“Everything he does is extreme”: Keegan Messing

Last week, Keegan Messing competed in his fourth ISU World Championships in Montpellier, France. Messing’s 14th-place finish in Montpellier was well off his career-best 6th place at 2021 Worlds in Stockholm last year. However, the Canadian skater was unfazed.

“It’s always a pleasure to represent [Canada],” Messing said after the free skate. “And it’s always a pleasure to come out at Worlds and just be here.”

Messing arrived at Worlds following a Beijing Olympic experience that was heavily affected by the ongoing pandemic. Messing missed the team event at the Olympics, due to a positive covid-19 test before he left Canada, and was in danger of missing the competition entirely. Fortunately, he was cleared to travel before the individual men’s event. But even once in Beijing, there were many restrictions and no audience for the skaters. That being the case, Messing particularly appreciated having a full audience in Montpellier.

“The crowd was amazing,” he said. “It was a great crowd, and such a welcome back to normality.”

The 30-year-old skater still enjoys competing and is strongly considering returning for another season next year. At Worlds, I got a chance to speak with Messing and his longtime coach, Ralph Burghart, after both programs. The two shared their insight into Messing’s mindset and development over the years.

In the short program at Worlds, Messing skated well overall, but slightly scratchy landings on his opening quad toe and triple Axel hurt his GOE. He also lost points by performing only a double toe loop, instead of a planned triple, in his quad combo. In a very competitive men’s event, the performance left Messing in 9th place. However, with strong skating skills and confident presentation, he earned the fifth-highest PCS score.

“I thought it was very well skated,” Burghart said of Messing’s short program. “I was happy with the levels. The only thing to criticize would be that it was a double toe, instead of a triple toe, in the combination. But I think it was the right decision, probably, considering that the landing [on the quad toe] was a little sticky. I was pretty pleased with the effort overall. He’s been training really well, and really hard. He’s doing everything right.”

In the free skate, Messing went for an ambitious, three-quad jump layout. He opened with a quad Lutz attempt, a jump he has not performed for several years. Unfortunately, he fell on both that jump and his following quad toe loop. Messing fought back, completing a 3A/euler/2S combo, another quad toe, and more. He finished 17th in the free skate/14th overall.

“He went all in,” Burghart commented after the performance. “He had a really good practice in the morning, and the warmup went really well, too. He landed some really nice ones [quad Lutz]. So we felt he had a chance of doing a three-quad program. And it was just unfortunate. The first jump wasn’t what it was supposed to be, and I think maybe that rattled him. But he kept fighting. I’m proud of him that he didn’t leave anything out there. He just hung in there and tried his best. Some go in your favor, some don’t. This one was not for us, I guess,” Burghart concluded with a rueful laugh. 

Messing at 2022 Canadian Nationals (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

Despite the quad Lutz fall, both Messing and Burghart said that they expect the jump to remain in Messing’s long program if he keeps competing next season.

“I’m hoping to continue the momentum from this year and keep a three-quad [long] program, keep [quad] Lutz going, and hopefully challenge the younger generation,” Messing said of next season.

“That’s one of his big goals, if he keeps skating–to do a three-quad program with a quad Lutz,” Burghat confirmed. “Which is very reasonable. Today, I felt he had a very legitimate chance.”

Messing has yet to make a final decision about whether he’ll keep competing next season. 

“For an old guy like me, the odds are getting slimmer and slimmer,” Messing said. “It really feels like this is the end of an era, this year. And the beginning of the next generation. To compete with these guys, it’s such an honor to see what skating can be. Ten years ago, I would have told you it wasn’t possible. And I am just in awe and more motivated than ever to see [the development of men’s skating], and be proven wrong by, these amazing kids. Or, I should say, these amazing athletes,” he finished..

Burghart feels that it’s likely Messing will continue. 

“I want to say there’s a good chance. One year, probably not more. But I think he will skate one more year,” the coach said. “That’s just a guess. It’s his decision, ultimately, if he’s going to do it or not.”

As one of the oldest current competitors in men’s skating, Messing’s life is quite different from that of his younger competitors. His wife, Lane, gave birth to their son Wyatt last July, before the start of the season. Messing feels that fatherhood has only improved his skating.

“It’s honestly given me more motivation to go to the rink and train harder than before,” Messing said. “And that’s really all thanks to my amazing wife. She really allowed me to continue to train as hard as I would like to. I do feel like I’m skipping out on some dad duties here and there. But I’ve got a lifetime for all of that. Right now, to finish out the skating career as best as possible, she’s standing with me 100 percent, and she’s allowing me to come here and put out as much as I can.”

