Last season was an emotional roller coaster for Canada’s Keegan Messing, but the 28-year-old from Anchorage, Alaska, is now looking ahead to the upcoming season with high expectations and renewed vigor.
Surrounded by wide-open spaces with a backdrop of beautiful mountains, Messing took the time during the lockdown to reflect on the loss of his brother, his skating career and what lies ahead in his future.
What did you do during quarantine when you could not train?
I kept myself busy, but I did get a bit bored. Alaska took a pretty rapid response to the coronavirus and is doing fairly well. They shut schools down and put in a mandatory two-week quarantine on anyone coming into the state, and I think that was something that definitely helped slow the curve.
We also have limited people here and everyone is pretty spread out so that could also be a factor. We had less than 400 cases and things are now getting a little looser. It is all going pretty well. Our rink closed in March, but we were lucky that the backcountry and mountains were still open where we could go hiking. Just going out and playing in the mountains is a blast.
I have been an avid skier since I was 16 months old. I was born and raised at the base of Alyeska Mountain in Girdwood, which is about 35 miles south of Anchorage, and I became a very good skier. My dad and I go backcountry skiing every year, and went as often as we could last winter. We throw on the telemark gear, which is like downhill gear except that the heels pop up like cross-country skis, and ski up the mountains on our skins and then ski down some of the chutes. We were scoping out a pretty big mountain, Alpenglow, this winter. We have been looking at it for a few years and trying to figure out what the best angle up would be. I have climbed other mountains but not this one.
My rink re-opened on May 12. I was happy to be back and to feel my legs hurting again.
Throughout April, you posted videos of yourself on Instagram doing daredevil tricks on hockey skates on your backyard ice rink.
I was a little bummed when spring arrived and all the ice was gone. My little areas where I could go skate all disappeared in early May. I could probably have done triple toes on my own rink but the width made it hard to get speed or power to do anything else. So I was just using it to feel the ice.
Something I realized with making my own outdoor rink the past couple of years is that I really enjoy skating. Not just skating competitively or doing something that I am really good at. Skating is something I still really enjoy to do outside of training. Just to throw on a pair of junker skates or hockey skates and glide around and have some fun without being at a public ice rink.
When I go into the mountains and find a patch of ice, I just glide around. It is something I really enjoy doing. To have that option during quarantine when competitive skating and training was cut off was something I really enjoyed. But now it is time to get new programs done and work to make up for lost time.
Can you talk about the highs and lows of the Grand Prix season?
Going into the Grand Prix was probably the hardest. It was a very tough time for me. Skate America was especially hard because I had lost my brother (Paxon, who was killed in a motorcycle accident) only three weeks prior to that competition and it was difficult emotionally and a little bit physically.
When I was training for that competition, I had a loss of mental strength and started asking myself questions like,“Why am I here? Why am I doing this?”I would get to the part of my program where it starts to hurt physically and my reflexive mental state is going “c’mon you need to push harder and keep going.”
And then the broken mind kicked in and I was like, “Why? Why do I need to push? In the grand scheme of things skating isn’t important.” So I was trying to battle some of that mental game.
Did you reach out to friends during this time?
Nam (Nguyen) and Piper (Gilles) were both good friends during that time. Nam called me at least four to five times a week just to be there for me, and Piper reached out to help because first, we are friends and secondly, she went through the loss of her mother two years ago.
She gave me a lot of really solid advice on how to continue training and how to change the thought of loss into being able to move ahead. Not really get power from it as it is not going away — you are still going to be hurt — but to be able to go to the rink and put in the kind of training you want.
Piper told me to make a very specific plan on how I would get to the rink, how I was going to work, how I was going to do everything from my warm-up to the jumps and program work, so there is really no time for your mind to wander. It is like checking off boxes and keeping my mind going with thoughts of what I am doing now instead of getting lost in my thoughts.That got me from just skating around in circles to actually working.
Another hard part in that time was that my little brother died on a Sunday and on Tuesday everyone left to go to regionals, including my coach (Ralph Burghart). I was on the ice alone from Tuesday through Friday trying to work and train for the Grand Prix events. I think it would have been easier if my coach had been able to stay but because he was gone and it was just me skating alone — that was also a very big hurdle for me to get over.
I had my wife, Lane, come and skate with me a couple of times and also one of my childhood best friends came to the rink. She helped me stay positive and stay distracted just so I could do my program work. The decision to compete at Skate America came very fast because I knew that Paxon would not forgive me if I let what had happened affect my skating. He was a competitive snowboarder for a while so he knew what it meant to be competitive, and I knew he would not have forgiven me if I pulled back from that competition because of him.
How tough was it to compete at Skate America?
I was coasting on the previous fitness level that I had leading up to that tragedy so I knew I could coast into Skate America, but I felt that I was a bit undertrained going into that competition. My short program was a bit easier to get through because it was a dedication to my wife.
Our first dance at our wedding was to the Ed Sheeran and Beyonce“Perfect” duet, and my short program was to the Ed Sheeran solo version. When (choreographer) Lance Vipond first suggested that song to me, I was with my wife when I got the text. She said, “Oh, well, that is not going to be the song that we dance to at our wedding now.” It took a bit of convincing from me to keep the song for our first dance.
