NAGANO '98

Profile in courage

A painful leg injury cannot keep Elvis Stojko from skating to silver

JAMES DEACON February 23 1998
NAGANO '98

Profile in courage

A painful leg injury cannot keep Elvis Stojko from skating to silver

JAMES DEACON February 23 1998

Profile in courage

A painful leg injury cannot keep Elvis Stojko from skating to silver

JAMES DEACON

It was a nothing fall, the kind of thing that often happens to figure skaters in practice or competitions. But in hindsight, it was so un-Elvis-like. In the warm-up prior to the Olympic men’s free skate in Nagano, with his five nearest competitors on the ice at the same time, Elvis Stojko, 25, skated the length of the ice and just missed landing the quadruple toe loop that is the key element in his long program. The three-time world champion slid to a stop by the end boards, but all seemed well—he even joked with rinkside photographers before getting up, brushing himself off, and skating away to practise another element in his routine.

The next sign that something was wrong came when Stojko, the last of 24 competitors for the night, began to perform his routine. Skating to music from the movie sound track The Ghost and the Darkness, he opened with a solid triple Lutz and then, right where he had fallen earlier, completed only three revolutions of his planned quad. He landed it, along with seven other triple jumps, but the abbreviated quad was

telling. Without it, he could not hope to overtake Ilia Kulik, the elegant Russian who had landed a quad toe loop just before. The Canadian needed some Stojko-style fireworks—he had come from behind before by adding unplanned jumps. But he was unable to summon the strength this time, and with good reason. For a month, he had been nursing a badly pulled groin muscle in his right leg. But he decided to skate through the pain in Nagano, and, on only one good leg, he stayed on his feet, landed eight triples and, amazingly, won the silver medal against the toughest men’s field ever assembled. “ If there was a medal for bravery,” his coach, Doug Leigh, said afterward, “he’d win it hands down.”

So much for the showdown at centre ice. The men’s final was supposed to be a battle between the classical style of the Russians and the explosive athletics of Stojko. Instead, like Kurt Browning, who went to the 1992 Winter Games as the defending world champion but was felled by a back ailment, Stojko saw his best shot at Olympic gold misfire because of injury. The Richmond Hill, Ont., native pulled the muscle last month while practising for the Canadian championships, and despite almost daily treatment sessions and a vastly reduced training schedule, he could not escape the pain. He and Leigh decided not to reveal the condition—“It doesn’t make it feel any better to tell the world about it,” Leigh explained. The skater may have had another reason for discretion: he did not want to give the judges any extra reason for marking him lower than his Russian rivals, as they have done throughout his career. Whatever his motives, he was not saying late Saturday night: immediately after the medal ceremony, for which he hobbled out to the podium in running shoes, Stojko was taken to hospital for tests on the leg and was unavailable to reporters.

Ultimately, Stojko had to endure a worse pain than his pulled groin—a career clutch skater, he was unable to give his best possible performance when it counted the most. It might not have mattered, of course. Kulik was otherworldly, not so much for his trademark flair but rather for the ease with which he landed every element in his exceedingly difficult routine, set to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. And just as he had two nights before in the short program, the 20-year-old from Moscow had raised the bar virtually beyond reach. “The kid delivered the performance of his life,” observed Paul Martini, the former Canadian pairs champion turned coach and broadcaster.

“Anyone in the building who knew anything about skating knew that Kulik was going to be almost impossible to catch.” The winner himself said he could not be certain until his main opponent had finally skated. “I really, really respect him as a great sportsman,” Kulik said of Stojko. “That’s what I expressed to him after he skated.”

It was a night full of surprises. Russia’s Alexei Yagudin, gripped by the energy-sapping cold that has swept through the foreign legions in Nagano, fell while attempting a quad toe loop and a subsequent triple Axel. And American Todd Eldredge seemed unsettled from the start, doubling two planned triple jumps and singling a key triple Axel. That left room at the top for the charismatic Frenchman, Philippe Candeloro, who came out dressed like D’Artagnan and skated to the sound track of The Three Musketeers. Candeloro’s routine was as much theatre as sport—his footwork sequence evoked a sword-fighting scene from the movie. But he landed every jump and gave the judges no choice but to hoist him above Yagudin and Eldredge into third place, which was the most unexpected event of all.

