Indelible Memories


December 2 1991

Indelible Memories


December 2 1991

Indelible Memories



The passers-by at Toronto’s city hall square were treated to an unexpected performance. A photographer was using the rink in the area as a backdrop for a picture of Olympic double silver medallist and former world-champion figure skater Brian Orser. When the photo session ended, Orser put on his skates and took a turn on the ice—casually spinning and somersaulting with the compact elegance that carried him to eight Canadian men ’s titles between 1981 and 1988, in addition to his international honors. Orser is now skating professionally, and in an exclusive account for Maclean’s, he recalled his own impressions of the tensionand hope-filled months that precede an appearance on the Olympic stage.

It seems incredible that four years have gone by since the Olympic Winter Games in Calgary, and that in less than three short months, our national teams will be battling for Olympic gold in Albertville, France. Just the thought of the tough competition that our athletes will soon face stirs my own deeply competitive instincts, sending a rush of adrenaline surging through my body.

Looking ahead to the Games also brings back a flood of vivid memories from Calgary. I will never forget how my heart pounded when the huge crowd of 60,000 people in McMahon Stadium jumped to their feet and cheered wildly as I carried the Canadian flag into the opening ceremonies.

Nor can I erase the memory of how that warm reception quickly gave way to the mounting pressure to vanquish my archrival, Brian Boitano of the United States, and win the gold medal for all of Canada. In my mind’s eye, I can still clearly see the tiny mistake in the triple jump that cost me the gold, but on the final day of the Games, my feeling of disappointment gave way to a sense of melancholy as the Olympic flame flickered and went out—a tumultuous week in my life was over.

It was not supposed to end the way it did. I was the world champion and had won the silver medal at the 1984 Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. The whole country was eagerly anticipating a gold-medal performance in Calgary. When my name was finally called and I skated out onto the ice, the Olympic Saddledome seemed to be crackling with energy. Suddenly, there I was—Brian Orser, from small-town

Ontario, completely alone in the middle of the rink in front of 20,000 people. I was saying to myself over and over, “This is it, this is the Olympics.”

Then, the first strains of The Bolt, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s epic composition celebrating the Russian Revolution, started, and for the next 4V2minutes I was lost in a world of my own. I poured every ounce of concentration and energy I could muster into my routine, and when I landed my final triple jump, the Saddledome was vibrating with thunderous applause. Like the partisan throng, I felt that I had skated one of the best routines in my life and that the gold medal was

mine. All that remained was for me to climb the podium and accept it. For the next couple of minutes, with the medal all but in my grasp, I was filled with a feeling of overwhelming joy. I finally knew what it felt like to win the gold.

Then came the crushing, gut-twisting letdown. I knew that Boitano had also skated exceptionally well, and then I got the signal that still bums in my memory today. The head official slowly raised two fingers in the air. It seemed impossible, but suddenly I was second, and my illusion of Olympic gold vanished into the cold Calgary night. With the whole country, if not the entire sporting world, watching me on television, I had to come back down to earth without showing my deep disappointment.

As I look back, I am still amazed that I could have soared so high and fallen so low in just a flicker of time. But as the months went by, I took solace in the fact that just to compete in the Olympic Games is a rare and wonderful experi1 ence. After all, only a handful of the I world’s top athletes ever get an opporM tunity to compete in the Games. And $ only a very few of them leave the Games y, with a medal.

I And even though I was the reigning ° world champion at the time, I never thought for one second that winning the Olympic gold was going to be easy. In fact, my preparations for the Olympics actually began when I met with my coach and manager, Doug Leigh, in June, 1987, a full nine months before our Canadian team’s entrance into McMahon Stadium. In our meeting, we discussed the upcoming Games and set a daunting goal: to win nothing less than the gold medal in Calgary.

Almost immediately, we set monthly, weekly and daily training goals, but to take the gold in Calgary, we knew that I would have to peak at the highest level of physical and

mental training, almost on the very eve of the competition. To peak precisely at that point, however, required complete harmony among coach Leigh, my choreographer, Uschi Keszler, and myself.

