It’s nothing new for a skater named Tran to navigate unexpected turns in his life and his career.

It’s nothing new for a skater named Tran to navigate unexpected turns in his life and his career.

From September 25 to 28, Mervin Tran will find himself at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany with his new pair partner, Natasha Purich, a fiery redhead from Alberta who will compete in only her second senior competition. Nebelhorn will mark their first competition together and the start of a promising career.

The good news is that Tran, a world bronze pair medalist for Japan at the highest levels, is now skating for Canada. It’s where his heart is.

Tran is the son of a Cambodian mother and a Vietnamese father, who came to Canada as refugees, unable to speak English. Mervin was born in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Figure skating wasn’t at the top of the family plan. Obviously the Trans had cleverly clued into the fact that in Canada, boys play hockey, so young Tran took up hockey in Regina. When coaches told Tran he needed to learn how to skate first, and suggested he enrol in CanSkate, Tran took the road less travelled and became a singles skater.

He competed in singles until 2007, when he reluctantly became a pair skater. Tiny Japanese skater Narumi Takahashi had been tugging at the sleeve of Montreal pair coach, Richard Gauthier for a couple of years, asking for a pair partner from Canada (pair coaches and male pair skaters in Japan being as scarce as mittens on a Miami beach). As luck would have it, pair coach Bruno Marcotte was driving from Vancouver to Montreal for a new job working with pair coach Richard Gauthier, and remembered Tran along the way.

Tran wasn’t at all interested. He told his coach in no uncertain terms: “No.” He thought pair skating was a sport for competitors who couldn’t cut it as singles skaters. “I was close-minded,” Tran said. His coach, however, advised Tran not to knock it until he tried it. The Montreal coaches convinced him to come to the Quebec City at least for a good shopping experience. That worked.

In Montreal, Tran fell in love with the speed of pair skating. Once he tossed Takahashi into a throw, he was hooked. And after five years with Takahashi, skating for Japan, the twosome won a surprise bronze medal at the 2012 world championships in Nice, France. “It still feels like a dream,” Tran said. “It all happened really fast.”

Their success bred new dreams: What about the Olympics? At first Tran had no intention of getting his Japanese citizenship, required of an Olympic competitor, because it also meant he’d have to renounce his Canadian passport. Then Takahashi and Tran had helped Japan win a World Team Trophy – and the Japanese team had always had to depend only on its strong singles skaters. Now they had a world class pair. And there was to be a new team event at the Sochi Olympics.

Tran tweeted: “I will continue to think critically about my decision as I would very much like to go.” Japan had been supportive when things were tough. But another wrinkle in the plan: rules required that Tran would have to maintain residency in Japan for years to get citizenship, and considering that the pair trained in Canada, it seemed impossible. The president of the Japanese Olympic Committee said he would make a special request to the government to help Tran become part of the Olympic team.

Tran weighed how long it would take him to become a citizen of Canada again after the Olympics were over. “I do want to live the rest of my life in Canada,” he said. “I love this place.”

After looking into it for a while, Tran found the difficulties were insurmountable. Takahashi found a new Japanese partner in February of 2013 while recovering from shoulder and knee surgery and by March, Tran hooked up with a very Canadian Purich.

The breakup wasn’t easy for their fans, because Takahashi and Tran had developed a relationship over the years and “people won’t forget that soon,” he said. “But Natasha and I are starting something new. It’s only been six months. We haven’t been able to build that yet, but we’re hoping to go forward many, many years.”

Ironically enough, Tran will meet his old partner, Takahashi, at Nebelhorn with her new partner, Ryuchi Kihara, a junior-level skater who had been tenth at the 2011 world junior championships in singles. Takahashi and Kihara train in Detroit under Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen.

Purich has spent her career as a promising junior in both singles and pairs and she’s taking a big step into the big leagues. “It’s a whole new ballgame,” she admitted. “It’s exciting to be able to compete at this level with somebody who has been there. I got really lucky.”

Purich is only Tran’s second partner, but they knew each other. Purich was already skating in Montreal with Sebastien Arcieri, with whom she won the junior national silver medal last season. In women’s singles, she finished fourth at the junior level, missing a medal by only .14 points.

Purich has competed at the senior level only once before with pair partner Raymond Schultz, when they finished eighth at NHK Trophy during the 2011-2012 season.

At Nebelhorn, they will also meet the current world champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia. There are 19 pairs at the event, 13 of them trying to qualify for Sochi. Canada has already qualified a maximum of three pair spots for Sochi, so Nebelhorn will be about experience for Purich and Tran. Takahashi and Kihara will need to qualify a spot for Japan at Nebelhorn.

“We want to show that we are a competitive team,” Tran said. “Our main goal is in the long run. We’d love to do the Olympics, but we are looking four to eight years down the road. We feel like we have nothing to lose. It’s going to be an exciting year.”

Beverley Smith