Phaneuf back in the game

From down to up, skater ready to compete

Cynthia Phaneuf performs.
Cynthia Phaneuf performs. (Getty Images)


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By Laurie Nealin, special to
(02/06/2008) - In 2004, 15-year-old Cynthia Phaneuf scored an upset victory at the Canadian championships after landing six clean triple jumps. Two years later, the former champion struggled to land even a double Axel, let alone a triple; those attempts routinely ended in failure.

People, even Phaneuf herself, began doubting that she could ever regain her winning form after being sidelined the entire 2005-06 season with injuries to her landing foot and knee. A five-inch growth spurt and weight gain during the long layoff made matters worse.

"It was a very rough time for me," Phaneuf said this week, in a telephone interview with "Everybody tried to help me and they don't give up, but in their head everybody was like, 'she's not going to do it; that's impossible starting from her double Axel.' I was falling on double Axels.

"I was crying every day. After almost a year like that, things started to be better -- one after another, but after a very long time. For me and my family, it was very tough.

"I was thinking maybe I should go back to school and stop wasting my time at the rink. I realized I had to start over again, just be patient, not panic at every jump I was missing. Then, things started getting better and I worked harder and harder."

Fast forward to the 2008 Canadian championships: Phaneuf, now 20, and standing 5 feet, six-and-a-half inches, arrives in Vancouver with a full competition arsenal. She is armed with big, beautiful triple jumps, exquisite spins, and David Wilson's sophisticated choreography. For the first time since 2005, a confident and determined Phaneuf lands on the podium, capturing the bronze medal.

Fittingly, she skates her exhibition program in the closing gala to "I Will Survive."

Next week, the rejuvenated skater will be in South Korea with Canadian champion Joannie Rochette, and silver medalist Mira Leung for the ISU Four Continents Championships. Since Canada has just two women's berths for the Worlds, Phaneuf's competitive season will end there.

"I know Four Continents won't be the same as Canadians. It's going to be a very tough competition and it will be good for me to see others skate their best. I just want to skate my best and see how I end up compared to them," said Phaneuf, who ranked 15th at this event a year ago after placing fourth nationally.

As for the four years that have elapsed since Phaneuf won the Canadian title, she said it seems like a very short time, as if the year-and-a-half she was away from competition never happened. "Now that I have all my jumps (back), everything is like it was before on the ice. It's very weird because it's 2008 but, for me, it's like 2004 was two years ago.

"I needed a lot of patience -- more at the beginning like last year because I wasn't doing all of my (triple) jumps," said Phaneuf, who had remastered only two triples -- the toe-loop and Salchow -- a year ago.

"This year was a lot better because every competition I was having a big improvement so that when I went back to training, I knew I was getting better each time so it was easier."

When Phaneuf competed at the 2004 Four Continents, she took silver. Later that year, she also claimed second at Skate America, then gold at Skate Canada International which qualified her for the Grand Prix Final. That season ended with a disappointing 20th place showing at the 2005 World Championships. The year before, Skate Canada and her coach Annie Barabe decided the newly-crowned national champion should go to Junior Worlds to gain experience before hitting the big stage. In hindsight, Phaneuf believes that was probably a wrong move.

Phaneuf trains in Contrecoeur, Quebec, with Jessica Dube and her pairs partner Bryce Davison, the 2007 champions who took silver last month, and men's bronze medalist Shawn Sawyer. Dube and Davison took a pass on Four Continents to prepare for Worlds, but Sawyer will travel to Korea.

"We work all together. We have the same coach and work together at the gym. We have the same mental coach, too. We always try to help each other to not give up and to train hard," Phaneuf offered.

Sawyer, who is making a mini-comeback of his own after finishing off the Canadians podium last year recognizes how difficult it was for Phaneuf to climb back into the top three.

"Cynthia was a great motivation because, at one point, she had trouble doing the easiest triples. Now, she's back on the podium, has all her triples and training very, very hard," Sawyer said. "I was feeding off that a little bit because it is remarkable to see how she is now compared to two years ago.

"It's a good inspiration not only for me, but for a lot of young girls who go through puberty and their bodies change a bit. She proved that she was able to come back," he added.

Next season, Phaneuf intends to add a second triple Lutz to her long program. This summer she will also work on triple-triple combinations.

"I am a lot stronger than I was before. I gained muscle from working out at the gym. Being stronger is maybe why my jumps have more height now. I jumped high before, but not that high and not with that much speed," said Phaneuf, whose goal is to earn a trip to the 2009 Worlds in Los Angeles, and the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.