Skating to the Top

How do they make it look so easy?

by Susan Jacoby

BRIAN BOITANO is spending is usual "day at the office." It is March 1995, and he is in a dingy ice rink in Berkeley, Calif. Approaching his 32nd birthday, the slender five-foot-eleven-inch skater with a receding hairline is doing what he has done nearly every day since he was eight-practicing his jumps and spins-five, ten, 50 times. Olympic gold medalist in 1988 and current world professional champion, Boitano holds time and the pain of a damaged knee at bay to perform at a level once considered unthinkable for someone his age. At the same time, in suburban Detroit, 13-year-old Erin Sutton, a brown-eyed blonde who stands five-foot-two, is living out the early part of the Olympic dream. Erin is not a star-yet-but she has just taken a huge step toward international competition by winning the 1995 U.S. Novice Ladies' Championship. A resilient seventh-grader, she puts in two hours of practice before school each day. No one has to push Erin: her dream provides all the push she needs.

The 1995-96 competitive figure skating season, which opened last month, really started last spring in the indoor ice world where practice begins before sunrise. Whether the. skater is a veteran or a novice, it takes months of work to produce the three to five minutes of heart-stopping leaps, dizzying spins and intricate footwork that keep fans on the edge of their seats.

Figure skating is unquestionably the breakthrough sport of the '90's, drawing sellout crowds for live performances and earning television ratings previously reserved for professional baseball and basketball. Skating's popularity, which skyrocketed after the 1994 Olympic confrontation between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, is turning the formerly elite pastime into a sport with mass appeal and millions in annual earnings for star performers.

Brian Boitano and Erin Sutton share a fierce dedication to their sport. And while they have had many experiences in common, the two have very different perspectives on figure skating.

The Dream. When Brian was eight, his parents took him to see an ice show during Christmas vacation. Transfixed, he begged to have skating lessons at a rink near their home in Sunnyvale, Calif. At his first group lesson, Brian, trying to master a basic spin, was able to whirl three times faster than the other children. The children's coach, Linda Leaver, who still coaches Boitano, moved him to her more advanced class.

Only a few weeks later, Brian mastered five different single-revolution jumps in one lesson-jumps that take most skaters at least several months to perfect. "I went home and told my husband, 'That little boy is going to be a world champion,'" Leaver recalls.

Erin was four years old when she begged her parents to let her try out the ice rink at a shopping mall near their home. Since then, she has displayed the same kind of determination that Boitano did 24 years ago.

At 6:30 one Saturday morning last April, Erin was already practicing at an ice rink in Plymouth, Mich. "Skating is the most important thing to me," she says. "It is hard work, but it's so much fun." To warm up, she jumped rope off-ice with her girlfriends, then did stretching exercises.

At the U.S. National Championships, there are three competitive levels leading up to the Olympics: novice (which Erin won earlier this year; junior (in which she'll be competing at the 1996 national championships); and senior, the top level, which feeds into the Olympics. Erin's current goal is to make the 1998 Olympic team.

The Challenge. The blade of a figure skate measures 5/32 inch wide and is ground slightly concave so that one or the other of the two edges grips the ice while the skate glides on a thin film of water. (The water is produced by the pressure of the skate melting the ice.) Every jump or spin begins on the inside or outside edge, which digs into the ice and, along with the toe pick on some lumps, helps provide traction for takeoff.

At top competitive levels, skaters routinely take off on one edge, revolve three times in the air and land on one foot-always moving backward on the outside edge of the blade. Tilt too far to the outside or inside on takeoff, and you either won't get off the ground or your body won't be the proper upright position in the air. You're likely to fall or, at the very least, put down a hand or the other foot to steady yourself-and destroy your competitive chances. It takes years of practice before a skater can progress from single and double revolution jumps to triple jumps and land them with any degree of reliability. "The goal is to make it look easy," says Boitano. And that's exactly what he does: Boitano has fallen in competition only twice.

