SUPERMAN ON SKATES
Canadians are hungry for an Olympic hero, and Brian Orser is determined to be their man
Brian Orser, reigning world figure skating champion, was trying to conquer his nerves. There he was last fall, minutes before he was to preview his Olympic freestyle program, gulping fresh air in the parking lot of Calgary’s Olympic Saddledome. Inside, the final night of Skate Canada 1987 was under way, and Orser’s main rival, American Brian Boitano, had just skated the long program of his lifetime. Not only had he jumped flawlessly, but Boitano had linked the leaps with a new elegance. The judges had been impressed, awarding Boitano top marks for both technical merit and artistic impression. Orser knew that he was caught in the Olympic cross hairs of emotionalism and nationalism. In the stands sat not only his relatives and friends but many other Canadians hungry for a hero to parade on the international stage. Orser was, quite simply, Canada’s best bet for a gold medal, and his performance had to tell the world that he was going to win. “I was a wreck,” says Orser. “I couldn’t concentrate on my program, so I had to get my head clear. I was a little apprehensive because I had never gone out of the building before I had to skate.”
When Orser finally skated to his starting position, his slender figure seemed lost in the cavernous space. But then his Olympic music began-Dmitri Shostakovich’s classical fanfare The Bolt, chosen, according to Orser, because “it sounds like the kind of music you would play when you’re lighting the torch.” While his performance was less than perfect-only great strength and the will not to fall allowed him to keep his balance coming out of one jump-it won him first place at the international competition and justified his country’s dreams of winning gold at the Calgary Olympics. Says Orser, who will likely turn professional at the end of the season: “I only did 75 per cent of what I could do, but that means I will be much better at the Olympics.”
It is a one-kilometre drive from the Brian Orser Arena in Orillia, Ont., to Orser’s three-bedroom condominium, but in many respects, the arena is a world away. On the ice, dressed in one of his flamboyant costumes, Orser commands public attention. To get the practice time he needs, the 26-year-old champion often shares the rink with the Mariposa School of Skating. Every day when his Olympic music fills the air, the student skaters scatter toward the boards like minnows chased
by a shark, watching as Orser drives himself toward perfection and the pinnacle of his amateur career.
But off the ice, Orser shuns attention, literally transforming himself from a Superman on skates to Orillia’s version of Clark Kent. The statistics state that he is five-feet, seveninches tall and weighs 142 pounds, but he looks smaller. His unlined face, quiet manner and high lilting voice suggest a polite seminarian rather than a skating superstar. Orser keeps such a low profile in his sleepy, tourist town, 128 km north of Toronto, that even the city elders seem to have forgotten he lives there. On the road into town, a welcome sign reads, “Orillia, The Home of Gordon Lightfoot, pop. 34,000.” Last summer during a barbecue he held for his family, Orser was as unobtrusive as a waiter. He spent the evening cooking on the balcony while his relatives mingled. Says his eldest sister, Janice, 31: “Brian was always perfect. Even as a little kid, he always wore a bow tie, always made tea for everyone. Even his socks and underwear matched.”
Technical perfection-the exact match of aim and execution-is the solid base on which Orser’s career has been built. Says Ellen Burka, the Toronto figure skating coach of seven Canadian champions: “Brian is technically the most suberb skater on earth.” Toller Cranston, the Toronto skater who raised the artistic stakes of his sport and won the bronze medal at the 1976 Winter Games, feels that Orser is ideally matched with his times. “It’s the age of the supertechnician in skating,” says Cranston. “Brian is the exponent of the 1980s.”
Still, Orser has not always excelled at the event that is considered the most technical in figure skating. Compulsory figures, a rarely televised exercise in carving variations of figure eights on the ice, counts for 30 per cent of a competitor’s final mark. In recent years Orser has spent twice as much time practising figures as he has performing the jumps, spins and steps of free-skating. At the world championship in Cincinnati last March he placed third overall in figures, winning one of the three sets outright. By contrast, he has always shone in both the two-minute “short program” and the featured freestyle event. The short program is a technical tour de force in which the skater must perform specified jumps, combinations, steps and spins, worth 20 per cent of the mark. The long program, worth 50 per cent, is every competition’s showstopper-4V2 minutes of artistry and athleticism, high-
flying jumps and articulated steps, composed from elements chosen by the skater. “It’s Russian roulette,” says Cranston.“ The risk of those jumps is phenomenal—anything can happen.”
