SPORTS

Live, from Prague, the Kurt-and-Elvis show

BROWNING AND STOJKO LEAD CANADA’S SKATERS AGAINST THE WORLD’S BEST

JAMES DEACON March 15 1993
SPORTS

Live, from Prague, the Kurt-and-Elvis show

BROWNING AND STOJKO LEAD CANADA’S SKATERS AGAINST THE WORLD’S BEST

JAMES DEACON March 15 1993

Live, from Prague, the Kurt-and-Elvis show

SPORTS

BROWNING AND STOJKO LEAD CANADA’S SKATERS AGAINST THE WORLD’S BEST

Kurt Browning is a lithe and easy-going Albertan who performs, on ice or on camera, like a natural. Elvis Stojko is a squarely built and intense Ontarian who, while not as outgoing as Browning, has learned to cope with his celebrity because that is a requirement of his sport Dissimilar as they seem, the two Canadian skaters are united by the excellence that both bring to their craft—and their determination to be the very best. Browning, the 26-year-old veteran from tiny Caroline, southwest of Edmonton, has won three world titles and goes into this week’s World Figure Skating Championships in Prague, the Czech Republic, as the favorite to capture a fourth. Stojko, 20, from Richmond Hill, outside Toronto, is rated a close second—so close that a single slip could determine the outcome. But the would-be titans of skating insist that they go to Prague not as opponents, but as teammates. ‘We’ll compete against the rest of the world,” Stojko said. “We’ll cheer each other on.”

Despite their efforts to downplay it, Browning and Stojko’s all-

Canadian clash for No. 1 has been the dominant topic on the road to Prague. In fact, the duel has been the subject of speculation since Browning and Stojko finished second and third, respectively, behind Ukrainian Viktor Petrenko at the 1992 championships in Oakland, Calif. Petrenko has since turned professional. But the two Canadians hasten to point out that there are other top skaters vying for the vacant title. Among them are rising American star Scott Davis, reigning European champion Dmitri Dmitrenko of Ukraine and Philippe Candeloro of France. And in a notoriously political sport, up-and-comers will be seeking a high placing in Prague to position themselves favorably—in the judges’ minds—for next winter’s Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway. But regardless of rank before the event, said Browning, “you still have to go out there and skate.”

While obscured by the glare of publicity surrounding the men, the remaining Canadian skaters left for Europe brimming with confidence. Team officials quietly predicted that the current group could be the country’s best team ever. Good performances by Josée Chouinard of Laval, Que., the national champion, and runner-up Karen Preston of Mississauga, Ont., could put both in medal contention. And veteran pairs skaters Isabelle Brasseur of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and Lloyd Eisler of Seaforth, Ont, enter their competition determined to improve on last year’s Olympic and world bronze medals.

Together, the skaters have attracted the attention of an increasing number of Canadians. The fiveday national championships last month in Hamilton, Ont., drew 116,786 fans, more than twice last year’s then-record total in Moncton, N.B., and the 17,125-seat Copps Coliseum was sold out for the men’s free skate final. At the same time, A. C. Neilsen reported that nearly two million adults watched the CTV telecast of the men’s final, up from 1.15 million in 1992. “It felt like the Worlds there, what with the hype,” Stojko said. “It was intense, and it was tougher there because it was the first time that Kurt and I had been pitted against each other.” Overall, said David Dore, director general of the Ottawa-based Canadian Figure Skating Association, “I think the sport is in very good shape right now—there’s a lot of competition among all of our skaters, and that makes it more interesting.”

If Kurt Browning had had his way, there would be no imminent showdown over who is the best skater in the world. Instead, Elvis Stojko would be the odds-on favorite to win the 1993 world title; Browning would not even be competing. Going into the 1992 season, Browning planned to skate in the nationals, the Olympics in Albertville, France, and the World Championships in Oakland. Beyond that, he had set his sights on a farewell skating tour with his close friend, American skater Kristi Yamaguchi, and a long and prosperous professional career. But that did not happen, because that scenario was based on his assumption that he would win an Olympic medal. “I thought that a hurricane would have to hit me to not finish in the top three at the Olympic Games,” he said in a break from training in Toronto recently. “Well, a hurricane did hit me.”

