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A chat with Sean Rabbitt before 2015 Golden Spin of Zagreb

By Leah Adams
Photos courtesy Leah Adams and Sean Rabbitt

In October 2015, Sean Rabbitt made his international debut at Skate Canada Autumn Classic where he won the bronze medal behind reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu and Canadian national champion Nam Nguyen. This week, Rabbitt will compete in his second international competition, Golden Spin, in Zagreb, Croatia.

Figure Skaters Online caught up with Rabbitt a few weeks before he left for Golden Spin of Zagreb.

Figure Skaters Online (FSO): How did you feel when you heard you were invited to Skate Canada’s Autumn Classic, your first international competition?

Sean Rabbitt (SR): It was mind boggling! The night that I found out I had actually gone to sleep. I woke up around 11:00p.m. to use the bathroom and I looked at my cell phone to see what time it was.  I saw I had an email from U.S. Figure Skating. I had been hoping to receive something from them, but being half asleep I thought, ‘Oh cool, I got an assignment.’ I told my parents, but we were still all half asleep. So it didn’t hit us until the next morning. Then I was so excited. Since I found out quite early, after Glacier Falls (Summer Classic), I had nine weeks to prepare. Once I got past the excitement, I could go in knowing what to expect. I have talked to tons of friends and read IceNetwork blogs and they said, ‘I didn’t expect this or I was caught off-guard.’ I wanted to go in acting like this was just another competition. I felt so honored and privileged at first, but after that, I was prepared and knew exactly what to do. I had a plan. Having Yuzuru Hanyu there brought a whole new category of unexpected things. I was standing there in the rink and I could hear the camera shutters. Normally the arenas are so much bigger so there’s more space for the sound to travel. I have heard the shutters before, but it really wasn’t noticeable. At the Classic, the rink was closed in and echoed more. I had a friend who said he went to his first Grand Prix and Mao (Asada) was there so when you skate by the media and all the cameras are clicking at the same second. It throws you but we definitely had a plan.

FSO: When you arrived in Canada, the atmosphere must have been diffSeanFS1erent from Nationals. What were your first impressions?

SR: I remember being overwhelmed when I first entered the rink. We came in and I did not have practice until the next afternoon. The ladies practiced, the pairs practiced, then the ice dancers practiced. I was like a little kid so excited to go to Disneyland saying, ‘are we there yet?’ Then the polar opposite occurred. I had been on cloud nine and I walk into the rink and first thing I see is Hanyu right in front of me. All the cameras and the stands were completed filled. The competition had not even started yet. I felt like this is reality now. I probably took ten minutes to settle back and I stepped outside by myself for a minute to regroup. I walked back in and as I was going to go to warm up, I passed a group of Japanese fans who recognized me and they greeted me saying in Japanese, ‘Hello Sean!’ I figured they’d be focused on him. It is hard to describe the world stage. It is very similar, yet very different. I felt empowered and possessing more self-control.

It didn’t bother me to be skating with Yuzuru. I want to thank my whole team. I’m the same age as my competitors, but that was my first international. I don’t consider that bad because it allowed me to absorb the details and enjoy every moment. Because I did enjoy every moment, I was able to grab the details. I loved my first nationals, but I didn’t have the maturity to remember it like I will Canada.

FSO: What did your skate feel like and is there anything you could have done better?

SR:I was initially very proud of the short program and from looking at the protocol I saw a couple of bobbles, but I wouldn’t have changed anything. I was there to gain experience and put myself out there. The instant you hear your name and then representing the United States, this may sound cheesy, but it was something I have dreamed about whether it be at Skate Canada Autumn Classic or the Olympics. It was so cool. For the short program, I was proud of myself. The long program, I had few silly mistakes so definitely going into Golden Spin, I want to conquer those mistakes.

Sean takes a ‘selfie’ with Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu and Canada’s Nam Nguyen at Skate Canada Autumn Classic International.

FSO: What was it like to win your first international medal, a bronze medal at Skate Canada Autumn Classic?

SR: It’s so crazy. It’s actually sitting in front of me right now. Every time I look at it, I can’t say I don’t believe it since, obviously, U.S. Figure Skating sent me knowing I could do that. But I went for the experience, figuring it wasn’t my time. One of the judges, who didn’t judge the men’s event, told our team leader what they loved about me was that I enjoyed being there. He said it showed through in my components and I skated well so I deserved the bronze.

FSO: You stood on the podium next to Yuzuru Hanyu and Nam Nguyen, the Canadian national champion. What was that like?

SR: Oh my gosh! What made the experience even cooler was, I have never medaled at Nationals, so I haven’t paid much attention to the open podium ceremony on the ice. I’ve watched many of my teammates and friends, but when I actually got out there I thought, ‘what do I do?’ There was a group of media, twenty cameras, the announcer and then the crowd was cheering loudly so you cannot hear directions from the lead photographer. You use hand signals. Having the Olympic champion and the Canadian champion who was fifth at Worlds walking me through the whole process. ‘Put your medal closer to your face for a close-up picture,’ Hanyu said. Imagine, the best skater in the world and me. Even though it was his moment, he did not act above us. He still took the time to help me.

