Interview - Tracy Wilson, Coach at Toronto Cricket Club


Maryam: Hi, this is Maryam (@luckyyloopss) and Nina (@yonkaitenpooh) and you’re In The Loop! Today we’re here at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club with Tracy Wilson, Olympic Bronze Medalist and figure skating coach, who has agreed to speak to us.

Nina: I guess one of the things we want to talk about is - you’ve mentioned in some of the interviews, especially… Evgenia [Medvedeva] mentioned in one of her interviews, is that when she came here this past off-season, there was a lot of reworking of basic skating skills, and I know that’s something you guys prioritize a lot. And I wanted to know what you think was the biggest challenge of teaching those, and making people have them really refined, especially when people are new to how this club works.

Tracy: Well, in my experience, it takes a while to teach the skills and Evgenia, Jason Brown, they’re the types of skaters who are going to be very fast because their commitment is super high, and so is their talent, and their openness to learn. Having said that though, you can learn it but then to actually own it is another different thing, and to be able to access it when you’re under stress is also very different [and] very difficult. So, I usually tell the skaters it takes a year and a half, and it's remarkable how quickly they’ve progressed, but it’ll take time. Not only do they have to learn it, they have to be able to do it under stress, but then they need to take the next step and make it their own. Which is something like Yuzu [Yuzuru Hanyu] has done. He’s taken the technique and he’s made it his own. He doesn’t even think, and it’s just little touch ups. So that’s what it is. For me, the intent is for the skater to feel joy, for them to have the control, without having to think about it. To have trained the foundations so it’s muscle memory, and which allows them to be free in their program, because if they’re fighting for balance, then it’s stress. If they know where to go, where their safe place is, and if they can feel the rise and the fall of the skating, and the acceleration of the blade - that’s the joy of skating. And so, that’s my intention, is for them to find that and have it for their life.

Maryam: So, what’s the one memory of your competitive career that you cherish the most, when you were competing as an Ice Dancer?

Tracy: Wow… One memory? Well, there’s so many… I think, of course, the Olympics in Calgary because of a number of reasons. And, you know, it’s the privilege of competing in an Olympics in your home country, and the pressure. It’s the two sides of the coin and the support we had for our training for the years going into Calgary, we didn’t have in the years before Sarajevo, or earlier. So we felt really ready and we felt like we had so many great people help us get there, and then we got to skate for our friends and our family and so I think in the end for me... Calgary, you know, it was work, trying to keep our emotions in check. But when I finished, I was overcome just with the feeling of gratitude and that feeling and that honor of being there - I just knew that moment and sharing it with the audience, and for us our dream was always about a standing ovation and connecting with the audience, and trying to change the sport in terms of bringing something unique to the sport. And that’s the unforgettable moment, and then it sort of changes your life, because then people will come up and say like oh, they were eight when we were [competing], and they’ll have tears in their eyes even now because, you know. And, then you’ll learn the bigger meaning in all of this, and so, for the Evgenia’s, and the Yuzu’s, it’s yes, what they can learn about themselves as a person, also how they can touch an audience, and inspire an audience, and especially, actually anybody, but also the young ones because the young ones can look and see what’s possible and feel empowered.

Nina: And then, in your career as a coach, what do you think has been your most rewarding moment?

Tracy: I guess it’s going to have be an Olympics again, but there’s so many!

Nina: I mean, the Olympic moment is an Olympic moment - the phrase has a reason.

