Ice Network

Change of scenery pushes Baldé to realize potential

Nebelhorn champion credits new diet, coaches with improved performance
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Elladj Baldé has revived his career with the help of coach Bruno Marcotte. -Klaus-Reinhold Kany

When Elladj Baldé finished his free skate at the Nebelhorn Trophy last weekend, he looked up into the crowd and flashed that trademark ear-to-ear smile, triumphant in winning his first international competition.

Although Baldé's charisma has given him invitations to some of the world's top skating tours, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Stéphane Lambiel, Denis Ten and Carolina Kostner, the 24-year-old Montrealer had not won anything since taking the junior title at the Canadian championships in 2008.

Internationally, he had a second and a third at a couple of Junior Grand Prix, in those heady days when he showed so much promise. But since then, not a shimmer of a medal anywhere. At Nebelhorn last year, he was fifth.

At home, in the six years he's competed in the senior men's event at his nationals, he's finished fourth three times. Last year, he was sixth, a placement that brought an end to his season. He was devastated. He had envisioned winning the gold.

Last weekend, Baldé fired notice that he's a new man. Returning to Oberstdorf for the fourth time, he topped the field with 242.36 points, 20 more than former U.S. champion Max Aaron and 30 points better than his previous best. Afterward, he described the experience as "truly amazing."

"I knew I had the ability to deliver these kind of programs," he said. "It's great to have a number that shows what I'm really capable of."

To come up with this performance, Baldé had to dig into his past and re-examine why he wanted to skate in the first place. The day after the 2015 Canadian Championships, he booked a flight to Africa to see his 99-year-old imam grandfather for the first time in Guinea. The meeting had a profound effect on him. He found his roots; he discovered what he was made of.

When he returned from Africa, he had some big decisions to make. First, he realized that it was too expensive for him to stay in Detroit with coaches Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen. With the Canadian dollar so devalued, his money didn't go as far as he needed it to in the U.S. He couldn't gain employment in Detroit because he had no working visa. He had to do shows to pay for his training, which took time away from training.

So Baldé reluctantly moved back to Montreal to live with his parents.

"I cried and Yuka cried and Jason cried, because they saved my career," Baldé said.

When he had left Montreal for Detroit in 2011, nothing was going right.

"They literally picked me up and showed me the way," Baldé said. "Making the decision to leave was one of the hardest things that I've ever done."

But he missed Montreal, too. And he needed to be with his family.

He had other battles to fight, too. Baldé didn't enjoy skating for a long time after nationals. He even questioned his identity.

"I was supposed to be national champion, so who am I?" he said. "I just had no answer. I started thinking about why I was skating. If I wasn't really enjoying this, then why am I here? I was not doing all these things for the right reason. Everything I was doing was for external reasons. There was nothing coming from inside."

He decided he would not step back onto the ice until he was ready to say that he loved it, that he wanted to do it, that he wanted to skate for himself. If he never reached that point, he would not continue.

In doing shows, he realized what made him unique.

"People were reacting in ways that not everybody can make these people react," he said. "I have this gift of connecting with people. I love feeling that."

That was good enough for him. One day in April, he asked to meet coach Bruno Marcotte, known principally as a pairs coach. But coaching singles wasn't totally foreign to him: Years ago, when Marcotte worked with Joanne McLeod in Vancouver, he helped coach Jeremy Ten and Kevin Reynolds.

The two met for coffee.

"We talked about the philosophy of skating and of life," Marcotte said. "We really connected. Right away, there was a bond between me and him."

Almost immediately, Baldé realized he had to lose weight.

"I wanted to be lighter, and not just for jumps but skating-wise," he said. "I wanted to be lighter on my feet."

He also wanted a short program to match, so choreographer Julie Marcotte found him a whimsical jazz piece by Duke Ellington -- "Echoes of Harlem" -- that, with its capricious notes and laidback rhythms, presents a new challenge. With this routine, Baldé blew away his previous best for the short program by more than six points at Nebelhorn, earning a score of 78.56.

The weight loss has helped, too. Baldé has adopted the eating habits of world pairs champion Meagan Duhamel, a well-known vegan. Since cutting animal products out of his diet, Baldé has lost 13 pounds. More than that, he's noticed a change in his ability to persevere through his training. Previously, he'd take long breaks in between his 45-minute training sessions.

"I would be exhausted," he said. "During these sessions, it would be hard for me to get going."

Now, he skates for an hour at a time, taking only 10-minute breaks in between.

"I have so much energy, and I recover faster between sessions," he said. "The next day, I'm ready to go.

"Every day, I can push the limit, and that's why I'm so much more trained now than I have ever been."

Baldé is also quick to credit his new coaching team, which also includes Manon Perron, the former coach of Olympic bronze medalist Joannie Rochette, for his improved performance.

"Bruno is an amazing coach," he said. "He understands how to put you in the right state of mind and perspective."

Balde has learned a lot in the past six months. He knows that, at age 24, time is not on his side. But he is in a better place -- mentally and physically -- than he has been in a while, and if the early returns are any indication, he is finally ready to make some serious noise.