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  • Sunday, March 21, 1999

    Underdog Elvis is over his injuries

    By STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun
      HELSINKI, Finland -- Two hours after touching down at Helsinki's Vantaa Airport, three-time world figure skating champion Elvis Stojko was out on the ice giving his airline legs a quick workout.
     "He looked unbelievable," former Canadian world pairs champion Barb Underhill said. "He was just so on."
     Underhill's assessment is understandable, given that Stojko said yesterday he is absolutely pain-free for the first time since the autumn of 1997.
     "Nowhere this season has my leg been 100%," Stojko said, after a full short-program practice. "Only in the past week or so. It's as good as new."
     That's exceptional news for Canadian fans. The Richmond Hill skater will have to be on his game at Helsinki's Hartwall Arena this week, site of the world figure-skating championships, if he entertains any thoughts of capturing his fourth men's singles title.
     For the first time in years, Stojko, who turns 27 tomorrow, is considered an underdog at the worlds.
     There's talk of a Russian sweep in the men's competition, which begins with the qualifying rounds tomorrow -- an event now worth 20% of the overall score. Indeed, the terrific troika of Alexei Yagudin, the defending world champion, 1994 Olympic champion Alexei Urmanov and wunderkind Evgeny Plushenko, could well bring Mother Russia a medal of each colour in the men's singles category. Not since Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in 1956, when the Americans pulled it off, has such a sweep been accomplished.
     The Russians are that good and that young.
     Plushenko is 16. Yagudin turned 19 this week and Urmanov, the old man of the squad, is all of 25.
     Stojko, really, is a member of the old guard. Most of his main rivals from the past years, Todd Eldredge of the U.S., Philippe Candeloro of France, etc., have turned to the professional or pro-am circuits.
     But Stojko enjoys competing at the highest levels too much to ease into the pro game. Skating is perhaps the only sport in the world where the amateurs perform at a superior level to their professional cousins.
     Since landing the first quad combination jump in 1991, Stojko has raised the stakes in men's skating to the point where having a quad is mandatory for anyone eyeing a spot on the medal dais at a worlds.
     But in pushing the envelope, as the saying goes in skating, Stojko actually has become his own worst enemy. For one thing, he has challenged the rest of the world to catch up and the Russians, the Americans and the Chinese have.
     Also, Stojko's reputation has reached a point where, technically at least, the judges expect the Canadian to nail a great program every time out.
     "The judges will judge me against what I've done in the past and what I'm capable of doing," said Stojko, who also landed the first quad double, in 1996, and the first quad triple a year later. "I've skated cleanly so many times, that if I don't skate clean, if I miss one thing, it's such a big deal.
     "But I'm human like everyone else. It's like Elvis goes out and his match point is to skate clean and if he doesn't do it, they come in and hammer you."
     And if it's not the judges, it's the competition.
     The Russians and Chinese have been landing huge quad-triple combinations this year, and spins which once were the domain of the more limber female skaters. One of Plushenko's trademarks is the Biellmann, pulling the leg up to the back of the head while rotating with considerable haste.
     Once, Stojko could rely on his technical marks to pull him onward and upward, three times right to the top. But no longer.
     Not against the likes of the Russians, or the rising Chinese star Li Chengjiang, who has done the quad triple twice this season. Li, 20, nailed one at the inaugural Four Continents Cup in Halifax, finishing second to Stojko's training mate at the Mariposa club in Barrie, Takeshi Honda of Japan.
     And Li didn't even qualify for these worlds. China will be represented by Zhengxin Guo, 19, who became the first skater in history to land two quads in the same free-skate program at the 1997 worlds.
     Of course, Stojko has been bothered by the groin injury, which caused him considerable pain at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, right up until a couple of weeks ago and has been hard-pressed to land a clean quad in competition all season.
     And with the international judges still not ready to heap high presentation scores in recognition of his rather unorthodox programs (this year's long program is skated to the Merlin soundtrack), it's getter tougher and tougher for the man once considered the undisputed king of skating to sink his teeth into gold.
     Stojko could skate well at these worlds and not win a medal.
     Nevertheless, the Doug Leigh-coached skater is not ready to throw in the towel. And with his groin finally pain-free, it might be the Canadian anthem heard after all when the men's long program wraps up on Thursday.
     "A lot of power has come back to my skating (and) the jumps seem to be taking off," a revitalized Stojko said yesterday.
     "Everything seems to be clicking."
     Honda and American Michael Weiss could move in for a medal if Stojko or the Russians falter. Richmond Hill's other great iceman, Emanuel Sandhu, 18, could slide into the top six with a good program.

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