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The R-word returns: Joshua's sad goodbye

  • The R-word returns: Joshua's sad goodbye

    SALT LAKE CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 13: Joshua Farris competes in the free skate program during the US International Figure Skating Classic at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex on September 13, 2013 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

In late September of 2010, I received an email from a dear friend of mine in England. She had just come home from the Junior Grand Prix event in Sheffield, and she had very much enjoyed the boy who had won. She wanted to ask what I thought of him.

I opened the link to the video she had sent me. Even then, still learning about skating, I could tell that the long-legged figure on the ice moved with greater freedom and flow than a lot of others. And then he launched into a triple Axel-triple toe that was as beautiful as any I had seen - and indeed, still holds up today. He was fifteen years old and he could jump like that? I was immediately taken by his movement, his impeccable jumps.

That was the Porgy and Bess free skate, and the long-legged fifteen year old was, of course, Joshua Farris.

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By this time, his record was already littered with glittering achievements. He was a National Champion at the Juvenile, Intermediate and Novice levels, and had come in second at the Junior level, only two tenths of a point behind his long-term rival and friend, Jason Brown. Along with his victory in Sheffield, he had also taken silver at his other event, the Junior Grand Prix in Romania, behind countryman Keegan Messing, and qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final, where he would ultimately finish sixth.

But that season, too, I was introduced to something that, sadly, followed Joshua around all-too-often: injury. That was the season of the Horror Nationals, the event that saw him suffer, in order, a torn hip muscle, an anaphylactic reaction (to dairy), and then a broken leg.

By the time he took the ice for the next season, however, things had changed. He had switched coaching teams and styles. When he took the ice for his short program at the Junior Grand Prix event in Poland, it was with a soft, elegant Clair de Lune in the style that would become his signature: beauty, grace, elegance and musicality rolled into one. And soft, beautiful jumps that became ever-more reliable.

At the end of the 2011-2012 season, Joshua was firmly established as one of the best Juniors in the world. He had finished second at the Junior World Championships, only half a point behind Han Yan of China - but he had not attempted a quadruple, and Han Yan had landed one.

When the next season started, that was rectified. I still remember that beautiful quad toe, effortless and magnificent, as though it was never a problem, and the smile that slipped out when it was done. He would go on to win the Junior Grand Prix at Salt Lake City by forty points, which is a thrashing in anyone's book, and his next event at Slovenia, he was almost as dominant, winning by twenty-five points, and was the hot favourite for the Junior Grand Prix Final. What I had been watching for three years was now quickly becoming apparent to everyone else:

Joshua was special.

Of course, history shows that he didn't win the Junior Grand Prix Final that year, but in the overall scheme of things, it didn't matter. He would go on to pull off a superb pair of performances at US Nationals, earning him his first medal on the Senior podium, a pewter. He and Jason Brown took their rivalry to the Junior World Championships for a second time, and for the second time Joshua came out on top, this time by four points, and he was crowned the Junior World Champion with a score that would stand as a championship record for another two years.

With the World Junior title in the bag, he moved up to Senior for the Olympic season. I remember well the excitement of his new Libertango short program, sharp and snappy and unlike many of his other programs; but it was the beauty of his Schindler's List free skate that really caught the imagination. Even then, in its earliest iteration, it was a program of breathtaking magnificence. Those new programs propelled him to fifth on his Grand Prix debut; but then disaster struck. Already robbed of competing against his idol Evgeni Plushenko at the Rostelecom Cup by injury to the latter, Joshua was then rubbed out of the competition altogether by an ankle sprain.

When he came to Nationals that year, therefore, he was not in the consideration for an Olympic spot. But he handed the pressure well, and watching his beautiful free skate brought me to tears, and not for the first or last time. Another pewter medal led to a debut at the Four Continents Championships, where he ultimately finished sixth; the potential was simmering just below the surface, ready to emerge.

History will remember the 2014-2015 season as Joshua's breakout season, but it started very badly with another sprained ankle, and a withdrawal from his first Grand Prix of the year. Desperate not to miss the entire Grand Prix season, he rushed back too soon for the NHK Trophy, where he finished a disastrous 11th. And yet, not all was as terrible as it seemed. In spite of the failed jumps, the programs themselves were notably excellent; even as Joshua fell and struggled, I found myself smiling at the other parts of the programs, and wondered what might happen if he landed the jumps.

Just over a month later, at US Nationals, we found out.

Give Me Love was the perfect short program for Joshua at that time of his career, and the only error he made in that short program at Nationals was the turn out at the end of his combination. And the judges listened to his plea: they didn't just give him love, they showered him in it. For the first time, he would find himself over the 90-point barrier, and slid into second after the short program behind - you guessed it - Jason Brown.

The free skate was divine, even if not technically perfect; with two seasons of development under its belt, Schindler's List had become a masterpiece, a work of pure art that transcended all else. It brought tears to the eyes with the exquisite expression of the music and emotion. And though when all was said and done one-too-many double toes meant Joshua finished third, and not first, it was his free skate that stayed in the hearts of many afterwards.

I have written before about the magic that was Joshua's performances at the Four Continents Championship that year. Even at Worlds, when he stumbled and finished 11th, he still held the performances, and they were still excellent in that regard. Excitedly, his fans talked about the next season; we would see Give Me Love again, but had a new free skate to anticipate, which would later be revealed as Pines of Rome. I contented myself during the off-season imaging all of the medals that he would win that season - and I was sure that already US Nationals was shaping into a great showdown, with Joshua, Jason and Max all having their best programs ever. Even as I prepared my trip to Boston, I was hoping that my dearest wish would come true, that I would see all three of my favourite American men skate in person.

But unknown to me, even as I made those arrangements, events were set in motion that would lead to the most heartbreaking moment of Joshua's career.

For in a fall in practice, he suffered a concussion; cleared by scans, he returned too soon, and suffered a second; and finally, a bump of his head as he got into a car slammed the final nail into the coffin. It was over, though we did not know it yet. All we knew was first, that he had withdrawn from the Grand Prix events; then, that he had withdrawn from Nationals. I was deeply upset, but threw myself into hoping for the next season.

It was my great pleasure and honour to meet Joshua in person while I was in Colorado Springs, and he was charming, sweet and polite, smiling and laughing and open, and never would I have guessed that darkness lay underneath it all. The meeting had reaffirmed my hope. Next season would be his year. I treasured the meeting in my heart, cheerfully looking forward to the new season.

Even when Joshua's name did not appear on the Grand Prix list, I suspected nothing. After all, he had been out for a season, it was unsurprising that he did not meet any of the selection criteria. And then on the morning of July the second, for so it was my time, I woke to the news that instantly broke my heart.

I know it is what is best for him. I know that he has other options, that he will be a great coach and choreographer, that he will be wonderful at whatever he chooses to do next. But I will still grieve, for the ending of a career that could have been so much, and for the loss of a bright star; I will still grieve that such a happy, kind young man was brought so low by a horrible accident. For I never lost faith that he would return, and still I will keep that faith that one day, he will be completely healthy once more, troubled not by the post-concussive symptoms.

The best of luck to you, bright star, and I will never, ever forget you.

Here I have made a Youtube playlist of Joshua's programs, in as chronological an order as I can get them.

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