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The Globe and Mail

Cynthia Phaneuf hopes coaching change sparks revival

Canada's Cynthia Phaneuf performs in the closing gala at the Skate Canada International figure skating competition Sunday, October 31, 2010 in Kingston, Ont.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Canadian figure skating champion Cynthia Phaneuf has done this before: picked herself out of the doldrums to sparkle on the national and international stage.

The 23-year-old skater from Contrecoeur, Que., will try it again next week at the Canadian championships in Moncton, N.B., after a dismal season on the fall Grand Prix circuit. But this time, Phaneuf will walk into the rink with a new air, perhaps a new strut since she made a dramatic coaching change to Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser.

Phaneuf finished only seventh at Skate Canada in Mississauga in late October, and ninth at the NHK Trophy in Japan. A week later, she left behind an apartment and all of its contents in Montreal to move to a basement apartment in Toronto and train in a new rink, the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club.

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She had trained since she was a young girl at home in Quebec with coaches Annie Barabe and Sophie Richard, and with them, she had finished fifth at the 2010 world championships in Turin, Italy.

Phaneuf won the Canadian championships when she was only 15, and won Skate Canada the following year. But a growth spurt and injuries derailed her career for years.

The move to Toronto wasn't easy, but it was necessary to give her a new outlook and boost.

"The first week, it was hard," Phaneuf said on a conference call. "I had nothing coming here. I left everything in Quebec. But after a week, everything was fine. As soon as I got into the rink, I knew this was the right thing that I did. It was the right thing that I did. This is what I'm going to do for two years and I'm going to make this work the best for me."

Phaneuf now not only works with Orser, who coached Yu-Na Kim to an Olympic title in 2010, but also with Olympic bronze ice dancing medalist Tracy Wilson, as well as with her long-time choreographer, David Wilson, who works out of the Toronto rink.

Phaneuf has been in Toronto for only two months, but her method of working has markedly changed, she said on Tuesday.

"The Grand Prix Final [in December]feels like it was a year ago," she said. "So many things have been changing since my last Grand Prix. Even on the ice, everything has been different."

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Phaneuf said she did not want to compare the working styles of her former and present coaches, but when in Quebec, she was a methodic planner in a very structured atmosphere, always thinking of the key words before a move.

Now she runs on her natural feeling and instinct. She's encouraged to tap into this reservoir by her new mentors.

"It's a more natural way of seeing my training, [asking]how do I see it?" she said. "They really want to know how I feel, how I'm seeing things, how I think they are going to go? For me, it is very important that they really care about how I'm seeing stuff."

The national championship is always "a big deal" and Phaneuf admits that it's stressful to skate in front of the home crowd. It is always her favourite competition, but this year, she's looking beyond it. It will serve mainly as a stepping stone for the world championships in Nice, France in March and she and Orser will have had that much more time together to make lessons stick.

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