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Balde seeking redemption in Sofia

Junior worlds contender as determined as they come

Elladj Balde hopes for a top-five finish this week in Sofia.
Elladj Balde hopes for a top-five finish this week in Sofia. (Skate Canada/Brett Barden)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(02/24/2009) - Elladj Balde is one of those skaters who enjoys an immediate connection with the crowd. The Canadian's sense of showmanship is innate. He lives to perform.

"It's the thing I love most about figure skating -- performing. I know that I'm a big showman. I always loved doing shows. I love being in front of people, showing what I can I do," said Balde.

The 18-year-old, who also performs with a hip-hop dance group in Montreal-area schools, brought the crowd to its feet with his entertaining and technically impressive short program at the 2009 Canadian Figure Skating Championships in January. Balde returned the love, blowing kisses back at them.

His long program was less spectacular, but his 10th-place result at nationals, combined with a seventh-place finish at December's ISU Junior Grand Prix Final, was good enough to earn Balde a return trip to this week's 2009 World Junior Championships.

In Sofia, Bulgaria, Balde will be looking for redemption after the disappointing 21st-place finish he recorded last year in the global meet after winning the Canadian junior crown.

"My goal was just to perform really good, but after having really, really good -- excellent -- practices there, I started thinking 'Oh, my god, I could be on the podium. I could be on top.' So, maybe I put too much pressure on myself to do good performances," said Balde, who claimed a silver and bronze medal this season on the junior GP circuit.

"This year, I'm going into junior worlds just wanting to perform well, do what I can do. I've been training really well -- really, really hard. I know that hard training pays off, so I just want to go and be the best that I can," he added. "Being in the top five would be good."

Also competing for Canada in the men's event is Kevin Reynolds, who is making his fourth appearance at the junior worlds. Team Canada also includes junior ladies skaters Diane Szmiett and Kathryn Kang, pairs teams Paige Lawrence and Rudi Swiegers and Maddison Bird and Raymond Schultz and the ice dance teams of Kharis Ralph and Asher Hill, Karen Routhier and Eric Saucke-Lacelle and Tarrah Harvey and Keith Gagnon.

Balde, whose mother was born in Russia and father in the west African country of Guinea, stands apart from the crowd with his mane of shoulder-length curly hair.

"I don't want to be like every singles skater. I want to be different. You've got to stick with your own style and do your own stuff. That's what I'm doing," explained Balde.

Last week, though, he did cut about three inches off his long locks but is still wearing his hair in a pony tail.

"When it gets really long, it's heavy, and I have to brush it every day. There's a lot of things you have to do when you have long hair. Cut a couple of inches, it's easier," he suggested.

Balde, who speaks English, French and Russian, moved to Canada when he was just two. His parents met and married in Moscow where his father had gone to attend university. His mother had been a figure skater as a young girl in Russia, but her career was cut short when her family moved to small village where there was no ice rink. Balde's father's native tongue is Peule and Balde was anxious to learn to speak that, too. His father, however, considered it too difficult a language to learn unless you are living in the country where it is spoken.

When Balde was an infant, his seven-year-old sister was diagnosed with leukemia, and the family moved to Germany seeking treatment. Unfortunately, his sister died shortly after. In 1992, Balde and his parents moved to Canada. His mother works in a school, and his father, previously employed in the computer industry, is now a long-distance truck driver.

"He goes to the United States and Mexico. He's gone for a month and comes back for three days, then leaves again. We don't really see him that much. It's not fun, but that's what he has to do because [my parents] are paying for my skating, and it's really, really expensive," said Balde, who is in search of a sponsor to help pay his bills.

When he first took up figure skating at age seven, Balde reports he "hated, hated it", although he's not sure why. "I used to do gymnastics, and I loved it. Then my mom suddenly decided that I should go into figure skating. I had to stop gymnastics. I hid my skates in the closet and told her I couldn't find them. She would find them and tell me I had to go skate. Around age 10, I landed my double Axel and starting to land a couple of triples. That's when I started really liking skating. Now, I just can't live without figure skating."

Balde has the cat-like ability to land on his feet no matter how precarious his air position might be. However, just like his good friend and role model, Canadian champ Patrick Chan, the triple Axel gave Balde big problems early on this season. However, he and Chan landed their Axels in both the short and long programs at Canadians.

"Being with [Chan] at the Grand Prix Final really helped me a lot. We had lots of discussions, and he showed me that everybody has problems. It's normal. He helped me get my confidence up," Balde said, predicting that Chan will be on the podium at the2009 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles.

"I would think that he'd even be world champion this year. I would be really, really happy for him. To be world champion at 18 would be unbelievable," said Balde, who hopes to be on the Olympic team with Chan a year from now.

"I'm going to do everything I need to do to be on that Olympic team. Ev-ery-thing."

Everything includes having the best choreography -- possibly working with Kurt Browning or Alexander Zhulin -- making his jumps bigger and better and having more emotion in his performances.

"Since I began skating, my big issue was my choreography, posture, all this second-mark thing. Two years, I've been working really, really hard on choreography, but it's still not enough to be where I want to be. I'm going to work really hard on posture and edges, on all the second-mark things," said Balde, noting that he will also begin working on a quadruple toe loop after junior worlds.

Going from 10th-ranked nationally to snagging an Olympic team berth next season is a tall order. But knowing that Balde willingly repeated his Grade 10 courses when he found out his marks would not be high enough to pursue his dream of studying architecture in university, it is evident that he has the determination to make it happen.