Episode #79: Brian Orser

by allison on August 26, 2014

August 2014
An interview with Brian Orser. This Canadian phenomenon was the Men’s Canadian Champion from 1981 to 1988, was the 1987 World Champion, and the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Silver Medalist. He performed brilliantly in two Olympics in a row, which is especially impressive. He was also the first person to land three triple axels in one competition. Orser is now a coach of top skaters (including Yuna Kim, Yuzuru Hanyu, and Javier Fernandez to name a few), and the creator of the recent Peak Performance Skating App. Orser talks about his trading of quads with Jozef Sabovcik, his philosophy as a coach, and why those one-piece outfits from the 1980s were a bad idea. 1 hour, 6 minutes, 23 seconds.

Thanks to Fiona Mcquarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On his most embarrassing skating moment: On ice, in the 80s, I had those one-piece costumes, with a zipper up the middle that went from my crotch to my neck. And the zipper popped in the middle of a performance. So I was kind of exposed from my neck down to….well, you get it [laughs].

On getting started in skating: I started off playing hockey, and my skating was just really bad. So my parents put me into figure skating. I was the youngest of five kids and they just wanted to keep us active and expose us to everything – skiing, skating, hockey. I had two sisters that figure skated as well. So it was mostly for my skating skills for hockey, that’s how it started. And Don Jackson came to be the star of one of our skating carnivals when I was eight or nine years old. It was the first year I had a solo in the show, and I got to share the practice ice with him. He noticed my talent, and went and spoke to my parents, and said, you should think about getting him some lessons because he’s got some kind of natural talent. And so my parents did, and that’s really how it all started.

On working with Doug Leigh: He was 19 or 20 years old when he started teaching me, and he was my first coach and my only coach. It’s one of those rare things. I think Brian Boitano is in the same situation with Linda Leaver. She started with him around the same time, when he was eight or nine years old, and she stuck with him through everything, which is pretty rare these days. We made some mistakes along the way, we learned a lot of things, but the journey was for both of us. It was exciting.

On winning his first national title (1977 Canadian novice): I really didn’t think about the Olympics until I won my first senior title, and that was in 1981. I went to watch the Olympics in 1981, because that was in Lake Placid. My father was involved in the Coca-Cola company, and he got some free tickets, so we drove down to watch the free program. Even then I was just kind of there to get a taste of the Olympics. I never really thought about myself being there until the next year. And I was, oh, this is the road to the Olympics, this is how it works [laughs]. I was a pretty naïve and green youth, but maybe it was better that way. Even in 1984 when I came second, I remember the journalists saying, this is the highest a Canadian man has ever achieved, and I was like, wow, really? I didn’t know any of this stuff. Which was probably a good thing [laughs].

On competing against Brian Boitano for more than ten years: [1978] Junior Worlds was the first time I encountered him, and of course we had the same name. We were friendly, I guess. We weren’t instant pen pals or anything like that, but I knew I was going to be seeing him along the way. Vladimir Kotin, the Russian guy, he was second, and that was 10 years before we were all at the 1988 Olympics. Three of the six guys in that last warm-up group [at Junior Worlds] were at those Olympics.

On landing a triple axel in the junior men’s event at the 1979 Canadian championships: I had actually been doing it in 1978, in practice at junior worlds, and there was kind of a buzz, although I didn’t have any success with it in competition. I knew that Vern [Taylor] was adding it to his repertoire, so it was kind of like a race as to who could get it done first. And he did it [laughs]. And I landed one in 2000 at the Goodwill Games. But now it’s definitely a memory. I skate with all the kids and I train them, but I don’t do any jumps any more. There’s a point where it’s time to let it go. I dream about them quite often, though.

On the video of him and Jozef Sabovcik doing quads: We were competitive but we were very good friends. I actually sponsored him to come over to Canada in 1985. If you can imagine, we were second and third in the world, and I sponsored my competitor to come over and train with me. But I never even thought of it as anything other than to help my friend out, and we had to go through all the paperwork in Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic, to get him to come over. But we were great friends, and that is a pretty cool video. A lot of my kids don’t realize how much I did as a skater or that I did quads until I talk about it. I worked on all of them — I worked on a quad lutz and a quad salchow, and I could do a quad toe loop. So having that video helps validate what I talk about [laughs]. It’s pretty cool to have that.

