Ice Network

The Inside Edge: Emotional Baldé meets grandpa

Canadian skater reflects on 'intense' trip to Guinea to see father's family
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Elladj Baldé (right) sits with his grandfather, Elhadj Mamadou Oury (center), and his father, Ibrahim, during a visit to Guinea to see family. -courtesy of Elladj Baldé

Into Africa

Elladj Baldé had a very disappointing 2015 Canadian championships, finishing sixth, and it might be the best thing that ever happened to him.

Baldé's father, Ibrahim, grew up in the tiny village of Tombon, near Labé in the Republic of Guinea, which is in West Africa. Finishing first in his class at university gave him the opportunity to continue his education in Europe, and he moved to Tashkent, then in the Soviet Union. He married, and Elladj was born in Moscow in 1990. The family moved to Germany to get medical help for Elladj's older sister, Djulde, who had leukemia. After the little girl died, the family moved again, to Canada.

Ibrahim has returned to Africa only a couple of times since he left in 1980. He is one of 35 children. Ibrahim's father had four wives, and he is the oldest son. The senior Elhadj Mamadou Oury Baldé, now 99 years old, slipped into a coma in January but recovered two weeks later. After the Canadian championships that month, Elladj and his father made plans to go to Africa and visit Elhadj, for what would be the skater's first time meeting his grandfather.

"The minute I found out my season was over, we started planning to go," Elladj said.

The Ebola epidemic that has been raging though various West African countries for the past year, however, was a concern. Although the disease has been contained in some countries, Ebola is still active in Guinea.

"It wasn't an easy decision, because of this Ebola situation," Elladj said. "A lot of people told me, 'Don't go, it's dangerous.' My mom didn't want me to go. But I knew if I didn't go now, I never would have the chance to meet my grandfather. I did a lot of research on Ebola, and found out it's really not that easy to catch. Plus, where my grandfather is from, there has never been one case of Ebola. There's a lot of cases in the capital, but in the middle, it's pretty safe."

So, on Feb. 22, Elladj and his father left for Guinea, arriving the next day. 

"We had a spectacular welcome," Elladj said. "There were seven cars waiting for us, all family. My dad's sisters and brothers welcomed us at the airport. We stayed at the capital that night at my uncle's house. The next morning, we left for the village."

Once in the village, the sophisticated figure skater found himself in a different world. Tombon has no electricity or running water.

"Growing up in North America, it's a very, very different life," Elladj said. "You get water from the ground, or from the river. There's no refrigerators, so you eat the food that walks around you: chickens, cows, goats. You eat fresh animals. It's an amazing, humbling experience. They don't have anything, but people there are happy; they smile, they're welcoming, they're warm."

Communication was a challenge. The relatives in the city speak French, as do Elladj and his father, but the family members in the village spoke only the local tongue, Fulani, or Poular. Ibrahim and some of his brothers translated for Elladj.

Elladj said that meeting his grandfather was the most emotional moment of his life.

"It's probably the most memorable and intense moment -- full of feelings -- that I've experienced," he said. "Not only for me, and the family, but for everyone in the village. It was a dream come true. For him, it was the most important thing in his life, since I'm the first son of his first son. I sat down next to him and he grabbed my face, and he repeated, 'Thank you, God' over and over and over. It was such an intense moment. I have goosebumps remembering it."

By the way, Elladj said his mother had trouble pronouncing the name "Elhadj," so his father slightly modified the grandfather's name when he named his son. Elladj's grandmother, Hadja Fatoumata Binta Diallo, also lives in the village, and also had an emotional meeting with her son and grandson.

Elladj has discovered he is a little bit famous in Guinea -- that people have noticed that there is a Canadian skater with a Guinean name. He dreams of someday doing a skating show in the country.

"I got to meet the minister of sports and the president of the Olympic committee," he said. "The president wanted to meet me, but he wasn't in the country. Who would have thought skating was popular in Africa? They created a skating federation because they found out there was a skater from there. There's kids out doing tricks on rollerblades outside. It's really crazy to see, the passion they have for this sport. After going there, I can see that I have projects -- maybe one day building a rink."

In all, the Baldés stayed in Guinea for 11 days, days Elladj says have changed him forever.

"Everything that's part of my life is affected by it," he said. "My relationships with my famly here have changed. My skating will change, because I realize I have the opportunity to do all these things. In training, you can lose the sense of doing it with joy. This kind of brings back the sense of doing it for fun. We're so fortunate in developed countries to have the opportunity to do whatever we want. It changed me. It made me realize that there are other things in life than skating. Life is so much more than skating."

