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  • canada sked medal preview SLAM!  NAGANO

    Sunday, February 15, 1998

    Pain kept Stojko from gold

    By JIM O'LEARY -- SLAM! Sports
     NAGANO -- Anyone who has followed Elvis Stojko's career would know the most painful part of his walk to the medal presentation Saturday morning wasn't the actual trip to the podium at centre ice of the White Ring skating arena.
     True, Elvis obviously was hurting as he made that agonizing walk. He had changed into sneakers and limped every step of the way -- all 20 or so of them -- favouring his right side. When he got there, he took a deep breath, felt the stabbing in his groin, and ascended onto the podium.
     But the most painful part of that journey wasn't the walk to the stage or the one step up to the podium. For Stojko, what would have hurt most was that he couldn't go one step higher, to the gold-medallist perch that was reserved for Russian Ilia Kulik.
     A sold-out crowd at White Ring and a world-wide television audience had just witnessed one of those magical moments that sport, the Olympics, sometimes serves up. Stojko failed to win his gold but he scored a triumph of human spirit.
     In the end, he competed not because he believed his chance of winning gold was realistic, but because, for four years, his entire life had been pointed towards this one, great day and he has never been a quitter. If he could still walk, he would still skate. Olympic doping rules prohibit the use of pain killers, so even as he laced his skates he understood the ordeal before him.
     "We decided early on that we would never turn back, we'd persevere," said Stojko's coach Doug Leigh. "Our theme coming to Nagano was straight forward: Whatever it takes."
     With each limping step he took towards the podium, Stojko's achievement became more clear.
     He could have withdrawn before the competition and received nothing but universal sympathy. He could have pulled up at any time after landing one of those cyclonic triple jumps and received nothing but our understanding.
     Instead he persevered for 4 minutes and 40 seconds, landing eight triple jumps, spinning, quick-stepping, trying to look calm and composed, trying to fool the judges, fool the audience and fool himself. Fifty seconds into the program, he replaced his trademark quad-triple combination with a single triple toe loop, and that was the first indication that something serious was amis. Trailing Kulik, he needed to snap the judges to attention by nailing the quad-triple. Instead he sent out an S.O.S.
     "He got worse as the program went on," Leigh said. "He just put himself in a mindset that he'd overcome the pain."
     Despite the throbbing in his groin, Stojko skated a program that was efficient and clean, although lacking its typical energy.
     "What this man went through with his no-nonsense approach. He's got a big heart. He's got vision. He's got courage. He's the fiercest competitor I've ever met. I just admire him a lot."
     Failing to win the gold here, in these circumstances, will only enhance the Legend of Elvis. He has never been like other Canadian skating champions. Kurt Browning, Brian Orser, Toller Cranston -- all were magical skaters, but Stojko, with his squat build, round face, determined expressions, choppy strides, looked more like, well, like a small hockey player.
     He came into the sport with a background in karate and a lot of rough edges. Judges have never warmed to his masculine style and Stojko consistently refused to change. After his short program, when the judges again marked him down, he shrugged and suggested they were wasting their time if they were looking for his feminine side. He has always been an athlete who skates, not a skater who craved to be an athlete. And Canadians have loved him for it.
     So there was never any doubt he would ignore the pain and skate in the Olympics. In his type of pain, 4 1/2 minutes might seem an eternity. But Stojko weighed 4 1/2 minutes against four gruelling years of preparation. Saturday was his seventh game of the Stanley Cup final or the fourth quarter of the Grey Cup, without the painkillers. Withdrawing was not an option.
     "He epitomized an Olympic champion," said Steve Cousins, who trains with Stojko. "He won his battle just by skating."
     It has been 50 years since Barbara Ann Scott won Canada's first and only individual figure skating gold medal. The past five Olympics have brought nothing but disappointment. In 1984, Orser won both the short and long programs but placed second because, back then, skaters were also marked on a third element, compulsory figures. In 1988, Orser was outstanding in Calgary, but again settled for silver after Brian Boitano was even better. In 1992, Kurt Browning, hobbled by a bad back, missed the medals and in 1994 Browning had a disastrous short program and again failed to medal.
     Orser, Browning and Stojko have a combined eight world championship titles, but the Olympics have been their curse. Stojko, tough, resilient, talented, seemed to have that extra little something that would take him to the top step of the medal podium. Instead, he arrived at the arena on Saturday hobbled by a groin injury. He ignored his pain and competed anyway.
     "We were dealt a card we didn't like and we dealt with it," Leigh said. "And we almost pulled it off."
     But, in the end, it was Kulik who could finish his long skate and break into a broad, triumphant smile. "It was a smile of relaxation and satisfaction," said Kulik.
     When the music died on Stojko's program, he looked blankly to the ceiling and, his face contorted in pain, he grimmaced. He knew right away that Kulik had won. He would be making the long walk to the podium to accept a silver medal.
     And that hurt most of all.