In 1952, when Dick Button won his second Olympic gold medal and turned professional, he wanted to keep competing. But, there was no place for him to go to fulfill that ambition.
Even a decade later, the only professional competitive opportunity was the World Professional Competition in Jaca, Spain. (Established in 1931, it originated in England, then moved to Spain in the 1960s). However, that event was mostly for ice-show skaters, an "open" contest that accepted all comers, regardless of ability. The majority performed the same numbers they skated every night in shows like "Ice Capades," only without show-lighting, and were judged by their peers. Prize money was $2,500 for singles, and $3,000 to be split between both partners in a Pairs or Dance team.
After convincing ABC and CBS to televise amateur events, Dick Button, in the late 1960s, approached the ISU with a plan to start a similar, professional circuit. But, interest was minimal. The ISU thought a pro world championship was too radical of an idea.
Working independently, in 1973, Button presented the initial World Professional Figure Skating Championship, in Tokyo. His plan was to provide a place where skaters could develop their craft and their artistry, a sort of graduate school for the elite.
He wanted to give every skater the opportunity to keep growing as a performer and a technician, and, to this day, he grows disappointed when some fail to take advantage of their chance, or when he sees pro skaters who don't change or progress from who they were as amateurs.
For instance, 1992 Olympic Bronze Medalist Petr Barna used to drive Button crazy. Dick wanted to know why no one would take Barna in hand and do something with him, teach him to stand up, to stretch, to have a concept for a routine? It broke his heart, because he saw potential wasted.
Button also wanted to establish a pro competition as a setting for skaters to earn sufficient money.
In 1973, first prize at this World Professional Championship was $15,000 in each category.
The first competitors at the event included newly turned pro Janet Lynn beating Hungary's Zsuzsa Almassy. As an indicator of the upsets that were soon to characterize professional competition, the last time Lynn and Almassy had gone head to head, at the 1969 Worlds, Janet finished 5th, while Almassy won the Bronze.
Over in the men's division, American spinning sensation and the 1955 & 1956 World Silver Medalist Ronnie Robertson defeated Canada's Don Jackson, the 1962 World Champion and first man to perform a Triple Lutz in competition. In last place was John Misha Petkevich, who won his only U.S. title in 1971, fifteen years after Robertson retired.
The Pairs division was won by the Soviet Olympic champs, the Protopopovs. Determined that his World Professional Championship live up to the internationalism of its name, Button invited them through the USSR Federation. The skaters were dying to come, but, until the moment they stepped off the plane in Japan, no one knew whether their government would let them. (Because the USSR Federation refused to cooperate, the next Soviets to compete at World Pros were 1984 Olympic and 1988 World Champions Valova & Vasiliev, in 1989. When Button's Candid Productions tried to request Soviet skaters through official channels, they were always turned down. It was only when they went straight to the skaters themselves that Russians became World Pro regulars).
As unwilling to give up control in the 1970s as they would be in the 1990s, the ISU fought Button's "unauthorized" championship, making it necessary to wait seven years before another one could be held. (In the meantime, Button put on events called The World Skate Challenge, to bypass the ISU's objections over his use of the words World Championship....)
A very special tale about a young, disabled man's desire to go ice skating, granted by the Special Wish Foundation... and his devoted family.
1968 Olympic Champion Peggy Fleming likes to stress that, no matter what level you end up reaching in the sport, no one can become a figure skater on their own. It, in effect, takes a village.
And, most often, a child's first and best support system, by default, is their family.
Hungarian Champion and 1997 European Silver Medalist Krisztina Czako's father, Gyorgy, himself a 3-time Hungarian Champion, hand-made his daughter's first pair of skates when she was just eleven months old. Since there is no ice-time available in Hungary on the weekends, the Czakos would drive to rinks in Austria or Slovakia to make sure Krisztina had a place to train.
The situation was once similar for 1997 German Champion Eva-Marie Fitze. While her mother worked in a boutique to support Eva-Marie's skating, her dad stayed home and drove his daughter, thirty miles each way, to Munich. There, Eva-Marie trained at a rink built for the 1991 World Championship. Because the planners constructing the rink wanted to make sure it wasn't taken over by hockey players after the competition, they purposely designed it to be all glass. Hockey players can't practice there for fear of smashing the walls, so Germany's figure skaters have the ice all to the themselves. (Eva-Marie currently skates Pairs with Rico Rex).
However, constantly chauffeuring one child around can take its toll on the rest of the family. 1999 Russian World Champion Maria Butyrskaya wistfully conceded that because her mother was always so busy with Maria's skating, Maria's brother, who is seven years younger, had to stay home alone and take care of himself. As a result, "he has had a very hard time finding himself in life."
1996 World Champion Todd Eldredge's mother summarized her daily driving Todd to a rink two hours away from their home in Chatham, MA as, "We spent so much time on the road, I never saw the rest of the family much. It was just Todd all day long. He'd go to school for a few hours and then we're off to a rink. He was eating in the car, doing homework in the car with the light on at night, it was totally bizarre."
At age ten, Todd moved away from his parents, to Philadelphia, to be closer to his coach, Richard Callaghan. Todd ended up followed him to Colorado Springs, San Diego and Detroit, picking up a 1985 US Novice, 1987 U.S. Junior, 1988 World Junior, six National crowns and a 1996 World title along the way.
Stories of skaters moving away from home at a terribly young age dominate the sport. 1993 U.S. Silver Medalist Lisa Ervin was eight when her local coach moved. Lisa and her parents travelled to Cleveland for a try-out with 1960 Olympic Champion turned coach Carol Heiss Jenkins. Jenkins adored Lisa, and informed the Ervins, "You have a problem. You have a very talented child, and I want to coach her." Lisa's parents couldn't move for the sake of skating, so they sent their nine year old to board with another family.
But, when faced with relocating her daughter, Tara, alone, Pat Lipinski said no. She didn't want someone else raising her child. So, for the sake of Tara's career, Pat left husband Jack in their Sugar Land, TX, home while she and Tara moved first to Newark, DE, then Detroit, MI. The pair didn't stop moving around until Tara won the Olympic Gold in 1998.
1996 U.S. Junior Champion Shelby Lyons and her mother left her dad in Oswego, NY to move to Colorado Springs, CO, so Shelby could compete in Senior Pairs with partner Brian Wells. (They were 3rd at the 1996 Nationals and 4th in 1997).
In Russia, where the housing situation remains a great deal more critical than in the United States, European and World Champion Irina Slutskaya's parents did the inconceivable and, as she was climbing the ranks as a Junior skater, gave up a three-room apartment so they could move into a one room studio in Moscow closer to where Irina trained.
Also, Irina Rodnina has self-identified as Jewish on occassion to the Russian-language press in America, and while they are not officially Jewish, both Alexei Yagudin and Ilya Averbukh have traditionally Russian-Jewish last names. (The names could very well be the last remnants of a great-great-grandfather of the, as they say in Russia, Hebrew nationality).
On the second night of Hannukah my blogging gave to me...
A tale about the first Israeli skating champ's family treeeeee....
Michael Shmerkin, the first figure skater to represent Israel at the Olympic Games, had an unprecedented level of family support for his career. Michael's parents even got a divorce so that he would be able to compete!
Born in Odessa, USSR, Misha trained alongside Viktor Petrenko and shared his coach, Galina Zmievskaya. A promising young skater, Misha was informed by the Soviet Federation that if he intended to represent the USSR internationally, he would have to do one, little thing -- stop being Jewish.
In the USSR, where Judaism is considered a nationality, a non-Russian or Ukrainian could not be allowed to represent his country.
To that end, Misha's Jewish parents divorced, and his mother married -- on paper -- a Russian family friend, who then passed his nationality onto his new stepson.
Misha went on to represent the USSR at Junior Worlds, and at the 1990 GosTeleRadio Championship in Odessa, where he won the Short Program over eventual 1994 Olympic Champion Alexei Urmanov.
Still, with the situation in the Soviet Union growing more and more unpleasant, Misha's parents, who never officially remarried -- Misha teases them about "living in sin" -- decided to immigrate to Israel. Misha thought his skating career was over, though he does credit Galina Zmievskaya with being supportive. "She let me skate at her rink until the very last day before I left."
Once in Israel, Misha prayed at the Western Wall, asking God to make his dream of representing his new country at the Olympics, a reality. But, in the meantime, he needed to get a job. A few days after arriving in Israel, Misha was standing on his balcony, when a man came up and asked him if he wanted to work. Misha said yes, and found himself hauling cement bags on a construction site, out in the broiling Middle East sun. At the end of the day he'd suffered heat-stroke, and the realization that it was time to get back to the cooler atmosphere where he belonged.
He contacted Yossi Goldberg, mayor of Metulla, the location of Israel's only ice-rink. Yossi assured Misha that his facility was regulation-size and invited him to come North for a look. When he got there, Misha found a rink half the size of an Olympic one, and a host of self-proclaimed experts who tried to convince him that it was actually bigger than it looked.
With the help of the Canadian Jewish community, a regulation-size rink was finally built in Metulla. Misha trained there for the 1994 Olympics, and for 1995 Skate Canada, site of his greatest victory, and his greatest personal challenge.
Hours before he was set to skate the Long Program, a fellow skater ran up to Misha and told him, "Your president's been shot."
