Ice breakers

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Though some sports are often seen as being male-dominated, in some parts of the world of athleticism, men are a minority. Tristan Simpson takes a look at the often-overlooked sport of male figure skating

The cheers echo throughout the arena as the announcer introduces the next men’s free skate entrant, Spencer Buchanan.

Decked in all black, he casually glides backwards with his hands in his pockets as if it was a free skate on Mattamy Athletic Centre’s ice.

He doesn’t look like a typical figure skater. He doesn’t wear elaborate costumes. For him, a plain tee and pants will do. He stands six feet two inches – taller than most competitors.

He brings his large frame to a slow then raises his lengthy arms to embrace the sound. He stops at centre ice. He gathers himself and starts his routine.

There are 17 students on Ryerson’s figure skating team. Two of them are male and only one is permitted to compete. Figure skaters are judged on their technique and finesse, but it is a female-dominated sport. The male minority that does compete at the university level struggles to gain the recognition awarded to their female counterparts. Ontario University Athletics (OUA) has one event for men to compete in at the figure skating championships and winter invitationals. The women have 14 events for singles, pairs, fours and teams. Most university teams have just one male player on their squad.

Buchanan says he didn’t always want to be a figure skater. “When I was younger, all of my friends were playing hockey and they would poke fun at [me] for figure skating,” he says. “When that happens, you want to fit in and just play hockey.” He changed his mind after his childhood coach told him he had the potential to excel in figure skating.

“I think the fact [that the OUA] only has one event for men is a gender bias,” figure skating head coach Lauren Wilson says. She says she doesn’t think the gender bias is done on purpose, but the structure of the OUA figure skating championships doesn’t help.

“Our roster is limited to 17 and there’s only one competition for men. We can’t make room for more guys… Men can compete in the synchro event, but that still leaves their options low.” Buchanan chose not to partake in team synchro. “I train on my own, so doing synchro wouldn’t work for me,” he says.

Buchanan notes that the sport faces a lack of recognition. “Most people don’t take it serious. They don’t know the sport, all they know is Blades of Glory.”

An hour before the competition, Buchanan was writing an exam. The 22-yearold is a second-year accounting student at Ryerson. On top of his studies, he’s been competing in figure skating for six years. “My whole family has been skating for a long time,” he says.

Like any athlete, he devoted a lot of time to training, until his luck took a turn for the worst on May 5, 2012. He was walking home alone from a bar in Montreal when he was hit by a car.

“I really don’t have any memory of what happened,” Buchanan says. He was found in the middle of the street unconscious and bleeding at 3:35 a.m. He woke up in a downtown Montreal hospital.

Buchanan suffered a baseline skull fracture that kept him off the ice for a year. “I wasn’t sure if I could [go] back to skating,” he says. Buchanan was inspired by Javier Fernandez – the 2014 European men’s figure skating champion.

He says watching Fernandez skate at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club pushed him back into competition.

Buchanan’s first dance back on the ice was rough. “I hadn’t competed in like two years and I forgot how much it took to skate…

[figure skating] is surprisingly tiring and I was out of breath for like half an hour.” Figure skating competitions are tightly judged. Skaters are scored on the difficulty and style of the routine, but they’re sometimes also judged off the ice by society.

Buchanan says that some people make sweeping assumption about male figure skaters – sometimes extending to their sexuality. “I’m not gay, but [that] notion people have bugs me a little bit.” He says these assumptions deter athletes from pursuing the sport. “If you are gay, it can be hard to deal with the way people label you.” Emily Rose Galliani Pecchia, a third-year forward on the Ryerson women’s hockey team, says, “People shouldn’t make these assumptions flat out… Whether they’re a figure skater, hockey player or wrestler, it doesn’t determine if they’re gay or straight.” Galliani Pecchia, whom is gay, says athletes should be able to compete in any sport without being judged.

“If an athlete is gay, they should feel comfortable enough to compete. It’s not fair for an athlete to feel uncomfortable in their field of play,” she says. She adds that her teammates are open about their sexuality. “There is always someone to talk to within our dressing room, which is an anomaly in varsity sport since it is a taboo subject.” Pierre Alain, interim head coach of the Ryerson women’s hockey team, says there are false perceptions that female hockey players are physical and butch. “Yes, many players like the physical part of the [sport], but that’s not all you need to be a good player.” He says athletes shouldn’t be categorized based on the sport they play.

“Look at Meghan Agosta – she started as a figure skater before doing hockey.” Figure skating isn’t a prominent sport at most universities.

The crowd at the OUAs is meager compared to the ones at a basketball or hockey games and is made up mostly of athletes’ teammates.

But Buchanan says that figure skating is growing.

When Buchanan was a kid, he would take cover when people made fun of him for figure skating.

Today, he is less shy. “Some people give you a look, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.” His response to those who question the physical demand required to compete: “Why don’t you give it a try and see how you do?”

Buchanan knows what to do to win. He preps himself mentally while sitting in the men’s changeroom at the OUAs. “You have to focus in. You have to relax. Don’t over-analyze things. Let your body do what you trained it to do,” he says.

After he is mentally prepared, he heads to the ice. Buchanan walks on the Rams mat before leaving the changeroom, then remembers,

“You’re not supposed to do that – it’s bad luck.” During the warm-up skate, Daft Punk’s One More Time radiates through the arena. Competitors are already on the ice perfecting their routine.

Each one exudes confidence. “I’m not going to lie, I really want to win,” he says.

One after another they take the ice and perform their routine.

Buchanan is the third competitor to hit the ice, and he emerges to Elton John’s Your Song. Some of the female athletes in the audience begin to sing along and they throw flowers at him when the routine is finished. Many of the men’s routines were comedic and they were often met with laughter.

Some audience members commented on Buchanan’s “sparkles” on his black tee.

Every spin, jump and turn is completed with grace. He explodes with a double axel. He nails jump after jump, then suddenly staggers on his landing.

He throws his hands to catch himself and continues. He elicits more cheers from the audience by breaking down with a few robot dance moves. He ends his routine with a flurry of spin moves. He comes to a halt and then puts his hands back in his pockets.

Buchanan doesn’t win his event – the men’s open singles – but he does finish second. His inspiration – Fernandez – places fourth at the Sochi Olympics the same day he competes in Toronto.

Buchanan doesn’t stick around to watch the awards presentation because he has work – his sister accepts his medal for him.

“You never know what to expect, I didn’t watch everyone else skate.” He pauses. “Second place is alright.”

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