In taking those risks, Orser’s odds are better than average. He seems to have been gifted with an ability to jump high, rotate his gymnast’s body quickly and land effortlessly. There have been accidents: in 1978 he broke his right foot three times while jumping. On one occasion the break came during a performance; he finished on one foot and still won the event. Still, jumping brought Orser his first taste of world attention. In 1978 the 17year-old revolutionized the sport by landing the daunting triple Axel, ZVi rotations in the air, compared with the three revolutions of other triple jumps. Unless the skater lands perfectly, it is difficult to stop the rotation. If executed incorrectly, a triple Axel unleashes forces that can tear the thigh bone apart.
For four years Orser was the only competitor at the world level to land it consistently, and the jump became his signature. Says Orser: “They used to call me Mr. Triple Axel.”
After the Olympics, there is a chance he will be renamed Mr. Quadruple Toe Loop. The jump is to skating what breaking the four-minute mile was to running.
Orser and his competitors are keenly aware that whoever lands the first quad in competition-completing four full revolutions in the air-will end up in the record books. In practice, Orser claims that he lands between 60 and 100 per cent of the quadruple toe loops, but he refused to say whether he will include one in his Olympic program. Both Orser and Boitano, who attempted a quad at last year’s world championships and failed, agree they are at risk of shattering their knees. “The toughest thing is the fear,” says Boitano. “When I first tried one, I told my coach to have the stretcher ready.”
If Orser wins the gold medal, he will share the glory, as always, with those close to him. Last April, when Orillia honored him with a Brian Orser Day, the new world champion turned the spotlight on 14 friends and relatives who had helped him realize his dream. “He had 14 replicas made of his gold medal,” recalls his sister Mary Kay, who is also his manager. “During his speech, when he was supposed to talk about himself, he called each
of us up individually, gave us a medal and talked about what we meant to him. It was very emotional.”
When Orser began figure skating at the age of 5, the sport was a family affair. His mother, Jo Anne, was president of the local skating club in Midland, Ont., and his father, Butch, who currently owns a bottling plant, helped out around the rink. While his two brothers took power skating lessons to help them with their hockey, Orser decided instead to join his two sisters in figure skating classes. The deci-
sion had one drawback-as the youngest of five children, he had to wear hand-me-down white skates. His mother recalls, “When we finally gave him black skates he said, Thanks. Now the other boys won’t tease me.’ ”
When Orser was 9 his skating caught the eye of coach Doug Leigh, who would help take him to the top. “He stood out immediately,” says Leigh. “He was a free spirit with tremendous speed and agility. Polite, but ambitious. You can tell achievers when you see them.” Sixteen years later Leigh and Orser are still achieving together. The coach, at 39, is a cheerleading optimist whose ebullient man-
ner hides a tough analytical mind. The skater is highly strung, and when the competitive stress becomes too great he blows off steam with Leigh. “Before a competition I say lots of bad things to Doug, and he knows just to take it,” says Orser. “I get very uptight. He understands and stays quiet.”
Leigh’s first inkling that his student could become the world champion came in 1977, when Orser won the Canadian Novice Championships at the age of 16. Two years later he won the Canadian Junior Championships, and two years after that, the first of seven consecutive Canadian Senior Championships. But despite the success of their partnership, there were attempts to replace Leigh with another coach. By the time Orser was 12, his outstanding talent had come to the attention of the Canadian Figure Skating Association (CFSA). A CFSA official warned Orser’s parents that he would have move to Toronto if he wanted the type of coaching that would make him a champion. Said the official: “If you think you can make it in the sticks, you are out of your mind.” Jo Anne Orser looks back on those days with wry amusement. “Brian knew he had the best coach, and he was determined to make it from the sticks,” she said. “It’s ironic that all the best skaters in the world come to Orillia now. We get a big kick out of that.”
Although Orser is now No. 1 in the world, his struggle to get there has not been easy. In 1984 he had a shot at the gold at the Sarajevo Olympics. But although he won both the short and long programs, the judges placed him seventh in the figures. In the end, he came second to American Scott Hamilton, who retired at the end of the season. In 1985 Orser came second to Soviet skater Alexandr Fadeev at the world championships in Tokyo. The following year, at the world championships in Geneva, Orser was expected to walk away with the gold. Waiting in the locker room before his long program, Orser began to panic, turning on the showers to drown out the other competitors’ marks. Then he stumbled twice doing his bread-and-butter triple Axels. Boitano, also a natural jumper, won the event, and Orser was the bridesmaid again. “I was beginning to think that people in Canada might have given up on me,” he says. “I knew I was the best skater, but I had the wrong color medal.” Lesser mortals might have crumbled and
quit, but Orser refused to give up. After his loss in 1986 he started looking for that mysterious mental edge that makes a champion. First, he sought the aid of a sports psychologist, Peter Jensen of Toronto’s York University, who was also working for the CFSA. “I just called him up,” recalls Orser, “and said, ‘Help.’ ” Jensen placed the skater on a mental fitness regimen that included listening to relaxation tapes and watching videotapes of himself landing perfectly executed jumps. As well, he put all members of the Canadian figure skating team through seven complete simulations of the world championships.
