The final competitive season was a series of highs and lows for Canada’s Elladj Baldé. Concussions and a back injury hampered him every step of the way in the second half of 2017. While many would have thrown in the towel and called it a day, his perseverance paid off with the program of a lifetime in his final appearance at the Canadian Championships.
And, despite never winning a national medal or major international title, Baldé moved on to a successful professional career and now performs for audiences around the globe.
Did you know that 2018 would be the end of your competitive career?
Yes. I knew probably even before 2014 that it would be my last year. After that I wanted to move forward.
You suffered from illness and injuries throughout the first half of that final season. Can you walk us through what happened?
I was in the best shape of my life in the summer of 2017. The quads and triple Axels were there, and I was so ready for the season to start. About two weeks before Autumn Classic, I fell at a practice session and slammed into the boards. That caused a concussion. That was my fifth concussion going back over four years. This time, as soon as I hit the boards I started feeling the symptoms, but as I did not hit my head, I figured I would be better in two or three days. A week later I tried to get back on the ice.
It was the Olympic season and I knew I could not afford to miss any opportunity to compete internationally. I tried to push through it, but it was just backfiring so badly. I would skate for 15 minutes and then I was in bed for 24 or 48 hours. I physically could not get through 15 minutes of stroking. I took two weeks off and started working with a professional to get ready for the Grand Prix season. I was working off ice and it was getting better slowly and then we decided to try getting back on the ice. But 10 minutes later, symptoms were spiking, and I was in bed for two or three days.
It was like that for three months where I could not really skate for more than 15 minutes. To me, at that point, it was extremely difficult because I was in a constant state of anxiety, and I could not sleep because with concussions your system is always on high alert. When you do fall asleep you wake up five minutes later. I was in an emotionally depressed state. Every day I saw my dream of going to the Olympics fading away and it was hard to acknowledge. I was so close in 2014 and so that was extremely difficult for me to deal with because this was my only chance. I had put my entire identity and the worth of my career into that goal. I had been thinking since I was a kid that if I did not make it to the Olympics, then I had wasted my life. If I don’t get to go, why did I spend 20 years doing this? That is why it was so difficult for me to handle what was happening to me.
When did you start coming to terms with the fact that you may not be well enough to compete at nationals?
In November 2017, when I was not getting any better, I went through a process where I had to accept that if this was the end and I could not go to nationals to even try and get to the Olympics, what I had achieved was good enough for me. I had to go through the process of letting go what the Olympics meant. That conditioning was very toxic because it did not allow me to enjoy myself and be proud of myself, and I really think at that point I had to accept it and let it go.
Around that time, someone called and what that person said really resonated with me. One of the things this person kept telling me was just to let go of the attachment of needing to go to the Olympics for me to feel that I was good enough because I had done so much in my career. The person also told me that when I retired, my career would not end but would take off in the professional world. Getting into professional skating is truly what I wanted to do, to start exploring my creativity and finding ways to touch the world that competitive skating did not allow me to because of how restrictive it is. In that moment, it was like this massive weight was lifted off my shoulders and all of a sudden, I felt so much lighter. My thought process and my mood shifted. It was like I finally understood that I don’t need to go to the Olympics to be a successful figure skater, and that was what I was gripping on to. It was such a false sense of identity.
Not going to the Olympics does not change anything about you or your career. Maybe I could have gone to the Olympics and potentially finished top 10 if I had the best skate of my life. An Olympic medal will change a life, but just going to the Olympics will not. So instantly, that weight was lifted and all of a sudden, with this new perspective, I realized that I might not even go to nationals and that was OK. I decided that I was just going to heal and get better and move onto the show circuit.
Did you already have shows lined up for your post-competitive career?
Yes. I had “Christmas on Ice” in Japan in December with Daisuke Takahashi and Shizuka Arakawa and “Art on Ice” the following February in Switzerland, which is my favorite show to perform in from an artistic perspective. So I planned to do that and have the time of my life. I had shows in the spring and “Fantasy on Ice” in the summer, and I thought ‘I am really up for this and to see how my show career is going to start.’
When and how did you finally return to training?
