THE WINTER GAMES

All that glitters

Canadian skaters figure in the Games’ most dramatic event

JAMES DEACON February 14 1994
THE WINTER GAMES

All that glitters

Canadian skaters figure in the Games’ most dramatic event

JAMES DEACON February 14 1994

All that glitters

THE WINTER GAMES

Canadian skaters figure in the Games’ most dramatic event

JAMES DEACON

Kurt Browning. Josée Chouinard. Elvis Stojko. Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler. Among them they have won 13 national figure skating championships and five world titles. Browning and Stojko are each starring in TV specials this week, Brasseur and Eisler are featured gliding around in black bodysuits in beef commercials and Chouinard’s face has launched a thousand Olympic promotions. And each is representing Canada for the second straight Olympics. But while the names are the same, the people have changed. Browning is the reigning world champion going into yet another Winter Games—but this time, he has a healthy back. Stojko, the perennial runner-up, finally emerged from Browning’s shadow last month with a victory at the Canadian championships. Veteran pairs skaters Brasseur and Eisler were medal contenders in 1992, but they are defending world champions now. And Chouinard? She boasts new routines, new coaches and, most significantly, new self assurance. Together, they are the heart of a powerful Canadian figure skating team in what promises to be the glittering showpiece of the 1994 Wmter Olympics.

Already packed with drama and emotion, this year’s figure skating competition offers a series of tantalizing twists. The plot to disable U.S. skater Nancy Kerrigan, and the implication of her teammate, Tonya Harding, in the conspiracy, has primed North American viewers for saturation coverage. Adding competitive drama to the intrigue is a rule change that enabled professionals such as Germany’s Katarina Witt, American Brian Boitano, British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean and Russian pairs skaters Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov to return to the Olympic fold. Their presence in Hamar, the city 58 km south of Lillehammer where the skating will take place, bolsters already strong fields to create what may be the greatest competi-

tion in the sport’s history. For CBS, the U.S. broadcast rights-holder to the Lillehammer Games, that combination should produce even higher ratings than in 1992, when Olympic figure skating drew a larger U.S. TV audience than any sport other than NFL football. And Canadian skaters will be in the thick of it. Tracy Wilson, a CBS analyst who, with ice-dancing partner Rob McCall, won a bronze in 1988—one of Canada’s three skating medals that year—says that “this team is at least as good as the one that went to Calgary, maybe better.”

Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko probably deserve a better fate than to have grown up in the same country. Anywhere else, Kurt could have coasted to his national championship. Anywhere else, Elvis would have been king long ago. Their clash of great and contrasting talents has drawn enormous attention to recent Canadian championships; the media barrage made Kurt versus Elvis sound like the main event in some form of blood sport. The implied enmity does not sit well with either skater. Stojko, 21, from Richmond Hill, Ont., says that he is glad to be heading to the Olympics, where he, Browning and 23-year-old Sébastien Britten of Brossard, Que., will be teammates, not engaged in the head-to-head battles of home. He will get no argument from Browning, the 27-year-old four-time champion from Caroline, Alta. “Elvis has added a lot of fun to the last few nationals, but he has also been a pain in the ass,” he laughs. “He makes it so hard to win.”

It won’t be any easier to win in Norway. Among the returning professionals are the two most recent Olympic champions—Viktor Petrenko of Ukraine (1992) and Boitano (1988). Top amateurs Scott

Davis of the United States and Alexei Urmanov of Russia, along with Stojko and Browning, give the men’s division six serious contenders. Because Boitano and Browning lost their respective national championships, “the whole bunch of them will go in rated at the same level,” says CTV analyst Brian Orser, the 1988 Olympic silver medallist.

Still, experts rate Browning and Stojko 1-2 in the world based on their respective finishes at last year’s world championships in Prague—and their competitors have not changed that perception. Petrenko won the recent European championships with a less-than-dominating performance, and Boitano finished second to Davis in the U.S. finals. ‘The buzz at the Europeans,” says Wilson, “was that the Canadians were the guys to beat.”

Even without foreign challenges, Stojko and Browning present judges with a difficult choice. Browning is no technical slouch—he landed the first-ever quadruple jump in competition in 1988. But his genius is in his inspiration—in taking a well-worn routine and making it new and different. He can impersonate Bogie in Casablanca and 17,000 spectators think that they have begun a beautiful friendship. That talent could be especially useful at Hamar, where all the contenders can land all the jumps. And winning would help him forget Albertville, where a nagging back injury led to an excruciating sixth-place finish. “I might not be technically strong enough to beat some of those guys on their best days,” says Browning, who has struggled recently with his triple-triple combination. “And maybe I am not as consistent as I used to be. But I am a better skater now, and I am still competitive. Sometimes I want to prove that so badly that it becomes too much. But I’ve just got to go out there and skate for myself.”

