Sports

Girdwood’s Keegan Messing is ready to rock Pyeongchang

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: February 9
  • Published February 7

Keegan Messing high-fives fans at a send-off party hosted by the Alaska Association of Figure Skaters at the Dimond Center Ice Chalet.  (Marc Lester / ADN)

Stomp-stomp clap.

Stomp-stomp clap.

Stomp-stomp clap.

The sports anthem "We Will Rock You" began to play on the loudspeakers, and Keegan Messing was in command.

The Olympic-bound figure skater from Girdwood stroked powerfully around the Dimond Center Ice Chalet, stomping his skates and clapping his hands to the song's irresistible beat. The crowd followed his lead.

Messing, 26, was at the rink last week for a send-off party, an occasion for old acquaintances and new fans to bid him good luck and goodbye before he left for Pyeongchang, South Korea, where he will be the first Alaska man to compete in Olympic figure skating.

Some made donations to help his parents, Bob and Sally Messing of Girdwood, make the trip to South Korea.

Then someone offered $200 if Messing did a quad – figure skating's most difficult element. In a single jump, a skater makes four full revolutions in the air before, hopefully, landing cleanly on the correct edge of his skate blade.

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Quads aren't something done casually at a shopping mall ice rink. Falls are common; injuries are possible. With the Olympics a week away, Messing didn't need to take this kind of a risk.

But the crowd was eager, and $200 equals about one-third to one-half the price of a new pair of blades. And Messing is nothing if not a showman.

And so the music began. Messing spurred the crowd into clapping to the beat as he built up speed on the small rink. On opposite ends of the ice, mom Sally and coach Ralph Burghart held their breath. Finally, Messing rocketed into the air and became a blur as he executed a clean quadruple toe loop.

Mom and coach exhaled. No harm, no fall.

Keegan Messing executes a jump at his send-off party at the Dimond Center Ice Chalet. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Returning to his roots

After his 15-minute exhibition that showcased his fast spins and big jumps, Messing mingled with the crowd.

Between smiling for a selfie with a teenage girl and posing with a group of a dozen young fans, he spoke about having his send-off at the Dimond Center.

"Oh my gosh," Messing said. "This is where I learned to skate.

"… To have this send-off party means so much to me. It's just a dream come true."

Returning to the Dimond rink was a return to Messing's roots — and the continuation of a theme that has become part of his back-story heading into Pyeongchang.

Sally Messing showed up for the send-off wearing a Roots Canada winter hat. Roots is a Canadian apparel company that has outfitted several of Canada's Olympic teams; at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Roots gear was the must-have item.

Sally picked up the hat several years ago while her son was in a competition somewhere in New England, near Canada. It's her favorite hat, partly because of what it represents.

"It's my roots," she said.

And it's why Messing will compete at the Olympics for Canada, not the United States.

Sally Messing, Keegan’s mother, was born in Canada, which gives her son dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Sally Messing was born in Edmonton, her father was born in Newfoundland and her mother was born in British Columbia. Keegan's great-great-grandfather was Manzo Nagano, Canada's first-known immigrant from Japan.

Messing, a lifelong Alaskan, started his career with the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

At age 15, he became the country's first novice-level skater to complete a triple axel in competition and he quickly accelerated to the junior-level ranks – a move that sealed his competitive fate for several years. Once a national federation sends a skater to a junior competition, the skater is aligned with that nation unless the federation releases the skater from that obligation.

By 2014, at age 22, Messing seemed to be heading in the wrong direction. He placed 16th at the 2013 U.S. championships and 12th at the 2014 U.S. championships. The U.S. federation decided not to send him to any international competitions in the 2013-14 season, making Messing a free agent.

The next season, he was skating for Canada.

A free spirit

Ralph Burghart, Messing's longtime coach, called the change "huge."

"He fits in," Burghart said. "He's more of a rough nature, more of a country boy. Canadians are very friendly, and he's one of the friendliest guys I've ever met.

A former Austrian national champion and a 1992 Olympian, Burghart said the U.S. federation has a certain kind of image in mind for its skaters, and Messing didn't always fit the image.

Ralph Burghart, Messing’s longtime coach, competed for Austria at the 1992 Winter Olympics. (Marc Lester / ADN)

As a little boy, Messing's idol was Canada's Elvis Stojko, a two-time Olympic silver medalist known more for his athleticism than his artistry. Messing has matured into a skater who combines both aspects in his skating, but he is more likely to skate to pop music than classical music, and his signature off-ice look includes a cowboy hat.

