North Vancouver's Liam Firus earned a ticket to the Sochi Olympics on Saturday, finishing third at the Canadian figure skating championships at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa.
The 21-year-old racked up 238.13 points total in his short program and free skate, placing third with a healthy 15-point lead over the fourth place finisher. Seven-time national champion Patrick Chan won again with a score of 277.42 while Kevin Reynolds, a North Vancouver-born skater who grew up in Coquitlam, placed second with a point total of 242.45.
Firus put up the second highest score of the day in Friday's short program and notched the third highest total in Saturday's free skate despite falling on his opening triple axel. He pushed through, however, and scored high on presentation thanks to his excellent blade work.
"I'm very happy," a beaming Firus told reporters after the event. "I wanted to do that axel, but everything else I fought through it, I didn't give up."
That fighting spirit has been there for Firus since he first laced up a pair of figure skates, said Lorna Bauer, his longtime coach at the North Vancouver-based Vancouver Skating Club.
"He is one of the really nicest kids," she told the North Shore News after returning home from Ottawa where she watched Firus live out one of his dreams. "He's got good manners, he's respectful, he shows up every day and he works hard. Even when he's sick he shows up and I usually have to send him home - that's how dedicated he is."
In fact, Bauer knows that Firus has been a gamer since even before he laced up figure skates. Growing up as a hockey player, Firus signed up for a VSC Jumpstart class at Karen Magnussen Arena to try to help his game. Bauer was the instructor and she liked what she saw, even from a kid trying to do figure skating moves while still wearing his hockey skates.
"He had very good glide from the very beginning. He seemed to like it - a lot of it is the passion and desire to enjoy it," she said about what she saw in Firus that indicated he could be a champion figure skater. "I talked to his mom about getting him figure skates.. .. He had no problem adjusting to the switch."
From there the pair took off, soon adding choreographer Mark Pillay to the mix. Firus started winning junior competitions, including a gold medal at the Canadian Junior Championships in 2010.
In 2011 Firus moved up to the senior level at the national championships and finished sixth, following that up with another sixth in 2012 and a fifth-place showing in 2013.
The progression was good but, heading into the Olympic year, Firus knew he needed to jump into the top three in 2014. The only problem was that a major groin injury he suffered early in 2013 slowed him down for much of the year. It wasn't until September
that he was able to attempt a triple again following his performance at the 2013 national championships.
"Last year after the injury we made a plan for this year to try to get him back," said Bauer. "We were calling it a bit of a pencil plan because of the injury. We couldn't really plan anything properly until we knew he had full recovery."
When Firus finally got a clean bill of health he packed up and moved to Colorado to an elite training centre where he now works with coach Christy Krall, a move that was fully supported by Bauer.
"It's where he needs to be to have that environment to train at that elite level," she said.
Coming into this year's nationals Firus knew he was one of three or four skaters who would likely be battling for bronze and the coveted third Olympic spot.
"(He was) by no means a lock," said Bauer. "The guys that were in fourth, fifth, sixth have all been in the top six the last four years, they've all been juggling between third, fourth, fifth and sixth place."
But it was Firus who pulled it off and now he's going to Sochi. It'll be a big jump for a young skater who's still very new to the senior circuit.
"This is really one of Liam's first major internationals," said Bauer. "He had Skate Canada and he's done two other senior internationals, but this will be the best of the best.. .. In a perfect world he would be ready for 2018 to be sort of in the place that Patrick Chan is right now."
Firus isn't worried about 2018 right now though. He's going to Russia, and through all the injuries and battles he said he knew all along that he would make it.
"I thought: 'You know what? You're going to be on the Olympic team," he said, describing his thought process heading into nationals. "You're going to work as hard as you can. It's going to be tough. Nothing is going to be easy. This is my goal. I told myself I was going to be here. And I was."
The Olympic men's short program and free skate are scheduled for Feb. 13 and 14 at Sochi's Iceberg Skating Palace.