That is not easy to accomplish in an Olympic year. Demands from the media and the prestige of the Games not only increase the pressure on the athletes, but also create hundreds of distractions. The television networks, newspapers and magazines all wanted time for interviews, and I felt that as national and world champion, I had to accommodate everyone. But finally, Leigh intervened and literally locked the door of the Orillia, Ont., arena, where we were training, behind us.

Despite the iron control that Leigh exerted over our training regimen, the pressure to win the gold in Calgary continued to mount. If someone even hinted that I might fall short of my goal, it would trigger a rush of negative thoughts. As a result, the actions and responsibilities of the people surrounding me were as critical as my own performance. Every time my coach was asked, “How is Brian doing?” his reply was always, “We are right on track.” In the end, the intimacy that we created on that small ice rink in Orillia between my coach, choreographer and family was quite beautiful.

But winning takes more than harmony and positive thinking. It also requires brute determination.

And during the early summer of 1987,1 stuck doggedly to the set plan. I started each day at 5 a.m. with a high-energy breakfast of organic food, including granola, oats, raisins, nuts, freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee.

Then, I left for the Orillia arena for six hours of intense, uninterrupted training. In 1988, figure skating still contained a compulsory figures requirement, and I would spend the first two or three hours working on my highly demanding figures routine, tracing intricate patterns into the ice with my skates.

After three hours of work, I would eat another high-energy meal. That one usually consisted of what we called “power balls”, home-made from protein powder, oats, almonds, peanut butter, nuts and brewer’s yeast. Following that, I practised my actual Olympic routine for about three hours. I had my own apartment in Orillia, and when I arrived home I would usually prepare a hearty meal of chicken or fish, along with fresh organically grown vegetables. But despite the heavy workload, my training was not over. In the evening, I would either head to the Orillia YMCA or back to the rink for an hour of weight training and running. Finally, at about 9 p.m., I would wind down by watching a movie video—and prepare to do it all over the next day.

By sticking with a tightly controlled training program, I was able to take some of the pressure off myself because I could carefully measure my progress. But for many other figure skaters, a more relaxed approach seems to work better. Canadian and three-time world champion Kurt Browning of Caroline, Alta., for one, takes a completely different approach. In situations where I would try to ease the pressure through a methodical training program,

Browning actually tries to add to the pressure he is under— to improve his performance. If the competition is unimpor-

tant and the pressure is not there, he does not train well. In fact, the normal pattern for Browning is to skate below his capabilities just before world championships. Then, when everyone is starting to worry that he is not ready for the big event, Browning arrives and skates like the great champion that he is.

Browning’s main rival for Olympic gold, Victor Petrenko of the Soviet Union, on the other hand, follows a training pattern similar to my own. But because of the political turmoil in his homeland, he left the Ukrainian port city of Odessa in September and is training in Houston. That is a big change. I know that, for me, such a disruption would have been disastrous.

Browning and Petrenko will also have to battle Christopher Bowman of the United States, who two months ago won a major U.S. competition and is now a clear threat to win the gold in Albertville. Bowman is so unorthodox and flamboyant that Sports Illustrated magazine once billed him as “Hans Brinker from hell.” Bowman, who sometimes infuriates his coaches with his casual approach to training, is now living in Toronto and

training with former Canadian champion Toller Cranston. But the stress of the upcoming Olympics may be getting even to Bowman: earlier this month, he showed up at the training rink with his black hair bleached blond. But he loves to perform and, like Browning, he relies heavily on the adrenaline that flows in a major competition to elevate his skating level.

As they train, those great skaters will become increasingly aware that the Olympics are tantalizingly close at hand. For them, just to persevere through the three months deserves a gold medal. They are about to live through one of the most high-powered and intense periods of their lives. I was fortunate enough to experience both the thrill of top international competition and the spirit of the Games in Sarajevo and Calgary. And with the Olympics well behind me now, the most important advice that I could give to our athletes would be simply to enjoy and cherish every moment of the Albertville Games—because when the Olympic flame finally dims and goes out, their memories will linger, but their lives will never be the same. □