Charles Dion is a winner. No, he didn’t make it onto the Olympic team at the Canadian Tire National Skating Championships in Ottawa this year. He didn’t win a medal. But he won in other ways. The national championship was his Olympics.

Charles Dion is a winner. No, he didn’t make it onto the Olympic team at the Canadian Tire National Skating Championships in Ottawa this year. He didn’t win a medal. But he won in other ways. The national championship was his Olympics.

Dion, 22, of Candiac, Que., didn’t even qualify for the Canadian championships last year. Didn’t get past Skate Canada Challenge. But his own challenges have come this season, and he’s met them, every one. All with grace and quiet chutzpah. 

Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Dion was adopted at six months of age, by Quebeckers Denis Dion, and Jacythne Cote, now a chief executive with Rio Tinto Alcan. Charles was one of about 20 orphans brought to Canada by a nun seeking better lives for homeless Taiwanese children. The Dion’s chose little Charles. 

The Dion’s didn’t stop there. They also went to China to adopt a girl, Laurie, now 20. And they adopted a second girl, Gabrielle, now 19, also born in Taiwan. Finally, they were a family.

Charles began skating when he was three years old, and Laurie followed. Gabrielle drifted into equestrian sport. Denis trundled them to all of their pursuits. “It’s all because of him that we’re where we wanted to be in sports, because he was there for us,” Charles said.

After Charles failed to make it to the Canadian championships last year (he was 14th at Skate Canada Challenge), he decided to make a big change, because his time in the sport was running out. He decided to skate with Annie Barabé, and improve his consistency and component marks.

However, a major life wrinkle interrupted his plan. Three months ago, Laurie developed paralysis on her left side. After many tests, doctors found a big mass in her brain, a tumour. After surgery to remove it, they found it cancerous. The diagnosis threw the family into turmoil.

Laurie had surgery just before Charles was to compete in sectionals, but at least he felt little pressure about advancing. The top eight would advance to Skate Canada Challenge, and only 10 competed. The hardest part was the stress, thinking about his sister. He did a good short program. The long program was harder: It was to the U2 song: “With or Without You.”

It had been a coincidence that Charles was skating to this music, chosen before his sister fell ill. But the words played on his mind.

See the stone set in your eyes

See the thorn twist in your side

I wait for you.

Sleight of hand and twist of fate

On a bed of nails she makes me wait

And I wait without you

With or without you

I can’t live

With or without you.

While Charles had been training for this event, his parents had been giving him almost hourly updates on Laurie’s condition. By the time she had surgery, his parents were exhausted, and the day of the operation, Charles spent the night with her. In fact, Charles spent two days with her. 

He made it to Skate Canada Challenge, finished seventh and set a personal best mark. “I was really proud of myself,” he said. “It gave me confidence to boost me through the holidays, through the training, every day to the national.”

His sister is better now, and doing well, Charles said. She’s currently on a break from her exhausting chemo and radiotherapy and doing well. His performance at the Canadians in Ottawa was for her.

And what a performance it was. He’d been working with a sports psychologist, who advised him that a win is not about the points you get, but how you feel after the program. Charles did a clean short program. When he got off the ice, he told Barabé: “I don’t know how many points I’m going to have, but I’m really proud and I enjoyed myself on the ice.” During the second part of his footwork, the crowd had begun to clap, shout and scream, perhaps a little noise from his family in the Quebec section of the rink. He finished ninth with a personal best. The long program was different.

Peter O’Brien had skated directly before him – and because he was skating in his own section with a lot of crowd support, there was a wild cheering. O’Brien had skated well and got 130 points. Charles decided to drink in the energy that O’Brien had created.

It worked. He landed a triple flip – triple toe loop combination and got a string of plus 2s for execution. In fact, by the time he had finished, he’d earned 127.00 points, for 195.74 total points, good for 10th overall.

Charles had exceeded his personal best by 15-20 points. His total was 40 points higher than his score at Skate Canada Challenge last year, when he failed to qualify for Canadians. “I couldn’t imagine those points that I had,” he said. “Even now I’m still on a high. I did two personal bests.”

Charles has a plan to try to get into university this fall, with hopes of studying international business and following in his mother’s footsteps. He hopes the university he attends will have a sports school. He doesn’t feel finished yet. “I still love to train,” he said. “I know I’m a little old compared to some guys that are coming up. But I’m still progressing and it’s encouraging me to continue.” He would like to master a triple Axel and a quad. He’ll work on those jumps for the next couple of months, then make a decision.

And oh yes, Charles is the one who skates with glasses. They’ve fallen off only twice, during spins. “I don’t see them anymore,” he said. “I don’t feel them. I know when I pick them up at the optometrist, I am sure they are going to stay on my ear.” They do not fall, even when he’s trying quads.

Laurie’s battle with cancer has changed lives around her. Charles said it has made his family stronger. “Things that we wouldn’t have done or said, now we do,” he said. It’s the same with his friends, who are like family, too.

“I see her as a fighter and a warrior,” Charles said of his sister.

Beverley Smith