FSO: Were you speaking Japanese?

SR: Not at the time, but throughout the week, we did.

FSO: Perhaps that gave you a bond. Maybe because you took the effort to speak to him in his language. He appreciated your kindness.

SR: I think so. He had two bodyguards and the whole week none of the other skaters spoke to him except for Nam (Nguyen) who trains with him. They could have been intimidated by security. He is a very focused person and we all know when to respect that focus. So in the locker room the first day, when we were putting on our skates, I introduced myself and started a conversation.  I think he appreciated that because the rest of the week every time he saw me, he would say hello and even later he said, ‘Goodbye, my friend.’ My point was not to become friends, but just be friendly.

FSO: How has your life changed since the competition? You mentioned your fan base earlier especially your Japanese supporters. Your brother is married to a Japanese woman and you have a young nephew.

SR: I developed a Japanese following when I produced after the (March 2011) tsunami in Japan, Skaters Care with Glacier Falls Figure Skating Club. It has been a steady growth the last few years, but just since Autumn Classic, it has boomed. My Instagram and Twitter accounts have 500 new followers and all were from Japan. I feel like I have been catapulted into a new category of skaters. I might not be in the top tier but people want to know about me.

My brother and his wife were actually in Japan and saw me on TV. Every morning news program they would talk about Hanyu and then they would show the podium and show my name so there was a face to go along with my name. I have been sent magazines with my picture in it. It is surreal because one good skate changed everything and I still have so much more work to do.

What is cool about the Japanese is they like me for me. When I was on vacation, I was able to connect with the fans because I speak Japanese too. Probably 80% of the audience in Canada was from Japan.

I am so thankful to U.S. Figure Skating for sending me to this particular competition because the past month, my outlook has become more positive and stronger in my confidence.

FSO: Aren’t the Japanese so gracious and generous with their gifts for the skaters?

SR: I received a bunch of shirts, a couple of stuffed animals, a woman gave me a whole bouquet of red roses and cards. I was so naïve because when I returned to the hotel people commented on all my presents and I asked, ‘Didn’t everybody get this?’ I have a super fan who I have met multiple times and when in Japan, she has hosted three different fan meetings, she actually flew from Japan to watch as well. She told me when I got my first internationals, she wanted to come watch.

FSO: Speaking of Japan, any trips planned for Asia? You traveled to Asia this past spring.

SR: Yes, I am planning to return in the springtime. I like to try to travel every spring and take a little vacation to clear my mind. With skating and coaching, I can be at the rink up to fourteen hours. I will probably see my sister-in-law’s family again. They treat me like their own son. I probably go right before or after I get my programs choreographed for next season. In the spring, I spent sixteen days in Asia and it was a blast. I skated in Japan my last couple of days. I skated with Yuka Nagai and the Japanese way of training is a little bit different than ours. It is amazing how they can cram forty people into an elite session without one person getting in each others’ way.

FSO: What are your goals and what are you working on next?

Sean Rabbitt’s Instagram photo with fellow American skaters Adam Rippon and Alex Johnson at 2015 Golden Spin in Zagreb, Croatia.

SR: I have Sectionals this coming week and I would love to win it and have a good strong skate. (Editor’s Note: This interview was done prior to Sectionals. Rabbitt won his first Pacific Coast Sectional senior title and qualified for the U.S. Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota.)  Then get my feet under me again because I leave for Golden Spin in Zagreb, Croatia. My goals for the next two competitions are to keep building. I have been hitting the 200 mark every time since the season started in June with minimal mistakes. By nationals, I’m hoping to be top ten and have a personal best.  My awareness of my ability is something that I haven’t had a lot of confidence in because I have been told so often I am an artistic skater. I felt I was always an athletic skater which may be true but my point is at this level I am a well-rounded skater. I’ve realized I am a technical skater, but also an artistic skater. I feel confident in my packaging this year. I’ve moved out of the only artistic box and now straddle both boxes. As much as my artistry will help me, I cannot rely on just it as much as it will help me. That is partially due to my coaching and choreography team to make sure I am checking off both boxes.

FSO: Are you working on any quads?

SR: We have been working on the quad salchow and quads are definitely in my future.

FSO: You are also a coach. What is the most rewarding part of coaching students?

SR: Seeing the joy my students get from competing and achieving their goals. There is joy in my own personal triumph. I have a student who is 16-years-old and he just started junior coaching at my rink. I was listening to him coach the other day and to hear it come 360 degrees is so cool.

FSO: Before we close, if you could be a superhero, who would you be?

SR: Let me think of Marvel comics. I’m debating between the Incredible Hulk so I could be stronger or Batman because he is pretty cool. Wolverine from X-Men because he’s the boss!