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Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009
Orser provides insight into making of a champion
Those who have had the chance to see a young athlete come into their own can tell you it is truly a sight to behold.
Brian Orser, the coach of world champion Kim Yu Na, has a ringside seat for history as the South Korean marches toward a date with destiny in Vancouver at the Winter Olympics next February.
Yu Na won her seventh straight regular-season Grand Prix title on Sunday at Skate America, and despite some miscues in her free skate, looks to be an unstoppable tour de force.
The consensus in the skating community is that there is only one person who can stop Yu Na from winning the gold next year — and that is Yu Na.
While Mao Asada's training situation remains unsettled and less than desirable, Orser and choreographers David and Tracy Wilson have provided 19-year-old Yu Na with a solid base at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club.
Orser's credentials are impressive. A two-time Olympic silver medalist (1984, 1988), and a world champion (1987) as a competitor, the Canadian has made a seamless transition into coaching.
Though he had little experience as a mentor prior to taking on Yu Na, he had a lifetime of knowledge built up from his own days on the ice as a skater in events and shows. This forms the basis of the strategy he utilizes with Yu Na and his other charges, who include 2009 world junior champion Adam Rippon.
In an extended session with the media at the recent NHK Trophy in Nagano, Orser talked at length about his relationship with Yu Na, whom he began coaching in July of 2006.
"The most important thing with the athletes that I work with is that they are prepared at home," Orser said. "That we don't leave anything to chance. We do the homework, we work hard. It's all about preparation."
Orser notes that with a gifted protege like Yu Na it has been similar to witnessing an evolution.
"With her it's been a natural growth. We — David Wilson, Tracy Wilson, myself and Yu Na's mom — we've watched this happen," he said. "We've allowed it to happen. My job is overseeing everything — mainly the technical part of it.
"We've been able to keep the technical side of her skating competitive. But then as she was growing up, and becoming this young woman, her spirit came through. If you allow that to happen and you can use skating as a vehicle to express, then it becomes honest and it becomes sincere and it becomes her own."
Orser feels it is crucial that his skaters are true to themselves.
"I think it's so important with these skaters that when they go on the ice they are doing something that is their own," he said. "I always tell my skaters 'take ownership' of everything you do. Take ownership of the triple axel, of the triple-triple combination, the program, the audience. It's about ownership."
Orser, 47, says he sees a lot of himself in his students.
"My philosophy (as a skater) was preparation," he noted. "Yu Na and Adam and a couple of my other kids at the rink train very much the same way I did. They train very well on their own."
Even when he is away, Orser has confidence in the Wilsons to take care of his prize pupil.
"I trust that David is looking after Yu Na, and Tracy is looking after Yu Na, and Yu Na is looking after Yu Na," he said. "So I'm very confident that when I am away she continues to work hard.
"It's the same with Adam. He works hard when I'm away. They know their agenda every single day — what they have to do. Of course it's a job and it's work, but they like the process. They enjoy the process."
Orser says that organization and teamwork are what have helped put Yu Na in position to be successful.
"Putting it (what is referred to as Team Yu Na) together wasn't luck," he admitted. "It was well thought out. It's built on trust. The best interest is for the skater. We are doing everything for Yu Na's best interest. Not for me as a coach, not for David as a choreographer, but Yu Na as a total package.
"Me and David Wilson and Tracy Wilson, we are such a good team. When we work together I will be at a point — when I'm working with Adam or Yu Na — where I'm kind of at a dead end, then all of sudden David walks into the rink. His timing is always impeccable.
"Maybe Yu Na is just about to go into a little bit of a slump, and it's like a breath of fresh air comes into the rink and she lights up. We don't plan it. Or Tracy comes in and she notices something."
Orser believes, contrary to the image of some skating mothers, that Yu Na's mom has been a real asset.
"Her mom has been a tremendous help, too," he revealed. "A lot of these moms get a bad rap, but not Yu Na's mom. She really is very accurate. We have our meetings every week or every two weeks, when we discuss where we are going and what we need to do.
"We discuss what the other competitors are doing and what they are skating to and what they are wearing. The mother is very competitive. We usually agree when it's time to do double run-throughs or spend more time on spins. The mother has a good eye."
Orser cites Yu Na's focus and fierce determination as being pivotal in her ability to ascend further after winning the world title last March in Los Angeles.
"When she arrived back in Toronto, in the middle of May, she got off the plane and she got to the rink the next day and she put her world championship behind her and just moved forward," he said.