When I was training the short program she did not watch it, so when I competed it at Skate America that was the first time she really got to see it. I had the distraction in Las Vegas of skating for her, so I was really able to move my mind from the loss of Paxon to the happy times before that to “I am newly married and this is the happiest time of my life.” I was able to go out and skate a very good short, which I am still proud of. I loved the way that program worked. It was a lot of fun to skate and it was so different to anything I had done before.
I was a little bummed about the long program. I felt like I got halfway through and my lack of training hit me. I also had a lot of problems with my mind. At the halfway point there is a slow section where I am supposed to take a breather. But all I remember is that I got distracted and I could not think straight.
All I could think about was how Paxon was not going to be around anymore. I had a quad toe right after that section, which I tripled, and I could not get my mind straight for the rest of the program. But at the end of it all, I was able to finish the competition in fourth place. Honestly, with everything that was going on, I was really just happy to go out and skate and get at least one of the two programs done really well.
And what about the exhibition program you performed in Las Vegas?
With everything coming into play, things fell between the cracks. At Paxon’s funeral there was a time to go up and say something to say goodbye that I was not aware of. I had nothing prepared so I did not stand up and say anything during his funeral. So, the gala performance at Skate America was a way for me to say goodbye in my own words and I used that performance as a last goodbye.
I dedicated the performance to my brother. I made the program for him and it was probably one of the hardest programs I have ever had to skate. When I decided to do it, there were only a handful of people who knew about it: My coach, my choreographer, my wife, and one of my best friends.
My parents, who came to Skate America, did not know. When we were having breakfast that morning they asked what I was going to skate to and I said, “Oh, I am going to skate to ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ You know, we are in Vegas … Elvis … it seems appropriate.”
Previously in the week, I had secretly had a picture of Paxon from our wedding printed, but I couldn’t find a frame in time. I really have to thank the staff at Skate America who helped me to get one. But I did not realize it was going to be that hard to go out and do that program.
How did you prepare for your next event, Cup of China?
I went back to my rink the very next day and got right into training. I really used the momentum from Skate America to coast into Cup of China. I was still having problems with the intensity of my training to keep on top of myself, to put in the right physical work and get my stamina up. I did feel kind of weak going into that competition, but the hardest part for me, honestly, was sleeping alone.
It was the first time since losing my brother that I had to spend nights alone. I had a roommate in China and we tried to be very polite with each other, but it was so different not having my wife with me, and that was a big, big hurdle for me to get over.
What did you do after Cup of China to deal with the loss of your brother and get yourself back on track?
After China, I pretty much already knew that the Grand Prix Final was out of the picture because two fourth-place finishes would not be good enough. So, I took a few days off and just stopped. I went for a hike, hung out with my family and with friends I had kind of been avoiding to just stay focused on my skating, and trying to get through my competitions. I took my dog on walks and hikes and used outings as a way to try to heal and deal with what I had been running away from during the Grand Prix season.
That was really what I felt like I had been doing — running away. I was using skating as this “stay busy so you don’t have to feel” kind of thing. After everything stopped, I was also able to finally stop, to think and to feel. What does this mean to me losing my brother? How does this affect me? I was trying to learn and understand my own feelings and come to terms with it, and I think I am still trying to answer some of those questions.
The 2020 Canadian Championships did not go as you had hoped. What happened there?
I felt like I was in a much healthier mental state going into the national championships. I had been struggling all season, but the buildup to nationals was going very, very well.
But then, right before nationals, a blade snapped and then my boots broke down and I could not use them anymore. So two weeks before I had to go into new boots and blades. That was kind of what was going on at nationals — it was just new gear. It was actually the first time that I have broken a blade and the company said it was the first time they had seen any of their blades broken.
How did you deal with the added pressure of Four Continents?
Going into Four Continents I was feeling more comfortable and, in my opinion, I was mentally prepared. I was getting the consistency back and skating really strong. In the week of training there I really felt like I was making strides and could do really well. That competition was a lot of fun, but I am still a little upset with what happened in the free skate. I am still not really sure what happened. I fell on the triple Lutz, which was weird. That is my go to triple and is the easiest for me.
There is a reason I can do the quad Lutz because that jump is my favorite. The fall shook me a little. When I went for the second Lutz I was a little confused because I had missed the combination on the first one, I messed up in my head on the second. I was like, “What just happened? I don’t understand what just happened.” It honestly felt like I fell on a crossover. It was just so out of the blue for me.
It seemed that the times I competed the long program, the loss of my little brother always hit me a little harder. It seemed to sneak up on me on those days. But getting away from that, I did feel mentally prepared and very strong. It was just a bad day to be honest. Personally, I would have loved to walk away with a small medal from the short program in Seoul. I finished less than a point out of third — but it is what it is.
You finished 14th in the ISU Season Standings and 12th in the World Standings. What was your reaction to that?