On working with Uschi Keszler as a choreographer: I was terribly shy and just didn’t have the self-confidence to express myself through movement. I could skate fast and jump and all that, but whenever we had a class where we just had to do interpretation of music, I would just head for the door. I hated it, I didn’t know what to do. She kind of gave me the tools to have a foundation of expression that I could explore. I credit her for teaching me that, because that’s what she did. It wasn’t just, come on, Brian, let’s go, but helping me have the self-confidence to do that. And knowing how to express myself. Once she sort of opened that for me, then I just flourished. It was fun to explore even different genres of music and to be able to move in a way that expressed the music in myself. We tried many kinds of different things, but the one thing I really took to was any kind of classical music. I really liked it, and I still do. It wasn’t a particular type of classical music, but pretty much every kind and every composer. Maybe because it was kind of technical, and because I saw myself as a technical skater. Not just in jumping but also in terms of how I skated. They kind of went hand in hand.

On being a “technical” skater: When I was a novice and a junior, I was really thought of as just a jumper. To sort of break through and become an artistic skater that was genuine, it took some time. And I did become that skater. But I loved jumping and I was good at it, so I was a bit of a show-off [laughs].

On the 1984 Olympics, where he placed second: I had to do as much as I could do, but the rest of it you have no control on. I look back at the [judging] system, and everybody squawks about the judging system now, but that system was so strange. You couldn’t get ahead [after the figures], even if you won the short program, which I did. So it was kind of frustrating, because you needed the help of other skaters. Scott [Hamilton] needed to be third in the short and the long combined for me to win [after the figures]. So going into the free program, he needed to be fifth. And I was looking at the other skaters, going “You know what? He could be fifth” [laughs]. You don’t ever want someone to skate poorly, but there were enough good guys that it could possibly have happened. It didn’t. It was a funny little system, and it was hard. You could go lights out but still not win. It wasn’t like with the old Donald Jackson system, where he was so far behind in figures but he just brought it all home in the free program. And there was no short program.

On the new judging system: Yes, I do prefer it. Some of my friends and colleagues don’t agree with me on this, but I think it brings out much better skating, the well-rounded skater. And you can be from anywhere and you can do well. One of the first ones who started doing really well was Stéphane Lambiel. He was always kind of swept under the carpet with the old system, but with the new system, he could really shine. He’s got everything – he’s one of my favorite skaters. And it was great to see him come through, even when Switzerland wasn’t that well known for champion male skaters. But from my profession, from teaching, it is hard to understand for the audience, and I get that too. It’s a shame that this year at the ISU Congress they voted down the transparency in the judging system. It was closer, but it still got shot down, and that makes me crazy. There should be somebody accountable for every mark that goes up, and there should be a face behind it. These judges have to be under the microscope. The skaters are, the coaches are, and the judges get to hide behind the system. It’s just not fair and I don’t think it’s right. It puts them under the gun, yes, but I think they need to feel the pressure as we all do. They might make some better judgement calls that way. When you’re under pressure, you probably perform better. The judges should, but they just get comfortable and they think they can hide. The whole idea is to protect the judge, but I think that’s just backfiring completely.

The system is being constantly tweaked, and I think instead of giving an invalid element, there should be a percentage of the element that you could get. Because if you just pop the jump, like Javier [Fernandez at the 2014 Olympics], he turned the quad into a triple, and that just snowballed all his problems. And for a month after we did the whole “what if”, and he was thinking, what if he had done the quad at the very end. If he had turned it, then he would have been fine. You look back, and at some point, you just have to move forward. It was unfortunate and we’ll just never make that mistake again.

On competing against Scott Hamilton: I was a big fan, and I remember being on tour with him and watching him skate every night because he was great, he was fun, he was entertaining. And he was such a really good skater. He was a tough competitor, and he liked to win. I kind of allowed him to do that until 1984. Enough was enough, I’m good too [laughs]. I think I rattled his cage a little in 1984, on a practice. He did a clean run-through of his long program and wasn’t even tired, and he looked at me, and I looked down at him and was like, “Is that it? That’s all you’ve got?” And he remembers that, and I remember that [laughs]. He was really good at compulsory figures, and that’s what saved him.