That hurricane took the form of a back injury that stole about eight weeks of critical pre-Olympics training time. The injury was only partly rehabilitated by the time he got to France. “The fight was just to get healthy enough to go to Albertville,” he said. “There was nothing left to take me that one step higher.” The three-time world champion and favorite for Olympic gold stumbled through his short program and free skate, and fell to sixth. “Even if I had lost and finished second in some wild finish, that would have been okay,” he said. “But it was just nothing. It was like there was no ending to the story.”

Browning is not one to dwell endlessly on misfortune. “I got over it,” he said. “I went out that night, partied with my family and friends, went skiing the next day, went to a hockey game the next night.” But the disappointment of Albertville did force him to reassess his future. The first task, he said, was to continue his rehabilitation and improve his standing at the next month’s Worlds. He did: despite some lingering back pain, he finished second. And last

summer, he decided against turning professional in order to keep training for the Lillehammer games—which, under the new staggered Olympic calendar, were less than two years away. But in doing so, he opted to leave his longtime club, Royal Glenora in Edmonton, and coach, Michael Jiranek, and move to Toronto to train under Louis Stong at the tony Granite Club. “Because of the assumption that I was turning professional, I was psyched to change my life,” he said. “So when I decided to stay amateur, the thought of going back to the same bench that I had sat on for 11 years, I just thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ I just needed a change.”

The jury is still out on life in Toronto. He talks longingly about friends, family and coaches in Alberta, and he admits that he is still somewhat of an outsider at his new training home. In Edmonton, he said, he was just plain Kurt; at the Granite Club, he is Kurt Browning. But competitively, he added, the change has done him good. “We wanted to avoid comparisons with what he had been doing before,” Stong said. “I mean, he was a three-time world champion, so it would be a bit silly for me to step in and criticize his previous training regimen.” Among other things, Browning began training with weights to build his upper body strength. “In Edmonton, I didn’t do much off-ice training,” Browning said. “I didn’t feel that it was necessary. But with the injury, I got a crash course in the body, and how to keep my back loose and relaxed.”

Browning says that he gained a lot of confidence from his win in Hamilton. He performed the two new routines he will skate in Prague, a short program choreographed to drum music and a free skate that he calls Bogie, set to the theme from the Humphrey Bogart classic Casablanca. Stong, who coached Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini to a world pairs championship in 1984, said that both of Browning’s programs are scripted to exploit the skater’s abilities as a performer. The free skate includes a minute-long stretch of pure acting that ends with a triple Axel jump, as if to remind the audience that the performance is about skating. After a run-through in practice recently, Browning looked out towards the rink and said confidently: “The program I did out there today would have won the Worlds in Oakland.”

The Annandale Recreation Centre in Barrie, 90 km north of Toronto, has two rinks. On one, crowds of kids skate wobbly oblongs to piped-in music. On the other, about a dozen elite figure skaters work out under the watchful eye of Doug Leigh and the other coaches at the Mariposa

School of Skating. On this day in late February, the ice temperature and softness have been adjusted to match exactly the conditions at the Sports Hall in Prague. Leigh is doing everything he can to prepare his star student, Elvis Stojko, for the challenge that lies ahead.

It is easy to pick Stojko out, even among so many good skaters. In white sweatshirt and red skating pants, he is the one making triple jumps appear as simple as stepping over a low curb. He is Air Stojko, soaring above the crowd, coiling into tight spins before unravelling into seamless landings. A banner at one end of the building reads, “You’re in Quadruple Country,” a place where Elvis, without doubt, is king. Stojko is the only skater ever to have landed a quadruple jump in combination with another jump in competition. “Growing up, I was always consistent with the jumps,” he said. “They didn’t just come to me—I worked hard at them—but I enjoyed doing them, so that made it easier.”

