By Hiro Yoshida
Kailani Craine had the biggest season of her life in 2017-2018, but the Australian skater, who turns 20 today, has only just begun.
The season started early for Craine and by the time she arrived in Oberstdorf, Germany for the 2017 Nebelhorn Trophy, the final Olympic qualifier, in late September of last year she had already competed at events in Hong Kong, Slovenia and Slovakia. With just six spots available for PyeongChang 2018, the pressure was on for her to nab one of them for Australia. She did so with room to spare as she captured her first senior international title.
With the first part of her quest for Olympic selection done, Craine now had an anxious wait to hear official confirmation that she would be the skater who would represent Australia in PyeongChang. The Australian Olympic Committee criteria stated that, upon the conclusion of the Nebelhorn Trophy, she would have to be ranked 20 places ahead of the next Australian skater in the world standings to earn an automatic berth. Her win in Germany put her 31st in the rankings with compatriot Brooklee Han in 51st.
“I was fully confident in it, but it would have been hard if I didn’t make the ranking because then we would have had to compete an extra two times on top of what I did,” Craine said. “I did ten competitions this season, so I would have been competing 12 times which is too much. I was already too tired.
“If I had any worries, I would have just trained harder and got the spot regardless. No one was taking that spot off me. I was fighting to the death for that thing. The Olympics is the only thing that I have ever wanted so I was not going to give it up without a big fight.”
In the meantime, Craine received the nod for a place at Skate Canada shortly after her victory at Nebelhorn. It was the first time she would compete at a Grand Prix event. At the end of October, she travelled to Regina, Saskatchewan for the competition where she ended up ninth in both segments to finish in 10th place overall. When she arrived home from Canada, she finally got the news for which she had been waiting. It was an emotional moment for her and her whole family, in particular her mother Katrina.
“She was at Skate Canada with me, but she was on a different flight coming back,” Craine recalled. “She arrived a few hours after I did so I already knew when she walked through the door. She had a big trip back from Canada. I asked if she was tired and she said “Yes, I’m really tired.” And I said, “Do you need something to put you in a better mood?” And she said, “What do you mean?” I showed her the letter and she burst into tears.”
At the end of November, she placed fifth at the Shanghai Trophy in Shanghai, China before going on to claim her fourth consecutive senior national title the following month. Things were progressing nicely for Craine until the Four Continents Championships in Taipei City, Chinese Taipei in January of this year. A fall on the back end of a triple loop-triple loop combination in the short programme saw her start the event inauspiciously in 16th place and, despite staying on her feet in the free skating, several under rotation calls meant she was unable to pull up in the standings. It sent the alarm bells ringing for her and her coaching team and she redoubled her efforts in training with under two weeks left until the start of the Olympics.
“I had to think about what I was doing wrong before Four Continents and change it for the Olympics and work harder on my mistakes at Four Continents especially with the different calls. It was more finishing touches on things before the Olympics and I think that’s what I really worked on between that time at home.
“This has been a really tiring season,” Craine continued. “I think I put so much effort into just qualifying. I was tired after Nebelhorn. That was a complete drain of my energy because all my adrenalin was gone. I think that was why I needed a skate like Four Continents to be a bit of a wake-up call in a sense. I needed that before the Olympics because I always train well, but sometimes I don’t realise the mistakes I am making. I don’t really make mistakes in training which is why it is hard when I come to competitions and make mistakes because I don’t know how to accept it. It’s just a different way of thinking when you compete and that’s the only thing I changed between Four Continents and Olympics. I think it made me easier to peak at the Olympics again because I had that little down spiral.”
Resetting her focus worked and she set two new personal bests at the Olympics, 111.84 for her free and 168.61 for her total score. Her final placement of 17th was the best result since 1998 for an Australian female figure skater at the Winter Olympics. It was a thoroughly satisfying first Olympic experience for Craine and surpassed her own expectations.
“It’s never perfect, but I was happy with how I skated in both programmes. It wasn’t just the way I skated. It was how I felt when I was skating. I felt relaxed and calm and in control of what I was doing. That was a major step forward for me.”