While no competitive skater has ever been killed in a fall, the fear of failing can kill a career. The most successful skaters are those who've mastered the fear.

Boitano has-but now, as an older skater, his main concern is maintaining his body. Groin pulls, torn ligaments, sprains, a broken arm or leg are part of every career. But after a certain age, athletes develop arthritis and torn cartilage in the joints that receive the heaviest use-in Brian's case there are torn tendons in his right knee. "How many times have I landed on my right leg?" he asks with a grin. "Maybe 400,000? I don't even want to think about it."

Doctors have told Boltano that even new arthroscopic surgery techniques won't repair his knee. So, besides three hours of skating practice, Boitano's daily training regimen includes whirlpool baths, deep tissue massage and sessions on an exercise bike. Strengthening the muscles that protect his joints is the best remedy for his problem.

Aging and chronic pain are unimaginable to Erin Sutton. After the warm-up exercises, she began working on her triple-loop jump with her coaches Theresa McKendry and Gerry Williams. The loop is particularly difficult because a skater must take off backward on one foot using the outside blade edge-without any help from the pointed toe picks at the front of the blade.

Traveling back on her right foot, Erin leaned on the outside edge of her blade, pulled in her arms and her left foot, sprang into the air and attempted to stay up long enough to whirl around three times. Not quite able to complete the three revolutions, she landed off-balance five, ten, 20, up to 30 times over the course of two daily lessons, ending the jump sprawled on her backside, shaking ice shavings out of her ponytail. Each time, she popped back up for another try. "Erin doesn't give up," McKendry says. "There's nothing a coach can do to give a child that attitude. She either has it or she doesn't."

The Limit. Boitano has a style that can only be described as classic. Where some men wear garish costumes or engage in bare-chested machismo, he invariably glides onto the ice in a simple costume, performs to a wide range of music, including classical and popular, and lets his skating speak for itself. In response to audience ovations, he often conveys his appreciation by bowing, hand on heart. He is an unapologetic skating purist.

In competitions, Boltano does more than he needs to do to win. At last year's pro championships, for example, he was the only competitor to complete a triple-triple combination, in which the skater propels himself into a second triple jump immediately after landing the first. Boitano explains: "The satisfaction is in knowing you've pushed this sport, this art, to the limit."

Erin also believes in pushing herself to the limit. At last year's national novice championships, she landed a fiendishly difficult move called the Tano lutz-named after Boitano, its inventor. On all jump takeoffs, skaters normally whip both arms in close to the body to help accomplish their revolutions in the air. The Tano double or triple, by contrast, is performed with one arm held aloft, a variation that incurs more air resistance, thus requiring greater leg strength for the takeoff. Whether double or triple, it's a move few skaters have attempted-the equivalent of a baseball pitcher's delivering a fast ball with one arm tied behind his back. "I just thought it would be fun to do," Erin said afterward.

Before meets, Erin meticulously makes a list of the lumps in her routine and later gives herself a check mark for each clean landing. Recently she added reminders of fine points such as smiling at the audience.

The Cost. Serious skaters-and their families-don't lead ordinary lives. Boitano, youngest of four children of a well-to-do bank president, attended public high school but spent as much time on the ice as he did in school. Every day, he skated from 5 a.m. to io a.m. before starting classes. "You can't be focused on the Olympics and have the usual teenage life," Boitano says. "In the summer when everyone else was tan, I was pale."

Fortunately for Brian, his parents, Lew and Donna, didn't pressure him. "They did this for me because I loved to skate, not because they thought I could get rich from it," he says. "They made lots of sacrifices for me but always said, 'You can quit any time you want,' That freedom is the greatest gift anyone could give a child."

Regardless of whether Erin becomes a world champion, her parents, airline pilot Ken Sutton and his wife, Kay, are determined to do everything they can to help her pursue her goal. I suppose a lot of parents have dreams of glory," says Kay, "but we'd like to see her skate a while longer for the pure joy of it."

