Brian Orser, the 1984 and 1988 Olympic silver medalist from Canada, spoke to NBC Olympics about his experience as a coach at the 2017 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland. His international crew of skaters include the only two men to win World titles in the last four years: Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu (the 2014 Olympic champion, who won Worlds in 2014 and 2017) and Spain’s Javier Fernandez (2015 and 2016 world champion).
But he also believes that Canada’s Gabrielle Daleman, another of his students, sent a message by landing on the podium with countrywoman Kaetlyn Osmond.
What’s a typical Worlds like for you? With so many skaters, you must be all over the place.
Yeah! Well, it actually worked out well because the practice rink and the main rink were on top of each other, [nicknamed] “The Cave.” But for me it was pretty convenient. I try to figure out my schedule. From our rink we had five coaches there. So there was always somebody. I tried to be at everybody’s practice. And then, it’s a bit of scheduling procedure. And I’m busy which is fine, and I’m pretty proud.
One thing people always comment on is the amount of team jackets that you have to wear. Do you have all of them with you all the time?
This time I only brought Kazakhstan. Sometimes, I’ll just stay neutral. If I have Javi [Fernandez] and Yuzu [Hanyu] in the same practice or something, or in the same competition, I’ll just go with my own thing. The Olympics is a different story because we have to wear like, their stuff. I’ll be bringing my own wardrobe! I’ll possibly have five skaters there. Japan, Sweden, Spain, Canada, and Kazakhstan. So yeah, I’ll get some good swag! I’m excited about that.
They load you up with like, duffel bags of stuff.
Is that one of the best perks?
I love that part.
Continuing on this Worlds train of thought. Is there anything you said to Hanyu before his free skate? What was he like the night before leading into that?
I knew he was disappointed after the short so we needed to just let him be disappointed for that night. Then we did our practice the next day and he was on a mission to prove something. I totally had to hold him back and say, “Just do one practice. Don’t do a run through. We’re just gonna treat this like a day of rest.” He was kind of like, “really?” And I said, “Yeah, just trust me on this. I want you fresh for tomorrow; you’re gonna be fine.” Honestly, he’s never been in this kind of condition before. So, just, “trust your training. You need to come to the rink a little more approachable, a little bit less focused.” He gets intense. There’s focused, and there’s intense. As soon as he came in and we started our off ice warm up, I looked at his team leader and I said, he’s got a better face today. I could tell by his face. He was a little bit more engaging and it just felt right.
Your communication has improved then? I read when you first started working with him you kept a translator on your speed dial!
Yeah! Well, you know what, he’s been studying English. He’s learning English. Sometimes he would just throw a yes or no answer without understanding the question. And now he takes his time and thinks about it and he explains what he’s feeling, or what the answer is supposed to be. He’s communicating that way. I said, “We can’t take anything for granted here.” Whenever he answered a question with “yea, yea, yea,” I knew that he didn’t understand the question. So I had to rephrase it.
So like you said, your rink has multiple international skaters. Is communication all over the place, or how does that work?
You know what, it’s 2017. All of the kids speak English. Some of them arrive and they don’t; like when [Kazakhstan skater] Elizabet Tursynbaeva came, she didn’t speak any English.
Exactly, that’s who I was thinking of.
But within a year, she was speaking perfect English. It’s amazing to be young. It’s like a sponge, your brain, especially with languages. She absorbed the English language and the slang. I’m always impressed and pretty envious of these young kids.
How funny is Elizabet’s mother? She got so much attention [in the Kiss and Cry at the 2017 World Championships].
(laughs) Ah! Yea, that was kind of fun. I was happy that she was happy for her kid. On the world stage. It was funny. I reading some of the comments and it was basically, some of these parents saying, good for her. It’s nice to see that side of it, because sometimes we see the other side of it, when they’re not so happy. That’s unfortunate.
Speaking of someone who’s so animated – you’re known for being really animated on the boards, too. Is that because you’re so invested in these skaters?
Yes. I usually skate the programs with them – I don’t do the jumps! But I know every step, not just the choreography. I know where they need to be finding their center, or pulling their belly in, or bending their ankles or checking their shoulders. Whatever it may be. I just kind of feel like if I’m doing it, they might start feeling it. I don’t know! It makes the four and a half minutes go by so much faster. You know? I just can’t stand still!
I also want to take about Gabby Daleman. A breakthrough season for her; is that attributed to anything in particular?
Well, she’s always been a hard worker and she’s come from some good stock. She just needed to be reeled in a little bit. She needed a plan – same with Fernandez when we first got him. He was a bit of a loose cannon. She needed to get on a different workout program. So she became more fit.
Is that where her dad came into the picture? [Daleman’s father is her off-ice coach.]
He’s always been in the picture, but we kind of rearranged it so that she just didn’t get so bulky. Just good ol’ fashioned hard work and getting organized and having a plan. And resting, finding your days to rest, that’s as good as anything. And I have to say, with [2017 World silver medalist] Kaetlyn [Osmond, from Canada] and Gabby, I think they’ve given so many young girls around the world hope that they don’t have to be a stick. They don’t have to have an eating disorder. They can be tall – Kaetlyn is tall, beautiful. They have women’s figures. There are a lot of those girls, those women, in the event, that are probably going, “I can do this.” I hope that’s the message that gets out there because I think it’s important.
Is there something extra special about coaching a Canadian skater, too?
That is pretty extra special. Lee Barkell is her main coach, but together, we’re on the same page. The right hand knows what the left hand is doing. There’s no surprises. There’s more to come.
She’s said that she derives a lot of inspiration from Fernandez, which just shows the environment.
The environment’s very functional. When we’re having some tough days, they help each other out. There’s times when Tracy [Wilson] and I have to get them all together and have a talk and say, “what’s going on; what’s everybody feeling?” One bad situation that could just drag everybody down. Trying to teach them to be able to compartmentalize certain things, put some things on the shelf that we can deal with later – or deal with it now, depending on what it is. There’s nothing worse than hearing something after the fact. “Somebody said this to me and it really bothered me and I carried it around all day and I couldn’t shake it.” Tell me, or figure out how you can put that aside. Honestly, put it aside. She’s learning that actually, and I’m really proud of her. She’s been able to… There’s all kinds of situations around her that can drag her down but she’s learning to…
Shake it off?
Shake it off.
There’s one more person I want to talk about and that’s Fernandez. We’ve touched on him, but what was his mental state after the free skate? Two time world champion, and he’s lost that title going into the Olympic year.
Yea. You know, I’m fine with it. He seems fine with it. It would’ve been nice for him to be at least third. That was very achievable. Actually, winning was achievable. But he was backstage and he had to skate last. He heard all those scores, which is fine. It did spook him, ya know? And he hadn’t been skating perfectly heading into this. The balance tipped, and not in his favor – pardon the pun.
Is there something that you can put your finger on about him, and why every program he skates feels like the quality of a show program? It just feels so fun.
I’ll be going into my seventh year teaching him. And I think he sort of surprises himself. He’s got such a good sense of balance now and he does have a great sense of choreography. David Wilson has been his only choreographer. And sometimes it takes three, four, or five years for things to click. David knows how to work with him. I don’t know. He embraces every program. He’s extremely versatile when it comes to the serious, he can do fun, he can do the Spanish piece. Frank Sinatra. We have some good ideas for next year, which are gonna be amazing.
Anything you can hint at?
I cannot hint at all! But we’ve been thinking about this for a while. We’ve had something on the back burner for a year. It’s going to be pretty special.