Tracy: It’s an Olympic moment. But, I had a moment today, where you know, Jun [Hwan Cha] is fixing his skate and Yuzu’s quadding all over [laughs] and Evgenia is triple something-triple looping, and Jason is doing all this magic, and I said to Jun “I’m just trying to stay out of the way!” [Laughter] Because, you know, and I’m grateful. I’m so grateful. On so many days it gets stressful too - when they’re misfiring, look out! But, to be rinkside, at the Olympics. So, I was there with Jun, and Javi [Javier Fernández], and Yuzu, and then it became with Javier and Yuzu on the final group and the practice. And to, I’m going to be totally honest, my favorite moment as a coach is the two of them had done their practice and they joined together and went and started doing some of our stroking exercises and it was such a way of being thanked. [Maryam: Yeah] Right? I was like “I don’t need a thank you, I don’t need anything.” That moment was like, kind of… I made this stuff up, because I don’t know... It felt good? And it’s actually… here it is. [Maryam: and they’re doing it] and like, “Oh my God, are they doing it?” [Maryam and Nina laugh] Right? And it’s like “Okay, thank you.”

Maryam: It feels pretty special. [Tracy: It does!] So, you’re well known for being a bit of a “Team Mom” [Tracy: I know! (Laughs)] at TCC. [Laughter] So what do you consider to be the division of labor between a coach and a skater’s real parents, in terms of like, involvement in the skater’s skating when they come to the rink.

Tracy: Okay… Interesting. That’s an interesting question because I actually am a mom, and I have three kids, and they’re adults, and have grown up. I feel like I have the perception that I’m more of a mom than I am? Because I really leave the parenting to the parents. I do deal with character on the ice, and sportsmanship on the ice, and for me, it’s the bigger purpose of what you learn about yourself in skating, it’s for the rest of your life. And so for me, it’s that, whatever you learn in skating, you grow as a person, and you’re not hurt as a person. Because it is a very difficult, exacting, cruel sport at times, and so this isn’t about just turning the jumps, doing the tricks, skating the choreography - this is about learning life’s lessons through sport, and I want, and this is probably where I’m most mom-like, I want the skaters to be better because of it, not ruined. [Nina: I like that.] So, for me, that’s my bigger job, right? And, pushing them helps them to see what they’re capable. I don’t know, I have no idea what my reputation is, but I’m pretty tough in terms of training because I think we’re so limited by what we think we can do. And, I literally, I mean, I commentated Rugby at the Olympics in Brazil in Rio, and I watched what those Rugby players deal with and how tired they get and they have to go and hit somebody and get hit. And I literally skated after Yuzu and said “Have you seen your Japanese Rugby team?” and he looked at me, and I said “Come on! You’re not going to be hit, and nobody's going to hit you! Come on, you’re not that tired.” [Laughter] Right? And I had a son who had done an Ironman [Triathlon] and you know, so you’ve done the two-mile swim, and you’ve done the 180 km bike ride and now you only have to do a marathon! Right? It’s the truth. It’s the breaking down the mental barriers, and so I also, that’s another goal, with the skaters… the work is fun. Don’t listen to your brain that says you’re tired. No, this is joyful, what we do is joyful. Warm up and exertion is joy. It’s not a hardship, so much of our society is about can be, not doing - because you have your car, you have your computer. You don’t have to get up, you can just sit and push buttons. But there’s such a joy in what we do, and it’s exhilarating when you face your fears and you push yourself to the next level, and the only way you can push yourself to the next level is finding that place where you’re uncomfortable, right? And it’s like okay.

Nina: I’m also listening, because I like to skate.

Maryam: Yeah, we both started as adults, and all of this is inspiring us.

Tracy: Okay, good.

Nina: So, another thing, I think, on the topic, because you did mention, of course, that much of the support is… you’re very well known for being a positive presence in the Kiss and Cry after the skaters perform, but is it ever challenging to stay positive when skaters have had a disappointing performance or you can just feel that they weren’t satisfied with how they did?