New dance team

Daniel Eaton, the 2014 Four Continents bronze medalist, and Danielle Thomas, the 2014 U.S. novice pewter medalist, announced that they have teamed up and plan to compete in 2015-16. Eaton recently split with his former partner, Alexandra Aldridge, with whom he finished sixth at the 2015 U.S. Championships. Eaton and Thomas will train in Canton, Michigan, with Marina Zoueva, Johnny Johns, Oleg Epstein and Massimo Scali.

"From the first second we stepped on the ice together, we shared this connection," Eaton said. "I can't really explain what it is. We used to train together years ago, so it's not like it was totally a new person, but we get along so well on the ice. Communication is really easy; the emotional connection to the music is really natural. Training the lifts and spins is superior to anything I've ever done before. We're trying some really wild lifts."

"I love the work ethic he has," Thomas added. "I feel like once we have time to train everything, we'll be the best in the world someday."

Eaton says that in the short run, the team hopes for an international assignment or two next season and a top-five finish in the U.S. Looking ahead, he says the team hopes to compete in two, possibly three, Olympic cycles, with a primary goal of making the 2018 Olympic team.

"I'm so excited," Thomas said. "It's a huge jump, but with such a strong partner, anything's possible."

The new team is training 6-7 hours on the ice, five days a week, along with extra dance and conditioning classes on the weekend. They not only need to prepare for next season, but Thomas must quickly make the transition to the senior level.

"The jump from junior to senior is a huge leap," Eaton said. "We're really focused on finishing up the Ravensburger Waltz. But it's like Danielle was meant to be at this level."

Eaton and Thomas plan to compete at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships this summer. They will also attend the Chesapeake Open camp so judges can evaluate them.

"The feedback we're getting is that we look like a really strong team. We have a huge future ahead of us," Eaton said. "It's like a new fire lit for both of us. When you look at the two of us on the ice, it's almost like it's meant to be."

Elbow

As mentioned in last week's column, pairs skater Zack Sidhu had surgery March 4 at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles.

"Basically, I have had pain in my right elbow for about five years," Sidhu emailed afterward. "I've seen quite a few doctors, and almost all of them had different answers. Finally, I went to see the best orthopedic surgeon in L.A. (Dr. Neal ElAttrache) who works on all the professional sports teams in Los Angeles. He told me I had an excessive buildup of fibrous tissue that needed to be removed through arthroscopic surgery."

Sidhu, his partner Jessica Calalang and coaches Jenni Meno and Todd Sand decided the best choice would be to have the surgery after the U.S. championships. A week later, he said he was feeling good.

"I got off the pain meds the day after surgery because I don't want that stuff in my body, and I wasn't feeling a ton of pain," he said. "I just got out of my sling and can begin lightly working out, which I'm excited about because I've been incredibly bored sitting at home all day."

The doctors told Sidhu he would be back to 100 percent 4-6 weeks after surgery. Calalang and Sidhu plan to compete this summer as scheduled.

One Skate

The fourth annual benefit show organized by Jordan Moeller, One Skate at a Time, will take place April 25, the day after Moeller's 20th birthday. Proceeds from the show, at the Southwest Ice Arena in Crestwood, Illinois, go to Children's Oncology Services, Inc., and benefit the One Step at a Time camp for kids with cancer.

Moeller said he is still finalizing the cast, which will include Jason Brown, Mariah Bell, Tyler Pierce, Ashley Cain, Jimmy Ma, ice dancer Daniel Klaber (skating solo) and two synchronized teams, Radiance and the Western Michigan collegiate team.

Moeller, who was only 16 when he organized and presented the first benefit show, said that even then he hoped it would become an annual event.

"I wasn't totally sure what the reception would be," he said. "I'm amazed how great the turnout has been and how much it has grown every year. So far, we've raised a little over $20,000. This year, I want to at least break the $10,000 we made last year."

Apart from organizing the show, Moeller is getting organized for next season. He's going to keep his 2014-15 free skate, which has him playing a mad king.

"It's pretty dark," he admitted. "I don't think my parents quite realized what it was going to be like, until sectionals. I'm like, 'Yeah, I kind of hang myself at the end.' It's fun to do." 

Choreographer Rohene Ward will be creating a new short program for Moeller, but the skater said he hadn't made a final decision on the music yet.

Enjoy the 2015 World Championships!