Q&A: Anchorage figure skater Keegan Messing heads to the Olympics at the top of his game

Messing recently won his first Canadian national championship. He shares thoughts on his recent success, becoming a father and the upcoming games in Beijing.

In the weeks nestled between some of the grandest competitions in his sport, you might catch Keegan Messing quietly lacing up his skates in the corner of a near-empty South Anchorage ice rink. The veteran Anchorage figure skater, who turns 30 on Jan. 23, will travel later this month to Beijing, where he’ll represent Canada at the Winter Olympics for the second time. Though Messing grew up in Girdwood and now lives in Anchorage, he has dual citizenship and deep family ties to Canada.

Messing is gliding toward the Olympics with momentum. Earlier this month, he won the Canadian national championship in Ottawa, Ontario, a first for him. During his long program, he skated to a song called “Home,” a song he said he chose with his infant son, Wyatt, in mind.

We spoke with Messing before a training session in mid-January about his recent achievements, how becoming a father has affected him, and the hopes he’s carrying with him to China. Here’s part of our conversation, edited for clarity.

Six days ago you became a Canadian national champion.

Has it really only been six days?

Maybe you don’t get to savor it for long before you gotta start thinking about the next big thing. But just tell me a little bit about what that means to you to win that championship.

I think I’m still trying to answer that one a little bit. This is my 19th year of nationals. Last year it didn’t happen, and I’m still kind of counting last year because I still qualified. I still would’ve gone. But yeah, it took me 19 years to finally end up on top. Honestly, I’m almost more happy about that than making the Olympic team at this point. I’m not sure if it’s just because four years ago, I made the goal of being an Olympian, and so I still hadn’t been national champion. And so the (national championship) is just the forefront on my mind. I’m pretty over the hills about it.

I’m leaving on (Jan.) 25th for the Olympics, and that high from nationals is just really carrying me on the training track right now to really peak at the Olympics, hopefully.

Tell me about becoming a father and how that changed things for you?

It’s kind of crazy. The decision to go ahead and start trying to have a kid, it was a lot of splitting hairs and trying to figure out when’s the right time to start. And now, it’s like it could never go back. It’s amazing. It’s like he just fit right into our lives like the perfect puzzle piece … It’s like you don’t realize that you’re not whole until the little one pops out. He just makes everything worth more while.

Does (fatherhood) give you a balance that you didn’t have in the past?

I’m not sure about balance, but it’s definitely almost given me a realization of what’s to come after skating. I’m definitely on the older side of the sport now. At the Olympics, I think I’m going to be the third-oldest guy in the men’s field. We’re going to have a 34-year-old there, I think a 32, and I’ll be 30. It’s pretty rare to see this many 30-year-olds at an Olympic championships at the top of our game. To have the little guy waiting at home, he gives me a little bit of foresight to what’s after skating …

The retirement’s coming pretty soon. It’s kind of scary, I’ve been doing this sport for 26 years now. Almost 27.

Your sport and your program are very physically demanding with big jumps. If I’m correct, you incorporate two quads. Are you considering upping the level of difficulty even more for the Olympics?

Yes. We are definitely considering it, but we have to wait and see how I’m reacting at the time of the competition … Really it’s the week leading up to the competition to see what we’re going to push for.

The base program that we’re going to push for right now is two quads, two axels and then all the triples going in. So, it’s still a very technically demanding program. But we’re really hoping to get one more quad into the program. It may not sound like much to just throw one more quad in the program. But what you’re doing is, you’re taking the easiest jump in your program and replacing it with the hardest jump that you have.

It seems so close to the Olympics to be rocking the boat and not to have it dialed in. Is just how the sport is or how you like to approach it?

You’re definitely right. It’s a little close to be rocking the boat, as you say. But at the same time, we train in such a way (that) we’re trying to peak at the right moment. And my cardio, my physical training, we’re starting to see the fruits of our labor right now. We’re getting through the programs easier. We’re getting more gas at the end of the program to push for more. And if I can hold injuries off, if I can hold so much off, to gain an extra jump? You know, well, I don’t have much time left. And honestly, it might be fun to push that much harder for everything.

You’re an athlete who feeds off the crowd. You’re known for your backflips (outside of competition), for instance. You like to put on a show. Now you oftentimes are performing to empty arenas. Is that an extra challenge for you?

You know, I thought it would be. Something I found out last year while competing without the crowds was your body knows what to do. I almost notice it more on practice ice than other times. You’re on a practice ice and you land a really cool jump, and look out and you’re like, “Hey, did anyone see that?” No one’s looking around. The stadium’s empty.

