ANCHORAGE — Keegan Messing has always skated with passion and showmanship. Whether he is channeling Charlie Chaplin, Gene Kelly or the Incredible Hulk, he is a storyteller capable of charming audiences from Fur Rendezvous to the Olympics.
He is 27 years old and has been skating since he was 3. He has never run out of characters to play or tales to tell, but in his first three competitions this season, Messing has earned raves for sharing personal stories of the ecstasy of love and the agony of loss — and for an act of sportsmanship that went viral.
Messing, who in 2018 became Alaska’s first figure skater to compete at the Winter Olympics, has been back home in Anchorage in recent days training at the O’Malley Ice and Sports Center. His daily routine includes practicing jumps like the quadruple lutz — the most difficult jump any skater has successfully landed in competition — as he prepares for the Cup of China, a Grand Prix competition in Chongqing, China, on Nov. 8-10.
It’s been a season of highs and lows for Messing, none of them related to skating. Over the last three months, he has married his girlfriend and buried a brother.
Messing’s season-opening competition came less than three weeks after his Aug. 3 marriage to Lane Hodson of Wasilla. After one week as a newlywed, he traveled across the continent to compete at the North York Summer Series in Ontario, where he debuted a new short program set to Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” — a love song that played for the couple’s first dance as husband and wife.
A singles skater for most of his long career, Messing said it was the first time he didn’t feel like it was just him on the ice. It was as if Lane was with him.
“Every time I go out and skate that program, I really feel like I’m not out there alone,” he said. “It speaks to me.”
Buoyed by that joy, Messing finished the program with his hands clutching his heart, got a big ovation, and went on to win the men’s title.
He stayed in Ontario for a training camp — although Alaska has always been his home, he is Canadian-American and is a member of the national team of Canada, where his mother was born — and in September he competed in the Autumn Classic International in Oakville, Ontario, where he finished third in a field topped by two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan.
When the awards ceremony began, there were flags on the podium representing each medalist’s country, but Messing noticed there wasn’t a Japanese flag in front of the podium waiting to be raised when Hanyu’s national anthem played. When the music began, Messing reached behind Hanyu, grabbed the edge of the Japanese flag and held it up so it was on full display.
Hanyu stepped off the podium so he could face the flag. He bowed his head as the anthem played, and bowed deeply to Messing when it finished.
Video of the scene got thousands of views, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported that “Keegan Messing might be the most beloved person in Japan right now.”
“I was kinda surprised how just a compulsive act of kindness went so viral,” Messing said. “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I wanted to do something for him, because I would have liked to have my flag presented to me if I had won.”
‘Here I Am’
With his next competition a month away, Messing returned to Alaska.
Days later, on Sept. 22, his younger brother Paxon, 26, was killed in a motorcycle crash in South Anchorage.
Before falling asleep at the end of that long day, Messing decided he had to skate a tribute to Paxon.
He spent three days choreographing and practicing a program set to the Bryan Adams song “Here I Am” — the same song that played during a slideshow at Paxon’s memorial.
Messing performed the program at the gala performance at the Oct. 18-20 Skate America in Las Vegas. He placed fourth in the Grand Prix event to qualify for a spot in the post-competition gala, where creativity takes over as skaters present programs tailored for themselves and the crowd instead of the judges.
On the day of the gala, Messing skated onto the Orleans Arena ice carrying a giant, framed photo of Paxon mounted on a tripod. He put it at center ice facing the side of the arena where his parents and wife sat. At times, it was as if he were performing for the photo, and at one point he did a backflip over it.
At the end of the performance, Messing was in tears as he knelt next to his brother’s image and placed his hand over his heart.
“It was something I really felt I needed to do. It felt like a weight off my chest,” he said. “It was a way to say goodbye in my own words, though no words were spoken.”
It was remarkable Messing even went to Skate America given the circumstances. The day after Paxon died, Messing’s coach, Ralph Burghart, left town for a week to attend the Northwest Pacific Regional Championships with some of his younger students, leaving Messing to train on his own for several days.
His sessions on the ice lacked intensity. He was unmotivated and had a hard time maintaining his focus — a risky thing when practicing dangerous elements like quads, where a skater makes four midair revolutions in about seven-tenths of a second.
“We’re rotating at a speed of 474 rpms,” Messing said. “You don’t do a quad with a so-so attitude or it will laugh in your face and flatten you to the ice.”
At times friends and family came to the rink to keep Messing company, and Lane was his rock. “Unconditional love from her has been a lifesaver,” Messing said.
Lane traveled to Las Vegas for Skate America, which marked the first time Messing performed the “Perfect” short program with his muse in the audience. News accounts called the performance heartfelt — a word often used to describe Messing’s skating — and he finished the night in third place with a score of 96.34 points. It was the highest short-program score that Messing, who placed 12th at the Pyeongchang Olympics, has ever posted in a high-level event.
“Everyone was crying,” Burghart said. “Him being able to do that without basically training? He came close to challenging (world champion) Nathan Chen.”
The next day Messing struggled through his long program, especially his jumps, and he slipped to fourth place overall. Messing and Burghart both said Messing’s physical fitness wasn’t there after his difficult training days, but Messing was determined to compete anyway. He wanted to make it to the gala so he could pay tribute to Paxon.
“It made it that much more real,” Messing said, “like I was skating through the pain, and figuring out how to cope with such a loss.”
Since then, he said, “it’s been so much easier to go back to the grindstone.”
Skating is Messing’s job, and it’s a grittier world than the one seen in televised competitions, where athletes wear sparkles and sequins and are showered with teddy bears and flowers after they skate.
At daily and sometime twice-daily practices at the O’Malley rink, world-class skating is on display as Messing executes technical spin combinations, intricate footwork sequences and gravity-defying quad jumps.
Messing’s quad toe jump is dependable but his quad lutz is less consistent. He dreams about the quad axel — a jump with 4.5 revolutions that no one has landed successfully in competition — but it’s not in his immediate future.
“It’s such a big thing to wrap your mind around, to get that much speed and momentum,” he said. “It’s scary to put that much (kinetic) energy into it. There’s that much more opportunity to slam into the ice, and the ice isn’t soft.”
When jumps go badly, Messing crashes to the ice with nothing to protect his 5-foot-5 body other than gloves, a pair of skating pants and either a T-shirt or light jacket. He is always quick to get back on his feet and keep skating, because that’s what figure skaters do. It’s a sport of highs and lows, and this season Messing understands that better than ever.