Last September, when Erin entered eighth grade, her mother began tutoring her at home. The Suttons were concerned about the physical toll of a "workday" that began at 5:30 a.m. Now Erin is able to sleep on a more normal schedule and practice in the afternoon. Next year the Suttons hope to find a high school with flexible scheduling so their daughter can attend regular classes.

One reality the Suttons are facing is the staggering cost of training, which for a serious skater can easily reach $5o,ooo a year. Erin takes 15 private lessons a week at approximately $50 for each 45-minute session. Her custom-made skates cost $750 a pair, and she requires at least two pairs each year. Then there is the cost of costumes and travel to competitions.

For this reason, the financial payoff for figure skaters remains both an incentive and a reward. At major competitions during the pro season, prizes range from $40,000 to $200,000, depending on where a performer places. Some annual exhibitions, such as the Tom Collins Tour of World Figure Skating Champions, pay appearance fees of more than $750,000 for headliners. Add TV specials and product endorsements, and a star like Boitano may make several million dollars a year.

The Competition. Olympic competition is divided into two stages: a "short" program, with strictly required moves, and a "long" program, which gives skaters more freedom to choreogmph their moves. The short program counts 30 percent and the long, 70. A perfect score is 6.0. In the short program, specified tenths of a point must be deducted for a fall and for other mistakes, such as a two-footed landing or the omission of a required move. Such deductions are huge in a competition where world standings may be decided by one-tenth of a point. In the long program, the negative effect of a fall may be offset by the artistry and technical difficulty of the overall performance.

Boitano entered the 1994 Olympics with a shot at becoming the first American since Dick Button to win a second gold medal. (Button won in 1948 and 1952.) That evening in Lillehammer, Norway, Boitano began the short program with a perfectly executed Tano triple lutz. His next move was a 3 revolution triple axel-the most difficult triple jump in the sport. While he was aloft, all looked text-book-perfect. But then-for only the second time in his competitive career, he fell. Knowledgeable spectators gasped, knowing the five-tenths deduction had probably ruined Boitano's chance at a gold medal. To this day, neither Boitano nor his coach knows what he did to cause the fall. "That's skating," Boitano, says. "You can be off-balance just a tiny fraction, and there goes the landing."

Boitano fought back to complete the rest of his short program flawlessly, and today he reflects: I look at the experience as a gift-just to have performed in the Olympics at an age when skaters used to retire."

For a skater Erin's age, a fall in competition is not devastating, but rather an opportunity to learn. Last July she was the youngest participant in the ladies' event at the U.S. Olympic Festival, a showcase for young, aspiring Olympians. Skating before TV cameras for the first time, she began her routine with the same concentration she had displayed in practice. But while preparing for her entry into a triple loop, she seemed to be slightly off-balance and fell on the landing.

She took the fall like a veteran, jumping up and continuing with her routine. A few seconds later, she landed a perfect triple toe/double toe lump combination. Overall, Erin performed both the short and long programs more consistently than her competitors-and she won the event.

The Thrill. Brian Boitano's work habits are legendary. On this day, he is at the Berkeley rink, focusing on a new routine he has choreographed, a series of tricky steps called "footwork." The routine demands that he place his ankles, knees and hips in a wide variety of positions, turning his joints inward or outward at 45-degree angles.

After an hour of practice, Boitano suddenly shifts into one of his signature moves-a spin appropriately named the "death drop." Using his left foot for a whirling takeoff, he leaps high into the air and comes down on the other foot in a sitting position. Unless you already know what to expect, this looks like a fall-until you see that he's spinning, seated, with perfect control. Boitano smiles exultantly: the move has turned out exactly as planned.

Boitano checks his watch and realizes he is late for his date with the exercise bike. He squints at the bright sunlight as he walks out of Berkeley Iceland. After nearly a quarter-century of skating, Brian Boitano still has no California tan.