SPORTS

On top of the world

Canadian skaters claim gold in Prague

JAMES DEACON March 22 1993
SPORTS

On top of the world

Canadian skaters claim gold in Prague

JAMES DEACON March 22 1993

On top of the world

SPORTS

Canadian skaters claim gold in Prague

JAMES DEACON

DON WILCOX

When they finally came to rest following their long program at the World Championships last week, Canadian pairs skaters Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler melted into an exhausted embrace. It had been a stirring—and nerve-wracking—performance that had the fans at the 12,000-seat Sportovni Hale in Prague, Czech Republic, on the edge of their seats for every lift, throw and side-by-side jump. It was also an intimate program, significant after an unusually difficult year. Prague was their chance to mitigate the disappointment of third-place finishes at the 1992 Winter Olympics and World Championships—and to help ease Brasseur’s grief over the death of her father last November. Certainly, he was close to their hearts when they concluded what, ultimately, was a goldmedal performance. As the music gave way to thunderous applause, Eisler hung his head for a second, then took Brasseur’s hand, kissed it and said, “That’s for your Dad.”

Seaforth, Ont., had been paired with Brasseur, 22, from St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., since 1987. After winning silver at the 1990 Worlds, they began to feel the weight of high expectations, and succumbed to untimely miscues. That convinced them to redesign their program with an emphasis on the artistry. It paid off. “The gold medal is a reward for a performance that meant everything to us,” said Eisler. “We didn’t skate a perfect program, but the performance we were looking for was there.”

By capturing the championships’ first gold medal, Brasseur and Eisler launched what seemed like Canada Week in Prague. Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko fulfilled everyone’s expectations, winning the men’s gold and silver medals, respectively. In addition, Canada placed two other couples in the top 10 in pairs—Michelle Menzies of Cambridge, Ont., and Jean-Michel Bombardier of Laval, Que., less than a year into their partnership, finished seventh, and newcomers Jodeyne Higgins of Stratford, Ont., and Sean Rice of Oakville, Ont., placed 10th. But it was Kurt and Elvis who stole the show with dramatic, spectacular free skating routines that left them both clearly ahead of a 24-man field that included Marcus Christensen of Edmonton, who placed 10th in his first Worlds. In the women’s event, Karen Preston, 21, of Mississauga, Ont., and Josée Chouinard, 23, of Laval, Que., finished eighth and ninth, respectively. For Chouinard, ninth was a disappointment: she was fifth last year, and had placed fourth in the short program.

With the 1994 Winter Games less than a year away, the Canadians did much to enhance their reputations. And skating officials privately acknowledge that international judging is often biased towards reputation. That seemed evident last Friday night when newcomer Oksana Baiul, a spindly 15-year-old Ukrainian, won the audience’s vote in the women’s technical program, but was placed behind Nancy Kerrigan of the United States. Baiul came back the next night, however, and

won gold with the field’s best artistic marks for her free skate. Erratic judging also seemed apparent when Preston finished eighth after placing seventh in both the technical and free skating. “Nancy Kerrigan did two triples and is still ahead of me? You’ve got to question that,” said Preston, who landed six triples. “It’s frustrating. But what can you do?”

By overcoming a disheartening 1992, Brasseur and Eisler led the way for the rest of the Canadian team. Eisler, 29, from

If Brasseur and Eisler were the heart of the Canadian team, Browning and Stojko were the competitive muscle. Pre-championship speculation declared them to be the class of their field, and Browning did little to dispel that notion when he skated a solid short program and established the marks to beat. But the one-two Canadian punch lost a lot of its impact when Stojko, from Richmond Hill, Ont., skated an uncharacteristically poor technical program and finished fifth on

the first night of competition. The 20year-old was morose afterwards: as his marks were announced, he stared at the scoreboard, the rugged features of his face strangely slack.

Things got worse later that evening when Stojko fell ill while eating dinner at a Prague restaurant. His girlfriend, Kim Currie of Barrie, Ont., had to help him walk back to his hotel where he was confined to bed and treated by a team doctor. “I don’t know what it was,” Stojko said the next day. “Maybe the stress—it gets pretty stressful out there.”