"She was the one who said, 'I want to do a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination (because it's worth more points). I want to fix the flip so there's absolutely no question about it.' So we worked on that.
"David came up with the programs, and we did our big presentation, and we got the two thumbs up from Yu Na's mom, and then we just took off with it."
Orser discussed how the James Bond routine that Kim scored a world record with in the Skate America short program on Saturday night came about.
"When David was talking about doing a Bond piece, I was kind of like, 'Oh, I don't know.' I didn't want it to be cheesy," he said. "I like Bond films but . . .
"Last season she did an exhibition to "Please Don't Stop the Music" — the Rihanna piece. When she was doing it, you just saw this beautiful woman and she was sexy and she was sophisticated and she was classy. She could move and she moved naturally like that. That's when David thought, 'She's like a typical Bond girl.'
"She's very confident and she's sexy. You don't know whether she is the villain or the lover. All of these characters is what she was.
"So that is how the Bond theme came up. Then it became huge work for David to find the right pieces of music that fit her. Also, building a program based on her tempo of skating. Her timing and her rhythm. Where you place the jumps.
"The music has to be arranged appropriately. You just don't do a combination and (go) down and do this jump and (go) back and do that jump. You have to know how many crossovers and the proper rhythm for her. You have to work with that. It's interesting and it's scientific."
Orser admires Yu Na's concentration and desire to push herself to the limit, which he believes is absolutely necessary for a world-class skater. It is here where Orser imparts his own wisdom — learned the hard way — to keep her moving forward.
"She doesn't take anything for granted," he stated. "Every day she works and she doesn't doubt herself, but she doesn't take anything for granted. I have told her how proud I am of (her) thinking big.
"I learned from my experience. I went into my Olympic season (1987-88) as a world champion and I kind of held on to that through the whole season. And I tried to maintain rather than take it to another level.
"She just instantly tried to take it to another level. She has been successful at that."
The Belleville, Ontario, native retrospectively knows now what he would have done differently.
"I probably should have been more competitive," he admitted. "I should have tried to raise the bar even more. I should have been more focused on that than on the pressure which was going to come to me at the Olympics.
"I spent so much of my time and energy making myself mentally prepared that something else kind of suffered a little bit.
"I told her of my experience from my winning worlds to my Olympic season and the amount of pressure and being competitive. Taking on the Olympics as another full entity. She understands that, she gets it."
While concerns continue to swirl around Mao and her training setup, Orser and his colleagues have sought to provide Yu Na with a place that feels like home, even though she is thousands of kilometers from her native homeland.
"What we have been successful at doing is creating a really good environment and making the process a really good experience and a happy experience," he said. "I know a lot of her fans call her 'The Happy Skater' and she really is happy. Most of the days there is some laughter, there is the work, of course, but she is enjoying this process, this training process, and it is healthy, and that is where your spirit comes through."
Orser claims that Yu Na is her own toughest critic.
"She is very determined. She is very hard on herself," he observed. "She likes perfection, although we don't have perfection every day. She knows how to peak, which is really good.
"There are days when she will miss a triple flip, there are days when she will miss her triple-triple combination. What it does is keep you honest, so you don't take things for granted. So you are sure to be sharp and have all of your senses aware."
In years past, Yu Na has been sidetracked by injuries. Orser is well aware that this could be her most formidable foe in the runup to Vancouver.
"She has been healthy now for two years — knock on wood," he said. "Every now and then things flare up — it's like that for every athlete. She listens to her body and her physiotherapist. There are little warning signs. She knows when to back off and when to get things ready."
Orser is learning quickly that being a coach can sometimes create concern even when it is unwarranted.
"I get nervous when everything is going too perfectly," he said. "I always want them to be their best."
It is clear that every possible consideration has been taken into account in designing a plan for Yu Na to win the gold.
"We are gauging some of this on her natural rhythm," he said. "It is an Olympic year, so there is a different mind-set. The plan is for her to be the best at the Olympics in every capacity. Physically, preparation, mentally.
"Also, living in Canada, she is reminded of the Olympics every day. The torch relay has started. She is going to run with the torch when it comes through Toronto on Dec. 19.
"I think it is healthy that she has that Olympic reminder," he noted. "The only place she doesn't have that is when we're at the rink, because we are in a private club. It's her little safety net, where she can be herself."
Orser can only marvel at what fate has brought him.
"It has been a fantastic journey," he concluded. "As a teacher and a coach, I learn something every day."