The drama actually began two nights earlier. In the short program, Kulik—dressed in a costume fitted with what appeared to be insect wings—set a nearly impossible standard for the field. He combined impeccable required elements—including an effortless triple Axel-triple toe loop combination—with daring, original spins. Four skaters later, Yagudin, just 17 and seemingly oblivious to the throat-tightening pressure in the arena, glided to centre ice, smiling and waving to the audience, and proceeded to nail everything in his program. The judges gave him second place to Kulik, but he was quickly overtaken by Eldredge, the smooth American who made the most of pedestrian choreography set to painful marching band music.

Stojko, who skated much later, knew there was no room for error. After being called to centre ice to begin his short program, he appeared to take more time than usual getting set—he later confided it was the most pressure he had ever felt. Once started, however, he gained momentum until finishing with a spin sequence that was breathtaking. The judges awarded him second place. “It felt great, considering the situation,” he said. “I don’t think people understand how much pressure there is out there.”

After meeting with the media and changing into his team sweats, Stojko emerged from the dressing room that night to discover Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion, in the hallway. The American, now a professional skater and TV commentator with CBS, grabbed Stojko and gave him a bear hug. “That was just incredible, man,” said Hamilton. “The farther I am from my own Olympic experience, the more I appreciate what you just did. I was tied in knots, and I was just watching.”

It was just the kind of encouragement that Stojko needed. His groin was hurting badly, and physiotherapy was not doing much to relieve the discomfort. At one point, he even considered taking a local remedy offered by the Nagano family with whom his mother was staying. The potion included snake oil, among other things, but while Stojko was desperate for help, he was not about to take something that might later show up in Olympic dope tests. “We made it through the short program,” Leigh said, “and he tried to get better over the last 48 hours. He just ran out of time.”

The week was not much kinder to the other Canadian figure skaters in Nagano. Stojko’s Mariposa Club teammate, Jeffrey Langdon of Smith’s Falls, Ont., fell attempting his required combination jump in the short program but did well in the free skate to climb into 12th place. “That’s more like what he came here to do,” his coach, Michelle Leigh, said after the 22-year-old came off the ice. “He should be a top-10 skater, and he showed that out there tonight.” Canada’s two pairs, top-ranked Kristy Sargeant and Kris Wirtz, and MarieClaude Savard-Gagnon and Luc Bradet, finished 12th and 16th—well below both team’s goals.

More disturbing was the experience of ice dancers Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz. Bronze medallists at the last two world championships, they started the season hoping to challenge the favored Russians, Pasha Grischuk and Yvgeny Platov. Instead, informed observers contend, the Canadian dancers have been victims of socalled bloc judging—in which marks are skewed to boost Russian, French and Italian teams while denying others, including Bourne and Kraatz. International skating officials have been unable to curb the voting irregularities and, as a result, Bourne and Kraatz were faced with having to skate a miraculous rendition of their popular Riverdance free skate to make it onto the podium.

The dancers’ complaints, however, are nothing compared with Stojko’s. The silver medallist at Lillehammer in 1994 was so close to finally doing what no Canadian had ever done—win the Olympic men’s figure-skating gold medal. Still, it says so much about Stojko that he went to Nagano at all. Defending Olympic champion Alexei Urmanov of Russia suffered the same injury several months ago and withdrew from his own national championship as well as the Games. Wirtz, who watched the men’s final with a large group of Canadian athletes, marvelled at his teammate’s endurance. “I do not know how he did what he just did,” Wirtz said. “He is incredibly strong.” Leigh, who has coached Stojko since he was a teenager, was not surprised. “The way Elvis’s mind works,” Leigh said, “he can overcome anything.” As a result, Stojko’s pain has a silver lining. □