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination sent shock waves around the world, leaving a stunned Misha to cry, "I never thought a Jew could lift his hand against another Jew."
He considered withdrawing from the competition, but Federation Head Yossi Goldberg convinced him that, as an ambassador of Israel, now was the time to stand tall and show the world what he could do.
Misha stepped out on the ice wearing a skullcap, and asked for a moment of silence in Rabin's memory. He then went on to skate the performance of his life, and win the silver medal. He did what he'd been urged to do. To the best of his ability, he represented Israel -- the country that accepted him, when no one else would.
Misha went on to finish 15th at the 1997 World Figure Skating Championship, and 18th at the 1998 Winter Olympics (an event he almost didn't make; his ex-wife, Sarit, in order to get more alimony, tried to keep his plane to Nagano from taking off and a lien placed on his prize money).
After reading over my last two blog entries (something I should really do more often before hitting the 'publish' button), I realized that I may have come off sounding a bit too negative about the partner-merry-go-rounds that break up a lot of promising Pair and Dance teams before they've hit their full potential.
So today, I'm going to focus on the positive, and those teams that have managed to stick together through both crowns and crashes.
As a rule, the partnerships that survive the long haul in America are usually brother/sister pairings, where blood is thicker than medals.
1948-1952 U.S. Pair Champs Karol and Peter Kennedy.
1963-1964 U.S. Pair Champs Judy and Jerry Fotheringill.
1965 U.S. Pair Champs Vivian and Ronald Joseph.
1966-1969 U.S. Pair Champs Cynthia and Ronald Kauffman.
1973 U.S. Pair Champs Melissa and Mark Militano -- though she would go on to win the 1974 and 1975 U.S. Pairs title with Johnny Johns.
1981-1984 U.S Pair Champions and 1984 Olympic Silver Medalists Kitty and Peter Carruthers. (As adopted siblings, they are technically not blood related. I realize. Still, I worked with Peter in Nagano in 1998, and I must say, he speaks more highly and fondly of his baby sister than a lot of other siblings I know. It's his sweetest quality, actually).
1999 U.S. Pair Champions Steve and Danielle Hartsell. (Though he too went on to skate with another girl after Daneille retired).
And then there are the special cases. Western skaters whose partnerships have lasted longer than some marriages.
1988 Canadian Pair Champions Christine Hough and Doug Ladret started skating together in 1984 and grew to be such close friends that, when Doug got married in the summer of 1995, Christine served as his "best man."
JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley began skating together as seven year olds. She recalls, "Before we started taking from Mr. (John) Nicks, we were taught by another man who taught us ice-dancing. We thought it was pretty silly. We used to laugh through the lesson. The coach used to walk off the ice. We couldn't be serious and we knew we were making him mad, so we decided to change coaches. We started taking from this new man and we went immediately from ice dancing to pairs skating and we didn't even know the difference."
When John Nicks, with sister Jennifer, won the World Pair Championship in 1953, lifts were not a part of the program. So when it came to teaching JoJo and Ken how to do them, all three learned together. They began by having Ken try to lift JoJo off the piano in their dance studio. By 1968, the sixteen year olds from California proved good enough to earn a spot on the Olympic Team. By 1971, they won the World Bronze medal, repeating the feat in 1972. Afterwards, they headlined Ice Capades for four years, were named Professional Skaters of the Year, and were inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
As one of John Nicks' first Pairs, JoJo expresses amazement that the tricks it took them years to figure out, Nicks taught to his next championship pair, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, in a matter of months.
Tai and Randy were initially paired up to perform as Mr. and Mrs. Doolitle in a club show. Neither grade-schooler was ecstatic about holding hands with a member of the opposite sex, and had to be bribed with candy bars.
By 1974, thirteen year old Tai and fifteen year old Randy became the youngest pair to ever make the World Team. In 1979, they were the first American pair to win the World Championship in 29 years, although Randy's groin injury kept them from competing at the 1980 Olympics.
They too toured with "Ice Capades," competed at the first (after a seven year hiatus) World Pro Championship, and, in 1998, celebrated thirty years of skating together while touring with "Champions on Ice."
In February of this year, Tai revealed, “I’m going to Lake Placid at the end of the month for the 25th Anniversary. They’re bringing the hockey team back, (Olympic Silver Medallist) Linda Fratianne is skating, (Olympic Team Member-5th place) Lisa-Marie Allen, too. Randy and I are skating. We haven’t been on that ice since 1980. It’s very exciting!”
1988 & 1994 Olympic Pair Champion Ekaterina Gordeeva married partner, Sergei Grinkov.
1992 Olympic Silver Medalist Elena Bechke married partner Denis Petrov.
1992 Olympic Dance Champion Marina Klimova married partner Sergei Ponomarenko.
1994 Olympic Dance Silver Medalist Maia Usova married partner Alexander Zhulin, and 1996 European Bronze Dance Medalist Irina Romanova wed partner Igor Yaroshenko.
The key tenant to a successful Pairs or Dance couple is that "two shall skate as one."
It is a feat that can only be accomplished by many, many years of togetherness, and, once achieved, it can be hard to surrender.
Because of the amount of time necessary to fuse a successful Pairs or Dance team, some couples continue to perform together -- even after getting a divorce.
Valova & Vasiliev continued to compete for a few years after their divorce. She is now re-married. In retrospect, Vasiliev supposes that spending sixteen years exclusively in each other's company caused the two to confuse friendship for love. He told "International Figure Skating," "After we broke up, nothing changed in our friendship, so that is why nothing changed in our skating."
Bechke and Petrov not only continued to compete together for several years, but also to tour together with "Stars on Ice," coach together in Virginia, and still vacation together! Petrov says, "Sometimes we skate not so good, and people say 'They skate bad because they're divorced.' It's not really true." Like Vasiliev, he thinks his relationship with Elena improved after their divorce. However, the honeymoon period of their divorce proved as brief as their marriage. Petrov is now married to 1995 World Champion Lu Chen, living and coaching in her home-country of China.
Life, however, isn't quite as rosy for Maia Usova and Alexandr Zhulin. While residing in Lake Placid and training for the 1994 Olympics, "Sasha" Zhulin had an affair with another Russian skater, Oksana (later to be Pasha, then Oksana again) Grishuk. Though Usova & Zhulin stayed together long enough to win the Silver in Lillehammer (behind, of all people, Grishuk & Evgeny Platov), they divorced soon after.
It was only then that the truth about so many of the Russian marriages began to come out.
In 1995, Zhulin admitted to "American Skating World" that "the reason we got married is not as you thought. Fifty percent of the couples married because we Russians had nothing. No money. Our couples were not married for love but survival. If we married, we could get an apartment from our federation. Apartments are scarce, so they would rather give one to a couple than two to singles."
In 1995, Maia was still insisting that their divorce was for the best. "Before, we were always together, practicing together, living together. It was very difficult. Now we skate together, but we live apart, and we're as good friends as we ever were."
Yet, less than two years later, they were living even further apart, Maia in Massachusetts, Sasha in Connecticut. But, the professional relationship remained.
Explains Sasha, "I don't know how we could skate together with anyone else. For me to change partners now and still try to work the same way would not be a good idea."
That sort of dedication to career over personal concerns is common among the ex-Soviets, but, much harder to find in the West. (It also didn't last too long for Sasha and Maia, either. Despite their public statements, in 1998, two new professional teams debuted: Grishuk and Zhulin, and Usova and Platov. The media instantly dubbed the former the bad guys, and the latter the good. Usova and Platov went on to win more competitions and stay together a bit longer than Grishuk and Zhulin but, in the end, neither pairing stuck).
A few Western teams have tried to emulate the Russian model by getting married.
Finnish 1994 World Dance Bronze Medalists Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko are married, as are 1995 World Pair Champions Radka Kovarikova and Rene Novotny.
American Pair skaters Jenni Meno and Todd Sand fell in love at the 1992 Albertville Olympics (she was there with Scott Wendland, he with Natasha Kuchiki) and decided to skate together. They became engaged at the 1994 Olympics, won the U.S. Championship in early 1995, and married that summer. Their son, Jack, was born in December 2004.
Teammates Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow became dance partners in March of 1989. Elizabeth had a crush on Jerod from the first time she met him, but she wasn't sure about his feelings for her, and so said nothing. At a competition in Lake Placid, a window-shopping Liz saw a ruby antique ring which she absolutely fell in love with, but her mother decreed it too expensive. A month later, Liz saw the ring on Jerod's pinky finger. Her mother had bought and sent it to him. But, it wasn't until 1992 that the true significance of the ring became clear. Over dinner, Jerod handed Liz a card. "The time has come. We're right for each other. Be my wife." The ruby antique became an engagement ring. (They married in 1993 and son Gavin was born ten years later).
An even smaller number of Western teams have managed to keep a partnership together after the personal relationship soured.
1997 World Pair Champions from Germany, Mandy Wotzel and Ingo Steuer were still a couple off the ice when, at the 1994 Olympics, Mandy fell, chin first, onto the ice and had the wind knocked out of her. The world watched as Ingo tenderly cradled her in his arms and carried her off. Since then, the couple has broken up, though they continued to share a house, with two apartments, in Chemnitz, while training for the 1998 Olympics.
