THE WINTER OLYMPICS

Previewing the Games

JOHN HOWSE November 9 1987
THE WINTER OLYMPICS

Previewing the Games

JOHN HOWSE November 9 1987

Previewing the Games

THE WINTER OLYMPICS

The approach of the Olympic year is a time of exquisite pressure for Canada’s figure skaters. Not only will they perform at home in the Calgary Winter Games next February but they are the host nation’s best bet for medals. At Skate Canada’s annual international competition last week—an official Olympic preview event in Calgary’s $100-million Saddle-dome figure skating venue—those medal hopes strengthened, with virtuoso performances by world champion Brian Orser of Orillia, Ont., and a series of stellar efforts by Canadian singles champion Elizabeth Manley of Ottawa and others. “This group of skaters is one of the best, if not the best, this country has had,” said Doug Leigh, Orser’s coach. “There’s depth. And we’ll be at home base. We’ll be able to quickly get down to business in February.” The 17-strong Olympic team, Canada’s largest ever in Olympic competition, will be formally selected on the basis of both the Skate Canada event and next January’s Canadian championships in Victoria. Included will be three men and two women in the singles events, three dance teams and three sets of pairs. World champion Orser, 25, who won his crown last March in Cincinnati from then-reigning champion Brian Boitano of the United States, is the team’s linchpin. Said Orser before unveiling his dazzling new Olympic program at the Saddledome last week: “We have medal chances in all four events. Young ones are coming up to fill our shoes.”

The champion’s long program is performed to music called The Bolt, as in lightning, by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. “I’ve had it tucked away for three years,” Orser said. “The music fits so well into the whole Olympic scene. I heard it first used by a Russian skater and fell in love with it. It’s intense, but lightens up and allows some versatility. You don’t blow the whole wad all at the beginning.” Orser’s short program, danced to Glenn Miller’s version of Sing, Sing, Sing, is a restructured edition of last year’s winning campaign. “It’s Fred Astaire tap dance, a bit of the old soft shoe and a lot of fun. It’s important to make an early good impression with a new program.” If Orser, seven times national champion, is undisputed king of Canadian

figure skating, Kurt Browning, 21, of Rocky Mountain House, Alta., is the prince-in-waiting in Canada. “I’m number 2, but I’m using and learning from Brian. My goal is to fill his shoes,” said Browning, who skates seven hours daily under coach Michael Jiranek at Edmon-

ton’s Royal Glenora Club. The 139-lb. skater, who finished 15th in the 1987 World Championships, uses music from Aaron Copland’s Celebration from Billy the Kid for his long program. “It has a western flavor, a taste of barbecue sauce. It’s happy-go-lucky and it flows.”

Adds Browning, who last week was nursing an inflamed tendon in his right foot: “All the pressure is on Brian.”

Ever since Ottawa-born Barbara Ann Scott won North America’s first Olympic figure skating gold medal at St. Moritz in 1948, women have contributed much to Canada’s most favored winter sports activity. Current champion Elizabeth Manley, 22, a petite 105-lb. blonde from Ottawa, ranks 4th in the world. She finished the 1987 world championships, despite two missed jumps, with the highest score by a Canadian since Karen Magnussen won the world 1973 gold medal. The competition, she recalls, was “a real learning experience. I had a rough night and could have done better.” Manley, who plans to retire after the world championships in March, calls Orser her biggest influence. “I’m almost hypnotized by him. He has such polish. I’ve never seen him have a bad performance.”

For the Olympics, she has included three daunting triple jumps in her long routine, a program honed recently during two weeks of skating at Sun Valley, Idaho. “I’m aiming for gold in the Olympics,” Manley says bluntly. “I feel I can beat Katarina Witt,” East Germany’s defending world and Olympic champion. “It’s her past medals that will be difficult to beat.” Manley, a veteran of 18 years of skating, refuses to watch video reruns of Witt or any other rival. “I can’t do anything about someone else doing a triple axel,” she says. “I’d just as soon not know what they do.” Two American skaters, 1986 title holder Debi Thomas and Caryn Kadavy, also finished ahead of Manley at the 1987 world finals.