On the triple axels in his programs: I don’t know what I was thinking when I was putting my programs together. We made some errors. I was so competitive and I wanted to prove that I was in good shape by doing a triple axel later in the program, and I look back at it and I think, who cares? Maybe before the halfway point, which would be the smart call, but I waited until the four-minute mark. I had it there in 1987 and 1988 and was like, ooh, maybe the judges will reward me because I’m in such great shape, but they don’t care. They’re looking at the check marks on their page. That was a big crucial mistake that I think myself and my coaching team made.

On working with sports psychologist Dr. Peter Jensen: He worked with all the Canadian skaters. He was really busy and he was really, really good. I remember in 1986 I went to the world championships in Geneva and I was in the best shape of my life. And I fell on a triple axel, and I never did that. So it obviously wasn’t a physical issue or a training issue, it was mental. I let something spook me, and we had to get to the root of it. The Olympics were coming again and I didn’t want to take that chance. So I needed to tweak any kind of issue that may have crept in. And I knew what the Olympics were about now, how big and important and exciting it is. I just wanted to be ready from all angles. I didn’t want to take any chances and to make sure that I had everything covered.

On the 1988 Olympics: Being the flag bearer was pretty special. There’s really no words to describe it. I have a framed picture at home and I look at it often. My first encounter [with Brian Boitano in that competitive year] was at Skate Canada, and we didn’t have the social media we have now, so we didn’t really know until we got there [that they had both chosen military music]. I remember seeing Sandra [Bezic] and Linda and Brian watching my practice, as I did for him. The choice was just a coincidence but I think it just made it more exciting for everybody.

With the Battle of the Brians, it just worked out as everybody expected, right through to the bitter end. You couldn’t have written a better script. Well, I could have [laughs], but we went into this nailbiter of a long program, nobody messed up, nobody threw in the towel. We fought right to the end, and that’s why people remember it.

It was hard with it being in my home country, but I was ready for it. And that was another of Peter Jensen’s tasks, to be ready for that, and for the high-fives everywhere I went, and all the “go for the gold”s. It was non-stop for one year, and you have to embrace that, you can’t panic. But also, how great would it have been to win at home? I was ready for all that.

It took me ten years to be able to watch [his 1988 Olympic long program], but I think it’s pretty remarkable. It’s like an out of body experience. I look at it, and it’s like, who is that person? But I can feel the tension and the pressure just watching it through the television or on YouTube. And it’s like, who can handle that? Oh. I can [laughs]. But it seems like a different person.

On his professional skating career: It was 17 years and I enjoyed every bit of it. I enjoyed the people I was with and I could see the challenge of each production that we were in, whether it was movies or TV or bringing Stars on Ice from its humble beginnings to being a skater’s show. I was really fortunate. The timing was great because of the popularity of figure skating in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I was huge, and I was still on my game and I got to compete as a pro and tour all over the place. And I jumped on a few coattails here and there, but I was perfectly fine with that. The money was great and I just loved it. 17 years later, I was, woah, where did that time go.

On becoming a coach: I really never even thought of it until it happened. I did many interviews where people would ask me if I wanted to coach, and I would say, God, no, why would I want to do that. I wouldn’t want to deal with people like me as a student, because I was a bit of a brat [laughs]. But the next thing you know, I got the phone call from Tracy Wilson, saying what do you think about doing this, just directing the program. I was a little bit stubborn as a student, I was a perfectionist, and now I know how to handle people like that. It’s tough doing what they do, these kids nowadays. But when Tracy called, I thought, well, if we do it together, it’s only for six months, let’s just help them get back on their feet and then I can figure out what to do with my life. But I got a taste of it, I liked it, and the rest is history.

On how he coaches: I always started in the spring when I skated. North Americans do that, they get ready, they get programs, and they’re all ready by September. You can train through the spring and the summer, but you don’t need to be competition ready by the end of October. And you have to be ready again and again through a long season. So it’s a matter of peaking at the right time. I’ve tried to embrace that system more and more in my coaching.

We have a great skating coordinator at the Cricket Club, and she’s very helpful, but I field all of the inquiries that come in. A lot of the people I know, or I can check them out on YouTube and make a decision. It’s also based on how much time I have. This year I didn’t take on anyone new because everyone I had was staying in. I don’t want to wear myself thin and I don’t want to disappoint anyone, because I want to be able to give them the time they need.