For Mandy and Ingo, skating was actually a way for the pair to reconnect as friends, after the romantic estrangement. Having to see each other every day, put their arms around each other, look in to each other's eyes was the catalyst they needed to stop growling, and reestablish a rapport.
But, such happy ending-complete-with-World-Championship tales are an exception to the rule in the West, where both Pair and Dance teams break up at the drop of a hat.
"You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince," is Calla Urbanski's most quoted quip, and Calla knows the truth of it well. Taking up Pair skating at the ripe age of twenty-three, she went through four partners before teaming up with Rocky Marvel in 1986. After three months together, the pair called it quits. The first time.
Calla went on to skate with Mark Naylor and finish 4th at the 1990 U.S. Championship. Rocky paired up with Maria Lako and they finished 7th at the same event. That spring, Calla and Rocky tried skating together again. A surprise silver medal at the 1991 Nationals earned them a trip to Worlds, and a top ten international ranking.
In 1992, while on tour following their winning a National title, they split up for the second time.
Calla is intense. Rocky more laid-back. Practice sessions had a nasty tendency to disintegrate into clenched teeth snarls, shrill discussions, and stony silences. Hoping to catapult a fresh start, Calla tried out with Scott Kurtilla while still on tour with Rocky. He, in turn, tried out with Natasha Kuchiki, also partnerless after Todd Sand left her for Jenni Meno. Neither pairing worked out.
By fall of 1992, "The Waitress and Truck-Driver" were back on again. "Third time's the charm," both swore.
In 1993, Calla was skating with Joe Mero, Rocky with Natasha Kuchiki. Neither one managed to qualify for the 1994 Olympic team, though Rocky came closer with a 4th place photo-finish.
Immediately after the Nationals, Calla announced her retirement from amateur skating. She would become a professional skater. With Rocky Marvel.
After all, fourth time's the charm.... (It didn't last; For an update on Rocky, click here).
Or is it the third?
Suzanne Semanick won the 1983 U.S. Junior Dance title with Alexander Miller, the 1987 & 1988 U.S. Senior Dance title with Scott Gregory, and two U.S. Bronze medals with Ron Kravette. Ron won the 1986 US Junior Dance title with Colette Huber, and two more U.S. Bronze medals with Amy Webster. Jason Dungjen won the 1983 U.S. Junior Pair title with sister Susan, and skated a season with Karen Courtland before pairing up with Kyoko Ina to win the 1997 and 1998 U.S. Championships.
Or is it the second time that's the charm?
Renee Roca won the 1986 U.S. Dance title with Donald Adair, and the 1993 & 1995 titles with Gorsha Sur. Susan Wynne won the 1989 and 1990 U.S. Dance titles with Joe Druar, then came back from the professional ranks to earn the 1993 and 1994 U.S. Silver with Russ Witherby.
In any case, the partner merry-go-round once prompted Tamara Moskvina to observe that it was ultimately pointless, "There is no improvement because always changing, changing, changing. It's back where you started."
Hollywood legend goes that dancer Ginger Rogers was actually more talented than longtime partner Fred Astaire because Ginger did everything that Fred did, only "backwards and in high heels."
By the same token, Pair skaters have to do everything a Single skater does, only in unison. (Plus, there are additional Pair moves, as well. It's not a perfect analogy, I was just trying to make a point).
Sometimes, the most difficult part of becoming a champion Pair (or ice dance) skater, is not mastering all the basic skating skills and more, it is simply finding that perfect partner to do them with.
The search process can be more excruciating than a crash on a Split Triple Twist.
Even when you're an Olympic Gold medalist like Russia's Artur Dmitriev.
He and partner Natalia Mishkutenok won Olympic Gold in 1992, Olympic Silver in 1994, and two world titles. But, Natalia, suffering back problems as a result of such agile, spine-twisting signature moves as "Natalia's Spin" (at the 1992 Worlds, the Soviet team doctor covertly predicted, "That girl will be in a wheelchair by the time she's 30.") wanted to retire from competition. Artur did not. And so the hunt was on to find him another partner.
Artur recalls, "I try out with maybe four or five good people before I skate with Oksana (Kazakova). It took one try only."
At their first World Championship in 1996, all pundits' eyes were on Oksana to see if she could match up to her much-medaled partner. When the fresh team finished out of the medals, in 5th place, the blame was laid squarely on Oksana's shoulders, despite the fact that Artur made his share of mistakes, including losing his center on a spin and skidding dangerously close to Oksana.
By the following season, it became clear that it was Artur who now needed to hustle to keep up with his rapidly improving partner. At Skate America '96, in the Short Program, it was Artur who missed the side-by-side Triple Toe Loop, Artur who dropped Oksana out of a lift, and Artur who tripped and fell flat on his stomach during the footwork sequence. It was also Artur who, at the 1997 Worlds, missed the Triple Toe Loop, leaving the team to finish 3rd. Artur and Oksana again finished 3rd at the 1998 Russian Nationals, and their chance for Olympic Gold seemed to be slipping away daily.
Yet, as his coach Tamara Moskvina predicted, "Artur is very knowledgeable in how to skate in the Olympics. Experienced people know when to start really working. He is collecting his strengths, his desires, his responsibilities for that moment in the Olympics."
True to Tamara's word, Artur Dmitriev arrived in Nagano looking trim and healthy, thanks to having sworn off "partying" (a word he preferred the press use in the place of "drinking") for the period leading up to the Games. After he and Oksana won their Gold medal, however, Artur promptly disappeared, leaving Oksana to skate many of their exhibition practices alone. The moratorium on "partying" was definitely over.
While Artur Dmitriev found the perfect partner at his very own rink, America's Brian Wells had to drive across the country looking for the right girl. At 5' 4'', Brian first skated pairs with his sister, Ann-Marie. They represented the U.S. at Junior Worlds in 1988 and 1989. Then Ann-Marie outgrew him. Brian's next partner, Laura Murphy, was just the right size at the age of thirteen. But, eventually, she too got too big. So, in 1994, Brian hit the road. And seemingly everywhere he turned, he heard one name: Twelve year old Shelby Lyons. The Novice level Shelby was actively looking for a partner. A dance partner. She had no interest in skating pairs. So, for two months, Brian badgered the Lyons family with telephone calls. Lots of telephone calls. Finally, he convinced Shelby to give pairs a whirl. It took her a month to pass the USFSA tests qualifying her to compete in Senior Pairs. A year later, they finished 4th in the United States, and, the year after that, Brian and the little girl who had no interest in skating Pairs qualified for the 1996 World Team. (The pair broke up after competing at the 1998 Worlds.)
Artur and Brian's story is typical in that men searching for a partner tend to find one with relative ease. At the Partner Try-Out sponsored every year by the Professional Skater's Association (PSA), the number of girls who show up looking for partners tend to outnumber the boys fifteen to one. It's the women in skating who can spend months, sometimes years, seeking a match.
Eve Chalom looked all over the United States for an ice-dance partner, before a coach introduced her to Mathew Gates of England. In order to skate with Eve, Mathew had to relocate to America and move in with the Chaloms, who agreed to foot all of his training and living expenses. It was, Eve's parents admit, like taking on another child, both financially and emotionally. The first few years of their partnership, Mathew lived in a room once belonging to Eve's Yale-bound brother, Adam. But, in 1996, Eve and Mathew decided there was such a thing as too much togetherness, on and off the ice, and Mathew moved into his own apartment, still subsidized by the Chaloms. Eve's family also helped Mathew establish legal status in the United States. In February of 1996, Susan Chalom drove Mathew six hours through a raging ice storm to Toronto, where he was processed for permanent residency. Instead of waiting in line with the rest of the applicants, Mathew was treated like a celebrity and processed immediately. Although his green-card came through in August, his lack of citizenship prevented Mathew and Eve from challenging for a spot on the 1998 U.S. Olympic team. They split up following the 1999 season.
As international barriers crumble and skating becomes a more and more lucrative enterprise to embark on, international partner searches are growing even more commonplace.
Russia's Maria Anissina thought she'd found herself a perfect match when she and Ilya Averbukh won the World Jr. Ice Dance Championship in 1990 and 1992. But, 1992 was also the year Ilya fell in love with another ice-dancer, Irina Lobatcheva, and left Marina to skate with his new girlfriend.
Devastated, Marina didn't skate for sixth months. Unable to find another partner in Russia, she took out her nicest stationary and wrote two letters overseas. The first was to Canada's Victor Kraatz. She gave it to a member of the Canadian team to pass on to Victor. He never responded. (Though, according to Victor, he never received any letter, because he certainly would have replied if he had). The second letter went to France's Gwendal Peizerat. Marina had spied him earlier competing at Jr. Worlds. Gwendal wrote back explaining that he had a commitment to skate one more meet with his current partner. Afterwards, however, he would be very interested in trying out with Marina.
Clutching a three month visitor's visa and speaking no French, Marina travelled alone to Paris. Although she and Gwendal decided right away to skate together, Marina still had to return to Moscow and wait for the paperwork to be processed before she could return permanently to France. For most people, the process of becoming a French citizen takes five years. However, the French Skating Federation pushed the process through in only two and a half for their 1996 & 1997 National champion so that Marina could represent France at the 1998 Olympics. Marina is now a dual citizen of France and Russia, though she admits, "In my heart, I am Russian."
