ELKTON — Gary Irving is going to South Korea to attend the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games — not as a spectator, but as an assistant coach.
The Elkton-area resident's longtime protege, Keegan Messing, a 26-year-old Alaskan figure skater will be competing on the ice for gold, silver or bronze medals in the men's singles and multi-person events as a member of Team Canada.
“It's a dream,” Irving said in his thick, Australian accent.
For the past 16 years, Irving has been coaching Messing, who has dual citizenship with the United States and Canada. Messing's head coach is Anchorage resident Ralph Burghart, an Austrian who competed as a figure skater in the 1992 Winter Olympics.
“He is my best friend in the world,” Irving said of Burghart.
Messing is one of Irving's approximately 50 current figure-skating students he teaches through his company, International Competitive Edges, he reported.
Some of those students are very good, even impressive at times, Irving said. The same can be said about a small percentage of the scores of hopefuls Irving has taught and coached for the past two-plus decades, he added.
But Messing is the only one so far who has soared to such great heights — which includes his recent second place finish in last month's Canadian National Championship in Vancouver to earn him a Canadian silver medal and his place on the Canadian Olympic figure-skating team, according to Irving.
Messing's resume also includes two-time International Cup of Nice champion and 2012 Nebelhorn Trophy bronze medalist. Messing, in addition, placed fourth at the 2010 World Junior Championships.
During the rapid development of Messing as a figure skater, Irving realized, early on, that he no longer was teaching Messing as a student but, instead, was coaching him as a valid national and possibly international competitor, which is a rare situation.
“To get to this level, you have to be phenomenal — and that's what Keegan is. He's phenomenal,” Irving said.
He quickly added that Messing also is a polite, unassuming, driven, young man who lives at the bottom of a mountain in a rural part of Alaska, outside of Anchorage, and that he is content with outdoor activities and life's simple pleasures.
“Keegan epitomizes everything about being Alaskan,” Irving remarked. “They're all like pioneers.”
Coaching an olympian
For about 14 years, Irving has been traveling to Messing's hometown of Girdwood about three times annually, spending about two weeks at a time to train him at an area ice rink, he said.
He has developed a strong friendship with Messing's parents over the years Irving said, commenting, “We're almost like family. We've been through so many ups and downs together.”
Also for the past 10 years, Irving added, Messing has been journeying from Alaska to Elkton about two or three times annually, spending a week or two each visit to be coached by Irving at the University of Delaware's ice rink. According to Irving, that ice rink is highly regarded by elite competitive skaters and coaches.
Messing was the houseguest of E.J. Pipkin and his family during most of those visits to the Elkton area, mainly because Messing is allergic to cats — and Irving and his wife, Michelle, have several of them as pets, he said. Irving is friends with Pipkin because they lived in the same neighborhood for several years and because Irving had taught Pipkin's children ice skating, he added.
(Pipkin had served as a Maryland senator (R-Upper Shore) from 2002 to 2013, when he resigned to pursue a career opportunity in Texas.)
“Keegan would stay there, walk up to my house and we would ride together to the rink,” Irving said.
When Irving isn't working with Messing, Burghart, the head coach, is. Messing rarely has days off when it comes to training, especially before a major event.
“There's so much work to do. You need more than one coach to get it all done,” Irving said, adding, “I do some on-ice conditioning. But my training focuses on interpretation, the components of a program. It's all about the performance, the execution and the delivery of the performance.”
Irving's job as figure-skating teacher and coach has taken him to several countries over the years and has put him in the same circles as numerous big-name skaters and coaches, he said, adding with a laugh, “It's a life.”
Wheels to blades
It's easy to understand why Irving, who was born in the United Kingdom, gravitated to figure-skating. His late father, Ron Irving, was a professional figure-skater — roller skates, not ice skates — in the 1950s and 1960s and, as such, he was a 7-time British Professional Champion.
“He skated for the Duke of Edinburgh,” Irving noted.
Irving, who moved with his family to Australia in 1968, started rollerskating when he was 3, he said. During the next 20 years or so, he added, Irving trained and competed on his roller skates as a figure skater — and he fared quite well.
“I was fifth in the world,” Irving pointed out.
However, after several of his friends switched from roller skates to ice skates and moved to Delaware, where the attractions were the University of Delaware's ice rink and a roller-skating rink in nearby Christiana, Irving joined them.
“I fell into a group of athletes, and they let me sleep on their couches,” Irving recalled.
Irving had a by-chance encounter with brothers Stuart and Steve Thomas, who own a Delaware-based construction company, and he credits them with giving him a place to live for four years and a job — all to keep him afloat as he shifted his focus from skating to teaching and coaching ice-skating students.
Teaching and coaching evolved into Irving's mainstay job, a career, actually, and Messing signed up as one of his students about 16 years ago, when Messing was about 10.
Irving playfully declined to specify his age when the Cecil Whig interviewed him, saying only that he is “50ish.”
2018 Winter Olympics
Irving and Michelle, a hairdresser who operates Salon by Dominic in Hockessin, Del., will fly to South Korea on Monday, the start of a long journey to the 2018 Winter Olympics.
With that part of the world about a day ahead of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, they will arrive there about 3 p.m. on Wednesday, giving them a day and half to rest before the figure-skating competitions start on Friday (Feb. 16).
Irving said he plans to talk to Messing before he glides out onto the ice — essentially an international stage — to compete, he said.
However, because of the high security at that venue and likewise throughout the Winter Olympics complex and the Olympic Athlete Village, Irving will watch Messing compete from the stands, he added.
“You only get one credential for a coach now,” Irving explained. “I'm not the head coach; I'm just the assistant coach, so I cannot be down there.”
Regardless of his vantage point, Irving is eager to watch Messing compete and to see how he fares in his 2018 Winter Olympics events — especially after having coached him for the past 16 years, he said.