There was a pivotal moment for Keegan Messing, a week that stabilized the young figure skater’s precarious career, which was dangling on the precipice.
He was 22 years old when competition started at the 2015 Canadian National Championships in Kingston, Ontario.
A once-promising American junior skater, Messing, who grew up in Girdwood, fell off the U.S. figure skating team and hadn’t competed internationally in over a year. He had made the decision to skate for Canada, where his mother was born. The transition took a couple years, and while Messing had earned a bronze at the Skate Canada Challenge to qualify for the 2015 nationals, his future was still opaque.
“I don’t know if I would have continued, honestly,” he said. “I was that much on the edge of just not knowing where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do.”
Messing finished fifth — not on the medal stand but a positive development nonetheless. He would stick it out, he decided.
And not only did he stick it out, he stuck out. Since nearly hanging it up in 2015, Messing has gone on to become one of Canada’s most decorated skaters, with Grand Prix medals, a pair of Olympic appearances and two Canadian national championships.
Eight years later, 31-year-old Messing is retiring for real after this week’s World Championships in Saitama, Japan.
The departure of Messing, now a father of two, from competition will make it easier for him to spend time with his family. And it’ll be easier on his body, which has endured over 25 years of perpetual training and hard falls on the ice.
“It’s getting increasingly hard to hurt, to come to a cold ice rink every day and to push your body to extreme levels of pain and to keep going,” he said. “If I just had to compete all the time, I think I can keep going. But in the same breath, I’m tired. My body aches.”
A two-way goodbye
While Messing’s abilities have brought him success in Canada, his personality has made him a fan favorite. He’s connected with his fans with his reactions and interplay in the “kiss and cry” area, where he’s showcased family photos.
“All I do is be the genuine me,” he said. “I’m not trying to be someone else, but every time I take a step with exactly who I am, I just feel like I’m accepted.”
That was evident as he skated at the 2023 Canadian Nationals earlier this year in Oshawa, Ontario. Even before the competition started, at the practice skates, Messing was drawing vigorous cheers from the audience.
“People are pretty much on their feet, and I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said. “And it really just stuck with me, like, ‘Wow, these people are trying to say goodbye to me just as hard as I’m trying to say goodbye to them.’”
Messing won his second straight national title in Oshawa. And while the process of making his final performance at a Canadian nationals was emotional, he also had major family changes weighing on his mind. His wife, Lane, was due with their second child the day he wrapped up the title.
“The last competition I did was very emotional and very heart-wrenching,” he said. “Trying to say goodbye ... it’s hard. Having little Mia’s due date on the same day I was competing in the long program was nerve-wracking, but I was on the phone with my wife almost all the time, and we just had our hopes in the happy-go-lucky state (of mind).”
Mia was born just days later.
“She wanted to see Dad,” Lane Messing said. “She wanted Dad to be here.”
Keegan Messing’s relationship with his coach, Ralph Burghart, is nearly unparalleled in the sport. Burghart, himself a seven-time Austrian national champion and former Olympian, has coached Messing for 25 years.
Their relationship has predictably evolved over the years, with Burghart starting as a hard-driving taskmaster and growing into a counselor.
“You can’t treat a 12-year-old like (you would) a 6-year-old or an 18-year-old like (you would) a 12-year-old, so I’ve had to change as he’s matured as a person,” Burghart said. “I’m managing him a lot. I’m his eyes on the ice ... I’m his motivator and I teach him not necessarily technique. There’s no technical skill he can’t master right now.”
Despite the fact that he’s transitioning out of competition, Messing is arguably skating better now than he ever has in his career. He finished in the top 15 in both the 2022 Beijing Olympics and the 2022 Worlds. On the heels of his second Canadian national championship, Messing earned silver at last month’s Four Continents Championships in Colorado.
“I always thought his last years would be his best and he’d be amazing at the end of his career,” Burghart said. “He’s a later bloomer, a later maturer.”
Burghart knew almost immediately that Messing had a special talent, a combination of physical attributes plus a rare level of fearlessness.
“There was no hesitation,” Burghart said.
Messing developed in the U.S. program, earning a silver medal in the junior competition at the 2009 U.S. Championships. But he hit a development wall and struggled with boot issues.
The switch to competing for Canada was a stabilizing factor. There, he received more support, both financially and emotionally.
“Honestly, I still wonder to this day, had I not skated very well at nationals that year, I don’t know if I would have continued because it would’ve been three years of just pushing for something that my heart almost wasn’t in anymore,” Messing said.
“But then as soon as we joined the Canadian club, we started getting calls and emails like, ‘Hey, how can we help you?’ And we got this support group going.”
‘Always on Team Alaska’
While he’s had great success with Team Canada, Messing has trained in Anchorage throughout his career and also has a strong contingent of fans and supporters in Alaska.
“Alaska is such a cool place, and the community here is amazing,” he said. “No matter what team I’m on, I’m always on Team Alaska, and Alaska has always supported me 100%.”
While he has focused more on well-balanced performances, training has still been a year-round grind. Not being willing to continue to give skating his sole focus is a driving force for his decision to retire: “Being a father, being a husband, being someone who helps out in the community more and isn’t just a single-minded person who’s shooting for a goal,” he said.
Messing plans to spend some time on the figure skating show circuit over the next couple of years but also is hoping to get his credentials to become a firefighter and start working for the Anchorage Fire Department. His father is a third-generation firefighter.
Messing’s retirement will also be a change for Burghart, who has made coaching Messing his professional priority for 25 years. He is uncertain whether he’ll stay in Alaska but has been doing some youth coaching both here and in Texas.
Messing’s first performance on the ice at Worlds will be at the short program, scheduled to be streamed in Alaska starting late Wednesday night and air on the USA Network early Thursday morning. He’s eagerly anticipating closing his career in Japan, where his great-great-grandfather lived before immigrating to Canada.
He expects it to be another emotional weekend, with some final goodbyes to friends and fellow competitors in the figure skating world. It’s the spirit of support that Messing has carried throughout his multiple decades in the sport.
“This sport’s too difficult to wish ill on anybody else,” he said. “We work at least five days a week, multiple hours a day, on ice and off ice, to get in the right physical shape to even show up to a competition. The margin for error to fall on a jump is so slight. It’s so much easier to wish everyone a good time and hope everyone can go out and skate the best of their life.
“And you know what? It’s more rewarding to be on that podium when everyone skates their heart out.”
[How to watch the 2023 World Figure Skating Championships on TV and via live stream]