A fact that appears obvious to any spectator. A member of the press, observing Marina's behavior at one skating function sniffed, "It would be nice if Marina at least pretended to act like a member of the French team, instead of spending all night sitting and chat-ting with the Russians."
National confusion aside, though, Marina's defection to France was definitely the right move -- for her and for them. At the 1998 Olympics, Marina and Gwendal won the Bronze medal ahead of Victor Kraatz and the partner he ended up skating with, Shae-Lynn Bourne, as well as Marina's former partner, Ilya Averbukh, and his wife, Irina Lobatcheva. At the 2002 Games, Marina and Gwendal were first, with Ilya and Irina second, and Shae-Lynn and Victor 4th.
Another Russian Irina, Irina Rodnina, once suffered a setback similar to Marina Anissina. Despite their winning four World Pair titles and the 1972 Olympic gold, Irina Rodnina's partner, Alexei Ulanov, decided to break up the twosome. He'd fallen in love with Ludmila Smirnova and wanted to skate with her.
After a well-publicized, nationwide search, Irina teamed up with Alexander Zaitsev. At their first World Championship, barely two minutes into their Long Program, the music stopped. Irina was convinced it was sabotage. She'd had a dream the night before that such a thing would happen, and, determined that nothing would stop her from proving she was back with a vengeance, Irina and Alexander continued skating. The crowd began clapping, hoping to give them some sort of beat to work with. The referee blew his whistle. He tried to stop the team. Irina and Alexander kept skating. In the end, they skated away with the gold medal. Alexei Ulanov and his new partner, Ludmila Smirnova, finished 2nd.
Irina Rodnina had proven that she could be a champion with any man. Then, as if to make sure this partner wouldn't get away from her as easily, Irina married him.
It is a trend the Russians have continued to this day.
While the piece discusses at length the physical, emotional, sociological and emotional costs of becoming a figure skating champion, it all but waltz-jumps (after a brief, obligatory mention) over the more crass, financial ones.
But, NY Times aside, the fact is, skating takes money.
Lots and lots of money.
Money for skates. A custom-made pair, with specialized free-style, figure or dance blades, can cost close to $1,000.
Money for costumes -- hand-sewn and beaded and embroidered -- another $1,000.
Money for coaches. The more established charge up to one dollar a minute.
Money for private ice, plane tickets to competitions for both skater and coach, hotel charges for skater and coach, off-ice dance lessons, music editing, physical therapy.
A Novice or Junior competitor could easily spend $30,000 a year on skating.
Three time U.S. Silver Medalist Lisa-Marie Allen needed her grandparents to help her divorced mother pay the bills.
And World Champion Todd Eldredge got his entire town to join in the effort.
Following his 1985 U.S. Novice title, Todd's parents came to the unhappy realization that they could no longer afford to keep their very talented son skating. That's when the town of Chatham, MA pitched in to help. Neighbors went door to door, and held summer clam bakes to solicit donations. The Chatham Youth Hockey League set up a fund to help with expenses. Laughs Todd, "I'm probably the only figure skater ever supported by a hockey team."
A similar circumstance existed for 1997 Canadian Pair Champions Marie-Claude Savard-Gagnon and Luc Bradet. The two were next-door neighbors living in a small town, Baie-St-Paul in Quebec, and just going to the local ice-rink to hang out, when, at ages twelve and fourteen, a coach spotted them and decided the pair had potential. Neither Marie-Claude nor Luc's family could afford to cover all the costs of a serious skating career, so their community pitched in to help. Every year they competed, the local club presented a skating show, proceeds from which went to support Marie-Claude and Luc.
Those without such an option, however, often needed to resort to even more creative financing techniques. 1992 & 1993 U.S. Pair Champions Calla Urbanski & Rocky Marval earned their nickname "The Waitress and the Truck-Driver," by working at a pair of blue-collar jobs while training for the Olympics.
1994 U.S. Bronze Medalist in Pairs Karen Courtland and former partner David Goodman performed at children's parties as painted clowns, using acrobatic lifts they carried over from skating.
1996 U.S. Men's Champion Rudy Galindo lived in a trailer-park with his mother, pedaled a creaky bike to the rink, and bummed free lessons from his sister, Laura.
Aspiring hopeful Larry Holiday took frugality a step further, and just lived in his car while attempting to qualify for the 1994 Olympics.
Canadian World Pair Champion Paul Martini tells the Toronto Star that the reason for the decline in figure skating's television ratings is "Many people felt figure skating was fixed and they were proven right at Salt Lake City. Those people left the sport and I don't think they're ever coming back.... We have to make sure the casual fan who comes back because it is the Olympics will believe that the event is being judged fairly."
To be sure, the Pairs judging controversy in Salt Lake City (heartily encouraged by the U.S. and Canadian media - actions have consequences, guys) was not the first time a skating result had been called into question by the fans.
At the 1994 Nationals, more than one eyebrow was raised when the pair team of Karen Courtland and Todd Reynolds, in spite of three huge falls in their Long Program, were given an Olympic berth over Kuchiki and Marvel, who skated with no major errors.
The crowd booed their marks, and a letter to the March 1994 "American Skating World" accused, "This competition was not judged on what was put on the ice that day. This event was pre-judged, the Olympic team picked before anyone skated."
It was an old accusation, one that had been leveled against both the USFSA and the ISU plenty of times before.
In the past, compulsory figures were the great equalizer.
Remembers former Candid Productions VP Jirina Ribbens, "They could either push you or hold you back any which way they wanted (with figures). Certain people like Robin Cousins and Denise Biellmann were held back until they were ready for them, then, all of a sudden, they had good figures. It was like, a miracle! But, Gary Beacom, who had excellent figures, never got any marks for them. And Toller Cranston, too."
But the end of figures hardly led to an end in controversial decisions. Victor Petrenko over Paul Wylie in 1992 (though it was a 7/2 split). Oksana Baiul over Nancy Kerrigan, Grishuk and Platov over Torvill and Dean, and Alexei Urmanov over Elvis Stojko in 1994 (though even the Canadian judge went for Urmanov over their countryman). Tara Lipinski over Michelle Kwan in 1998. And, of course, the Pairs in Salt Lake City (even though four other judges, aside from the French one, also voted for the Russians, without being accused of a conspiracy.
What's interesting, though, is that no one ever complains of fixed judging when the questionable results come out in their favor.
It always makes me wonder, if the judges are right when you win, shouldn't they be right when you lose, too?
Japan Today reports that "a rumor is spreading which may have an impact on the race (to pick the women's figure skating team). It is suspected that Ando, Suguri and Arakawa are favorites because the JOC has appointed them as "symbol athletes." They are the darlings of the Japanese figure skating world. The JOC controls their image rights and the three skaters perform in various commercials."
Of course, accusations against governing federations, especially when it comes to playing favorites among the sportsmen, is nothing new in the figure skating world.
For instance, 1999 World Champion Maria Butyrskaya was perenially convinced that the Russian Skating Federation was against her. She claimed that, after the 1993 Worlds, where she failed to qualify for the final and lost Russia its only chance to send a woman to the 1994 Olympics, the Federation decided that she was finished, and did everything in their power to insure she got the message and quit.
Allegedly, the Federation tried to keep her from winning the 1996 Russian title, by, in Maria's words, pulling their darling, 1994 European Bronze Medalist Olga Markova "up by the ears" to try keeping her in first place.
Except that Olga's disastrous performance made that impossible, and the title went to Maria.
Still, the Federation refused to automatically name Maria to the World team, telling her that they would wait for the results of the Europeans (Maria finished 3rd, Olga 11th), and the results of the Centennial Competition (Maria finished 2nd ahead of Michelle Kwan), to make up their minds. Up until a week before the 1996 World Championship, Maria didn't know if she would be allowed to go. Once there, she finished 4th.
After finally winning a World title in 1999 (becoming the first Russian woman to ever do so), Maria finished 6th at the 2002 Olympics. She also finished 6th in her Qualifying Round at the 2002 Worlds, then promptly withdrew from the competition citing "physical and mental fatigue," and went home to retire from eligible skating. (Obviously, she was really tired).
Nonetheless, over-the-top claims of federation favoritism would be easier to reject if they only issued from one, rather dramatic, somewhat embittered young woman (when queried about her teammate, Irina Slutskaya, who, at age sixteen, in 1996, became the first Russian woman to win the European Championship, Maria sniped, "Of course, everything is easy when you are sixteen. Just wait for her to grow and try to do the same with a woman's body.")
Except that the 1996 World Pair Champions Marina Eltsova & Andrei Bushkov repeated Maria's charges. They too felt dismissed by their Federation.
Firstly, they believe their 1994 Olympic prospect was stolen from them by the returning professionals, Gordeeva & Grinkov, and Mishkutenok & Dmitriev. They claim their coach, Igor Moskvin, was more interested in helping with his wife, Tamara Moskvina's, team, Mishkutenok & Dmitriev, then in training his own, Eltsova & Bushkov, and that the Russian Federation, even before their Nationals, had already decided to send the reinstated pros to the Olympics, for the publicity value of it.
Despite Eltsova & Bushkov winning the 1995 Nationals, Moskvin told them it was time to quit eligible skating. Tamara suggested they become professionals, and the team did briefly join an ice-show, before deciding to give the eligible scene one more try -- this time with a coach who was actually supportive of them.
