Ice Network

The Comeback Skater defined the 2016-17 season

Number of big names meet with great success upon returning to the ice
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Skaters including Jason Brown, Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, and Carolina Kostner experienced incredible success this season following lengthy stints away from competitive figure skating. -Getty Images

As the final scores were presented to Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir after the team's free dance at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki -- the announcer's voice booming, "And they are currently in the fiiiiirst plaaaaace!" and the roar of the crowd growing louder and louder -- she wore a smile and he carried a look of utter exhaustion.

It was the completion of a perfect season, one that ended with seven wins in as many tries and a third world title. But, most important, it was the end of a comeback effort which, just months before, had both skaters contemplating what the future held.

As it turned out, the only thing waiting for them down the road was greatness.

The 2016-17 season was unapologetically "The Year of the Comeback" in figure skating. Virtue and Moir's campaign was the most prolific, but Carolina Kostner returned with grace; Wenjing Sui and Cong Han skyrocketed to the top of the pairs discipline; Nathan Chen did things we didn't know were possible; and Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim bounced back from a scary dark time -- as did a handful of others.

Each of these competitors -- and they all embody that term to the fullest -- created their own version of a comeback at one point or another during the season, making them the talk of the sport.

But just how was all of this possible in one competitive season? How -- in a sport that can leave an athlete in the dust after he or she steps away for even a brief period in time -- are elite skaters able to rise to the top once again?

It's not easy.

The long road back

"We have a lot of work to do," laughed Moir during an interview with icenetwork last April at the world championships in Boston, where he and Virtue were in attendance as commentators. "It was nice to take a step back…(but) now it's like, 'Oh crap, we better get to work.'"

Getting to work is exactly what the team did, joining forces with the Montreal-based coaching team of Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon. Virtue and Moir even took a page out of their own playbook from years past by training alongside their greatest rivals, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

What any elite athlete attempting a comeback has to do is set goals and create realistic expectations for his or her training while going through the process, no matter what the in-competition results may be.

"The biggest challenge for athletes returning to their sport is dealing with a constant apprehension regarding their ability to return to high levels of performance," explained Caroline Silby, a sports psychologist who works with figure skaters. "There is also worry about being able to skate at levels previously achieved, which of course leads to concern about how others are perceiving them."

For Virtue and Moir, it was a calculated comeback after two seasons away from competition -- something former rivals and training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White opted against, citing an overall satisfaction with their previous achievements.

"You have to ask yourself: 'Why am I coming back?'" Davis said in a recent interview. "To me, that's the most important part of it. This season we have seen so many wonderful comebacks, in particular in ice dance, with Tessa and Scott. We didn't know what their comeback would entail, but you can just see their love for the sport. You can see the joy when they're on the ice. ... It's indicative of how passionate they are about what they're doing."

"When you're talking about comebacks, people do them for different reasons," said John Coughlin, the 2012 U.S. pairs champion with Caydee Denney and a commentator for icenetwork as well as other outlets.

"Is it unfinished business or is it that you feel like you have more to give personally?" he continued. "There is a whole spectrum. You have to have clear expectations and prepare before proceeding with something like that. If your discipline has changed its landscape since you left, then you might not have the experience that you're expecting."

That was the road traveled by Mao Asada, the former Olympic silver medalist and three-time world champion who recently decided to hang up her skates for good following two mediocre seasons since deciding to return to the sport.

Similar challenges have met Patrick Chan, the three-time world champion and 2014 Olympic silver medalist who came back in 2015-16 only to find a vastly changed men's singles landscape.

"This season, he performed one amazing program and then another with some mistakes," explained his coach, Marina Zoueva, via telephone. "He needs that one competition where he brings both of his programs. That's what we're focusing on physically, psychologically and emotionally in practice. He loves to skate; that's his motivation. He doesn't lack motivation at all."

A global (comeback) theme

While Asada and Chan struggled, Virtue and Moir, Sui and Han, Chen, Kostner and others soared. For Sui and Han, as well as Chen, their returns came only months after respective injuries in the early part of 2016. Sui had surgeries on both of her feet, forcing her and Han to miss the entire Grand Prix Series. They didn't return until the Four Continents Championships in February, where they won gold. Weeks later, the pair captured the world title.

"The benchmark for injury recovery has to be Sui and Han," Coughlin noted. "Their ability to come back and compete at such an incredibly high level…it's insane."

You could also label Chen's evolution -- from being skating's Next Big Thing to becoming a five-quad-jumping world-beater at the age of 17 -- as insane. That transformation was made even more astonishing by the fact that his hip injury, suffered in January 2016, required immediate surgery and an intense rehabilitation program.

"When Nathan came (to Michigan), I started to manage how much he was skating and I made him a book so he could write down how many jumps he did at each practice," Zoueva explained. "We followed exactly what we were told -- nothing more, nothing less. We were trying to do everything proportionally: skating skills, off-ice training and choreography. We were careful not to overdo it."

The most important aspect of a comeback -- particularly one from an injury -- is to be able to follow specific instructions with regard to how much the body can take.

A common mistake is "feeling the pressure of time or trying to do too much too soon," said Peter Zapalo, director of sports science and medicine at U.S. Figure Skating.

"You have to scale your expectations back," he said. "You don't want to see the same injury recur. We see this a lot with developmental athletes because they just don't understand that you have to rest. Our elite-level athletes are incredible when it comes to getting seen promptly, getting done what they need to and following a timeline." 

Such timelines had to be followed by a collection of U.S. athletes this season, including Chen, Scimeca Knierim and Knierim, Jason Brown, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, and Karen Chen.

