THE WINTER GAMES

Stars With A Twist

LLOYD EISLER HURLS HIS PARTNER, ISABELLE BRASSEUR, TO NEW HEIGHTS

D’ARCY JENISH February 3 1992
THE WINTER GAMES

Stars With A Twist

LLOYD EISLER HURLS HIS PARTNER, ISABELLE BRASSEUR, TO NEW HEIGHTS

D’ARCY JENISH February 3 1992

Stars With A Twist

THE WINTER GAMES

LLOYD EISLER HURLS HIS PARTNER, ISABELLE BRASSEUR, TO NEW HEIGHTS

The costumes drew gasps from the crowd of 5,500 at the Coliseum in Moncton, N.B. When Lloyd Eisler and Isabelle Brasseur stepped on the ice on Jan. 17 to perform their 4½-minute long program at the Canadian figure skating championships, they wore hot-white one-piece suits decorated with gold, fuchsia and turquoise sequins. After that technically dazzling, nearly flawless performance, Eisler, 28, from Seaforth, Ont., and Brasseur, 21, of Boucherville, Que., won their second consecutive Canadian senior pairs title. The two Quebec-based skaters had given the crowd a preview of the routine that they will perform, and the costumes they will wear, at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.

And the crowd responded by tossing them dozens of bouquets, a few stuffed toy animals and one broad-brimmed brown Stetson. Later, a beaming, perspiring and confident Eisler said: “Our Olympic programs are ready. We’ll spend the next three weeks on the last-minute refinements.” Now, after finishing second in the past two world championships, Eisler and Brasseur are regarded as Canada’s strongest contenders for an Olympic medal in pairs skating.

They join Kurt Browning of Caroline, Alta., who has won the world championship in the senior men’s category for the past three years (page 36). According to the tall, lean Eisler, who is far more talkative than his partner, he and Brasseur will be pursuing the gold with aggressively athletic long and short programs that are full of complicated, innovative and sometimes dangerous manoeuvres. He added that their chief rivals, the current world champions Natalia Mishkuteniok and Artur Dmitriev of the Commonwealth of Independent States, rely more on graceful, artistic routines. Said Eisler: “Technically, both teams are very equal. But the styles are like night and day.”

With their mesmerizing long program, Eisler and Brasseur completely overshadowed two other pairs who will accompany them to Albertville. Doug Ladret, 30, and Christine Hough, 22, who train in Kitchener, Ont., finished second in Moncton, and have only an outside chance at a medal. A third pair, Kris Wirtz, 22, of Marathon, Ont., and Sherry Ball, 16, of St. Thomas, Ont., earned their Olympic berth with a dynamic performance that catapulted them into third place, ahead of several more experienced and highly rated pairs. After being named to the Olympic team, an exuberant Wirtz declared: “This is our first Olympics, our first everything. We’re thrilled.”

Eisler and Brasseur planned to train four hours a day to polish their programs. Eisler said that they will have to improve on their performances at the nationals in order to win a medal in the Olympic pairs competition, which takes place on Feb. 9 and 11.

During the two-minute, 40-second short program, Brasseur fell while they were doing a side-by-side jump. In the long program, they made one visible mistake, but otherwise turned in impressive performances. Eisler said that he and Brasseur were confident that they could make a couple of mistakes in the long program and still win the Canadian title. But at the Olympics, he added, they have to aim for perfection. Said Eisler: “You have to do a clean short program. In the long [program], you might get away with a small mistake because over 41/2 minutes, the odds of everybody skating perfectly are very slim.”

Their lifts and twists separate Eisler and Brasseur from many domestic and international rivals. According to both skaters,

they are the only pair in the world who can perform a triple lateral twist. The move begins with both skaters travelling across the ice at full speed. Eisler lifts Brasseur above his head and throws her into the air. The five-foot, 95-lb. Brasseur spins three times in a horizontal position before Eisler catches her. Their coach, Josée Picard, said that Brasseur soars about 12 feet above the ice. Added Picard: “The reason they can do all these tricks is not only because Lloyd is so strong, but also because Isabelle is so gutsy. Not many people want to be thrown that high.”

Along with their dazzling acts, Eisler and Brasseur made an impression on audiences and judges alike with their hot-white costumes. Brasseur said that a seamstress in Terrebonne, 30 km north of Montreal, made the outfits last fall at a cost of about $2,000 each. But Eisler added that when they wore them for the Nations Cup competition in November in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, some of the judges and a few of the skaters considered them too flashy. Still, they won the pairs event there. Explained Eisler: “We said, ‘We’re two-time silver medallists, so let’s look like it.’ We’re going to the Olympics as medal contenders, not someone who’s from the backwoods.” At the start of the current skating season, there was some doubt that Eisler would be able to perform to his usual standards because he had surgery on both knees during the summer. He tore a ligament in his left knee in December, 1990, when he slammed into a goal post during a non-contact hockey league game. For the rest of the skating season, Eisler wore a brace to protect the knee, and then, in June, he underwent surgery to repair the damage. But by continuing to skate, he had put so much stress on his right knee that it required minor surgery again in September. Eisler now says that both knees are completely healed. But he is recovering from another minor injury—a fractured finger on his left hand, suffered while catching Brasseur during an exhibition performance.

For Canada’s top pairs team, an Olympic gold medal would be an enormous accomplishment. Over the past quarter of a century, skaters from republics in the former Soviet Union have completely dominated the pairs category, winning 21 of 25 world championships and all six Olympic golds. Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini were the last Canadians to snap the Soviet hold on the event by winning the world championship in 1984. But both Eisler and coach Picard contend that the collapse of the Soviet Union—and its comprehensive system of supporting amateur athletes—may make pairs skating far more competitive. Said Eisler: “Under Communist rule, they didn’t have to worry about money, training, coaching, housing or schooling. In the next 10 years, they’re going to find out how we’ve had to live and support ourselves.”

Like most athletes who reach the Olympics, Eisler and Brasseur have been training and competing since they were children. Brasseur, who grew up in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., 25 km southeast of Montreal, said that she began skating at 6 and has been training under Picard since she was 8. The coach said that she quickly decided that Brasseur should try pairs skating because she was small. Added Picard: “She was 8 but she looked 4, she was so tiny. She weighed 42 lb.”

Eisler, a native of Seaforth, 80 km north of London, Ont., said that he skated for the first time at 7 and competed at the provincial level less than two years later. He said that he wanted to play hockey as a child, but he had to wear custom-made orthopedic boots to correct problems with the size and shape of his feet. Hockey skates with such specialized boots were unavailable, but his family was able to purchase a custom-fitted pair of figure skates.

As an adult, Eisler has become an accomplished hockey player. The league in which he competes includes several former Junior A players and two former National Leaguers. He is also a good golfer, with a handicap of five, rides a 1200-cc Honda Goldwing motorcycle and listens to country-and-western music. Brasseur, who says that she doesn’t like country and western at all, is studying business administration at Collège Edouard-Montpetit in Longueuil, a suburb of Montreal. Reading and movies provide diversions in her limited spare time after skating and school.

Eisler and Brasseur, who began skating together in January of 1987, finished ninth at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. According to Picard, the Olympics were just their second appearance together before a panel of international judges and it was an accomplishment just to make the Top 10. She added that their current strength as a pair lies in the fact that their styles are so different. Said Picard: “Isabelle is a very refined, classy, soft skater. Lloyd is more aggressive and physical. They're totally opposite, but one completes the other. The combination of the two is perfect.” It is a pairing of opposites that could put Canada atop the victory podium at Albertville.

D’ARCY JENISH in Moncton