You have to gauge and you have to read who needs what. We have a very honest policy with our skaters, and that’s communication. I can go out on the ice and see that Yuzuru [Hanyu] is doing fine, he just needs to know that I’m watching. Javi may be struggling with something, so I’ll go over and help him. Or David [Wilson] will swoop in and do some magic. Or Tracy will do some stuff, she’s really great with the psychology, and she can get them jazzed to get back onto the ice and dig in their heels and get into the trenches. Because that’s what you have to do. You have to go through those ugly awful programs at the start of the season. I say, you’re going to do those programs and they’re going to be nasty, but let’s just get into the trenches and we’ll just dig our way out. So we just have to read them, and there’s no better way of doing this.

On working with Yu-na Kim as his first student: She came to work with David when I had just started at the Cricket Club. They had asked for some lessons, because she was there for a few weeks, but then she signed up for summer school. And then at the end of the summer, they asked, can you take over and coach her. I had been working with her all summer and we had kind of a good rapport, and I guess she learned some things and liked it and liked the environment and ended up staying. It was really that simple. I said no when she first asked, because I had one piece of touring left, so I didn’t want to be running around and leaving her coachless. So when I got through the season a bit more, they came back and said, will you reconsider, and I thought, OK, this is a game changer for me, because now I’m becoming a coach and not just the director of skating, here we go. So I had a ton of learning to do. I had to learn about the new judging system, and I remember being at the world championships in 2007 and seeing the score for her short program go up, and thinking, is that good? [laughs]. And she was excited, so I just mimicked her. That’s how green I was. I just knew how to get her out there and how to help her skate well. But then I had to learn quickly.

She wasn’t perfect, trust me. She worked for everything that she had to do. And she’s a fierce competitor. But she trains hard every day, and she’s not perfect, there’s lots of falling down. And that’s where I saw her as a human being, too. She’s not just this crazy machine that can be perfect ever time.

On working with Javier Fernandez: Everybody is their own person, and you can’t just tell them, this is how you’re going to do it. So Tracy and I, we’ll go, how are we going to get Javi on the ice? How can we get him here on time, and get him to enjoy the process? We have to trick him into training, that’s exactly what we have to do. And I have to get really angry with him sometimes, because I think the kid is so talented and I don’t want him to have any regrets later in life. And he does now, he gets it. He has a bunch of people around him who believe in him, and he never had that before. We spoon feed him early in the season, in our time together, and just say, trust us. And the next thing you know — he had some instant success, and it was really cool to see his reaction to that. He was, this wasn’t so hard [laughs]. He was a loveable guy who just didn’t know what to do, and all he needed was some guidance and direction and with people believing in him and encouraging him and motivating him, and going through all the good and the bad stuff together.

On his activity at the boards while his skaters are competing: I think it’s because I skate with them every single day, so I know every step of the program. I can skate it with them except for the jumping parts. I know the speed they need to have, the rhythm and the tempo. I honestly feel that the energy gets sent out to them, and a long program is four and half minutes so it helps me pass the time to skate it with them. There are times when I think, Brian, you just need to calm down. But I can’t [laughs]. On coaching the ladies’ gold medal winner at the 2010 Olympics: That comment [that he got his gold medal too] came up a lot, at the Games and after the Games. And my comment was, these are her Games, and this is about her. I really made that clear because I didn’t want to be showcasing and taking advantage of the work that she had done. I had been there and done that, and this was about her.

On his relationship with Kim now after he was fired as her coach: It’s pretty well non-existent. The first time I saw her was at the World Championships in London, Ontario, and we kind of passed in the hall and did a little bit of a hug and that was it. And we saw each other a few times during the week and we just kind of smiled and nodded and that was that. It’s still one of the most heartbreaking things for me, and I still don’t understand what happened, or why it happened. I really don’t. I know that they got some wrong information, but I’m still guessing at what happened. I have a few ideas, but that’s just between me and me.

We really did have a great relationship and I thought I would be part of her life forever, and I would have this really positive impact on her life, and I’d be going to her wedding one day, and just be connected forever. The Olympics can do that. And then it was all just pulled away, and that’s exactly what happened. I don’t think other people wanted to see that happen, but it just got yanked away from me. And the same thing happened with Adam [Rippon], and it was hard for me to trust anybody in this sport. I couldn’t get emotionally involved. I love the skaters that I’m working with now, but I can’t let myself get emotionally involved. I can’t. Perhaps it was ruined by people like Yu-Na and Adam. But it is what it is. I learned a lot, just take it one season at a time. I don’t have contracts with my skaters, just a handshake, and maybe I need to revisit that idea, but I just don’t feel it’s necessary.