Messing with his wife, Lane

What truly challenged Messing this season was the unexpected roadblock of testing positive for covid-19 right before the Olympic Games. 

“Honestly, it was a lot of distraction,” Messing said of the situation. “Pretending nothing’s wrong, just keeping the mind on the goal. And the goal at that point was to make it to the [Olympic] singles event, skate, and be strong.” He achieved that goal, finishing 11th in the individual men’s event at his second Olympics.

The positive outlook that helped carry Messing through that difficult time is, in fact, a consistent feature of his personality.

“Honestly, if you worry, does it help? If you’re panicking, if you’re worrying, and if all that weight is on you, does it help you skate? No, it doesn’t,” said Messing. “So, I try to keep that mindset, to stay positive, focus on what’s to come, and go every day to push for your goal.”

The skater credits his mother, Sally, with instilling much of his positive attitude toward competition, and his competitors.

“She always had this thought process, like, ‘You’ve all worked so hard. To wish ill on anybody, it hurts you,’” Messing recounted. “And so, to be positive, to wish the best for every person, it makes you a better person, it makes you feel better. And honestly, you can turn around and put that energy into your own skating. The friends you make are worth it; we’re a great family here. If you can open yourself up to that kindness, there are so many doors that can open. Your soul is that much better.”

Burghart says that Messing’s positivity and motivation have served him well over the years.

“He was little and young for a very long time. Over the years, he just developed and developed,” Burghart said of his student. “He’s a late bloomer. That’s why he is able to still skate like this, too, I think. He strived to get better every year. It’s very important. Because you can teach people what you want. But if they don’t have the self-motivation to go out there and do what it takes, you can stand on your head [and it won’t work]. But every year, he sets himself goals of what he can get better at, and he does.” 

Messing and Burghart have been a team now for 24 years. 

“I started with him when he was six years old. So it’s been a long time,” Burghart said. “Our relationship is very unique, special. And really rare. We’re like family, almost. I know him very well, obviously–and he knows me very well. Sometimes we don’t even have to say that much. We just know, by looks, what is happening. If you stay your whole career, with one coach, one skater, that’s special. I certainly probably will not have that again in my career. And I think that doesn’t happen much in our sport at all.”

Messing and Burghart at practice this season (Bill Roth/ADN)

Despite their close relationship, Burghart said that it’s not a problem for him to give Messing open and honest feedback when needed.

“I was hard on him when he was younger, so he knows me. If something needs to be fixed, we’ll have to fix it,” said Burghart. “And he’s a respectful guy–he knows when he’s wrong, too. That was never really an issue, giving him a little tough love, here and there.”

Burghart also credits Lance Vipond, Messing’s choreographer, with playing a critical role in the skater’s development. 

“Lance was instrumental in getting him where he’s at now, with understanding certain aspects of the second mark [PCS],” said Burghart. 

The qualities that define Messing as a skater today–his impressive speed on the ice, fast spins, and excellent skating skills–weren’t necessarily present at the beginning, but developed over time, according to coach and student.

“The speed came from when I was younger. I was always the smallest kid around, and I didn’t want to be called slow. I wanted to keep up with the big kids. So I always skated as fast as I could,” Messing explained. “I actually had the nickname ‘Kamikaze.’ Because I would skate as fast as I could, and then I would jump, and I’d take massive spills on the ice.”

On Olympic ice in Beijing

Messing credits fellow Canadian champion, and three-time World champion, Patrick Chan, as the inspiration for working on his skating skills. 

“I skated with Patrick Chan for a little bit. After he quit, one of my main goals was that I wanted to be as known for my skating skills as Patrick,” Messing said. “So every day on the ice, in my morning routine, I would push the edges–a little bit more, a little bit more. I’d fall a bit, doing this method. But eventually, it started becoming a natural edge depth for myself. Then I’d go into a new pair of boots, and I’d try to go to the same edge depth, and my boot hits [the ice]. So I take a knife and shave my boots down. It’s only about a quarter inch, but it’s a big difference when you’re looking at the angle of your edge.”

“His skating skills were a progression,” said Burghart. “He started out very well, as a kid. And then every year, he improved, until he was very deep. Everything he does is extreme. He likes the feel of the extreme edge, so it wasn’t hard to get him to do certain things. And the spins, again, it was just a process. My ex-wife [Rory Flack Mitchell] is a good spin coach.”

The total package that Messing presents today on the ice is the natural outcome of talent and a good work ethic, according to Burghart.

“There’s been a steady progression of all of his skating,” the coach said. “Nothing happened overnight. It wasn’t a miracle. He’s talented, and he worked hard. And he ended up where he is.” 

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