Shortly after I came to terms with maybe not going to the Olympics, things started to change. I started healing for the first time in three months. There are studies that show your psychological state has an effect on how fast you heal, especially when it comes to concussions. I started progressing in ways I had not been able to for so long. I started biking and exercising and things were progressing pretty fast. I started skating at the end of November with the help of a professional. I was not jumping, just skating forward — not even backward. I was just skating in big circles. I felt some symptoms, but they were not spiking. But with concussions, you can feel good one day and wake up the next with the biggest headache ever. But the next morning I woke up and felt fine.
Then I started skating backward and doing rotations and moved on to jumping. At that time I had a week until Challenge, which I had to compete at to earn a place at nationals. I did not have a bye because I did not compete in the Grand Prix Series, so I had to go and qualify. I thought, if I could go to nationals just one last time and perform for myself, my audience, the fans, all the people that had been there for me throughout my career. I had had terrible experiences at nationals — I had not had one good skate in five years, so I was like, yes, let’s make it happen.
What happened at Challenge?
I knew I needed to be top 13 to make it to nationals and I just needed to stay on my feet. The morning after the short — I think because of the cheering, the loud music and the lights — I woke up with a massive headache. I had not felt like that in months. The doctor who was with me told me I could push through this and just make sure I did not hit my head if I fell. At the morning practice I just skated forward, which helped bring the symptoms down. The long was a bit of a disaster. I think I fell on the opening triple Axel; I fell on the triple Lutz and I think I fell on the triple flip as well. I made the top 13 but I had all kinds of pain in my head.
What happened between Challenge and nationals?
Right after Challenge I took a couple of days off and then I went to Japan for the show. I felt OK when I woke up the next day, so I went to the rehearsal. But that night we went to a Japanese restaurant and I got severe food poisoning. It was not until the last day of the show that I was able to perform. But then, the most beautiful blessing was that because of the food poisoning I lost weight and was immediately back to competition weight. I was feeling a little bit of pressure because I did not want to show up at nationals without a triple Axel. I wanted to be in shape to be able to perform the way I know I can perform.
At the time, I could not even get into performance mode because my cardio was so bad. I started training but for some unknown reason my triple Axel was not working. I was asking myself, ‘am I not supposed to go to nationals? What is happening!’
Two weeks before nationals I was falling on every single triple Axel. At the time I was training with Liam (Firus). He looked at my left boot and told me it was sinking heavily and that I should put a shim on one side to straighten the blade. I had old hotel key cards in my bag, and I placed them under the blade. The next day my triple Axel was back — I was landing five out of five. I wanted to give Liam the biggest kiss, but I did not think he would appreciate it, so I gave him the biggest hug. About a week and half before nationals, I started working on quads.
The 2018 Canadian Championships was a highlight of your career. Can you talk about that experience?
When I stepped onto the ice for the first practice I was in a complete state of gratitude. I was so grateful to be there. For the last month this is all I wanted — to feel good about how I am skating. I was on the same ice as Stephen Gogolev, who is like the next generation, doing quad Lutzes, quad toes and triple Axels everywhere. Joseph Phan and Conrad Orzel were also in my practice group, so I had all these kids around me doing all these jumps. I remembered my first nationals where I was the young guy and now the roles were reversed, and I was the old guy with all the young kids. But it was amazing. I was so happy to be there.
Then, the day of the short program I was upstairs warming up when I started getting these flashes and images. In my mind I saw the crowd on their feet and me having this feeling of deep fulfillment and happiness that I had not felt in such a long time. I could not get these images out of my mind. It was so strong that I started crying.
In the six-minute warm up for the short program, I was feeling so good. I was not thinking about results, all I wanted to do was remember this experience a certain way and leave my competitive life. Usually for me, waiting for my name to be called is the most stressful time, but I was enjoying myself, looking at the crowd and I could not wait to share this moment with them.
I had just suffered for five months and been through one of the deepest depressions I have ever experienced in my life. So, to be there and have the chance to perform one last time, I was like, I just can’t wait. I was in a complete state of presence. I was so connected. When I heard the opening words of my program ‘Hello darkness my old friend,’ I felt this rush in my body. I was in the darkest state during the fall and now I am in a completely different place. It was like that time of my life had brought me to where I am right now.