But leaping is not solely what has made Stojko a serious challenger for a world title. After all, at the 1991 Worlds in Munich when he landed that first quad-combination (a quadruple toe loop followed by a double toe loop), he finished sixth. Stojko attributes his breakthrough to maturity, and to improving the overall quality of his program. With choreographers Michelle Leigh and Uschi Keszler, he has “filled in the blanks” with a skating style that is as precise as Browning’s is graceful. Stojko trains three to four hours a day, five days a week, and approaches practice with the same intensity that he gives to his competitive performances. “I guess I just want to be the best,” he said. “It’s the same with the other things I do, like the martial arts or motorbiking. Some days I get bored with training, but that’s when I’m not looking for new things to do. I have to set new goals all the time, higher and higher, better and better.”

For a long time, Stojko said, he looked to Browning for inspiration. “It was great when I was younger to sit in Kurt’s shadow and learn from what he was doing and not take so much pressure,” he said. “Now, it’s a matter of us being sideby-side. I’m not behind him any more. I’m out of his shadow and I’m now taking my own place.” But he admitted that he is venturing into new competitive territory. He is acutely aware that he must control more than just his skating in order to real-

ize his world championship dream. “It’s a mental thing, a matter of putting it out on the ice when it counts. There’s more pressure, and that’s the toughest part.” But he added: “Now, there is the possibility of finishing first. I can almost taste it.”

£ In a sense, many of the Canadian skaters are victims of I timing: they happen to be competing in the era of the g Kurt-and-Elvis show. But Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd g Eisler are stars in their own right. And after a disappointë ing Olympic year, Brasseur, 22, and Eisler, 29, appear poised to challenge for gold. At a national team simulation of the Worlds in Toronto last month, they skated a lyrical performance, nailing the side-by-side double Axels that were their bane in 1992. Tracy Wilson, a former Canadian dance champion with Rob McCall, who died of AIDS-related cancer in 1991, said Brasseur and Eisler’s simulated skate at Maple Leaf Gardens was perhaps their best-ever performance. Now a skating analyst for CBS, Wilson observed that the Canadian pair is a match for the top European team of Russians Marina Eltsova and Andrey Bushkov. “If they skate in Prague the way they did at the Gardens,” she added, “I think they will win easily.”

Eisler and Brasseur say that they rekindled their confidence by learning to ignore the expectations of others and, instead, just to skate for themselves. They attribute that change partly to their on-ice disappointments last year, but more to how they coped with the death of Isabelle’s father last fall. “When my dad died, Lloyd went through many of the same things that I did,” Brasseur said. “He knew my dad well, and he was there when I found out.” In Hamilton, the pair skated with greater emotion and intimacy than in the past, and they now contend that they are capable of making a mark on the sport. Said Eisler: ‘We want to be one of those teams that other skaters look back on and say, ‘Yeall, Brasseur and Eisler, they were something."

Though their aims may not be so lofty, Josée Chouinard and Karen Preston both feel capable of breaking into the top three. Both had somewhat disappointing Olympic results—Preston finished eighth, Chouinard ninth. But the women’s event is wide open thanks to the retirement of Yamaguchi and the inconsistent records of front-runners Nancy Kerrigan of the United States and Surya Bonaly of France. Chouinard, 23, said that she has gained confidence from an improved training regimen and a personal-best at the Nationals in which she landed all six of her free-skate triple jumps. That performance helped her regain the Canadian title she lost to Preston in 1992. ‘The way I look at it, this is my year to perform,” Chouinard said at the team’s send-off luncheon last week.

Preston, 21, said she felt the same way, but admitted that, after all the training and anticipation, “it all comes down to whose day it is.”

For international skating organizers and Canadian team officials, the nearest thing to disaster occurred during the team’s Toronto run-through. Browning, the last to skate, caught his toe in a rut while setting up for a

triple jump and landed in apparent agony. The audience, made up of the skaters’ family and friends, fell silent as Browning was whisked into the training room for tests. Minutes later, officials announced that he had pinched a nerve in his hip, but was not seriously hurt. The crowd sighed audibly. As well as curtailing his training for the next week, Browning said that the incident reminded him that skating is a precarious pursuit. Some days, he said, it seems effortless, like “leaning over the pool table and knowing even before you take the shot that the ball is going in.” Browning, Stojko and the others can only hope that such magic will be with them in Prague.

JAMES DEACON