It was to Craine’s benefit that her coach Tiffany Chin had previously competed at the 1984 Olympics and had given her an insight into how things would work.
“She has just always mentioned how amazing the Olympics is and how I am going to enjoy it,” Craine said. “It didn’t disappoint. The Olympics was everything I thought it would be, but way better and way bigger, way more exciting and fun. It just completely fulfilled every dream that I’ve ever had.
“My mum and my dad and my two grandparents were at the Olympics, but they had to stay in Seoul because obviously PyeongChang was all booked out. That was good for them because they got to see a lot more in Seoul.
“Olympics was so special, and I encourage everyone to try and reach Olympics. It’s very hard to, but it’s absolutely amazing and I can’t even describe another feeling like it.”
Aside from her own event, Craine also enjoyed being a spectator at the Olympics. The performance by Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot in the pairs event was at the top of list of highlights.
“Do you know how inspiring it was to see Aljona get a gold medal at her fifth Olympics? That’s so inspiring for other skaters to just not give up. It really makes skaters want to skate for longer which is the goal. We all want to skate for as long as we can at least until our knees give way!
“I was also in the arena for Evgenia Medvedeva’s free programme and that just had a different feel to it. It was emotional, and I felt emotional watching that. It was a masterpiece.”
Craine’s original inspiration to compete at the Olympics came when she saw Mao Asada win silver at the Vancouver Games in 2010. Before Asada retired from competing, Craine got an opportunity to compete and meet her idol at the 2016 World Championships in Boston, Massachusetts.
“To this day I love her,” Craine said. “I never would have felt the way I do about figure skating if I hadn’t watched her in Vancouver. She has been my motivation for everything I’ve built in figure skating and everything I’ve aspired to be like is because of her.
“I was so nervous to talk to her all week in Boston because I have one idol and it was her. I never thought I would get the chance to meet her and then suddenly we were at the same competition competing against each other. It took me the whole week to talk to Mao. It took me until the banquet to talk to her and get a photo with her and I died. I was so scared to approach her, and it was amazing. It didn’t disappoint, and she was so lovely.
“She’s one of those greats everyone will remember because she is so amazing. She’s got this way of skating. Her “Bells of Moscow” programme was the one that won me over for life. That was my favourite programme from her.”
She also admires 2010 Olympic men’s gold medallist Evan Lysacek.
“He’s my major role model. He’s an amazing person on and off the ice and he is the hardest worker I have ever known. I think that has set the pace for me coming into the sport and aspiring to be an Olympian. I tried to adapt that attitude in training.”
Craine closed out her season at the World Championships in Milan, Italy where she placed 17th. It had been a long, but ultimately rewarding season. She is now looking ahead to next season and raising the technical bar for herself.
“I really do like triple Lutz-triple loop, but I feel like I want to use triple loop-triple loop and triple Lutz in the short programme for now next season. I think I have improved my Lutz edge a lot this season because I used to get calls a lot and this season out of 20 I think I got 18 that weren’t edge calls. My coach OK’d it for next season. I think every time I do it, it gets a little better.
“The thing is that it doesn’t happen in training. That’s my issue. When I come into competitions sometimes I feel a little bit stiff and stuck, but my legs feel like they’re not skating. They’re just stiff and I get so in my head that I start rushing the take-offs of things and I don’t really settle down into my knees and that’s when I start getting those tight landings. I don’t really understand it because I do them so well in practices and it’s just so frustrating. I can work on it. Sometimes as skaters you can let it slip a bit. Before Four Continents I did and then I brought it back before Olympics which was great. I will always work on it. I don’t want to let it slide and start getting those under rotations every single competition. Next season I am going to work on that and getting a triple-triple combo in the short programme.”
Craine’s main goal for next season will be to qualify for her fourth World Championships which will take place in Saitama, Japan. She has only competed in Japan once before at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo in 2017 and is relishing the chance to compete in front of the appreciative Japanese skating audiences once more.
“I’m so excited. The Japanese fans are so awesome! They’re so supportive. They cheer so much and give so much love. It makes you want to skate even more to inspire and make people happy.”