Pain is price skaters pay

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:41 AM ET

Figure skater -- Definition: A person capable of entering the wrong end of the train tunnel with Wile E. Coyote and emerging with all the elegance of Celine Dion at Grammy time. Can leap tall buildings in a single bound and pretend it didn't hurt. Afflicted with chronic smiling.

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It may be the most misunderstood vocation in sports.

In its moments of perfection it appears effortless; motions merging in a perfect symmetry of grace and strength.

The public face of figure skating is extravagant costumes that hold more bling bling than the average pharaoh's tomb. There is the travel, the fame, the first-class hotels . The public sees twirling, dashing figures who fly on the wings of artistry and brawn.

They see an illusion.

Truth is that even the TV cameras can't convey the muscle-numbing pain that the 232 competitors at this year's Canadian figure skating championships hide behind those Revlon-coated smiles. In elite figure skating there is only one certainty: It's going to hurt.

BRUISES, AGONY

Few see the cuts, swollen joints, bruises and the agony every skater must push through to polish the two to four minutes of flash and dash that is for public consumption.

"When you're trying new things all your muscles get sore just from being pulled," says Siobhan Karam, a limber, petite 18-year-old who, along with partner Joshua McGrath, won the junior dance championship. All it took was nine years -- seven hours of training a day, five to six days a week.

"What people don't understand is how much stamina you need to do this. It's just a two- or three-minute program so it looks easy but we make the difficult look simple," Karam says.

The maxim for figure skating could be: Don't let 'em see you sweat -- emotionally or physically. "You have to do the physical elements but you also have to look nice," Karam says.

Michael Coreno, a 20-year-old born in Toronto and a veteran of pairs and singles before teaming to place second in the junior dance with Allie Hann-McCurdy, says the learning is the hard part. "I've tried them all and had the constant bruises ... when you're learning new jumps or moves it pretty much means you fall every time. Through the first week, two weeks, three weeks you're sore all over."

But competition can have its casualties, too. This week, Adrian Oleksyszak left the ice splattered in blood after gashing his hand on his skate blade during a sit spin. In the men's short program, Nicholas Young tripped out of a jump head and shoulder first into the boards. He finished his performance, then withdrew from yesterday's final with a concussion.

To put such tenacity in layman's terms, go out to the front step and jump butt-first on to that icy patch of sidewalk. Climb up the stairs. Jump again. Do that 20 times. If you still can get up without dialing 911, maybe, and only maybe, you are just a good liniment from having the fortitude to become a decent figure skater.

So how come this sport has a reputation for athleticism that ranks somewhere between curling and a full-contact game of checkers? "That's probably because of the artistic component which other sports don't have," says Gayle McClelland, chief development officer for Skate Canada. "But when people start to follow it, or if they've ever tried to skate, they get an appreciation for how difficult it is.

DIFFICULT TO LEARN

"There has been debate," she says. "Is it a sport, or is it an art and we're now more weighted to the sport end. On the other hand we don't want to lose that artistic component because that's what makes it beautiful to watch."

But, oh so difficult to learn.

"Dancers don't tend to fall as often as free skaters but it hurts more when you do fall because you're not prepared for it," Hann-McCurdy says. "A stray arm and a stray foot will come around and hit you in the face.

McGrath broke an ankle learning a jump. There was a concussion and, he says, "I've pulled so many groin and back muscles I don't even count them."

And Karam? "I've been dropped on my face," she says with less concern that some teenagers dismiss a papercut.

Figure skating may be frilly but it is not a world for softies. There were days, Hann-McCurdy says, when that was made evident by waking up purple. Today, she's waking up a silver medallist.

"This is what makes it great," she says, the sparkles glistening on her face. "To have pride in all the work you've done ... to endure all the pain and perform."

HEY FANS! Do you have a quirky sports item? Include your name and city and e-mail it to me at: bill.lankhof@tor.sunpub.com or fax it to: 416-947-2454

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