When you’re going out for competition, there’s so much pressure, so much nerves, so much inward focus that you kind of forget that the crowd’s not there. And it’s like, yeah, you do miss the applause. You miss the energy that’s in the building … At the end of the program’s where you miss it the most. Or at the three-quarter-way mark, where you’re pushing your gas tank on empty and you’re digging deep, and you don’t have that crowd push to help you go through. They’re definitely missed.

But it’s kind of interesting that you’re backstage and you still get the butterflies. You still get the knots in your stomach.

Omicron has changed so much already, as you’ve described. How concerned are you about staying healthy, and how has it changed your routine?

We’ve been trying to stay as healthy as we can, trying to keep ourselves as distanced as possible. We shop at Costco, so we just try to pick up everything we can at one time, and then go back in two and a half weeks. We try to pick up enough stuff to just keep us at home.

We might be going a little on the safe side, but you know what? This is my job. This is my life. I’m going to do everything I can to stay on the ice and stay as healthy as possible. With the airplanes and stuff, honestly you just put the doubt behind you. You trust their systems and you trust everybody else trying to be as safe as you. And there’s nothing really else you can do.

Especially in an Olympic year, you must get asked all the time, “Why is he not on Team USA?” How do you respond?

My plan from the beginning was always to skate for Team Canada. I’ve always loved my Canadian roots. My grandma — my mom’s mom — came up for my little brother’s birth, and she never left. She always had an influence on us growing up. And her being of Japanese descent, loves, loves figure skating. She would always tell me stories about Kurt Browning, Elvis Stojko, and how they skated. And then telling a young, impressionable kid that Canada’s never had an Olympic men’s gold medalist. I mean right there, I wanted to be the first. I already had the Olympic dream. It’s like now I want to be the first Olympic gold medalist for Canada.

It was always a goal of mine to skate for Canada. My great-great-grandfather, Manzo Nagano, was also the first Japanese immigrant into Canada.

It’s like, yes, I did grow up in Alaska, and honestly I’m Alaska-proud. Alaska’s my home. I still consider myself an Alaskan athlete. I’m an Alaskan athlete who skates for Canada, and this is always going to be home.

But I have that pull to Canada. And, one, they’ve treated me so well, I’ve never looked back. They’ve done everything and more for me, and I’ve just got these ties there. I love to represent Canada. Honestly, they’re my second home.

At the last winter games, you finished 12th overall. A year ago at World Championships, you finished 6th. You just won the Canadian national championship. What would satisfy you at the Olympics this year?

The men’s field is immensely strong. There are just some incredible, incredible athletes out there right now. At any given day they can skate their absolute best, or they can take a stumble … It’s a difficult sport, and I feel like just hoping everybody goes out there and skates well is really the only thing you can do.

If I can focus on myself, to go out and skate my best, I can leave with my head held up high, even if I do finish in 12th again, or lower. But if I can go out there, skate the skate that I made the Olympic team for, I can leave happy.

Of course, a high placement would put a smile on my face, but this is too difficult of a sport to wish ill on anybody else. At the same time, it’s a heck of a sport to judge, too. We’re all working our tails off here, and I wouldn’t want to be the judges for this sport.

Your sport is one of the premier sports in Winter Olympics, so widely viewed and high profile. Here in Anchorage, it seems like you can keep a low profile. You come in (to the rink) in the morning, and not too many people are interrupting you and you can concentrate. Do you feel like being in Anchorage helps you train?

Yes and no … For the most part, it creates an excellent training environment. But at the same time, we strive on competition. So being away from the other top men in the field does hamper training does hamper training quite a bit …

It’s a double-edged sword. It’s like having your own ice, being able to work on what you want to work on, and be able to focus strongly. It’s great. But then being so far away from everybody, you kind of lose sight of what everyone else is doing sometimes. And so, to keep that motivation is probably the hardest part about being in Anchorage.

As you mentioned earlier, you feel like you’re getting to the end of your competitive life. But you’re also showing that you’re at the top of your game. How will you know when it’s time to hang up the skates?

I think I’m still trying to answer that question. I feel like my body might be the one to tell me when it’s time to hang up the skates. I’m starting to get more and more aches and pains every day. And honestly, I feel like if I can just keep moving, I’ll have the best shot of maybe getting one more year. I think at this time, my goal is one more season. I wouldn’t mind making 20 National Championships and a World Team Trophy next year.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.