They switched to a new coach and a new choreographer, and, in 1996 won the World Championship.
But, Marina and Andrei's problems with the Federation weren't over.
Like Maria, they believed they were not the political "favorites" of the Federation, and that president Valentin Piseev preferred another team to represent Russia. In addition, though Marina and Andrei, while competing, only receive about $45.00 (200,000 rubles) a month from the Olympic Committee to defray their training expenses, they claimed the Federation hindered their earning extra income, by limiting the number of shows and Pro-Ams they can appear in.
For the record, the Federation's position is that too many shows and Pro-Ams tire their athletes out for the important, eligible competitions.
Says coach Alexei Mishin, "You can work to make a champion, or you can work to make money."
Though a great many Russian skaters still often disobey direct orders to stay home, and accept invitations to skate in Western exhibitions, while hoping Federation president Piseev won't find out....
As U.S. Champion Tanith Belbin continues her fight to acquire U.S. citizenship prior to the Turino Olympics, FigureSkatingMystery.com takes a look back at some skaters who have actually ditched American (and other) citizenships in exchange for their own dreams of glory.
Because, while powerhouse countries like the U.S. and Russia always have more deserving skaters than they have slots for their World and Olympic teams (though Russian Federation president fears that soon might not be the case), many smaller countries have to scramble just to field a single, adequate entry.
As a result, good skaters who regularly find themselves just barely missing a spot on their nation's podium periodically decide to cheat their way into international competition, and begin desperately searching for another local to hitch their star to.
American-born Dianne DeLeeuw won the 1975 World Championships representing her mother's homeland, the Netherlands.
Before she became the 1997 U.S. Pair Champion with her partner Jason Dungjen and then a 2002 World Bronze Medalist with John Zimmerman, Tokyo-born Kyoko Ina finished 4th as a Single at the 1987 Japanese Nationals, though she confesses, "I felt like an outsider. I grew up in America and to go to another country to compete didn't feel right."
1990 U.S. Junior Champion Alice Sue Clayes decided there was too much competition at the Senior level and began skating for Belgium, qualifying because one of her grandparents had been born there. She finished 7th at the 1992 Worlds (behind all three of the American ladies) and 19th in 1994.
U.S. Pair Champion and World Pair Bronze Medalist Todd Sand once represented Denmark as a singles skater. He was 22nd at the 1982 World Championship.
Trifun Zivanovic was 19th as an American at Worlds in 1999. And 29th representing his father's home country, Serbia, in 2004.
Canadians Isabelle & Paul Duchesnay became the 1991 World Ice Dance Champions skating under the French flag. Their countrymen, Allison MacLean & Konrad Schaub, represented Austria at the 1996 Worlds.
And, through a series of gyrations, Tokyo-born, one time U.S. competitor Kaho Kainuma managed to make herself a member of the 1997 Armenian Team, where her primary competition for the spot came from Jennifer Goolsbee, an American who'd once surrendered her own citizenship to represent Germany.
But, merry-go-round nationality was nothing new to Jennifer.
After finishing 9th at the 1994 Olympics with German partner Hendryk Schamberger, Jennifer gave up her German citizenship when Hendryk retired from skating to go to medical school. Then, Jennifer paired up with the USSR's 1991 Skate America Champion, Samuel Gezalian.
Samuel, the son of a Jewish mother and an Armenian father, had earlier turned down a chance to skate for Israel in order to take advantage of his then-partner, Tatiana Navka's, Byelorussian citizenship. (Navka is currently the reigning World Champion from Russia, with partner Roman Kostomarov).
When Samuel and Navka's Byelorussian partnership broke up, Samuel teamed up with Jennifer to represent Germany. They won the 1997 German Nationals, but it turned out that Jennifer no longer held the citizenship necessary to represent the country at Worlds.
Jennifer reapplied for her ID, but the German government, fed up with her capriciousness, refused. Jennifer and Samuel then promptly decided to turn Armenian in time for the 1998 Olympics. But, the Armenians weren't buying, either.
For skaters from the former USSR eager to try the same trick, the collapse of the Soviet Union offered a host of new Republics to choose from.
Russian Igor Pashkevitch declared himself a citizen of Azerbaijan, as did the equally ethnic Russian, Yulia Vorobieva.
And if no republic was available, a neighboring nation would do.
Moscow's Julia Lautowa moved to Austria with her coach, lived in Vienna just long enough to acquire her citizenship and win the Austrian title, then returned home, continuing to train in Moscow while representing Austria. In 2004, she was 25th at the World Championship.
Andrei Vlachtchenko, a Ukrainian born in Germany while his father served there with the occupying Soviet Army, first represented the USSR, then his mother's home, Latvia, before seeking German citizenship in 1994. He represented Germany at the 1996 and 1997 Worlds and was looking forward to the 1998 Olympics when a second drunk driving conviction (the first came in 1995) stripped him of his German passport.
Currently, Russian-born Israeli Champion Roman Serov is having some citizenship problems of his own.
America's two best hopes for an Olympic Gold Medal in figure skating, Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen both had to sit out the first few competitions of the season due to hip problems. (For an update on the health of other American contenders, click here).
But inuries are nothing new in the world high-stakes ice-skating. Besides the usual broken bones, pulled muscles, torn ligaments, hairline fractures, strains and bruises, the sport has seen some truly unusual ailments, as well.
Two weeks before the 1992 U.S. Championship, a qualifier for the Olympics, ice-dancer April Sargent-Thomas suffered a ruptured ovarian cyst, began hemorrhaging, and had to be rushed to emergency surgery. Her partner, Russ Witherby, was convinced their Olympic dream was over. Yet, six days after leaving the hospital, April disobeyed doctors' orders and returned to the ice. With Nationals only a week away, she could barely move. The team had to start all over again, listening to their music and wracking their brains for a way to change this step, alter that lift, so that April wouldn't be hurt. When they skated their Free Dance at Nationals, it proved the first time they ever performed it from beginning to end since April's surgery. The team finished in first place.
1994 World Bronze Medalist Tanja Szewczenko began suffering foot injuries soon after winning her medal, due to performing in too many exhibitions. Her coach wanted Tanja to drop the exhibitions, and rest for competition. Tanja dropped her coach instead, and moved to a new rink. She missed the 1996-1997 season, however, due to a life-threatening blood virus that doctors, at first, could not diagnose. After a year of inaction, still fragile from weekly blood transfusions, Tanja returned to the ice in 1997, regained her German title, and qualified for the Champions' Series final, where, after an impeccable performance, she finished a close second behind defending champion Tara Lipinski. She also won the Short Program at the 1998 Europeans, finishing 3rd overall. Arriving at the 1998 Olympics, Tanja was considered one of the favorites for the Bronze. Unfortunately, in Nagano, she caught the flu, and regretfully withdrew from the Ladies' event.
For France's Laurent Tobel, though, it was a physical problem that first drove him to, rather than away from, the rink. His immune system was weak, and he needed to be in a cold environment. (A situation reminiscent of 1984 Olympic Champion Scott Hamilton, who, at age two, contracted a mysterious illness that caused him to stop growing. A special diet and exercise was recommended as treatment, and the cold air of skating was thought to be good for his lungs. As he began to train, Scott also began growing again). Once again though, for Laurent, it was a converse physical problem that almost drove him out of skating. When he was fourteen years old, Laurent grew 18 inches in one year. The acceleration weakened his bones, causing shin splints and knee injuries, and wreaking havoc with his balance. He had to relearn every skating move, from stroking to spinning to jumping, before he finally stopped growing at 6' 2''. Citing his hulking size, many urged Laurent to give up skating. (American Karen Kwan, sister of Michelle, watching Laurent at a competition in France, reportedly joked, "There's a monster on the ice. I'm afraid he'll eat me.") But, the 2-time French Junior Silver Medalist vowed to make a come-back. As a last minute addition to the 1997 World Team after the withdrawal of Philippe Candeloro, Laurent skated a comical, more exhibition than competition, Pink Panther program that inspired a standing ovation from the crowd. He finished in 13th place. In 1999, Laurent became the French National Champion.
At the same 1997 World Championship, another French skater, Sophie Moniotte, was attempting a comeback of her own. She and partner Pascal Lavanchy had been as high as 2nd in the World in ice-dance in 1994. But, prior to the 1996 season, Sophie was practicing twizzles when her blade got caught in the ice. She turned. Her foot didn't. Sophie describes it being, "Like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I go round and round." She broke her ankle and tore a ligament, needing to wait five months before it was fully healed, and was forced to stay off the ice for almost a year. Sophie and Pascal missed the entire 1995-1996 season, and, although Sophie watched the Worlds on TV, Pascal refused to. In their absence, the French Ice Dance title was won by Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat. When Sophie and Pascal returned to competition in 1996-1997, they could only earn second place at the French nationals. However, determined to "prove we're alive and we kept on working," Sophie and Pascal went on to win the Bronze medal at the 1997 Europeans over their closest rivals.
While Sophie and Pascal were missing in action, their spot on the World podium was taken by a pair of Canadians, Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz. The 2003 World Champions were no strangers to injury themselves. In 1992, Shae-Lynn collided with another skater in practice, and fractured her skull. Doctors told her that if she ever hit the exact same spot again, she could end up a vegetable. Shae-Lynn listened politely, and then went right back out onto the ice to win the Junior Dance Title.