On the 2014 Olympics and several of his skaters competing against Patrick Chan: It wasn’t until I got to the Olympics that I realized I had such mixed feelings about the whole thing. I’m there for my athletes, I’m hired by them, and I prepared them to go out and skate well. That’s it. And I felt bad for Patrick, I felt bad that he had a bad skate. That’s what it comes down to. And he happened to come second and I felt bad about that too. It wasn’t like I was trying to sabotage anything, I wasn’t selfishly trying to keep Canadians away from winning. They didn’t come to me. I’d heard that rumbling around a little bit, oh, he won’t let it go. And I was like, no, I just happened to work with a Spanish skater and a Japanese skater, and I love skating and I want them to skate well. And if that results in first place, then that’s great. I use the analogy of how Sandra Bezic, who’s Canadian, did the program for Brian Boitano in Calgary, and then they get it and that’s fine. But at least people still talk about me, right? [laughs]

On the Peak Performance app that he created: Asad Mecci lives in my building, and he said to me, look, I’ve done this thing for tennis – he had put together an audio tool for hypnosis and visualization and relaxation, the stuff I believe in — and he said, do you think we could do one for skating? And I said, wow, that’s great, sure. So we went into a studio and recorded everything we needed to with the skating aspect. And I said, kids need to have this in their pocket when they want to use it, they can’t be taking a CD and trying to find a computer to download it. So that’s when we said, let’s do an app. And that was a foreign land for us. It took a couple of years to design it and have it tweaked, and then we did some market research to see what the consumer wants, even just visually. It was very exciting for me because it was something I had been looking for. I had looked on the Internet for stuff for my kids to use, and for me to use because I get so freaked out at competitions, and there was nothing. So that’s where this all got started.

Getting the word out is the biggest challenge and learning experience. I’m not really that connected with social media — I’m not on Facebook, I don’t Tweet —and so I didn’t realize the power of this. So when Assad said to me, do you think your skaters will endorse it, and they did instantly, and then he said, could you ask them to Tweet about it. And I’m like, OK, I’m not sure what that’s about it but I’ll do it. And when Nam [Nguyen] Tweeted about it, we had seven followers and we went to 500 followers. And then Javi and Johnny [Weir] Tweeted, and that’s how we created all this interest, through social media. On the website we have testimonials, and so many comments from skaters, just saying, this is just like the greatest thing.

There’s two different processes on the app. There’s one you can listen to — I couldn’t sleep at night because the wheels wouldn’t stop turning. And when I would work with Peter Jensen, he’d put us into a state of relaxation and do visualization and then bring us out and I’d be nice and sleepy and just shuffle off to my room. This is all based on performing well. You still have to be trained, but a lot of it is just common sense. Assad will talk about their knees and about their jumps and their position in the air, about how the audience and the judges are responding to them, and how they see themselves at the end of their program, and, you know, the little trickle of sweat that goes under your arm before your music starts, which you don’t ever feel except when you’re at a competition. And the actual skating stuff, feeling light and confident with your choreography. And a lot of repetition. And then he can take them out and take them to sleep or be energized. And they’ve got this in their pocket and they can use it whenever they want to. Javi uses it and he’s not even partway through the first segment before he’s sound asleep [laughs].

On skating and Asia: I have a book coming out in Japan. It’s based on the book I have now, which is kind of a life history, and then moving forward and working with Yuzuru. It’s a great market, they love their skating and their skaters, they respect the coaches, it’s nice. It’s the same with Korea, I had a book in Korea too. But at the same time too, in the Asian culture — when I was with Yu-na, there was so much pressure on me to do well. If she didn’t win, it’s the coach’s fault. If she does win, it’s the coach’s fault. That’s why when she won, it was like, whew. They responded with such publicity and such respect for me, and it was really cool. But at the same time, if she hadn’t won, I would have to take all the responsibility for that too. I was prepared, that’s just the way they are and the culture, and that’s fine. But it wasn’t an option for her to not win anyway. So I was pretty confident.

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