He likes to tell a story and assume a character on ice. For a season or two, Messing wore costumes with bright green color-blocking to play the Incredible Hulk; this season, he does Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain" for his short program and Charlie Chaplin in a medley of silent-picture tunes for his long program.

Messing is a showman and a free spirit, Burghart said, "and the U.S. was trying to conform him to a certain style and take that away from him."

"In Canada," Burghart said, "you can be who you are."

Keegan Messing laces his skates before performing an exhibition at his send-off party. (Marc Lester / ADN)

‘Do I get a solo?’

Sally Messing remembers how a pre-teen Keegan used to leave the backstage area to check out audiences at the national championships.

"He still does," said Burghart. "He's getting the atmosphere. He's inhaling it. It's been his M.O. forever."

Messing has always liked being the center of attention, which is essential for a singles figure skater. Skiers and bobsledders might crash, but their mishaps happen on a mountain-side or a halfpipe or a track, perhaps in front of TV cameras and crowds but not on a stage with a packed house watching. Figure skaters are exposed in a way that demands a love of the spotlight.

An energetic kid for as long as anyone can remember, Messing was sent to classical ballet classes when he was little in the hope it could "control that crazy body of his," Sally Messing said.

"He didn't want to do it," she said. "I told him, 'There's a show at the end of the intensive,' and he said, 'Do I get a solo?' ''

Messing was the center of attention last week at the Dimond ice rink, where fans clamored for a photo, a high-five, a bit of conversation. He shared a particularly poignant moment with Liv Ramos, a longtime skating coach in Anchorage.

She remembered coaching the athletic little boy who could jump out of the arena and execute advanced spin combinations. "You need to spin tighter and faster," she would tell him, and he obliged.

"He just draws you in," Ramos said. "He's a Girdwood boy. He likes dirt-biking and skiing."

Messing is crowded by fans at his send-off party. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Doing big things

Many in the crowd were young skaters with dreams of their own. Ten-year-old Kylie-Jewel Schneider has been skating since she was 4, and Messing's spectacular spins made an impression.

"It inspires me," Schneider said. "That's the first Olympian I've met in real life."

Eight-year-old Quinn Hamel, who wore a pink sweater that said "Keep calm and figure skate," has been skating since she was 18 months old. She met 2014 Olympian Gracie Gold once at a Minnesota ice rink, and now she has met Messing.

"I liked the quad, the split jumps and flips," she said.

Quinn's mother, Chrystal Hamel, is a coach with the Alaska Association of Figure Skaters who directs an ice show twice a year at the Dimond rink. She has been part of the Anchorage figure skating scene since she was a little girl and has known Messing since he was a little boy.

"I've seen him grow up since he was little," Hamel said, holding her hand palm-down near her knee to show how little. "He's always been a little star."

Hamel really has seen Messing grow up. She was part of Anchorage's golden age of figure skating when she competed 25 years ago.

She was Chrystal Reed then, part of a group that included Sydne Vogel, J.J Matthews, Christina Gordon, Sarah Devereaux and others who in the 1990s consistently vied for age-group medals at the national champions.

"It's so great to have somebody so close to home be so big. It's been 20 years since we've had anyone do something big," Hamel said. "He's put in so much work (at this ice rink) and he's so driven. I might cry right here."

Vogel is widely viewed as Alaska's most successful figure skater. (Ashley Wagner, who grew up in Eagle River, won a team medal for the United States at the 2014 Olympics, but she and her military family left Alaska when she was in her early teens.)

Vogel won the 1996 World Junior championship by beating heavily favored Tara Lipinski, who went on to win gold at the 1998 Olympics. Vogel finished fourth at the 1996 national championships and was in the conversation with Lipinski and Michelle Kwan when it came to top U.S. skaters two decades ago.

But only Messing has made it to the Olympics in figure skating as a born, bred and PFD-earning Alaskan.

He has been in pinch-me mode – is this really happening? – ever since he placed second at last month's Canadian national championships to clinch an Olympic berth.

"It's unbelievable. I can't get over it," he said. "I'm so honored. I still can't believe I'm going to the Olympics."

Keegan Messing begins a combination spin. (Marc Lester / ADN)