Underhill sees a victory dance

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:01 AM ET

There's a buzz about blades in the shadow of majestic Rockies these days.

Just not the double-edged kind. Not just yet.

Cindy Klassen, Clara Hughes and Ottawa's Kristina Groves -- three of Canada's biggest heroes at the Turin Olympics -- are the talk of Cowtown this weekend. The world long-track speed skating championships have invaded Calgary, and the Olympic Oval is a sellout for what's expected to be another red and white medal fest.

Across town at another facility connected with Calgary's Olympic legacy -- the Pengrowth Saddledome -- they can only wish. For bums in every seat. For a city to embrace the spectacle that is to come.

You want tickets? As the old saying goes, good seats are still available. Thousands of 'em. Not exactly Vancouver 2001, when the world figure skating championships were a virtual sellout a year ahead of time.

Then again, there will be nary an Olympic champion in sight when the worlds return to Canada starting tomorrow. No Evgeni Plushenko. No Shizuka Arakawa. No Tatiana Totmianina, Maxim Marinin, Tatiana Navka or Roman Kostomarov.

It's the reality of figure skating today. You win Olympic gold, you cash it in. No sense tarnishing the ultimate achievement a few weeks later.

And so it is, too, the peril of being the host country for a post-Olympic worlds. You hope for the best in terms of entries but, more often than not, you get so much less.

And yet, there's still a sense that there is a moment waiting to happen at the venerable Saddledome this week. A slice of magic that will lift this event far beyond what might seem possible upon first glance.

Then again, you consider the source of this feeling, and you understand. Ottawa skating fans who were there likely haven't forgotten 1984, the last time a post-Olympic worlds were held in Canada.

When a pairs skating team that had its Olympic dreams shattered just weeks before somehow authored one of the greatest moments in figure skating history.

"We went from the bottom of the barrel to the top in Ottawa in three weeks," said CBC figure skating analyst Barb Underhill, who became a world champion with Paul Martini on a night of sheer magic in the Civic Centre

A moment that, Underhill says now, may not have happened if she and Martini hadn't finished a devastating seventh at the Sarajevo Olympics. "We never would have had the Ottawa experience if we had won a medal in Sarajevo," she said.

Never would have happened, either, had coach Louis Stong completed the phone call to the Canadian Figure Skating Association, telling them that Underhill and Martini were withdrawing from the Ottawa worlds. "You wouldn't believe how close we came (to quitting)," said Underhill.

Instead, Underhill found some new hope in a beaten up old pair of skates. And the rest, as they say, is history.

"It was like magic," said Underhill. "We were perfect for the next week. We didn't make a mistake ... we knew we were going to win (in Ottawa)."

It became their skating memory of a lifetime. The kind of thing Underhill sees happening this week to another pair of Canadians who saw their Olympic dreams dashed in crushing fashion in Turin.

Ice dancers Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon were on the cusp of contention for the medal when disaster struck. Dubreuil lost her grip on a rotational grip seconds from the end of their original dance, and crashed to the ice. A day later, she was on crutches, nursing a deep bone bruise that forced their withdrawal.

"It was the hardest thing, to quit like that," Dubreuil said last week. "It was the first time in my life I had to do something like that."

Underhill met up with the Montrealers after the deed had been done, and shared her own story.

"I told them I know you're crushed, that you feel a huge sense of loss," said Underhill. "I said I know you have a feeling of emptiness because you lost your dream. But I told them there's a bigger moment waiting for you, and it's going to happen in Calgary ... if you do it at home, there's nothing like it.

"They will be totally embraced by the people there."

The dearth of Olympic medallists could well make it a week for Canadians to celebrate. Olympic silver medallist Jeffrey Buttle is a good bet to wind up on the men's podium for a second straight year. Joannie Rochette, fifth in Turin, could well contend for the first women's medal by a Canadian at worlds since 1988.

But, Underhill says, if you are looking for the story of this event, cast your eyes toward Dubreuil and Lauzon. It's just a feeling and she can't tell you why. "These things," Underhill said, "are just unexplainable."

And so utterly unforgettable.

rob.brodie@ott.sunpub.com


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