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Figure skating phenom Nam Nguyen a small wonder

Junior national skating champion Nam Nguyen takes part in the gala event at the BMO Skate Canada Nationals in Victoria on Jan. 23, 2011.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

When Nam Nguyen attended his first skating lesson, he was the only child in the class who couldn't stand up.

While the other children teetered around the rink, the future figure skating champion lay on the ice and cried.

"He was scared," his mother Thu recalled with a smile. "He was screaming, 'Help, help.'" Some parents might have given up. Thu and her husband, Sony, who knew nothing about skating while growing up in Vietnam, bought their own skates.

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"We didn't know how to skate very well," Thu said. "We accompanied him to every public session, every evening after work. After a month he improved."

Last January, at 12, Nam defeated skaters seven years his senior to become the youngest person to win the Canadian junior men's figure skating championship. He also was the 2009 novice champion, earned the pre-novice title in 2008 and won the juvenile crown in 2007.

After turning 13 last May, the Burnaby, B.C., resident will take the next step when he competes against veterans such as reigning world champion Patrick Chan in the senior men's category at the Canadian figure skating championships, which began Monday in Moncton.

Michael Slipchuk, Skate Canada's director of high performance, said a top-12 finish is a realistic goal for Nam.

For someone who has won on every rung of the skating ladder, finishing in the middle of the pack could be a blow to the confidence. But Thu expects her son to learn from the experience, the same way the terrified four-year-old overcame his fear and grew into one of Canada's top prospects.

"As parents we think this will be difficult," Thu said about the coming championships. "For Nam, he's used to it.

"When he was 8, he competed with 12- and 13-year-olds. Every year he's stepped into a higher level. He has a goal. Every time he's out there, he says he wants to enjoy the competition. He wants to entertain people. He wants to do a very clean solo. That's what we have been teaching him to focus on."

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Standing about five feet tall, and weighing just 85 pounds, Nam was the smallest skater on the ice during a recent practice session at Burnaby's 8 Rinks. His raw enthusiasm and strong technical skills made him look much larger.

While the others skated, Nam floated across the ice. His jumps were effortless. He spun like a top.

Coach Joanne McLeod remembers being "completely wowed" the first time she saw Nam skate, as a nine-year-old.

"He had the X-factor," said McLeod, who has coached top Canadians Emanuel Sandhu, Mira Leung and Kevin Reynolds, among others.

"He is a natural performer. The more people that are watching him, the more he kind of brings it up. He is extremely musical. Some children interpret the music. He is the music."

While his talent is extraordinary, McLeod is most impressed by the attitude Nam brings to the rink. "He has no ego," she said. "When you are training Nam, he is in the present moment.

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"A lot of talented athletes are still gloating on who they are. They are thinking in the past or about where they want to go. You are not getting them in the now moment."

McLeod credited Nam's parents for keeping their son grounded.

"What is fantastic about his parents is when he wins, they don't gloat," she said. "There is a 24-hour pride, and then it's right back to training and what do we need to do to go up the next step? "Sometimes, in previous situations, that pride period could end up being a year. You can't move up a level and formulate new goals if you are still celebrating the previous."

Nam's parents both graduated from university in Vietnam. Sony is an engineer. Thu graduated as a medical doctor.

Sony came to Canada in 1988. He sponsored his wife to come in 1994.

Both parents now work as engineers and business analysts. Thu is employed by a medical software company.

The parents learned English in university but still faced many adjustments upon arriving in Canada.

"Everything was difficult," Thu said. "We got through it.

"We don't have ice skating in Vietnam but my husband is really active. He likes sport. When we came to Canada and saw a lot of opportunities for the kids, we wanted our kids active and involved in a lot of activities."

Nam was born in Ottawa and the family moved to Richmond, B.C., when he was 1. They now live in Burnaby, a city that borders on Vancouver. Nam's seven-year-old sister, Kim, also is a figure skater.

Like many other Canadian kids, Nam was first interested in playing hockey. That changed the day he became enthralled watching a group of figure skaters.

As a child, Nam was often impatient and in a hurry to learn things. Thu was surprised by the dedication he showed to figure skating.

"Everything he wanted to learn quickly," she said. "Figure skating requires a lot of focus. After the first private lesson we found out he was really focused and liked doing it."

Nam was a crowd favourite when he performed during the skating gala at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. His goal is to represent Canada at a Winter Games.

Thu appreciates the potential her son shows and understands the dedication needed to succeed as a skater. But what makes her the most proud is the way he has dealt with his success.

"He's grown with that and he's got used to that," she said. "I don't see any difficulties for us to deal with that. He likes to be a good boy. People have looked at him since he was young and achieved something. It's really easy for us. For now he just wants to be a teenager.''

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