Barely a year out from the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the rest of the world may be catching up to Patrick Chan.
The two-time world champion was handily beaten by Spain's Javier Fernandez at Skate Canada International on Saturday night, marking Chan's first loss in a major international event in nearly two years.
The 21-year-old from Toronto is known for shaky starts to the season, and is still adapting to the major overhaul he made in the off-season that included a new lead coach in Kathy Johnson and new choreographers.
But Brian Orser — Canada's two-time Olympic silver medallist and Fernandez's coach — warns that Chan is looking more vulnerable than ever.
"All these guys, not just Javier, they are all figuring out what it is they need to beat him," Orser said. "And it's not just the quads but it's the skating skills, it's the program and the packaging — everything. Everyone is kind of getting it.
"When you're a leader in something, when Elvis (Stojko) was doing all the quads he was kind of unbeatable for a while. But then, it was like, OK, I guess we have to do quads. Now everybody is learning how to skate."
Of the four medals up for grabs, Canada captured two gold and two silver. Kaetlyn Osmond, a 16-year-old from Marystown, N.L., who was making her Grand Prix debut, was the surprise women's winner. Olympic and world champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir captured gold in ice dance, and Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford won the pairs silver.
Chan's second-place finish raised some alarm bells coming a few weeks after he finished sixth out of six at the Japan Open, falling four times during a disastrous long program.
Chan fell on his triple Axel on Saturday, and touched a hand down on his quad jump. Fernandez fell on his opening quad, but subsequently landed two more huge ones.
Mike Slipchuk, Canada's high performance director, said Orser's right, that any distance Chan had on the rest of the field is dwindling.
"The men's category has really tightened up, it's kind of shaping up as it was going into Vancouver where you have a handful of people on any given day who can win," Slipchuk said. "The field is catching up, or is there, and just the technical arsenal of so many skaters. . . we had eight here doing a quad.
"And with Javier doing three quads, that's the direction the men's is going, and when you're starting to see that, those are big numbers to overcome. Patrick needs to have two good solid skates because there's no room for error anymore."
At the season-opening Skate America earlier this month, Japanese teenager Yuzuru Hanyu — who's also coached by Orser — broke Chan's world scoring record in the short program.
Chan, who will next compete at the Cup of Russia in Moscow, Nov. 9-11, said he was taking the week's results as a good learning experience leading into a pre-Olympic season that includes a world championship on home ice in London, Ont., in March.
He said he wasn't second-guessing his decision to leave longtime choreographer Lori Nichol to work with Jeff Buttle and David Wilson. And he believes his change in coaches was for the best — his coach Christy Krall, credited with teaching Chan the quad, resigned after the world championships last spring.
He's confident in his chances of hitting the top of the podium in Sochi, even among a strengthened field that should include Russian star Evgeni Plushenko and Olympic champion Evan Lysacek of the U.S. Both are making comebacks.
"I know going into the Olympics that all I have to do is lay down my jumps. If I lay down my jumps no one can beat me," Chan said.
If Chan is looking vulnerable, Virtue and Moir are looking stronger than ever. The two brought the crowd at the WFCU Centre to its feet with their steamy free dance to "Carmen," that showed a new maturity to the duo who have dominated ice dancing for several years.
The program was also jam-packed with innovative new lifts and spins.
"The level they keep pushing dance, and what they're doing out there, that program is so technically demanding and to see it at that scale already is pretty incredible," Slipchuk said.
Skate Canada International was the second of six stops on the ISU Grand Prix circuit. Each skater or team competes in two events, and the top six scorers in each discipline qualify for the Grand Prix Final in Sochi in December.
Virtue, from London, Ont., and Moir, from Ilderton, Ont., will next compete at the Cup of Russia.
Duhamel, from Lively, Ont., and Toronto's Radford, who finished runners-up at Skate Canada to four-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, will compete at Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris, Nov. 16-18.
Because Osmond was only ranked in the mid 40s in the world last season, she didn't qualify for a second Grand Prix event.