Manley’s confident outlook, and Orser’s, derive in part from sports psychologist Peter Jensen, hired three years ago by the Canadian Figure Skating Association. Says Jensen: “I’m not a coach. I teach these kids how to learn mental fitness. I want them to face reality and to make sure they’re in a state that accentuates their physical skills.”

Vancouver’s Patricia Schmidt, 22, is also pressing for entry into the major leagues of international skating. Coached by Jan Ullmark at Edmonton’s Royal Glenora Club, she ranks second in Canada, 11th in the world and in September finished fourth at London’s prestigious St. Ivel event. The vivacious Schmidt skates in a dramatic style marked by innovative spins and step sequences linked to her background in classical ballet. During her six-hour daily regime, she skates a short program from Bizet’s Carmen and a long program, including two extra triple jumps, from Swan Lake. “A new program means a lot more work, but it’s the first year I’ve really enjoyed doing them.”

In dance competition, Canada has undisputed depth, with two teams in the world’s top 10. Tracy Wilson, 26, of Port Moody, B.C., and Robert McCall, 29, of Dartmouth, N.S., are holders of the Canadian title for an unprecedented six years and rank third in the world after winning the bronze medal at Cincinnati. Not far behind is a Cal-

gary couple, Rod and Karyn Garossino, a brother-and-sister partnership that has been together 13 years, the longest on the Canadian team; they rank 10th in the world. Says team captain Wilson, who did not start skating until she was 11 years old: “We’re more like

ballet dancers; people get the sense of theatre.” Agrees McCall: “Call us exhibitionists maybe, or even hams, but ice skating is theatre on ice.”

Like all the Canadian skaters, Wilson lauds the expanse and the blueand-green interior of the Saddledome: “I’m already comfortable with it. In Japan we once skated over a swimming pool, but I like NHL-sized rinks, and those calm green colors here.” McCall, whose mother skated in the Ice Capades, dismisses the hoary argument over whether elegant figure skaters, in rhinestones and makeup, belong in the company of athletes. “I’m an artist who has to be an athlete to do what he does. I don’t think of myself as an athlete who is trying to be artistic.”

Three-time Canadian silver medallists, the Garossinos made their major league debut last week at Skate Canada. Dancing to Juan Llosses’s Tango Bolero, the couple firmed up their claim to be the number 2 Canadian dance team after the breakup last spring of Canadian bronze medallists Jo-Anne Borlase and Scott Chalmers.

In the pairs section, which differs from the dance competition in featuring more lifts and jumps, Canada’s best chance lies with Denise Benning, 20, of Windsor, Ont., and Lyndon Johnston, 25, of Hamiota, Man. The duo rank fifth in the world but did not enter the Skate Canada competition. A Canadian pair that did enter that contest is Christine Hough, 18, from Waterloo, Ont., and Vancouver’s Doug Ladret, 25. Ladret has recovered from a double skull fracture suffered after he tripped over an ice rut, falling backwards. Says Hough, a Grade 13 student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute: “He threw me forward and saved me from injury. That’s why he hurt himself.” Ranked eighth in the world, the couple is aiming for a higher finish in the Olympics. In Calgary last week, the Canadians did not face some of their most formidable competition. None of the Soviet pairs—winners of first, second and fourth places at the 1987 world finals—competed in Skate Canada. Says Ladret: “Pairs is one part of figure skating where the big three—Russia, the United States and Canada— have a lot of depth. Any one country’s top three pairs can beat the others.”

Since the Winter Olympics began in 1924, Canadian skaters have won two gold medals, four silvers and five bronzes. Led by Orser, the numbers should swell in February. Says the confident champion, who keeps his gold medal at his mother’s home: “I don’t have a display case yet—we’re waiting to complete the set first.”

—JOHN HOWSE in Calgary