Stojko, meanwhile, is a precise technician who makes a gruelling roster of jumps look easy. But as he has matured, his performances have grown more 3 natural and assured. “Maybe one day Elvis will play § a character, like Kurt does,” says Orser. “But right 7 now, he’s being Elvis. That isn’t as easy as it § sounds—it takes a lot of confidence to go out there and just be yourself. Through watching Elvis skate, you know exactly what kind of person he is.” His routines now show off his martial arts training and his love of techno-dancing. “Elvis is wearing his own shoes, doing it his way,” says his coach, Doug Leigh. “He has gone way beyond the criticism of a few years ago—that he lacked the style, the artistic side. He has grown into himself, and he is only 21. Twenty-one! He will only be 25 at the next Olympics.”

When Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler first teamed up eight years ago, it was against the better advice of some so-called experts. “People told us that we’d never make it,” Eisler recalls, “that Isabelle wasn’t good enough, that I was too old.” Since then, the diminutive Brasseur, 23, of St.-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and the hulking Eisler, 30, of Seaforth, Ont., have won five national championships and a world title. And beginning on Feb. 13, the pair that wasn’t supposed to make it will skate in Hamar with a shot at Olympic gold. They will have to contend with, among others, Natalia Mishkuteniok and Artur Dmitriev of Russia, the 1992 Olympic champions, and 1988 winners Gordeeva and Grinkov. But in the Canadians’ § eyes, they have a good chance to win—if the play§ ing field is level. “We just hope that it is judged 2 fairly, on our performances and not on what hap-

THE WINTER GAMES

pened in the past,” Brasseur says.

Much of the pair’s confidence stems from changes they have undergone since Albertville. “In the past, we would think, ‘Oh my god, this is important, we have to do well today,’ ”

Brasseur says. That showed in Albertville, where even their famous lifts and throws seemed stiff and tentative.

But the death of Brasseur’s father in late 1992, they say, reminded them that there are more important things than skating, and also that life is too short to leave their best efforts on the practice rink. With that perspective, they went to the world championships last year and won with two clean, emotionally charged programs. ‘That’s how we are going to approach the Olympics,” Brasseur says. “Sure, there will be more pressure, but we do this program every day.”

Beyond Brasseur and Eisler, the Canadian pairs have little Olympic experience. Kristy Sargeant, 20, of Alix, Alta., with Kris Wirtz, 24, of Marathon, Ont., and 16-year-old Jamie Salé of Red Deer, Alta., with Jason Turner, 23, of Barons, Alta., finished second and third, respectively, at the Canadian championships. Another set of newcomers, Shae-Lynn Bourne, 18, from Chatham, Ont., and Victor Kraatz, 22, from Vancouver, make up Canada’s only entry in ice dancing. They finished 14th last March in Prague, and hope to crack the top 10 in Hamar. But theirs is a discipline in flux. As couples such as Paul and Isabelle Duchesnay, the French team by way of Aylmer, Que., pushed ice dancing into the realm of theatre, Olympic officials pushed back. Ice dancing, experts say, must return to its more technical past if it is to retain its place in the Games.

osée Chouinard was achingly close to a medal at the 1993 world championships. She was in fourth place after the technical program and was a better free skater than at least one of the women ahead of her.

But she let it slip away. “It was one fall, on a triple flip, and after that... I just never got started,” she recalls. Deciding she had to make changes to improve, Chouinard, 24, left her home in Laval, Que., to work with Browning’s coach, Louis Stong, and choreographer Sandra Bezie in Toronto.

The result is the new Josée, a skater who has launched herself on a higher trajectory than she could have imagined a year ago. She always had talent, Stong and Bezie simply gave her the direction and programs to show it off to best effect. “It took someone to manage her good qualities,” says Orser. “That’s what Louis is great at—packaging and managing talent.” Chouinard, who will be joined on the women’s team by rising star Susan Humphreys, 18, of Edmonton, says that her more stylish choreography has given her great confidence. “I learned that I didn’t need to try so hard at the technical stuff because I could communicate with the audi-

ence,” she says. “I am so much more relaxed going into the jumps.” The favorites at Hamar are the same skaters Chouinard faced in Prague last year: Oksana Baiul of Ukraine, France’s Surya Bonaly, China’s Lu Chen and Kerrigan. All have weaknesses: Baiul is only 16 and faces enormous pressure as defending world champion; Bonaly is notoriously erratic; Lu Chen has skated a gruelling competition schedule; and Kerrigan, who slipped to fifth in the worlds last year, must recover from the attack on her knee while coping with an Olympic-sized barrage of TV crews and reporters. Witt, the two-time Olympic queen, is not expected to challenge the younger skaters after finishing eighth at the European championships. But her presence serves as a reminder that women’s skating has changed— and not necessarily for the better, some critics say. “The technical requirements for women are now such that few can physically compete,” Wilson says. ‘To be able to do the triple flip, triple Lutz, triple loop and triple toe, and then in combination—it’s too much. To me, that’s not what skating is all about.”

Skating can be enormously cruel. When a skater has a bad day, there is nowhere to hide out on the big white sheet of ice. Gold can turn to dust on a missed edge, a bum ankle or on the opinion of a stingy judge. And younger skaters constantly overtake older ones: Baiul won the title at age 15, succeeding the retired, 22-year-old Kristi Yamaguchi. The lesson? Get better, or get out of the way. The skaters representing Canada in Lillehammer faced those options as they trained for the greatest skating event ever convened. They made their choices, and they are not getting out of the way. □