Monday, February 16, 1998
Shattered dreams pain Elvis
"I ask myself why it didn't work out if I believed it so much," he says.
Before coming to Nagano, Elvis Stojko would lie in bed and picture himself becoming the first Canadian to win the men's Olympic figure skating gold medal. He would paint the scene in his mind: a packed arena, the pressure, the lights and him gliding into the middle of it to give the performance of his life.
Two days later, he is still limping. The pain that began last month as a twitch in his groin has sliced through his pelvic region and into his lower abdomen. He had hoped for a gold medal in Nagano but yesterday he wore silver, a badge of courage.
Thankfully, his fever has gone, his flu purged. One week ago he was so sick he couldn't get out of bed, let alone imagine himself performing a triple Axel. He was on intravenous by Tuesday, back practising on Thursday.
"For two hours (last Sunday) I didn't know what was going on," he says. "I almost passed out a couple times. I couldn't move."
The physical pain, Stojko can handle. He is boot-leather tough. When he sits there, stares into your eyes, and says he blocked out the screaming in his groin for 4 1/2 minutes Saturday morning, you believe him. You wonder how, you question why, but you don't doubt it happened.
But it's the other type of hurt, the emotional pain inflicted by disappointment or sadness, that can cut more deeply. Stojko wept yesterday. He started to tell of a FAX he received from a five-year-old Barrie girl and, before he could finish, was wiping at his tears.
"She said she was going into her first competition on the weekend and came down with the flu," related Stojko. "She was scared she wouldn't win. Then she saw me skate and she knew I was sick. She said, 'If Elvis can do it, I can do it, too'. It kind of makes you think what it is all about."
For Stojko, it's not necessarily all about winning. Funny how a note from a child brings that home.
Stojko's tears weren't shed because of her particular plight or because he failed to win his gold medal. Being Elvis Stojko comes with accepting considerable responsibility and pressure. It may sound corny in this age to speak of role models. But you sense that Stojko takes that seriously. And that is the pressure he faces, to match the expectations being placed upon him by so many others.
After drying his eyes, Stojko took a moment to compose himself and then made an odd statement.
"No, I'm not going for an Oscar here today," he said.
In other words, no, I'm not faking, he wanted people to know. No, I'm not a phoney. No, I'm not trying to milk public sympathy. My injury is real, he was saying, and so is the pain, the disappointment, the sadness.
And all of that welled up in tears when tried to articulate what it is like to have children know your name and want to grow up to be just like you. That, more than trying to win a gold medal, is the pressure he confronts. And that, more than the physical pain in his groin, is what he will have to deal with in the days and months ahead.
"It's kind of hard because people see me as strong and focussed," he said. "But I'm a human being. I hurt just like everyone else."
The first emotion Stojko confronted was anger.
"I'm p--ed off because of the situation with my leg, yea," he said. "I worked so hard for this then I felt like I had both hands tied behind my back."
On Saturday, moments before long progrem, he fell in the warmup. His body ached, his confidence was being tested. He left the ice and asked himself if he really wanted to do this. He knew how much pain awaited him. It was going to hurt like hell.
So he gave himself a pep talk.
"I told myself that I'd spent 20 years of my life preparing for this one moment. I can't give up now. I've worked so hard to get here. It's only 4 1/2 minutes. I didn't want to be in a situation years from now, looking back, and saying I could have done it."
And then he skated. He skipped his famous quad-triple combination, and eliminated some other intricate spins and manoeuvres. He remembers doing a double Axel and, as he jumped, knowing the pain that would greet his landing, but comforting himself with the thought that "I'd just have to do that once." As the program progressed, so too did the pain. Then, mercifully, it ended.
"When I finished my last move, the pain took over," he said.
He took a seat beside his coach and, waiting for his scores, looked ready to faint.
"I've never been in a state like that before," he said. "I saw nothing, heard nothing. It was so intense for 4 1/2 minutes, then all of a sudden the pain hits you."
The pain, the disappointment, was never a part of Stojko's Olympic dream. He always saw himself rising, triumphantly, to take a champion's bow after the judges awarded his skate with gold-medal marks.
But he can take that bow today because Elvis Stojko did indeed give the performance of his life.