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Senseless tragedy robs skating of a bright light

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

“Life is like a can of Coca-Cola. It’s dark, it’s bubbling, it’s sweet … but in the end, it’s short.”

The words of Denis Ten, posted in a Twitter video, became eerily prophetic after his shocking death last Thursday at the age of 25.

The Sochi Olympic bronze medal winner and two-time world medalist, the pride of Kazakhstan, was murdered by a couple of street thugs in broad daylight in the city of Almaty as he tried to stop them from stealing the mirrors off his car.

Ten died in the hospital of massive blood loss after being stabbed multiple times, including in the thigh, which severed his femoral artery. Doctors valiantly tried to save Ten, performing CPR on him for an incredible two hours according to one report, but were unsuccessful.

Any time a young person dies it is a tragedy. In this instance, it is even more so, as Ten was everything to skating in Kazakhstan.

A three-time Olympian (2010, 2014, 2018) and Four Continents champion (2015), he carried the torch for the future of the sport in the country of 18 million people. He was the silver medalist at the 2013 worlds and bronze medalist in 2015.

The global skating community, which is tightknit, was brought to its knees by the news of Ten’s death. I think my feelings sum up those of the skating world — outrage, grief, helplessness.

Everyone from 89-year-old skating legend Dick Button to Ten’s contemporaries to young skaters posted their feelings on social media in the aftermath of Ten’s untimely passing.

“I want to say how stunned I am at the senseless death of Denis Ten,” Button, the two-time Olympic champion, wrote in a Facebook post. “My condolences to his family and friends. A figure skating champion whom I greatly admired.”

I went to bed Thursday night thinking I had come to grips with the tragedy, but when I woke up Friday and saw all of the grief expressed on social media, I actually began to feel ill.

Skaters and skating fans were simply overwhelmed by Ten’s sudden and unexpected death at such a young age. Like them, I have lost count of how many times I have teared up over the past few horrible days.

A shock of this magnitude is difficult to get out of your mind.

Japanese skating fans have paid homage to Ten by lining up since Saturday in searing heat to sign one of eight condolence books at the Kazakhstan Embassy in Tokyo’s Minato Ward.

Two-time world champion Miki Ando, a friend of Ten’s for many years, posted a heartfelt tribute on social media. Ando skated a short program to “Amazing Grace” and uploaded it along with a video message in honor of Ten. It was incredibly moving.

“Dennis, you will live in our heart forever. Really. We are not going to forget you,” Ando said, looking directly into the camera. “Thank you so much and rest in peace.”

Ten only skated once competitively in Japan (at the 2010 NHK Trophy) during his long career, but has appeared in shows here over the years. He was popular among his fellow skaters, and also started his own show in 2013 in his home country called “Denis Ten and Friends.”

The 168-cm Ten’s finest hour came in the free skate at the Sochi Games. In ninth place after struggling in the short program, Ten put on the performance of his life to “The Lady and the Hooligan” and moved all the way up to third place.

His medal was the first by a figure skater in the history of his country.

The memory that will be forever seared in my mind of that night is of a small band of Kazakh fans who were seated near the press tribune at the Iceberg Skating Palace.

Ten was the first skater (13th overall) in the third group of six in the free skate, and after his beautiful effort, this group of fans was understandably ecstatic as he moved into first place. Their joy grew progressively as Ten remained atop the leaderboard through skater after skater, until Yuzuru Hanyu finally surpassed him as the 21st skater of the night.

Patrick Chan followed Hanyu and moved into second, so with Ten now in third, the Kazakh fans held their breath as the final two skaters — Germany’s Peter Liebers and American Jason Brown — took the ice.

Neither was able to overtake Ten, and Kazakhstan had a historic moment on its hands, as the group of fans wildly celebrated. It was a wonderful sporting moment.

Ten, who was part of the Korean ethnic minority in Kazakhstan, had finished 11th at the Vancouver Olympics, and came in 27th in Pyeongchang while trying to deal with foot injuries.

Like everyone else, Ten was not perfect.

He had a notable run-in with Hanyu at the 2016 world championships in Boston. During practice on the Wednesday before the short program, Ten impeded Hanyu’s path on the rink and the Sendai native was not happy about it, shouting at Ten over the breach of protocol.

“I honestly didn’t notice it until someone was screaming at my back every time he was passing by,” Ten commented afterward. “I don’t think there was an issue; we didn’t hit each other. I always train with a lot of people on the ice.”

Hanyu was obviously concerned after his bloody collision with China’s Yan Han in the warmup for the free skate at the 2014 Cup of China.

Ten and Hanyu quickly patched up their differences over the incident, however, and posed for photos shaking hands together at the banquet after the worlds.

Legendary skating writer Phil Hersh penned a fantastic tribute on his website to Ten on Thursday.

“When I started skating in Kazakhstan, we only had open (air) rinks and could only skate in the winter,” Ten said at the 2013 worlds, Hersh wrote. “We had a very cold winter, (so) I remember my mother putting three pairs of pants on me, and I looked like a cabbage.

“And that’s how I learned all the doubles; it helped me to be quicker. Then I would train in shopping malls, at a small rink. We had an exhibition every Friday for all the shopaholics.

“I took a long way from skating like a cabbage to skating here at worlds.”

Hersh cited Ten’s unique use of the music from the film “The Artist” at the 2013 worlds in London, Ontario, in both his short program and free skate.

“Ten skated both programs with élan, interpretive brilliance and near flawless execution, getting second in the short and winning the long,” Hersh wrote.

Ten also worked hard as an athlete ambassador for Almaty’s 2022 bid for the Winter Olympics, including speaking before the IOC during the bid presentations.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach summarized the feelings of the masses in a statement after Ten’s death.

“Denis Ten was a great athlete and a great ambassador for his sport,” Bach stated. “A warm personality and a charming man. Such a tragedy to lose him at such a young age.”

A mourning rally for Ten was held on Saturday that Japan’s Ambassador to Kazakhstan Ichiro Kawabata attended. Thousands then filled the Baluan Sholak Sports Palace for Ten’s funeral in Almaty.

There were many poignant photos from the ceremony posted on the inform.kz website. One in particular tore me up. It was of a father consoling his young son after they filed past Ten’s open casket.

As the funeral came to an end, six honor guards lifted Ten’s casket onto their shoulders to carry him to his final resting place, as a song Ten wrote called “She Won’t Be Mine” played in the arena.

I hope in time there will be a memorial event for Ten in Kazakhstan where Olympic and world champions past and present skate in his honor. I’m concerned about the future of skating there with Denis gone.

Even after retiring, he would have been an inspiration and catalyst for the sport in his country for years to come.