But Stojko took solace from Don Jackson, the first Canadian to win a world men’s title, in Prague in 1962. Jackson, who attended this year’s championships as a guest of the organizers, reminded Stojko that he too had placed fifth after his short program and still rebounded with a stunning free skate. So Stojko set his sights on silver: “I got a little angry with myself and I said, ‘Geez,

Elvis, this is not the place to be doing this. You’ve got to go out there and redeem yourself and you’ve got to do it now.’ ”

He did, by performing the event’s most difficult routine with remarkable ease. Stojko landed every one of his eight triples, including a difficult triple Axel-triple toe loop combination. “Each element was really clear-cut,” said his coach, Doug Leigh. “It was really first class all the way.” On technical merit alone, Stojko had won the day.

But technique is only one part of how the sport is judged, and the judges gave less credit for his artistic interpretation.

Not so with Browning. The 26-year-old Caroline, Alta., native took what he had learned from winning three previous world titles and produced four-and-a-half minutes of theatre on ice. A superb technician in his own right, Browning is also an accomplished showman. At his best, he can be Fred Astaire in a field of Fred MacMurrays. Skating to the theme of the movie classic Casablanca, Browning became Bogie, striding through the mysterious back streets of wartime Morocco. In pollution-ravaged Prague, that was a considerable stretch—particularly for those willing to accept a Bogie who did triple Axels and combination jumps. But the audience was swept along for the ride, and when the music died, many fans called for him to play it again.

Like Brasseur and Eisler, Browning had something to prove in Prague. A lower back injury curtailed his training before the 1992 Winter Olympics, and the pain dogged him throughout the Games. The defending World champion finished sixth.

the medal ceremony. “So it was important to make sure that this program was the best-skated program out there tonight.”

Many of the Canadian skaters finished well back of the medallists, but still considered Prague a success. Shae-Lynn Bourne, 17, of Chatham, Ont., and Victor Kraatz, 21, of Qualicum Beach, B.C., said that they were pleased with their 14th-place finish in ice dancing. The pair have been skating together for only a year, and the Worlds were their first major international competition. And Preston, despite her placement, was happy with her performance. “Last year at the Olympics, I only tried six triples and this year I raised the technical difficulty by putting two triples back to back at the 3:45 mark,” said Preston. “So, I’m very pleased. It shows I’ve improved.”

With the medals still slung around their necks, the skaters were already setting their sights on the 1994 Winter Olympics. Traditionally, they would gauge the competition on the World Championships—but the 1994 Winter Games will allow some professionals to compete. Nonetheless, skating experts view the return of professionals with suspicion, and suggest that few have stayed fit enough to compete at the Olympic level. And according to former Canadian ice dancer Tracy Wilson, currently a CBS skating analyst, the performances at Prague could dissuade many amateurs as well. Wilson cited Ukrainian skater Viktor Petrenko, the 1992 World and Olympic champion who is considering a comeback. She added: “The performance that won Petrenko the Olympics wouldn’t have cut it in Prague.” Regardless of who turns up in Lillehammer, the Canadians will remain the favorites. And Wilson says that as seasoned competitors, none of them is likely to wilt in the face of pressure. Even Browning seems to have mellowed. “This is a guy who has lived his life in a yahoo manner,” Wilson said. “I’ve skied with him in Switzerland and he has scared the daylights out of me with the crazy stunts he pulls. But now he is starting to learn what his body can and cannot do.” Browning admits that the rigors of training and competition have taken their toll, but he is not about to back down. Stojko won’t let him. “Now every time we get on the ice together, it is going to cause a stir,” Browning said. In the immediate future, they will be causing a stir on a North American tour of Stars on Ice. But in 1994, they will be stirring up Lillehammer. Canadian fans can only hope that, this time, they play it again.

JAMES DEACON with DON WILCOX in Prague

But he decided to hang on for next February’s Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. There was no guarantee that he would be able to avenge his 1992 disappointment. In fact, he hurt his hip three weeks before the Worlds that left him unable to practise some jumps. “I looked around all week and saw what everybody was doing, and I knew I hadn’t been able to train to that technical level of skating,” said an elated Browning after