A more serious cranial injury struck down Russian Pair skater Elena Bereznaia in early 1996. She and her then-partner, Latvia's Oleg Shliakhov, were practicing side by side camel spins for an exhibition performance at the Latvian Nationals, when Oleg's blade struck Elena on the side of the head. At first, she didn't realize she'd been hit by the blade, she thought it was the boot, but then she felt herself slowly starting to sink down, and something warm and sticky slithering down her face. She stepped off the ice, still feeling nothing. Her coaches and Oleg told her she was fine, she was just in shock, and maybe would need a few stitches for the bloody cut on her head.
An ambulance took her to the hospital, then left her in the waiting room. It was while she was sitting there, that Elena began to feel progressively worse. By the time a nurse came to ask her name and where she lived, Elena couldn't remember or articulate the information. In addition, she was wearing contact lenses, but, when she tried to tell that to the nurse, she couldn't come up with the right words. Realizing that her skull had been fractured, she was rushed into surgery. Laying on the table, Elena looked up to see her doctor's hands start shaking when he was told that the girl under his knife was a world-class athlete, and he better not make the same mistake here as with his last patient, who had just died.
When Elena woke up after brain surgery, she couldn't speak or move the right side of her body. The delicate eighteen year old, who had lived away from home since the age of twelve when a Soviet Sports Committee visited her Siberian hometown and decreed that she would be good for Pairs, wanted her mother. But, Tatiana Bereznaia was trapped in a hell of her own. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union legislated Latvia an independent country, a Russian citizen like Elena's mother needed a Visa to go there. It took four days before her paperwork was processed.
In the meantime, Elena had Oleg's mother to deal with. The two descended on the hospital immediately after Elena's surgery, urging her to "Stop lazying around and get out of bed," so Oleg and Elena could compete at the Champions' Series final, and the Worlds. But, when Elena's mother finally arrived in Latvia and saw the condition her daughter was in, barely able to move or speak, she put her foot down and announced that there would be no talk of skating until her child was fully recovered.
Horrified when she was told she might not be able to skate for up to six months, Elena resolved to get back on the ice as soon as possible -- because she could think of nothing else she wanted to do with her life. Upon her return to St. Petersburg, where she and Oleg had trained with Tamara Moskvina, therapy helped Elena regain the mobility of her right side, although she still had trouble with some small motor skills like touching her fingers together. Her speech also returned, but with a slight stutter and a feint accent that Russians mistake for an American one.
Elena teamed up with Anton Sikharulidze to win the Olympic Silver Medal in 1998 and the Gold in 2002.
To read about another 2006 Gold medal favorite, Russia's Irinia Slutskaya's, battle with pericarditis, click here.
At the age of three, future 2002 Olympic Champion Sarah Hughes was so eager to get on the ice that she taught herself to tie her own skates, so she wouldn't have to wait for her mother to get around to it after she finished with Sarah's older sister and two brothers.
But not all skaters-to-be are initially that enthusiastic.
1996 & 1997 U.S. Bronze Medalist Dan Hollander wanted to be a roller-skater. But the ice-rink was closer to his Huntington Woods, MI, home, so his mom took him there, instead.
1994 Olympic Champion Alexei Urmanov remembers "crying the entire way to the rink" at age four, while 2002 Olympic Silver Medalist Irina Slutskaya's mother revealed her daughter used to "go into hysterics" at the mention of having to go skate.
1997 Ukrainian Champion and European Bronze Medalist Yulia Lavrenchuk admitted she began skating at age five because "My parents forced me. In the beginning, they had to stuff me inside the rink while I was crying."
Czech Champion Lenka Kulovana added that it took her eight years before she actually grew to enjoy skating, while 1979 World Pair Champion Tai Babilonia summarized succinctly, "I hated it."
Rumanian Champion Cornel Gheorghe's mother used to bribe him with candy to get him to stay on the ice.
Lithuania's Povilas Vanagas received an even stronger incentive. During the days of Lithuania languishing under Soviet domination, the 6-time Men's champion was offered a choice, either fulfill his national service to the USSR by getting drafted into the Soviet army, or switch to ice-dancing. Shrugs Vanagas, "I didn't want to dance. But, I had no choice."
At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Tamara Moskvina, coach of the eventual Pair Champs, Russians Oksana Kazakova & Artur Dmitriev, and the Silver Medalists, countrymen Elena Bereznaia & Anton Sikharulidze, made no move unless first surrounded by the travelling cluster of reporters one observer dubbed "Tamara's swarm."
Even before the Games began, the savviest public-relations player in Russia opened her home and rink to any TV crews interested in shooting a profile on either of her top couples. With equal enthusiasm and excellent English, she repeated, over and over again, their respective, dramatic stories, and, when Anton Sikharulidze complained about having to perform for the cameras, she hissed, "These people have come all the way from America to photograph you. You will do what they say, and you will keep doing it, until they tell you that they are finished."
Tamara's one-time pair partner, Alexei Mishin, at the Olympics coaching 1998 European Champion Alexei Yagudin, also understood how to use the press to his advantage. An hour before his student was scheduled to skate, Mishin personally made the rounds of every TV broadcasting position to solemnly inform that Yagudin was running a fever, was being examined by the doctor as they spoke, and that he might withdraw. Mishin just thought they should know. So they could tell their audience in case Yagudin didn't perform well.
The eventual winner of the men's event, Russia's Ilia Kulik, in the first days of the Olympics, found himself without a coach to play the media on his behalf, as Tatiana Tarasova was busy putting out the fires sparked by her most volcanic student, Pasha Grishuk. But, the 20 year old, Leonardo DeCaprio look-alike proved himself more than capable of playing the charmer on his own. As the first Russian to arrive in Nagano, Kulik had the story-hungry press all to himself. He joked that he came early "to get the best-room in the Russian apartment at the Olympic village," then casually added that the back injury that kept him out of the European Championship was perfectly healed now, and he was skating terrific, just great. Did everyone see the Triple Axel he landed? He was ready to win.
Another skater to benefit from the first-to-arrive syndrome, was America's Tara Lipinski. Unlike teammates Michelle Kwan and Nicole Bobek, who stayed at their Lake Arrowhead, CA, training site until shortly before their event began, Tara didn't want to miss a moment of the Olympic experience she'd dreamed about since she was a toddler. She not only marched proudly and giddily in the Opening Ceremonies, she also attended several of the official practices in both the main and auxiliary rinks, where, with the absence of other American Ladies, she had the world press all to herself. And Tara Lipinski milked it for all it was worth.
The moment she stepped on the ice, taking off her skate-guards and neatly laying them on the barrier, a plethora of cameras seemed to materialize from the depths of every corner of the rink. In the silence of an unfilled arena, each click of a shutter or buzz of a zoom lens testified to yet another electronic eye scrutinizing the diminutive, defending World Champion. And Tara didn't disappoint.
Feigning obliviousness to the cameras, she skated her programs through without error, putting in every triple jump, every Triple-Triple combination, grinning with delight all the while. After the practice, a crowd of reporters clamored for a quote from the self-possessed teen. Her coach, Richard Callaghan, didn't want Tara to be bothered, and offered to field the questions himself. But, Tara said no. This was her show, this was her time, this was her dream Olympics. She would be happy to chat with the press. (Though Tara did leave Nagano for the privacy of Osaka after the Opening Ceremonies; Rosalynn Sumners applauded the decision, explaining that, in 1984, she'd stayed for the whole Games, and, by the time the Ladies' Long Program rolled around, she was exhausted).
In contrast, 1995 U.S. Champion Nicole Bobek, and 1996 World Champion Michelle Kwan, arrived at the Olympics relatively late in the game, and withdrew into isolation. By the time Nicole got on her first practice session, the cameras had Tara and Michelle to focus on, and so she spent the bulk of her time tying and retying her skates, followed by performing a perfect short program, then followed by twenty minutes of non-stop falling on every triple jump she tried.
The last medal favorite to arrive was Russia's Irina Slutskaya, prompting Elena Tchaikovskaya, coach of Irina's Russian rival, Maria Butyrskaya, to tell any member of the media willing to listen that Irina' coach was deliberately hiding the nineteen year old, so that judges and press wouldn't see how much weight she'd gained since the European Championship.
Now, obviously, their painstaking courting of the media was not the sole-factor in propelling Lipinski, Kulik, Kazakova & Dmitriev or Grishuk & Platov to the gold. All the press-conferences in the universe would have done no good without exemplary programs to back them up. Yet, skating judges are only human beings, after all, and they can not help but be effected by persistent repetition from the media that So-and-So skated great today, So-and-So landed a Triple/ Triple, So-and-So landed a Quad, So-and-So looks like a winner.
This despite the fact that television, of course, has their own interest in creating stars even before the actual competition begins. After all, 1994's Nancy/Tonyapalooza only earned their blockbuster ratings because of the story that took place prior to the skating, not during it. In 1998, CBS hyped the Kwan/Lipinski rivalry before Michelle even set foot in Japan, interrupting coverage of their other events to show Tara grinning her way through practice after practice. The idea is to generate interest before the contest. If viewers are interested in personalities, then they'll tune in for the contest, rooting for their favorite person, regardless of athletic execution. (Trying to drag a bitter quote out of the always gracious Michelle, an NBC reporter at the Golden Gala following the Olympics spent so much time asking over and over if Michelle felt angry about losing the Gold medal, that, finally, her agent, Shep Goldberg, stood up at the back of the room and asked, "If she says 'yes,' can we leave?")