Tracy: That’s very real. That’s very real, and sometimes that will allow them to move forward, and sometimes that’s what we need. Because there’s more than one truth. You know, the truth is you missed a key jump. The truth is you did not put out there what you’re used to doing in training. The truth is this place is new to you, you’ve come under all of these changes and blah blah blah. The truth is it was better than the last competition. Sometimes, you have to hold onto the truths that are going to move you forward. You look at all the truths and sometimes, at a time like that, these skaters are absolute perfectionists and they are beating themselves up in their head and that, sometimes, you got to be like yeah, that’s obvious. And I’m a perfectionist too, don’t kid yourself. I’m a perfectionist too, but okay, we’re moving forward. We’re not going to sit and wallow in all of the mistakes, we’re going to look, there’s this, there’s this and let’s move forward.

Maryam: Yeah, so it’s not about making excuses, but knowing you did the best you could in the circumstances.

Tracy: We had a boy that skated in Junior Worlds, and Joseph Phan just skated and did a quad toe and his toe pick slipped, and he went flying, and it looked like he hit his head, and it’s not the start he wanted, but he rallied through the rest of the program and did okay. The poor boy is probably shell-shocked and devastated. However, what are you going to do with that? You got up, you could’ve caved, you keep going, you moved forward, and the only thing that allows you to do that is by moving ahead and grabbing on to “I trained, I’m ready, I can do this, I can go clean from here.” If he’s dwelling on, and his mental training is dwelling on, how costly that mistake was, how much he’s blah blah blah. The next competition, you’re not… you’ve got to always reinforce the mental training, always. I’m not doing a roar-roar-positive speech there - it’s mental. Move forward, let’s do this, let’s do that, I’m onto it, I’m onto it.

Nina: About that mental game, even as a coach and after many years I’d assume of being at competitions, do the pre-competition nerves ever go away?

Tracy: No, ever, ever. What happens often with the younger skaters is that they don’t feel it the same way. Okay, so you’ll have a young skater before they've gone through puberty and they just do it. Our expression is called “skating stupid.” And you’ve got that little body that will just go go go all day long that doesn't really get tired, and if you just dig down and fight a little harder - and this isn’t true for all. And then all of a sudden you grow and your body changes, and you find yourself getting tired. Or “Oh my gosh, I feel nervous. I never felt nervous before.” And it’s like “Oh okay well, you are never not going to feel nervous again. You will always.” And Yuzu and Javi and you look at them and think, “Well it’s easy for them.” No, it’s that feeling of uncomfortableness, that’s the rest of your life. When I have to sit down and have an honest conversation with one of my kids, and it’s a really hard conversation, you have that feeling in your stomach, and you have to be able to be with it and work through it for the relationship to go to the next place, right? If you in your work have to interview and you’re tired, and you feel that feeling, and you know what? That’s okay. That’s part of life. My feeling is if you’re to become who you’re meant to become, you have to pull through this moment. Don’t fight it. If you keep fighting it, you’re going to have to deal with it in another way. So it’s okay, you gotta go through this moment.

Maryam: So other than TCC skaters, because we know they all have great skating skills, who do you think in the world of Singles skating has really good skating skills?

Tracy: Oh my goodness, I don’t know.

Maryam: Like that’s currently competing.

Tracy: The Ice Dancers.

Maryam: The Ice Dancers, they do. [Laughter]

Nina: Who are your favorite ice dancer currently competing then?

Tracy: Oh, I love them all! Honestly, like how lucky are we? This season, last season, there’s just been some fantastic product out there for sure.

Maryam: Yeah! Even the Junior Ice Dancers have skills that are comparable to the Senior’s.

Tracy: Yeah, we’re pretty lucky.

Maryam: Team Canada’s doing good too.

Tracy: Yes!

Maryam: [Piper] Gilles and [Paul] Poirier...

Tracy: Yup, and [Kaitlyn] Weaver and [Andrew] Poje.

Nina: Both of those Free Dance’s are beautiful. They’re honestly both incredible.

Tracy: I know.. I cry every time I watch Gilles and Poirier. It just moves me. It absolutely moves me.

Nina: I think many of us are in that same category.

Maryam: We were like clutching each other at Autumn Classic while they were doing their Free Skate.

