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  • Thursday, November 5, 1998

    Pairs skaters shun helmets despite risk of head injuries

     KAMLOOPS, B.C. (CP) -- Head injuries are not uncommon in pairs skating, yet, nobody wears a helmet.
     Helmets would deviate from the show biz nature of the sport, those close to it reply.
     Fashion comes first. No time or money goes into developing head protection for figure skaters -- despite daily risks taken by the athletes. There is no figure skating helmet on the market.
     Doug Ladret could have used one.
     Ladret, who is at Skate Canada as a team leader for the host country's competitors, fractured his skull when he caught a skate blade on bad ice during a practice in Cambridge, Ont., in 1986.
     "If somebody could develop functional head protection, I could see skaters wearing it in practice," Ladret said as he watched helmetless pairs practising Thursday.
     Ladret wore a hockey helmet in workouts after his mishap, but he found it cumbersome and discarded it after five months.
     Had a helmet specifically designed for figure skaters been available, he might have kept wearing one.
     His head injury was not an isolated incident.
     At the 1991 nationals in Saskatoon, Ladret was competing with Christine Hough when she fell out of a triple twist lift. That ruined their chances of regaining the senior title. Hough, spooked by the painful fall, feared that lift for the remainder of her career.
     At the 1990 nationals in Sudbury, Ont., Allan Proos's pairs future was snuffed out by a concussion from a practice crash.
     Last season, national team pairs skater Luc Bradet needed 12 stitches to close a scalp gashed in practice in Mississauga, Ont., and novice Aimee Nickason fractured her skull in a novice pairs practice in Barrie, Ont.
     Debbi Wilkes, an Olympic pairs medallist and one of the sport's top commentators today, fractured her skull on ice in 1963. Still, she can't imagine figure skaters wearing helmets.
     "So much of figure skating is about style and look," Wilkes said. "It wouldn't be chic" to wear helmets.
     "It's a question of aesthetics," Bradet said in agreeing with Wilkes's assessment of the use of helmets.
     Said his partner, Marie-Claude Savard-Gagnon: "You don't even think about wearing a helmet because you don't think you are going to fall."
     NHL players don't think they are going to fall either, and they once resisted using helmets, too.
     Is it not time to suggest the use of helmets in figure skating, in practices for novices at the least?
     "I agree," said Savard-Gagnon. "They should. It can be pretty scary."
     Some parents are ordering their children to wear helmets when learning jumps. But most skaters continue to go without head protection.
     Paul Martini, the 1984 world pairs champion with Barb Underhill, was fortunate to avoid head injury before retiring for good last summer. He now coaches Savard-Gagnon and Bradet.
     "As a coach, I strive to ensure that my skaters aren't doing anything that they're not truly capable of executing on a regular basis," he said of head injury prevention.
     "Yes, if you had a helmet on, you could probably reduce the extent of the injury. The problem is, when you think of how quickly (head) rotations take place, to have (a helmet) stay in place on your head with that much centrifugal force would take a real engineering feat.
     "There's nothing out there (in the marketplace) now."

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