"We're so crunched when it comes to the timing in the season and trying to hit those marks of making the worlds team, doing well at nationals and being prepared during the Grand Prix season," said Brown, who suffered a stress fracture last November and rushed back for the U.S. championships in January. "There is event after event, and the toughest part about coming back is the thought of, 'Will I be able to do this in this timeline?' You want to be healthy by a certain point and have to make a plan to get there."

"It can be really frustrating because there's never a good time to be injured, but when they're preparing for an important competition or approaching the Olympic season, that can be tough," Zapalo added. "We're talking about the Olympic season now and having to factor in returning from an injury for some of our elite athletes."

Scimeca Knierim went through a series of health complications over the last year, forcing her and partner/husband Chris to not only miss the Grand Prix season in full but the U.S. championships as well. Like Sui and Han, they made their competitive return at Four Continents.

The Americans had to readjust a usually lengthy preseason prep process, much like Brown.

"The best analogy is to imagine getting a jumbo jet off the ground with only half the length of runway -- you'd have to hit the gas and go nose-up almost immediately," the couple wrote in an email. "Suffice it to say, there's a reason runways are long: Every plane needs enough time and space to get up to speed. So in terms of how we changed our approach or preparation, it was learning to deal with a huge plane, a shortened runway and a tight timeline for takeoff."

Kostner had the longest runway in the sense that she never fully stepped away from training and was performing in shows during her time off competitive ice.

"I knew since the beginning that the process would be hard," she told icenetwork. "The body is not a machine with an on/off button that you press and everything starts again as before. I changed many technical aspects of my skating and jumping, and this meant to explore new ways of working. It was very stimulating, but also very hard. I am happy about the results of the first season and extremely proud. The best has yet to come."

Reaping the benefits...eventually

Kostner may be on to something with that final thought. While 2016-17 proved that athletes can reach full flight in a single season, there are examples of skaters who take their comeback year to get their feet back under them -- sometimes quite literally -- before hitting their stride.

Case in point: Kaetlyn Osmond, the Canadian who won a silver medal at worlds this year in Helsinki. In September 2014, Osmond broke her leg, forcing her to miss the entire 2014-15 season. While she returned to competition the next year, she failed to manage a top-five finish at either of her Grand Prix assignments and missed out on making the world team by 0.12 points.

But for Osmond, it took a little extra time for her to return to her old -- and, as we saw this season, new -- self.

"I am back and stronger than I ever have been," she said. "The process took so long because I had to relearn all my physical abilities, including walking, basic skating and jumps -- from singles to triples -- again. But I also had to heal mental blocks that originally I didn't think were there. I developed a fear of skating and of getting injured again. It was a long process to break down those barriers."

Coughlin, who missed almost eight weeks in 2012-13 with an injury of his own, agreed.

"The scary part is being completely removed from the ice, which we've seen a lot of lately," he recalled. "It's unchartered territory and can play games with your mind when you're taken off the ice for a large chunk of time. You're thinking, 'What if I can't get such-and-such skill back?' or 'What if I lose my competitive edge?' You have to busy your mind so you don't have to play the 'what if' game."

Silby said the space between an athlete's ears can be the biggest hurdle for him or her to clear.

"An athlete's mindset needs to be aligned with what the body is able to execute at each point in the process," she said. "Athletes who return successfully tend to create a purposeful and patient mind, which allows them to embrace this part of their journey. Interestingly, the setback can be the precipitant for an athlete reclaiming their passion for the sport when they started, (in a sense) 'working off their own report card.'"

After missing the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, American Vincent Zhou wrote his own report card this year -- one that contained plenty of high marks -- winning the U.S. silver medal and the world junior title. The 16-year-old used last season's comeback to build a stronger foundation, one that launched him to the success he found this year.

More comebacks are on the horizon. Former U.S. bronze medalist and world junior champion Joshua Farris is due back on the ice following a series of concussions, which led to his brief retirement. British ice dancers Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland are also set for a return now that Coomes is recovered from a fractured knee she suffered in June 2016.

Finding the fire

Zoueva, seasoned from 30 years as a coach, is used to the steeliness of skaters -- even those who have stepped away from the sport only to return later.

"For me, it's not a surprise when skaters come back," she said frankly. "We saw it in 1994, too. I think it's normal. If you have the right routine, good motivation and manage your skating and preparation, then why not?"

No matter what dictated the time away -- injury, the need for time off, a brief retirement -- the outright drive to return not only has to be strong but overwhelming in a sense.

Kostner's story was perhaps the most heart tugging of the year. She received a 16-month ban in January 2015 for lying to anti-doping officials for her then boyfriend, an Olympic race walker. Now 30, Kostner returned with the same elegance and poetic force she displayed in winning the 2012 world title and 2014 Olympic bronze medal, despite being away from the sport for two years. 

"I prefer to say that I have never decided to stop competing; therefore, I have not decided to come back but to simply continue a process that had been interrupted," said Kostner, who captured bronze at the European championships and finished sixth at worlds. "No will of demonstrating something, no desire of revenge, only the love and passion for my sport. This is the philosophy of my professional life."

Osmond expressed a similar love and passion -- a common theme for those making their way back onto the ice.

"My biggest surprise of this entire experience is that I remembered how much I love competing and performing, and the shock that I had lost that for a while without even realizing it," a candid Osmond said. "I am just happy and excited that going through the roller coaster of emotions when it came to breaking my leg has made an impact on my life and my skating career for the better."

It affirms the old saying: "You don't know what you have until it's gone." But to come back and find it successfully, again?

That's the mark of a champion.