Tracy: Aww. And it’s interesting as you’re asking me that because as you know that my job is a commentator so I made it my business to watch skaters all the time. And now as a coach when I’m at a competition, I’m so busy with the skaters that half the time I don't even see all of the skating. It’s an interesting perspective because you know I’ve shifted more now into coaching.

Nina: What goes through your mind when you’re watching one of your skaters perform?

Tracy: Oh you wouldn't believe what goes through my mind! [Laughter]

Nina: Or is it ever on non-associated things like, “I need to get milk!”

Tracy: Chatter, chatter, chatter… and usually you just remind yourself they’re ready, it will be what it will be. We don't know if a good moment or a bad moment is what they need at this point. Sometimes, it’s that competition where they really struggle, that they really grow from. And other times, it’s that great competition that they really grow from because they needed that confidence, they needed that break, right? Like Evgenia needed a good skate because she has trained and trained and done it in practice, on competition practice ice and in the rink, and we just need to start getting some out there for her. So then it’s yes, and I felt the same way with Jason. You know what, US Nationals with his short program [Nina: That was so good!], and also some of his earlier competitions like in France [Internationaux de France] and in Zagreb [Golden Spin of Zagreb], [Nina: The Short Program in France!] so that’s where he needed that for his confidence. But as much as we want them to have it all the time, so that’s what I remind myself, you don’t know, we don't know what's best. We just know, well, that the odd time that I'm going, “oh okay, cut! okay, whatever.” But I remember the first time I went with Javi and it was my first...

Nina: What competition?

Tracy: It was his Nationals. And you know, he was obviously the class of the field, and it was before the Olympics and we felt it was really important he get out there, the Olympics in Sochi, and yet I stood there and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I feel like I’m gonna be sick.” What? First of all, I’m not skating. Second of all, it’s Javi! And I’m trying to say, “Listen! Enjoy this moment. Like how lucky am I?” And that’s the one thing I remind myself, you know, is how lucky am I to be here and to be part of this? And then I just focus on sending good energy. Good energy. I’ve received it when I’ve been on the ice where I’ve been like, “Ahh!” and all of a sudden I’ve caught a face, a look, or the energy of somebody, and often the coach that it’s like, “Go!”

Maryam: Do have any predictions for this [coming] Worlds, or anything that you would like to happen?

Tracy: No, and that’s the whole thing. You know, all my wishes is that the skaters have personal bests. And that the judges have great performances as well. May the best man win. You know, because I feel the same way as a commentator. You don't want your country’s more than another country’s, or this skater or that. You want what's right for the sport. And whatever is right for the sport will be right for everybody. So you want everybody to have great skating and to put on a show for the audience, may they entertain the audience. That people in the stands and on TV just feel better because of watching. That’s my wish.

Nina: What’s your favorite moment of the past season, so far of course?

Tracy: I’m going to say in practice, I can’t pick. [Laughter] Like a good mother I’m not going to pick a child. You know there’s been a lot of good moments, but watching these guys, like today, we did a stroking session, and on Fridays, the younger group can come on the ice. And to see people like Yuzu, and Jun, and Evgenia, and Jason skating and sharing the ice with some of the younger skaters was just beautiful. And to be on the ice and skating with them, that’s one of my favorite moments of the year. And what finished it off was after we sort of said our thank you’s, Evgenia and Yuzu went and got a bucket of snow and the little shovel, and started fixing the ice. And then a couple of the little kids, I said, “now see? we take care of each other, right? We’re not pampered you know? We take care.” And I said, “And you know what? You guys can go and help them.” And one of the kids just started with, “Uhh, Yuzu, can I help you?” [Laughter] So yeah, today was a top ten. That’s wonderful, thank you for asking!

Maryam: Thank you for giving us all this time! Hopefully all of your students do well and that it’ll be a happy time for everyone.

Tracy: You’re welcome! Thank you.