Then, once television has created stars with their coverage, they can quickly channel them into other made-for-TV projects: "cheesefest" competitions, prime-time specials (ala Michelle Kwan skating to Disney music) and tours, to capitalize on the popularity they themselves generated.
It's a win/win situation for everyone concerned. Skaters get the money and exposure, and television gets the exposure and money.
Without one, the other wouldn't be the same today.
In 1998, with the world watching every move they made, the skaters at the Nagano Olympics couldn't help but start playing to the cameras. And battling for placings not only on the ice, but among the press.
The ice-dancers proved most pugnacious, on that front. Already, television coverage of the Champions Series, during which 1994 Olympic Champs Grishuk & Platov took several falls yet continued a 21-competition winning streak, had prompted so much viewer outrage, that the ISU gave in and issued the so-called 'Platov Rule,' mandating that, for the first time, spills would require the judges to take a mandatory score deduction. Still, in spite of having a rule named after him, when it came to publicity, Platov was forced to take a back seat to his controversy-loving partner, Oksana, or, rather Pasha, Grishuk.
Claiming she was tired of being confused with fellow Olympic Gold Medalist Oksana Baiul, Grishuk legally changed her first name to Pasha. Then, for reasons she had trouble articulating, she dyed her hair the same shade of platinum blonde as her former namesake.
Grishuk & Platov may have been in Nagano trying to become the first ice-dancers ever to win two Olympic Golds, but Pasha made it clear that her true goal in life was to be an American movie star. She confidently told reporters she expected to win an Oscar in four years, and whispered to an American television producer, "All the press wants only to talk to me." When asked where that left him, a resigned Platov joked, "I will hit the gym, bulk up, and become her body-guard."
With such a colorful character to track, the media couldn't help monitoring Grishuk's every move, prompting "The Cutting Edge's" Alice Cook to observe that these Games had become all about "Pasha, Pasha, Pasha." Playing up her idolization of Marilyn Monroe, CBS even went so far as to dress Pasha up and have her sing a breathy version of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President."
Feeling that, no matter what they did on ice, they'd already lost the public-relations battle, the other dance teams hoping to challenge for Gold scurried to foster their own media impressions. Two-time World Silver Medalists, Russians Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsianikov, did their best to refocus the cameras on themselves by, even in practice, dressing the exquisite Anjelika in the tightest, most revealing, sexiest outfits imaginable. But, even that proved incapable of distracting the press for long.
During a compulsory dance practice session, as soon as Anjelika and Oleg started their Tango, Grishuk & Platov magically materialized barely a foot behind them. For sixty taut, volatile seconds, the two teams skated the same dance on the same pattern; graceful, aggressive mirror-images locked in mortal combat, simultaneously trying to outdo each other and pretend they didn't know the other existed. It was The Last Tango in Nagano. It was, in the words of one producer, "orgasmic."
It was more than 1996 & 1997 World Bronze Medalists, Canadians Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz, could stomach.
The then six-time national champions came to Japan determined to become the first non-Russians since Great Britain's Torvill & Dean to win Olympic Gold in ice-dance, and they wasted no time launching their offensive in the media.
They began by charging that Krylova & Ovsianikov were deliberately trying to intimidate them, claiming that, at Trophee Lalique, the Russians shoved the Canadians against the boards and then fired a series of high-kicks inches from Shae's face (at 1998 Europeans, Krylova twice blindsided Grishuk & Platov, cutting Grishuk's arm and bruising Platov's calf).
Then, after the competition began and the Canadians found themselves tied for 4th place after two compulsory dances, their coach, ironically herself a Russian, Natalia Dubova, accused the judges of an anti-Canadian conspiracy. (After the compulsories, Russians Grishuk & Platov sat in first place, with Krylova & Ovsianikov in second, and the French team of Russian-born Marina Anissina & Gwendal Peizerat in third).
The media ran with the allegation, solemnly reporting over and over again that the Canadians were robbed, until even those who had not seen the competition were repeating it. Then, miraculously in the world of ice-dancing, where any sort of movement in placings is considered a historical achievement, by the next phase of the event the Canadians had moved up to a solid lock on 4th, followed by 3rd in the final Free Dance, though it wasn't enough to move them into medal position.
Seeing that his skaters were almost bounced out of the Bronze medal by a public-relations' campaign, the President of the French Skating Federation asserted it was bad form for a coach to try and change judges' opinions in the middle of a competition. "It's not fair to the judges or the skaters. Let the judges do their job and let the skaters skate."
Which, in light of what was to come at the 2002 Olympics is... really amusing.
Eager to top even the figure-skating frenzy of 1994, American coverage of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan didn't limit itself merely to CBS-TV's televising the competition cushioned by tear-jerking and/or uplifting personality features on either side.
TNT also got into the act, trying to hook the soap-opera and talk-show audience with a daily, afternoon talk-show of their own, "The Cutting Edge," devoted exclusively to figure skating. 1984 Olympic Silver Medalists Peter Carruthers and Rosalynn Sumners, along with 1976 Olympian Alice Cook, hosted from a set erected in the corner of the practice rink, where any spill a skater took in practice could now be instantly pointed out and dissected. Since CBS held first broadcast rights to the actual competition, "The Cutting Edge" made due with rink-note gossip, predictions, speculations, and playing 'fashion-police' for some of the more atrocious costume choices. (At dinner the previous night, I described one skater's costume -- it may have been Austria's Julia Lautowa; but the mind grows fuzzy -- as looking like "she escaped from a bordello after being mauled by a lion." The next night, Roz repeated my comment on the air. Gulp. It was my "Broadcast News" moment. "I say it here, it comes out there...")
Along with those two American networks, and a host of local TV and radio stations, the athletes found themselves being covered and commented on by announcers from Canada, France, Germany, Australia, Russia, Great Britain, Poland, Ukraine, China, and both NHK and TBS of Japan. Many broadcast teams were anchored by former competitive skaters, several of whom also worked as choreographers or coaches for the same skaters they were commenting on.
1984 World Pair Champion Paul Martini, as analyst for Canada's CBC, was forbidden from even giving the appearance of coaching his team, 1997 Canadian Champions Marie-Claude Savard-Gagnon and Luc Bradet. As a result, he had to sit by helplessly and just watch as, during the Long Program, both his flu-stricken skaters nearly came apart at the seams. Dizzy and sick, they needed to stop skating in the middle of their routine to shakily compose themselves.
Sitting by Paul in the CBC booth was five-time Canadian Pair Champion Sandra Bezic. In 1988, she choreographed Brian Boitano's Olympic Gold medal performance to Napoleon. But, back then, she'd only been a spectator, visibly jumping up and down and applauding in the background as Brian completed his routine. Ten years later, as two of her newest protegees, America's Tara Lipinski and China's Lu Chen, skated to Gold and Bronze, respectively, Sandra was faced with presenting commentary on programs of her own design.
Robin Cousins, 1980 Olympic champion and choreographer for the 1998 U.S. Bronze Medalist Nicole Bobek, was in the same boat, working for the BBC. Although, by the time Nicole finished stumbling and tripping through Short and Long programs that mired her in a record-low 17th place, Robin was asserting that barely three steps of his original work had made it to the competition.
1984 US Pair Silver Medalist Lea Ann Miller had things a little easier. As Associate Producer for CBS-TV, she, at least, did not have to be on-camera, feigning objectivity, while her student, Japan's own teen sensation Takeshi Honda, skated his programs. Lea Ann was free to take off her head-seat, and nervously burrow her fingers into the arm of CBS analyst, 1988 Olympic Bronze Dance Medalist Tracy Wilson.
With the world watching every move they made, the skaters in Nagano couldn't help but start playing to the cameras. And battling for placings not only on the ice, but among the press, as well...
There are those who claim that controversy is good for skating. Didn't the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan saga in 1994 trigger the current boom of interest in the sport?
Skating Director Meg Streeter believes that it wasn't the incident itself that did the trick, but the fact that television covered it. "If a TV camera had not been there to see Nancy's reaction -- it made very powerful television which people will remember for a long time -- if we had only heard about the attack and never seen it, I don't think it ever would have been quite the event it became. (Nancy) sitting on the ground, saying 'why?' made people want to stop, look, listen, and then want to follow (the story). In following it, they then got hooked on skating. People who'd never watched skating began watching. The nice thing is they stayed with it over the course of the next four years. Ironically, skating benefitted from a criminal act. But, had television not been there to bring it to people, we would not have had the increased viewership."
That increased viewership, however, did not, like most conjectured, lead to the increase of skating coverage that erupted on television almost immediately afterwards.
Jirina Ribbens, former Vice-President of Candid Productions, the creator and one-time producer of the "World Professional Championship" contends, "The popularity of skating at the 1994 Games made it interesting for TV, but it's not what caused the boom. What caused the boom was extra programming."
In 1994, CBS had just lost football. They needed to fill that programming time with something. That same year, USFSA president Claire Ferguson and Executive Director Jerry Lace wrote, "This glut of skating stems from... CBS scrambling to fill (a) void. Skating became a favorite filler because of the potential ratings."
