Raj Misir’s makeshift workshop is tucked away in a U.S. Figure Skating apartment, near the Pyeongchang athletes village. It’s temporary, but incredibly well equipped. There’s a “Blademaster” skate sharpener, a boot punch, extra leather, scissors, polishing stones, foam, replacement heels and anything else a skate technician might need.
“I packed everything,” Misir said in a phone interview. “You name it, I have it.”
As Team USA’s skate tech, Misir is responsible for all American figure skates, including those belonging to stars like Nathan Chen, Adam Rippon and Mirai Nagasu. He described his position as an “insurance policy” of sorts for the U.S. team. If everything goes according to plan, Misir said, he wouldn’t be needed. But that never happens.
At best, figure skates last about 20 to 25 hours on the ice before they need sharpening — less if a skater likes his/her blades particularly sharp, or if something goes wrong. During the regular season that’s usually not a problem; events last a few days and then skaters disperse to their home shops. The Olympics, however, are a nearly three-week affair ripe with possible pitfalls.
Misir has already had to sharpen a few pairs of skates, and polish plenty of blade nicks during these games. Earlier this week, one of the U.S. skaters (he wouldn’t say who) had a skate heel separate from its boot. He fixed that, too.
Unlike other winter sports, such as skiing, the idea of a dedicated technician is relatively new to figure skating. It arose at a conference before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when American Evan Lysacek’s coach asked why there wasn’t one available. U.S. Figure Skating agreed that there was a gap and, within 10 minutes, had found a skate tech named Mike Cunningham to fill the role. The decision proved prescient, as Lysacek’s blades were damaged during the Games and needed fixing. He went on to win gold.
Misir took over from Cunningham a few years ago. While this is his first Olympics with Team USA, Misir has more than two decades in the figure skating business. (He’s also a vice president of the Jackson Ultima skate company.)
“I know how to make a skate from scratch,” he said, while noting that his technical knowledge is only part of what makes him effective. “I’ve been working with all the skaters for the last three years,” he said. “There’s that trust.”
On one end of the spectrum are the skaters who leave their skate, blade or boot choices almost entirely in Misir’s hands. (For a skater like Japanese gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu, who goes through many pairs of skates, customization may be inherently less intricate). But there are also skaters with distinct preferences.
Some like the hollow between their skate blades to be deep; others prefer it shallow. The same goes for sharpness, curvature and a litany of different variables. Ice dance skates, for example, need to be duller to facilitate footwork. Canadian Elvis Stojko, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, was known for wanting his blades extremely flat, almost like a speed skate.
Whatever the need, Misir is there to help. One broad change he’s tried to institute is getting every skater to bring backup skates when traveling. Most of his work, however, is detailed and meticulous.
“I keep a chart,” he says, explaining how he keeps track of the personalized minutia. “If something goes wrong, I pull it up.”
One of those files is dedicated to Nathan Chen. The two worked together closely in the lead up to the Pyeongchang Olympics, with Chen even flying to Misir’s home base in Toronto.
“He likes a specific boot, a specific tongue and a specific blade,” Misir said. “It’s actually quite amazing to watch and work with him.”
Before hiring its own skate tech, the U.S. would often rely on someone local at each Olympics. But Misir says the results were inconsistent.
“You’re talking to a guy who’s never touched your skates before,” he said. “[If they] give you a bad sharpening, that might be the end of your Olympics.”
The lengths to which Misir goes to avoid that heartbreak is evident in descriptions of his workshop, where skaters are welcome anytime. The apartment is piled full of the boxes he used to ship his equipment to Pyeongchang. The dozen or so boxes arrived in a crate last October, and he’s saving them for the return journey after the Games.
Misir said the Americans are currently the only team with a setup like his, but he expects that to change as people see the value in it.
“It’s a really good idea to have someone here,” he said. “It just happened to be me – which is an even better idea.”