THE WINTER GAMES

Talent Under Pressure

INJURIES DOG CANADA’S TOP MEN’S FIGURE SKATING STARS

D’ARCY JENISH February 3 1992
THE WINTER GAMES

Talent Under Pressure

INJURIES DOG CANADA’S TOP MEN’S FIGURE SKATING STARS

D’ARCY JENISH February 3 1992

Talent Under Pressure

THE WINTER GAMES

INJURIES DOG CANADA’S TOP MEN’S FIGURE SKATING STARS

On a recent Sunday afternoon in Moncton, N.B., Elvis Stojko hoped to emerge from the long shadow of Kurt Browning. For the past two seasons, the 19-year-old Stojko, of Richmond Hill, Ont., has finished second to Browning at the Canadian figure skating championships. But Stojko was favored to become the 1992 men’s champion because Browning was at home in Edmonton, recuperating from a back injury and preparing for the Olympics. But it was not to be Stojko’s day. Instead, he was unexpectedly overshadowed by 25-year-old Edmontonian Michael Slipchuk. Slipchuk won the men’s title with a

graceful and almost error-free program despite suffering a profuse nosebleed during the previous evening’s program that almost put him out of the competition. Afterwards, a jubilant Slipchuk said: “You always dream of winning a championship. But I wasn’t the favorite to win here. I was the underdog.”

Even though Browning, from Caroline, Alta., missed the national championships that are normally used to select Olympic competitors, he will still represent Canada at the Winter Games in Albertville. The Canadian Olympic Association guaranteed him a place on the national team because he has won three consecutive world championships and remains one of Canada’s top medal contenders. Slipchuk and Stojko will also join him as a result of their

performances in Moncton. And both are potential medal winners. Stojko placed sixth at the 1991 world championships, while Slipchuk was seventh. They may well improve on those placings because two other top-ranked international skaters, Todd Eldredge of the United States and Ukrainian Victor Petrenko, are recovering from injuries.

However, Canada’s best prospects for a skating medal largely depend on whether Browning is healthy. Doctors have determined that Browning suffered an injured disc in his lower back the day before leaving to compete in a preOlympic event in Albertville last November. The skater’s coach, Michael Jiranek, said that the injury caused painful back spasms that prevented Browning from training for several weeks. But since early January, Browning has been skating about 2 Vá hours a day at Edmonton’s Royal Glenora Club. Said Jiranek: “Kurt is quite healthy. He doesn’t have any pain.”

Besides skating daily, Browning is also being treated at the University of Alberta’s Glen Sather Sports Medicine Clinic. Kevin Albrecht, the skater’s Toronto-based agent, said that a team of two doctors, two physiotherapists and a chiropractor has developed a program aimed at strengthening the muscles around the damaged disc to prevent the injury from recurring. Both the agent and the coach said that they are also attempting to shield Browning from excessive public and media scrutiny before the Olympics. Meanwhile, Browning receives a $650-amonth grant from Sport Canada, for which he qualifies by being among the top eight in the world in his sport. The skater also draws an allowance from a trust fund built up with his earnings from endorsements, personal appearances and skating exhibitions.

For the past three seasons, Browning has been practically unbeatable both at home and abroad.

But Stojko had emerged as the skater most likely to succeed Browning as Canadian champion. As Stojko’s coach, Doug Leigh, notes, in 1991 his skater became the first competitor to land a quadruple combination jump at the world championships. The manoeuvre required Stojko to complete four | revolutions in the air fol^ lowed by another jump imI mediately after landing. Q Said Leigh: “He’s known I as a great jumper, and he ° does them all. He doesn’t Slipchuk (left); really have a weak jump.”

But the young skater readily acknowledges that to move up in the world rankings, he has to improve the artistic side of his performance. He said that artistic presentation can be polished partly through experience but it must also flow naturally from the individual’s personality. Stojko added that while he and Browning are a close match technically, the world champion is a far more stylish skater. Said Stojko: “Kurt’s character shines more than mine on the ice. He’s the entertainer, the happy-golucky guy. I’m more introverted.”

Despite his artistic shortcomings, Stojko’s technical abilities almost carried him to the Canadian title in Moncton. He led the field of 13 skaters after performing a flawless two-min-

ute, 40-second short program. But the next day, he made four costly mistakes—landing clumsily or faltering as he moved on to the next part of his program—while performing jumps in his long program. Afterward, Stojko said that his poor performance was partly caused by an injury to his left foot, later diagnosed as a fractured bone, which had prevented him from practising some of his triple jumps for almost a month.

While Stojko faltered, Slipchuk excelled to win his first Canadian men’s senior title, his first berth on a Canadian Olympic team and what some of his supporters described as a well-deserved moment in the spotlight. Training at the Royal Glenora Club with Browning since 1981, he has performed largely in the broad shadow cast by a succession of more celebrated skaters, including Brian Orser,

Browning and Stojko. After winning in Moncton, Slipchuk acknowledged that at times over the past five seasons, his inability to cope with pressure hurt his performances. Said the new Canadian champion of his winning performance: “I had a lot more confidence than I usually do. I didn’t give up today. That’s what usually happens to me.”

Slipchuk’s poise and self-assurance were all the more remarkable because of the misfortune that nearly forced him out of the competition. His nose began to bleed as he was warming up to perform his short program before a crowd of over 5,500 people. The competition was held up for 10 minutes while he, his coach and a local doctor attempted to stop the bleed-

ing. About halfway through his performance, he had to stop skating because the bleeding had started again. Despite the interruptions, he finished in third place after the short program.

The following morning, before Slipchuk was due to perform his long program, a Moncton ear, nose and throat specialist cauterized a damaged blood vessel in his nose. With his medical problems resolved and his confidence intact, Slipchuk skated a fluid, graceful and nearly error-free long program that won him the Canadian title. Added Slipchuk: “When I got off the ice, I knew I’d made the Olympic team, and that was my goal.”

But after qualifying to compete at Albertville, both Slipchuk and Stojko may have a tough time winning a medal there. Jiranek said that he expects last year’s top five skaters— Browning, Petrenko, Eldredge and fellow

American Christopher Bowman, and Czechoslovakian Petr Bama—to remain at the top of the Olympic finalists if their injuries do not take too high a toll. In a sport where careers and reputations are established over many years, it is rare for a rising young competitor like Stojko to overwhelm the judges enough to skate off with a medal. Still, noted coach Leigh, “Figure skating is not like a best-of-seven series, or a nine-inning game. We’re always playing sudden death, and in sudden death anything can happen.” After their surprise loss in Moncton, Stojko and his coach would undoubtedly savor an upset of their own in Albertville.

D’ARCY JENISH in Moncton