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  • Wednesday, March 24, 1999

    Stojko and Leigh ready for big day

     HELSINKI (CP) -- Elvis Stojko, for all he's meant to the sport of figure skating in the 1990s, deserves a firm handshake and sincere thanks from International Skating Union president Ottavio Cinquanta.
     When Stojko comes off the ice today, perhaps for the last time at a world championship, Cinquanta should be at his side to say, "Thanks, Elvis, thanks for helping keep the show alive."
     The ISU has made huge investments in increased prize money in recent years and has added more competitions to encourage skaters to remain in its fold. Many deserted after winning. Kristy Yamaguchi, Oksana Bauil, Tara Lipinski -- they were all teenagers when they skipped out on the ISU for pro or show circuits. Ilia Kulik, the 1998 Olympic champion as a teen, didn't bother to show up this season.
     Yet, Stojko, 27, continues to go for ISU gold, keeping Canadian fans closely attached to Cinquanta's Club.
     Maybe this is the end.
     The three-time world champion is in third place going into the free-skating finale. Nobody knows yet whether or not he'll return.
     Stojko is taking it year by year, and after what he calls the most trying season of his career he might just decide to pack it in himself.
     Coach Doug Leigh declines to discuss it.
     "Right now, the focus is on now," he said Wednesday. "The best thing Elvis has got right now is his health back.
     "He feels so much better and his confidence is really starting to shine through. He's feeling like his normal self."
     Russians Evgeny Plushenko, 16, and Alexei Yagudin, 18, the defending champion, are ahead of him in the standings. In order to win, Stojko would have to beat both today and have another skater beat them, too.
     It's improbable.
     "The cards aren't 100 per cent in our hands, but it's like anything else," said Leigh. "You've got to go out and do your job, stay focused on just doing that.
     "We've been in the same position before. Everybody has to skate."
     Stojko will perform his 4 1/2-minute program to music from the Merlin movie soundtrack as if it's his last performance at a world championship -- because it, in fact, might be his last.
     At the end of what he calls the most difficult season of his career, as he prepares to finish his ninth world meet, he explains why he's persevered.
     "It's my passion for the sport and it's my passion to be the best that I can be," Stojko said. "I'm being honest in that.
     "It's such a cliche that athletes say. But it's true. After being second at Olympics twice, I've skated numerous clean programs, I've come from behind, I've been on top, I've stayed on top, and won three world titles. What more can you ask for?
     "The reason being, once you take away the money, take away the fame, take it all away, and what's left?
     "Why do you go out there? You've got to look back at why you started skating. Why do kids start skating? They're interested. They love to do it. That's why I love doing it. I love competition. I love competing against the Russians, the Americans, against athletes and against myself. And that's the reason why I do it."
     He brought the martial arts to figure skating. He was the first to land a quad in combination with another jump, landing a quad-double at the 1991 worlds in Munich. He was the first to do a quad-triple in competition, at the 1996 Grand Prix final in Hamilton. He raised the bar for others. In the qualifying session here, he was the only skater to attempt two quads.
     "Elvis loves being in there no differently than a Wayne Gretzky," said Leigh. "He could have taken his stick and gone home.
     "But there are guys who happen to love the game. These guys happen to love the challenge. If you're still in premium shape -- physical, mental, emotional -- and can say, 'You know, I can still step out there because I've still got the ammunition I had before. I can still play this game with anybody.' Well, why wouldn't you play, especially if you love it?
     "You know, when you take this page off, you don't get it back. If you believe in performing and pushing that envelope, if that's your purpose -- and that is what he's all about -- then rock."
     A little AC/DC, please.
     Regardless of the outcome, they'll exit content with the effort given. There will be no regrets. They are an upbeat pair.
     "I look forward to every day," said Leigh. "I'm one of those kind of guys who, when you tear the page off today, you don't get it back.
     "Lots of people come in and go, 'I'll be glad when this is over. I'll be glad when this day's done.'
     "Hey, hold it. You don't get this day back. When it's gone, it's gone. Make the day count."

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