic season is different from others in the sport. Not only is the timing of events skewed – U.S. nationals were held three weeks early in 2018 – but the pressure ratchets up throughout the end of the calendar for one year and the beginning of a new one.
Simply putting yourself in position to get on the national team for the Olympics is difficult. Then comes the intense stress of actually qualifying.
If you make it, well, then there’s the buildup to the big one.
“For me, I think this is where we are on kind of on high alert as far as our awareness goes,” Orser says. “You can’t peak too soon, but this is also a good time to do a little bit of a test run.
“We have those three or four days before competing when we are at the Olympics and you must rev it up. And this is the time to begin to rev it up and see if we can do it – mentally, physically. If we achieve it, then we go back to our regular programming. If not, then we work on making it work.
“With Yuzuru and Javi, they are kind of coming into the Olympics from a different angle. Obviously due to circumstance,” Orser says, referring to Hanyu’s injury. “Javi has just been going along at his own pace.”
Orser sat down with his medal contenders in October to offer them some advice. He says, with no trace of bitterness or regret, that he was ready too early for the 1984 and ’88 Olympics, when he finished second to Scott Hamilton and then to Brian Boitano.
“Sometimes we have to guide them along the way,” he says.
Daleman might be his most impressive project this season. She underwent surgery last May for an abdominal cyst and entered the Olympic campaign with some huge question marks. She’s answered them so well that she now must be considered a threat to the Russian and Japanese women in Pyeongchang.
“Gaby had a slow start, surgery, and she has revved it up,” Orser says. “She needed a good skate at nationals, and now has a good skip to her step.”
Orser likely will be seen skipping and stepping at the end boards again in South Korea. He wasn’t sure he’d take well to coaching. Today, he recognizes that he has, and he finds it fulfilling.
“I have to say now, I have a lot of confidence in what I am doing and relying on my team,” he concludes. “It was not anything specific with Yuna or Yuzuru, I believe in what I am doing and who I am working with. There is the odd time I would second-guess some things, but I look around and see we are doing good stuff.
“People see the star skaters in the forefront. But we look out on the ice with the novice and intermediate skaters and their progression. That gives me confidence and it gives me great satisfaction. I worked hard when I was a skater, I was on time and focused, and that is something that never changes.
“I love skating and love seeing skaters do well.”