London, Ont. -
Joey Russell's days of flying under the radar are over. Once a figure skater creates the kind of buzz the Labrador City-born Russell did here at the Canadian figure skating championships this past weekend - fabulously solid practices, a standing O-worthy short program and fifth-place overall finish - the spotlight tends to swivel in your direction.
Heading into the 2010 nationals, which doubled as the qualifier for the Vancouver Olympics next month, Russell's name did not appear on pundit's contender lists and commentators did not include him when talking about potential medallists.
They will be talking about him now, despite some jittery moments in Sunday's final freeskate.
Russell, 21, knew he had to be perfect to climb from third in the opener into second place to grab one of the two Olympic berths. He was near that in the short program, but nerves thwarted his ambitions on Sunday in the free skate.
At the conclusion of his performance, a disappointed Russell bopped himself on the forehead for missing the second jump in what is, for him, normally an easy combination - triple flip-triple loop.
"I felt really good beforehand and on warm-up. A couple of things went not according to plan. I felt a little anxious," said Russell, who ranked sixth, ninth and sixth again at the three previous national championships.
"There was a little more pressure than I'm used to. I definitely learned here how to deal with pressure and keep things more normal like in practice."
Toronto's Patrick Chan, 19, the world silver medallist and now three-time national champion, and Edmonton's Vaughn Chipeur, 25, finished one-two in a very hard-fought men's event. They will carry Canada's colours to the home-country Games.
Despite his Olympic miss, Russell's season will likely not end here. He will probably be assigned later this week to compete at the ISU Four Continents Championship in South Korea at the end of this month. His top-five result also allows him to enjoy national team membership throughout the next year.
"I'm happy to go to Four Continents. It will be my first ISU Championship," said Russell, minutes after an interview with fellow Newfoundlander Rick Mercer, here taping segments for his CBC TV show.
Russell now has four years to build towards taking a second stab at the Olympic team that will compete in Sochi, Russia. He said he first knew he wanted to be an Olympian way back in 1998 at the age of 10 when he watched an exuberant Tara Lipinski take the gold ahead of fellow American Michelle Kwan.
"I thought that looked like the coolest experience in the world. I think my original goal was the 2002 Olympics. That was a little bit unrealistic, but now Sochi is more in my sights," Russell said.
One key to his continued success will be the triple Axel, a jump that separates the men from the boys. Until recently, the Axel was not a sure bet for Russell but he nailed it in the short program opener and hung on to score big points for another in the final skate here.
Russell proved to be a crowd favourite right from the get-go.
"I like to really enjoy myself out there and I think that really comes through," he said. "I'm just absolutely thrilled to be out there in the warm-up with such amazing skaters, to be there with Patrick since we've been competing together since pre-novice (category). So, it's just a fun atmosphere and people see that when they're up in the stands."
Among the fans were Russell's parents John and Judy, who travelled to London from Nunavut, where she has been teaching English and he construction trade skills for the last two years.
"It's the coolest thing for them to be here," said Russell, who regularly returns to Labrador to perform in ice shows at his home club.