Sports

The Nagano factor

JAMES DEACON February 17 1997
Sports

The Nagano factor

JAMES DEACON February 17 1997

The Nagano factor

Sports

JAMES DEACON

There were times during the Bank of Montreal Canadian Championships last week in Vancouver that the weather threatened to upstage the figure skating. The warm sun glinting off the snow-capped peaks of the Coast Mountains and the nurseries selling bedding plants had visitors from the frigid East talking enviously about the onset of spring in February. The skating forecast, however, was not so bright. In clutches along the concourses of GM Place, fans and officials bemoaned the state of Canadian skating. Two-time world men’s singles champion Elvis Stojko and the dance team of ShaeLynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz are the only Canadians to qualify for the International Skating Union Champions Series Final in Hamilton from Feb. 28 to March 2. For some, that is not enough. “Canada gave skating the triple Lutz with Donald Jackson, the triple Axel with Brian Orser and the quad with Kurt [Browning] and Elvis,” says Doug Leigh, who coached both Orser and Stojko. “People here have grown accustomed to Canadians doing well, and maybe their expectations are too high.”

The cause for concern is simple: Canadian

skating is in a slump and the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, are less than a year away. Moreover, if the Canadian Figure Skating Association wins its bid to host the 2000 world championships in Vancouver, it might not have any home-country contenders on the ice. Stojko, Bourne and Kraatz are expected to turn professional after Nagano, and there are no obvious heirs. Worse, the pairs division has not produced successors to Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler, who turned professional three years ago, and there has not been a Canadian woman in the top 10 at the worlds since 1994. Explanations abound. CFSA director general David Dore, for instance, says some skaters still hold the traditional mind-set that they will get to the top if they just patiently wait their turn. “That doesn’t work any more,” Dore says. “Look at [U.S. veteran] Todd Eldridge last year. Everyone had written him off, yet he became world champion. The lesson is that with the jumps and the right performance, anyone can win.” The top senior women—Susan Humphreys of Edmonton, Angela Derochie of Gloucester, Ont., and Jennifer Robinson of Wind-

Canadian skating slumps as the Olympics approach

sor, Ont.—bore the brunt of criticism last week. Previous champions Josée Chouinard and Karen Preston never won world titles, but they regularly placed in the top 10 at international competitions. The 1995 Canadian champion, Toronto’s Netty Kim, did not place in the top 24 in world championship qualifying that year and failed to make the final. Robinson, last year’s national champion, placed 21st at the worlds. In Vancouver—despite Humphreys’ fine skate to take the title— the women were besieged by reporters asking what was wrong with them. “It’s pretty harsh,” said Robinson, “but it’s also a strong motivation for all of us Canadian women. It still hurts, though.”

The problem, insiders say, may simply be cyclical. Paul Martini, the former world pairs champion who coaches when he is not skating professionally with partner Barbara Underhill, says the novice and junior ranks are swelling with talent. “I think there will be a lull following the 1998 Olympics, a postElvis gap, but we’ll be fine in the long run,” Martini says. Dore, who in 1995 complained about Canadian skaters’ declining technical standards, now says that trend has reversed. “There are nine men here who have landed triple Axels,” Dore said. “There was only one two years ago.”

As for Nagano, Canadians could well win two medals, no worse than in Lillehammer in 1994. The dazzling Bourne and Kraatz, who train in Lake Placid, N.Y., may yet wrest dance supremacy from its Russian stranglehold. The 24-year-old Stojko, meanwhile, showed in Vancouver that he has regained his form after a disappointing 1995-1996 season. The two-time world champion from Richmond Hill, Ont., is still one of the greatest jumpers ever, and he has revamped the choreography of his short and free-skate programs. He had to: even world champions have to keep improving or they will be overtaken, and the routines he skated last season were listless and disjointed. As well, Stojko is no longer the only frequent flyer in the men’s division— Eldridge and Ilia Kulik of Russia, among others, can soar with the King.

Ever confident, Stojko shrugs off the doubters. A somewhat solitary athlete, he is a glutton for training and will not be outworked by his competitors. “I think I’m at the point where, sure, there are going to be people who don’t like my style,” he says. “But they can’t say there isn’t quality there.” The disappointments of 1996, especially losing his world title in front of a home-country audience in Edmonton, are behind him. “When everything breaks apart,” he says, “you get to put it all back together again, only better.” For worried skating fans, the thought of Elvis, only better, might be a great comfort heading into the next Olympics.

JAMES DEACON in Vancouver