Emanuel Sandhu's comeback is about rediscovering joy of figure skating
MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - Emanuel Sandhu had little love left for figure skating when he walked away from the competitive ice six years ago.
The 32-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., is competing at the Canadian championships this week in a comeback that is all about writing the final page of a skating story left unfinished.
"I don't want the feeling I have when I look back on the sport to be one that isn't full of joy and happiness and satisfaction," Sandhu said. "So I thought this might be a bit of an unprecedented and crazy idea, but I'll probably think about it for the rest of my life if I don't even try.
"It's a huge experiment for me," he added, after practising in front of several dozen schoolchildren at the Hershey Centre on Thursday.
The kids likely hadn't a clue who he was.
The enigmatic skater's career had held so much promise, the height of which was his victory at the 2004 Grand Prix Final against a field that included Russian great Evgeni Plushenko. But he finished a disappointing 13th at the 2006 Turin Olympics, four years after a knee injury forced him out of the Salt Lake Games. In 2007, he quit the sport angry and frustrated.
He returned to his dancing roots and competed on the television show "So You Think You Can Dance Canada," finishing as the third-best male dancer.
But the rink kept calling to him. The three-time Canadian champion embarked on his comeback last season only to break his foot before the qualifying event for the national championships.
He returned to finish fifth at the Skate Canada Challenge last month — a qualifying event that the likes of two-time world champion Patrick Chan is allowed to skip altogether — to earn his spot at nationals.
"I kind of got up one time and thought, 'Why am doing this, this is super crazy,'" he said, laughing.
It's a lofty challenge that few have taken on — and more than a little unnerving for Sandhu.
"It's a little bit scary and exciting, sort of like looking over the edge of something with a zip-line on top of you and taking that leap of faith," Sandhu said. "But I've never held back because of fear of the unknown, I've always just gone for it."
Sandhu, who doesn't receive any financial support for his skating, still lives in Vancouver where he was once coached by Joanne McLeod, but trains on his own at Eight Rinks in Burnaby, B.C. The odd time he'll climb the stairs to the rink office of Ted Barton, a Skate Canada official, for some technical advice.
"I said 'You have to grab the reins of your own destiny Emanuel,'" he said. "It's all life stuff that I'm banking and I really feel deep down in my heart and my bones that this is going to be a positive experience for me and I can take it into whatever I do next."
He'll perform two of his old programs, which he's tweaked to conform with the judging system that has overhauled since he left the sport.
He looked lean and strong during a generation-gap practice session that included 14-year-old rising star Nam Nguyen.
"I can fit into my costumes from when I was 15. Honestly," he said with a grin.
He recently dug out his memorable piano-keys costume that he wore in 1998 for a show he was doing in Shanghai, China.
Thursday, he wore a plain black shirt and pants — and a safety pin dangling from the upper part of his ear.
"I was having one of those post-punk feelings. I thought, what's the cheapest way I can embrace this. My mom was like: what is that in your ear?" said Sandhu, whose mom is Italian and dad is Indian.
Sandhu laughed often and easily during an interview Thursday, and those around him say there's a maturity that wasn't there when he stepped off the ice six years ago.
"He takes time to thank people and he takes time to appreciate what they've done for him," Barton said. "I think his life was such a whirlwind before that he didn't recognize it, but now he does. He appreciates people a lot more. And he has a lighter sense of humour now, which always helps."
Sandhu, a 10-time Canadian championship medallist, said the response from other skaters to his comeback has been positive.
"It's so great to see Emanuel here skating and seeing him in the stands watching my practice," said Chan. "It's truly an honour for me because I kind of stepped in when he stepped out so I never got a chance to be there with him and I admire his dedication and his focus and drive to come back and really do it."
Onlookers Thursday couldn't help but marvel at Sandhu's grace and strength.
"It's not easy to do what any of those kids are doing," Barton said. "But we had forgotten how amazing the quality of many of the things that he does, Emanuel always had great quality, and when he skates now, you just go wow."
Sandhu said he's had to curb his ego and pride, however, reminding himself and others that it's been six years since he competed. He doesn't do a triple Axel or a quad, but said it's more a matter of having too little time to prepare.
His goals are realistic. He's not thinking about the world championships in London, Ont., in March or next year's Sochi Olympics.
"The ultimate goal is to just get through this week," he said, laughing.
And long term?
"It's just fulfilling the potential I see within myself and just going for it," he said. "I'm just taking it step by step, quite slowly, day by day, just feeling it out and just trying to enjoy every single moment that I have out there."
Sandhu said regardless of results, he'll be at peace when he does eventually retire for good — for at least having tried.
"I always say that if life deals you a crappy hand, you should always wait around and see what the next one's like," he said. "Because you never know."