To familiarize them with the distracting environment,
Jensen filled an Ottawa arena with an audience of family, friends and volunteers, with some posing as reporters, photographers and meddlesome judges.
Next, Orser sought advice from a nutritional counsellor, Ann Hall of Hamilton.
“She could tell I was lacking in nutrition from my coloring,” he says, “and from how I felt after a performance.” A confirmed junk-food eater,
Orser asked Hall to cook him a nutritious meal. Now, he begins his day with granola and snacks of “nutrition balls” made of brewer’s yeast, nuts and raisins, and eats plenty of salads, fruit and protein. He makes daily notes on how he feels in a little black book. One excerpt reads: “Excellent energy level. Not hyper.”
Orser has also undergone treatment by Helen James, a physiotherapist and anatomy professor at the University of California. He submitted himself to rolfing, a controversial form of deep massage that is believed to improve posture by realigning the body along gravitational lines. Last year Orser received 10 rolfing sessions before he won the world championship. Pulling out photographs of his nearnaked body before and after rolfing, he points out a height difference of three-quarters of an inch. He also credits rolfing with helping him with his compulsory figures, which he now feels he can win at the Olympics. “It all makes sense,” says Orser. “Figures are all about balance and gravity.”
In terms of physical preparation, Orser began his buildup to the Calgary Olympics last June. Typically, his days begin at 5:30 a.m. with a 90-minute session on compulsory figures, followed by an intense workout in a
makeshift gym and then another 90 minutes of ice work. After lunch there is more ice time, another break, followed by a third 90-minute session ending at 7:30 p.m. In the gym, loud disco music blares from a portable stereo, and motivational messages, such as “Will Power is more important than Talent” are plastered on
the walls. Under the watchful eye of exercise physiologist James Parker, who did his master’s thesis on the triple Axel, Orser is put through his paces. One weight machine is specifically designed to strengthen Orser’s landing leg. Last summer Orser ran through “kill drills” in the arena parking lot. Wearing sneakers instead of skates, Orser performed the jumps of his long program five times in succession, leaping high to build up his endurance and also to imprint his program on his mind. “It’s called overtraining,” says Parker. “When you get to the ice, your body says, ‘Great, I only have to do it once.’ ”
It was also in June that Orser and his
choreographer, Uschi Keszler, began designing a long program worthy of a gold medal. They mapped it out in the secrecy of the closed arena. “When you are spilling your guts out,” says Keszler, “it’s better done in private.” Orser, who takes more creative control of his program than most skaters, began improvising to the music while Keszler made notes. For the Olympics, he had decided to skate a totally classical program, choreographed to a piece of music that a little-known Russian skater had used in 1984. But there was one hitch: Orser had no idea what the piece was called or who had written it. In fact, he couldn’t even hum the tune. Keszler spent an entire month searching for the composition. “He said that if I played it, he’d recognize it,” recalls Keszler, who ran up huge bills playing Orser music over the phone from her home in Philadelphia. Finally, by contacting Toronto coach Ellen Burka, they came up with a recording of the mystery music, Shostakovich’s ballet suite The Bolt. When Orser hears The Bolt, he says: “I can picture the Olympics. It starts off with a fanfare. It’s dramatic, slow and powerful. It’s about going to battle and returning.”
The image is an appropriate one for Orser to carry to Calgary, where the pressure to emerge the victor will be immense. Clearly, he will have the home-town crowd on his side, but that is always a mixed blessing. Says Brian Boitano: “I would rather go into the Olympics being second. As I know from Cincinnati, there’s a lot more pressure skating in your own country.” Still, working in his favor will be Orser’s increased confidence, dogged determination and unflinching willpower. “No competitor in the world is more seasoned than Brian,” says Cranston. In November Orser was able to use Skate Canada as a valuable rehearsal for the Olympics. With Jensen’s help, he examined all potentially disruptive problems that could distract him, from television cameras in the alleyway to security clearances. “The Olympics is not going to be athlete-convenient at all,” says Jensen, “but nobody will be better prepared.” As Brian Orser marches toward Calgary, he is wearing all the right armor for the battle of hL lifetime.