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    Sunday, February 15, 1998

    Elvis' Heartbreak Hotel

     NAGANO -- Elvis Stojko is off licking his wounds.
     That he cancelled interviews scheduled for yesterday is evidence that those wounds, profound as they are physically, may not be confined to his body.
     Elvis did eight triple jumps with a severely injured groin -- a pulled abductor muscle and pinched nerve both -- that would make walking excruciating for mere mortals. Hockey players who have such injuries find that when they go to push off in their skates, and they do no leaping, there's no there there -- all their power has been stolen.
     Elvis skated four minutes and 40 seconds of triples, spins and fancy footwork with that kind of groin and the sort of pain that his manic and combative coach, Doug Leigh, when asked, described this way: "If I drilled you in the nose right now, if I hit you square in the nose right now, you'd have some idea of what he feels every time he moves." For a minute, I thought Leigh was going to pop me one, just so someone else would be hurting with Elvis, so he wouldn't be alone in this too.
     On a weekend that was absolutely golden for Canada -- at the White Ring arena, waiting for Elvis to skate, a Canuck in the press centre could watch Catriona Le May Doan and Susan Auch on the medal podium from the speedskating venue on one TV screen and Team Canada beating the Swedes at the Big Hat rink on another -- Elvis was to be the jewel in the crown.
     The speed skaters were expected to do well, and theirs is a lonely sport too, but no one of them was laboring in the glare that was on Elvis; the curlers shared their burden; the hockey players, men and women, shouldered their gold-medal expectations as teams. No single individual was working under the suffocating pressure that was on Elvis.
     Yet for the last month, as that pressure mounted, he knew he was in serious trouble; can you imagine how awful that must have been, to be asked daily, as he has been here, about his health, and to have to deflect every inquiry or lie through his teeth? I remember one of my colleagues a couple of days ago, when the rumors were flying about that Elvis was sick with the flu, e-mailing him on the computer system here and asking how he was; Elvis replied that he was fine. He ended his note with a chirpy "Heeeeeeeee, haw!"
     He had injured the groin just last month, in a practice at the Canadian championships in Hamilton -- he was "pushing the edge of the envelope" again, Leigh said, the suggestion here that Elvis was trying some new combination of the quad perhaps -- and since then, it has been his and Leigh's dreadful secret. They didn't tell anyone because they didn't want to set up excuses; they didn't tell anyone because they kept thinking that they would have just enough time for Elvis to heal enough, that they could sneak through; I think they also didn't tell anyone because such a disclosure would have made it real, and they didn't want this to be true.
     At one point, the groin was badly swollen, and they had to get the inflammation down. He couldn't take any painkillers, because of the Olympic doping rules. He took more time off than he ever had, more rest; time was the only weapon he had. "If you're injured at the Olympics," said Leigh, "you don't take your bat and ball and go home, you try to hit a home run. No crying the blues, no whining, you deal with it. We almost made it through."
     Leigh loves Elvis, of course. He has never been more impressed with an athlete than he was with the 25-year-old from Richmond Hill. "What this man went through, with his no-nonsense attitude, the heart he's got. He's a fierce competitor. There's nobody I would learn more from. He's my friend, he's my partner."
     When he stepped onto the ice for the free skate, Leigh said, all that was going through Elvis' mind was, "Four minutes, 40 seconds, four minutes, 40 seconds, four minutes, 40 seconds, four minutes, 40 seconds," to endure the agony one more time and get through it. When he did his first triple axle, "he felt it get worse, felt it pull, and there was acute pain." When he finished, he had absolutely zero left, "every bit of his energy was stripped from him, his emotions stripped."
     He could hardly catch his breath, could hardly take the next step. Leigh, motherly now, helped him to the kiss 'n' cry area, tried to get him breathing so he wouldn't hyperventilate, got him to drink. "He needed a few seconds of space to get a grip on things." The only thing he said to Leigh was, "It's fine, it's fine."
     Was he trying to comfort his coach, trying to let him know that he was okay? Doug Leigh's theory is that Elvis was already beginning his recovery, was already beginning the journey back from a place dark with hurt, a place so lonely that even Leigh, who so routinely uses "we" and "ours" when he talks about Elvis and shares almost everything else, cannot know it.
     Someone asked Leigh if he thought Canadians would be disappointed in Elvis. He looked astonished, as though the possibility had never occurred to him.
     Indeed, how could it have? How could it have occurred to anyone?
     "It's courage that pulled him through," said Doug Leigh.
     "That's what he'll live with for the rest of his life ... he's a man. They couldn't put up marks for that."