Agrees Ribbens, "The boys in sports would have never thought of skating if it hadn't gotten such high ratings at the Olympics, and it was cheap, comparatively speaking."
What made figure skating so cheap for CBS to acquire was the sports-promotion company Jefferson Pilot, which owned quite a few of their affiliate stations, buying time for made-for-TV programs like "Ice Wars" and "Too Hot to Skate." (The company first went into the skating business in 1991, because Katarina Witt was then one of their clients, and they wanted a venue to showcase her). Though, in 1996, executive Mike Burg swore they wouldn't create an event "just for the sake of doing it," six new skating shows soon popped up on the small screen.
Streeter, however, is quick to add that it wasn't just CBS, because of its lack of alternate programming, that increased their skating coverage at the end of the last century. "It was all the networks. When UPN decided to put on their first live broadcast ever, it was a skating event, the U.S. Open. The USA network had three or four skating shows on. Turner had a quota of skating shows they wanted to get on the air. So, it wasn't just CBS putting on skating to replace football." NBC broadcast the World Professional Championships among many other pro events, and FOX had most of the Champions' Series, and its Final.
Stresses Streeter, "(In the 1990s) every network, and all the cable networks went out of their way to seek out skating shows."
The last American man to win an Olympic Gold Medal (in 1988), Brian Boitano is still going strong as a professional, headlining, most recently, Holiday Celebration on Ice in Virginia (ed. note: The article calls Boitano the first man to land a Triple Axel. It was actually Canada's Vern Taylor in 1978; Boitano tried to be the first man to land a Quadruple Toe Loop. He fell on it in 1987 and it may have cost him the World Championship. He landed a flawed one at the Worlds in 1988 -- about a half hour after Canadian Kurt Browning got credit for being the first).
Now, Boitano is looking forward to another American -- though, a woman -- his good friend, Michelle Kwan, standing atop the podium in 2006. (A much more frequent feat, as American Kristi Yamaguchi won in 1992, Tara Lipinski in 1998 and Sarah Hughes in 2002).
I'm not surprised by Brian's handicapping. I worked with him during the 1996-1997 season, when Brian was part of the ABC-TV announcer team. That year, Michelle Kwan was not skating well (the rumor was that her boots were to blame; she'd signed an endorsement deal and her father was insisting she stick to it, no matter how many problems Michelle was having with her skates). She lost her National title to Tara Lipinski and, by the time she skated her "Taj Mahal" program at Worlds, the only way she could have won the title was for Russia's Irina Slutskaya to beat Tara in the long program.
Although Brian was not working that day (his contract only called for him to announce during the Men's Programs), he came to the broadcast booth to watch Michelle skate. All during her program, Brian kept chanting, "Come on, Chelley, come on, stay up, keep it together." Even during Irina's program, Brian kept saying the same thing, "Come on, Chelley. Go, Chelley," and cheering every one of Irina's jumps as if they were Michelle's. (Michelle ended up 2nd that year, behind Tara).
Overall, I found Brian a pleasure to work with. From the beginning, he made it very clear that he would only be commentating on the technical elements. He had no desire to share biographical information about the skaters or judge music/costume choices. To that end, when Michael Weiss tried to be the first man to land a Quad at Nationals, Brian was happy to explain why he didn't think the attempt would be ratified (it wasn't, as it was clearly two-footed), but stayed away from musing what the tie-dyed shirt Michael had chosen to wear had to do with anything. (Well, he stayed away from musing about it on the air, anyway. Backstage, it was often a case of anything goes. For all of us.)
That was my favorite thing about working with Brian. He knew his limitations and wisely stuck to talking about only those areas in which he was an expert. One can only hope that this year's broadcast team in Turino will be as sage.
ABC's veteran skating director Doug Wilson asks, "How long, especially if you're live, are skaters sitting in kiss and cry and you're looking at their eyes and you're looking at their tears and you're looking at their emotions and you get to see what kind of people they are? You can see if they have grace under pressure, or if they're not as admirable."
Those less-admirable attributes brought up by the media and grumbled about by the skaters include 1994 Olympic Silver Medalist Nancy Kerrigan's less-than-kind remarks about rival Oksana Baiul -- and about Mickey Mouse. Baiul's 1997 drunk-driving charges. 1995 U.S. Champion Nicole Bobek's arrest for felony burglary. Canadian Medalist Gary Beacom's jail term for failure to pay taxes. French Champion Surya Bonaly's romantic claims of being born on Reunion Island, despite being born in France. And U.S. Ice Dance Champions Punsalan & Swallow signing a petition to keep their main opponent, Russian-born Gorsha Sur, of Roca & Sur, from getting his American citizenship in time to challenge Punsalan & Swallow for the U.S.'s only 1994 Olympic berth. Punsalan & Swallow freely admitted their deed on television, then, stunned by the backlash their confession produced, blamed ABC for airing the segment, and refused to grant them anymore interviews for over a year. (In November of 2005, ESPN revealed that the mother of American David Mitchell had tried a simillar tactic to block the citizenship of rival ice-dancer Tanith Belbin).
On the other hand, skaters are not adverse to using the press if it promotes their agenda. When, in 1997, Russian, World, and Olympic Dance champions Grishuk & Platov split with their coach, 1980 Olympic champion Natalia Linichuk, they chose to fight all of their battles exclusively in the press. In December 1996, Grishuk & Platov, having been off the ice for a majority of the season due to Platov's knee injury, allegedly travelled home to Moscow for a secret meeting with the Russian Federation. There, they sought a guarantee that they would win all the competitions they entered, leading up to the 1998 Olympics. The Federation told them they could provide no such guarantee. Grishuk & Platov then returned to their home-base in Newark, DE, to ask their coach, also coach of the 1996 World Silver Medalists, Krylova & Ovsianikov, to insure another year of victory for them by deliberately weakening the second team.
When Linichuk refused, Grishuk & Platov split for Marlboro, MA, and Tatiana Tarasova, trainer of 1996 World Silver Medalist (and eventual 1998 Olympic Champion) Ilia Kulik. At the 1997 European championship, after Grishuk & Platov's new dances not only won them the gold, but also an almost record-breaking twelve perfect 6.0's (England's Torvill & Dean still hold the record of 17 6.0's at the 1984 Europeans), Linichuk tried to take credit for the stunning victory by claiming she'd participated in choreographing their new numbers. Grishuk categorically denied the contention, adding "Let God be her judge."
God, or at least, the Russian media, who sided squarely with the skaters over their ex-coach, asserting in "6.0," the official publication of the Russian Skating Federation, "Linichuk did everything in her power to push Grishuk & Platov into the professional realm. This duo had already done their thing for her (won Olympic gold) and she was convinced it was time for them to leave."
At the subsequent Worlds, the Ukrainian media got into the act, ruminating about their national champions, Romanova & Yaroshenko, who also trained under Linichuk, "One can only feel sorry for the athletes. Their mentor will never make champions of them. Linichuk always places her bets on the Russian athletes. As long as (Romanova & Yaroshenko) keep training with Linichuk, they will see medals hang only on the necks of their opponents."
Within months of the media declaring Natalia Linichuk persona non grata of skating, the coach who, at the 1996 Europeans, saw a podium filled with only her skaters (Grishuk & Platov, Gold, Krylova & Ovsianikov, Silver, Romanova & Yaroshenko, Bronze) was down to one winning team. Heeding the advice of the Ukrainian press, Romanova & Yaroshenko also defected to Tarasova, chalking up another example of media coverage that didn't just observe, but affect.
In 1992, the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Champion Katarina Witt showed how much she'd learned about the positive public-relations power of media images. While working as a backstage reporter for CBS, Witt invited a German camera-crew to film her in action. She took them all over the CBS complex, boasting about her assorted roles in the production, and even going so far as popping in on an edit session, asking the producer in charge to climb out of her chair so that Katarina might sit in it and look like she was the one supervising the show. The producer politely declined.
By 1994, French champion Philippe Candeloro took collaboration with the media a step further and, when a CBS producer pointed out that a moment of his program would be more effective if focused at a particular camera, Philippe actually took the advice, changed his presentation -- and won the Olympic Bronze medal.
At eligible competitions, television producers claim they try their best to be unobtrusive and not disturb the natural rhythm of the sport. Yet, at a live event, a production assistant is often stationed by the judges' desk to insure that marks are revealed at television's convenience. A nervous skater may be sitting in the kiss-and-cry area, waiting to see results that will affect the rest of their life. But, if television happens to be in a commercial at the moment, the skater will just have to wait a tad longer.
With professional competitions, on the other hand, television doesn't mind getting involved, operating on the philosophy that the skaters and producers are working together to present the best show possible.
For instance, at the 1995 "Challenge of Champions," Doug Wilson evokes, "(1994 World Champion from Japan) Yuka Sato had a moment of presentation which was on one side of the arena, between what would be the blue (hockey) line and the red line. I presumptuously asked if she thought she might be able to rechoreograph that a little, so when she stopped to make that presentation, she was at the red line position, in front of my camera. Skaters want to make eye-contact with the audience. (But, for TV, that means) they're looking away. What they want to do to the audience of 1,000 people in front of them, they're not doing to the TV audience that's ten million. If they're about to present themselves to the world, it's better if we see their faces."
However, sometimes the face television presents to the world is not necessarily one the skater wants to be seen....