Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Nineties Comebacks That Never Were


In one of the very first blogs on Skate Guard which was called "Come Back, Come Back, Whoever You Are", I took a look at some of the sport's greatest comebacks. Four of the six were in the nineties and three of those as a result of the ISU's decision to allow professional skaters to return to the eligible ranks in time for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, Katarina Witt, Brian Boitano, Josee Chouinard, Viktor Petrenko, Midori Ito, Elaine Zayak, Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur and Susie Wynne and Russ Witherby were among the well known skaters to take advantage of this opportunity and as we know, the results varied.

As we looked at in the first serving of "Figure Skating Hodge Podge", there were other skaters who were perhaps lesser known who also attempted comebacks during that period. Here's the blurb on two of those skaters: "Vern Taylor, a three time medallist at the Canadian Nationals in the seventies and the first person recognized to have successfully landed a triple axel in competition at the 1978 World Championships, furnished a comeback of his own. Competing at the 1994 Canadian Nationals, he did not crack the top 10 but still showed he could do triple jumps and his love for the sport. Two years later, Shannon Allison, who won the bronze medal behind Liz Manley and Charlene Wong at the 1988 Canadian Nationals and effectively just missed a trip to the Calgary Olympics, came back as well in 1993. Like Vern, her comeback wasn't as victorious as her previous efforts. She was struck with bronchial pneumonia and finished eleventh at the 1996 Canadian National Championships, which she qualified for by finishing second at the Western Canadian Championships that year. Allison happily moved on and returned to coaching and her education." Now, I wanted to talk a bit about some of the comebacks that never got off of the ground.

The initial deadline for applications to reinstate was April 1, 1993. According to an April 2 article in The New York Times, "As the deadline for amateur reinstatement passed yesterday, the United States Figure Skating Association received an application from Christopher Bowman, who finished fourth at the 1992 Olympics at Albertville, France, and a surprise from the past." That eleventh hour application certainly would have been something if it had actually transpired. Keeping in mind Bowman had only turned professional and started touring with the Ice Capades after the 1992 Oakland Worlds, he still very well could have been competitive with Boitano, Scott Davis and Mark Mitchell in 1994 had his demons not continued to haunt him.

One skater who seriously considered reinstatement but opted not to was Olympic Silver Medallist Liz Manley. In her 1999 book "As I Am: My Life After The Olympics" she explained in detail the reasons behind both her considering and deciding against the idea of returning to the eligible ranks: "When I began to work with Jozef (Sabovcik) and suddenly got my triple axel back, the thought of participating in another Olympics was tempting... After Michael (Rosenberg) spoke to David Dore, he told me the CFSA wasn't enthusiastic about my desire to return to amateur status... in retrospect, I think they simply had too much time and money invested in Josee... After a dismal showing at the 1992 Olympics, I believe the CFSA was under a great deal of pressure to produce another medallist and had groomed Josee for the role. For a couple of years leading up to the Olympics, Josee had been promoted endlessly to the media and fans alike. Even without an agent, she had a string of commercials and endorsements going into the Games and it must have been the CFSA that was behind that. They had much riding on a good showing from her. When it looked as if I was going to appear back on the scene, it just didn't fit into their plans.." Manley also said that CFSA (now Skate Canada) was unwilling to offer her a bye through Sectionals and Divisionals to Nationals and cited that as a deterrent. Ultimately, missed income from professional skating proved to be the last nail in the coffin in Manley's decision not to ultimately come back and compete in Lillehammer. She said "If I only had myself to think about, the prospect wouldn't have seemed so daunting. But I was also responsible for my mother. We had a mortgage to pay and the small stipend I would receive from the CFSA just wouldn't cut it. As excited as I had been about the possibility of competing at another Olympics, the thought of struggling again to make ends meet was enough to change my mind." It would have something though... and with Liz landing the lutz, sal and toe quite consistently in 1993-1994, she certainly could have been competitive.

After the success and television ratings of the skaters that reinstated for the Lillehammer Olympics, the deadline was later extended to April 1, 1995. This allowed other skaters to consider their options and was when Midori Ito and Josee Chouinard decided to return. Some skaters, like Brian Orser were quite content where they were. Brian told me "I think I entertained the idea for about thirty seconds! It was very brave for these 'greats' to come back, but for me I wanted to continue on the direction and path I was already on." Others who were having success in professional competition thought they were up for the challenge. In a post skate interview in the fall of 1994 after her technical program at the 1994 U.S. Open Masters Cup, Rory Flack told interviewer Nicole Watson "I'll actually be with Worcester with Nutcracker On Ice and it will be my last professional tour and then after that, I'll reinstate and see how that goes." Considering Rory was landing all of her triple jumps through lutz in the mid nineties and hadn't achieved high results in competition during her eligible career, I think she could have fared well had she have opted to return, but with those massive split jumps and her backflip professional competition was so well suited to her and I'm happy she decided to stick with it and had the opportunities she did! Maya Usova and Alexander Zhulin, who had turned professional following their silver medal win in Lillehammer and won the 1994 World Professional Championships in Landover, Maryland. had at one point stated that they intended to reinstate and compete at the Nagano Olympics but opted to stay in the professional world. Other names that were tossed around at the time were Mark Mitchell and Natasha Kuchiki. Another highly speculated comeback was that of 1994 Olympic Gold Medallist Oksana Baiul, who many expected to return after a difficult year on the pro circuit but was absent from the list of reinstated skaters presented by the ISU in April 1995.

Just as Bonnie Raitt belted out "let's give them something to talk about // a little mystery to figure out", here's a mystery alright! According to a September 20, 1997 article in The New York Times by Jere Longman, Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov, the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Gold Medallists also had dreams of returning to the eligible ranks. After obtaining Swiss citizenship in 1995, the married couple dreamed of performing at the Nagano Games and representing Switzerland. I love this quote from Oleg Protopopov (then in his mid sixties): "Even if we are in the last car of the train, we are still moving with the train. Medals don't matter. I keep mine in a chocolate box. Our motivation is to show people that at our age you can still be strong and mentally and physically in good health.'' The deadline for applications to reinstate had already passed though and Cinquanta - who had succeeded Olaf Poulsen who was ISU President at the time the reinstatement rule came into play - wasn't about to make any exceptions. Oleg Protopopov's response?: "These are not the last Olympics. Why not Salt Lake City? We already have two gold medals. We are not in a hurry.'' Okay, can I just say how much I love that? Sadly, their comeback never happened but we have been blessed to see them skate at the annual Evening With Champions show at Harvard University as recently as the year before last.

Part of the draw to get professional skaters to return was the introduction of prize money to eligible events at a time when many skaters were making a very comfortable living from appearance fees and prize money at pro competitions. The ISU even tried to cash in on the popularity of professional skaters by getting involved with pro-am and open competitions, but many of these lacked the luster of the professional only events as the professional skaters struggled with performing ISU short programs whereas the some of the "amateur" skaters presented interpretive free skates that never would have held up in professional competition in terms of performance quality. While it would have been fascinating to see how some of these nineties comebacks that never were would have played out, the reality of the matter is that back then when professional skaters HAD many opportunities to compete outside of the auspices of the ISU and IJS things were ultimately VERY different. That's a whole other can of worms I've already gotten into more than once... but with the recent U.S. Open announcement things seem to be turning around beautifully.

Times have changed and the lines between "amateur" and professional are blurry at best. Applying for reinstatement is nothing now. You just fill out a form. That said, we always wonder about the stories 'that never were'. Which of these nineties comebacks that never happened would have fared the best in your opinion? I want to know your thoughts!

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