The crowd usually goes crazy for the first jump because it is a quad or triple Axel, but I landed a triple flip and I could already feel the energy of the crowd. They were behind me, and ready to give me the energy that I wanted. It was everything that I had imagined. My coach Bruno (Marcotte) was screaming and jumping up and down. Midway through the program the crowd was getting louder and louder and as I went into my final spin, I saw the crowd standing up and I still had 30 seconds left.
The audience was handing me the most beautiful gift I could have ever received. It was the most fulfilling moment of my career. I was like I don’t need to ever compete again. I don’t even need to do the long program. That closed the chapter. It was all I wanted to experience one last time and move into the professional world. I scored a personal best and my second mark was just a few points lower than Patrick Chan’s. I was in awe.
In my mind I knew there was a chance I could medal, but I had already accepted the fact that if it did not happen, I was already good with it. That night was one of the most fulfilling and happiest nights of my life. At practice the next day, I fell on a quad and my back seized up completely. I skated over to Bruno and said I cannot move side to side. I decided not to put the quad in my long program that night because it was not worth it. If I fell again and my back seized up, I would have to stop right there. At the end of my program the crowd was on its feet again and that was that. I came fourth and did not make the Olympic team. It would have been nice to finish off with a national medal because I never got one, but I was happy.
I was invited to perform in a Skate Canada exhibition gala and Ari Zakarian, who managed Evgeni Plushenko, saw my performance and messaged me right away to see if we could work together. About a year later, IMG had an interest in representing me, so I was not really sure where to go. Then I went to Kazakhstan for Denis Ten’s first show and that is where I met Ari. He told me he had contacts with lots of people who run the shows in Europe and Asia. So I signed with him and that is the reason why I have all the shows that I have now. I am probably the most performing skater in the world. I literally do all the shows. I have three big shows in Japan, plus “Art on Ice” and other stuff in Russia and Europe, and all of that came through Ari’s connections.
It took a lot of convincing in the beginning because I don’t have any titles or any medals even on the national level, other than winning Nebelhorn Trophy, which means nothing in the skating world. I didn’t make much money in the beginning, but Ari told me to just go and do my thing and when the show producers ‘see what you do, they will have you back next year’ and that would give him room for negotiation. And that is exactly what happened. I moved up the ranks and this year I closed the “Art on Ice” show, which is huge.
You are part of a movement to make the sport more inclusive for skaters of color. Can you tell us about this project?
The movement that started after the George Floyd murder placed the spotlight on how African Americans in the U.S. and Canada are treated. In figure skating you don’t necessarily ‘see’ it. First, it is an extremely subjective sport and it is almost impossible to know if certain decisions are based on race. It could be your choreography; it could be your costume — it is very hard to quantify whether things were racially based.
I never really saw that as too much of an issue, but what I did see, especially with Asher Hill’s story, was a direct example of systemic oppression. Here was someone who had experienced racial discrimination who was coming forward and then, not only having his complaint dismissed, but also being reprimanded for it. I saw that as extremely problematic. I do not know the details of the story, but I know what I experienced, what my dad has experienced being in the black community and I knew I needed to stand with that. If Asher’s voice were not going to be heard in the skating community, then maybe my voice would help. So I decided to go forward with it. I knew that this could have an impact on my work with Skate Canada, but at that point for me this was more important.
The weight on me was to try and make a change for the black and brown community in figure skating. We all know how old fashioned it is and how behind it can be in certain ways. I was never able to look up to someone who looked like me. That is a reason why there are so few colored people in the skating community.There is a huge lack of representation.
Vanessa James, Maé-Bérénice Méité, myself and a few other skaters formed the Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance. We have a committee and a big team with a lot of connections all over the world. We are working on lots of projects to help change the system and also help change the skating culture. It is very rooted in elitist white European men and different genders and races are not fully accepted in this sport. We have to change the culture.
(This article was originally published in the IFS October 2020 issue)
BEYOND THE BOARDS: WHAT COMES NEXT?