I hadn’t really paid attention to the standings all season, so I was bummed to fall a couple places. But in the end, with everything that happened, I was just really happy to get through it and finish the year with my head held high. The fact that I was able to continue to fight for everything — even though I did not have anything particularly to show for what I had fought for — I was able to finish strong and keep my head held high. I was truly happy with all my competitions but I have to say that Autumn Classic was my favorite. I skated a really good short and long and finished third.
What was your goal last season with respect to the Program Component Scores?
I was really pushing for solid 9s last season. That was my goal. I got close once, but I was never able to create that solid 9 mark. What I really want to work for before I retire — one of the big goals that I have — is to have my skating skills and edge quality comparable to where Patrick Chan left off. I don’t know if that is going to happen, but I have set my goals high and work every day to achieve them, so who knows.
You have had more success skating for Canada than you did for the U.S. Why do you think that is?
A lot of that goes to the support I received when I began skating for Canada. I was not even on the Canadian team at first, but the support I received was astronomically more than I had before. The people at Skate Canada were constantly reaching out saying, “We are so happy to have you” and asking if there was anything they could help me with. They asked me to send videos to them so they could check my levels and give me input. They told me, “We want to give you our two cents and help make you the best skater you can be.”
Who, aside from your coach, would you say has been the biggest influence on your skating style the past couple of years?
I think the biggest change was meeting Lance (Vipond). He is the most stubborn choreographer I have ever met, but I think having someone with a thicker skull than mine was something I really, really needed. I had been very hesitant to change anything that I did because I wanted to do things my way, and I wanted to stay the way I was.
Lance made me realize that if I slowed down a touch I was still going to be skating very, very fast. He taught me how important components are — how important a stroke is, a line, a simple look. Those were things he was very definite about, and he was able to get me to see a different side to skating. I really give a lot of credit to him for changing my ideas on how to approach and skate a program.
The first program he did for me was a short to “Singin’ in the Rain” (2016-2017 season). The Charlie Chaplin program that I skated for two seasons (2017-2019) — that is going to be one of my favorite programs of all time, I think. The character just spoke to me. Half the time I did not feel like I was emulating Charlie — I was just being my goofy self out on the ice. It was a lot of fun to do.
What is the plan for programs for next season?
I honestly can’t really answer that right now because I don’t know at this time. We talked about it before the lockdown but it has been so long now. I think everyone is in the same boat. Normally, we would all be running our programs at this time, but 90 percent of us don’t have any programs because we have been off the ice.
Have you made any decisions about how much longer you will compete?
Honestly, I would love to go to another Olympics. When I went to the 2018 Games it was the best experience of my life, and I would love to go to another one. The problem is I will be 30 in 2022, so it all depends on how my body feels. After the last Olympics I said I wanted to skate two more seasons, reassess and decide whether I wanted to do another two seasons or not.
The 2018-2019 season was my most successful ever. I got my first Grand Prix medal, I went to the Grand Prix Final — it was a fantastic year for me and I really had fun. It was how I always wanted to spend my life skating — going to all the competitions and being on the circuit. Having done all that, I really want to stay in this sport until the year after the next Olympics because that is a World Team Trophy year.That competition is just so much fun and I think if I end my career at that competition, it would be the icing on the cake.
What are your hopes and/or expectations that competitions will take place this season?
With how things are progressing and with the curve taking longer than I had expected, I have a hard time believing that events such as the Grand Prix Series will take place. But honestly, I want the Grand Prixs to take place — even if it is in an empty arena and we have to skate just for a panel of judges. That is me talking because my skating career is limited and losing a season at this point is going to be so hard. Definitely sacrifices have to be made, but I don’t want it (coronavirus) to take any more from us.
It would be terrible if we don’t have a crowd but I want to compete, I want to skate. Watching on television is not the same, but it is better than nothing at this point.
Four Continents is scheduled to take place in Sydney, Australia, next February. Is that a competition you would be interested in attending?
I cannot wait for next year’s Four Continents. I really hope that I can continue to stay healthy and make the team for Sydney. It is one of the places I always wanted to go to. I actually had a trip planned with Ravi Walia and Lance this spring. They were going to do a seminar at the Ice Palace in Brisbane and they invited me to go down there with them. Lane and I were going to extend our stay there a few days so we could go exploring a little, but sadly it got cancelled.
I wanted to get a new hat when I was in Australia. Nam finally gave me back my old one at Four Continents, but I think it might have shrunk a little bit after not being worn for a while. It does not feel like it fits the same since he had it. He probably sabotaged it.
Have you given any thought about what you will do when you retire Are you interested in doing shows or coaching?
I would love to do shows because that is my favorite aspect of skating. It is a way that I can express myself to my fullest. I cut the music for all my show programs and I choreograph them myself. I love the lights, the crowds, the freedom and just doing whatever you want to do. One of the biggest goals in my skating career is to do a show with Kurt Browning. That would be so much fun.
I can see myself doing a little bit of coaching but I spent so much time in the rink I don’t see myself spending more time in the rink afterward, but I am interested in hosting seminars. That would be something I would be into doing in the future. If all goes according to plan I would like to join the Anchorage Fire Department. My dad is a third generation fire fighter and that is one of my reasons for wanting to do it. I think being a fourth generation fire fighter would be pretty cool.
(This article was originally published in our August 2020 issue)