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Nagano 1998: Figure Skating: Is The King Going To Take The Crown?

6 minute read
Robert Sullivan

He’s 25, collects stuffed animals and still lives at home, but he may be the toughest skater ever to enter the rink. He’s tougher than Todd Eldredge, tougher than the Russians, tougher than Tonya Harding. Consider: the big rumor in Canada says that last summer Elvis Stojko, figure skater, 5 ft. 7 in., 158 lbs., got into a bar brawl with Eric Lindros, goonish hockey star, 6 ft. 4 in., 236 lbs.–and that Lindros got the short end of the stick. Never mind that everyone denies it happened. The point is, people believe it might have happened. It’s like Tiger taking out Tyson.

Stojko forces people to believe. He’s the unlikeliest skating star, a short, thickly muscled man with propulsive leaping ability but a B-movie aesthetic. Judges have always disapproved of his body type, his haircut and, above all, his kickboxer style. But he has worn them down, and today he’s their reigning world champ.

Elvis’ fortitude is bred in the bones. His mother was the last of eight children in a Hungarian family, his father the first of nine in a Yugoslav household. They fled communist tanks in the 1950s, landed in Canada, met each other in Toronto and married. Upon the birth of her third child, Irene Stojko happened to be gonzo over Elvis Presley. She had already demonstrated a flair for tribute–daughter Elizabeth salutes the British Queen, and as for son Attila, well…and so she named the new kid for the King.

It wasn’t rocking ‘n’ rolling that caught young Elvis’ attention. “It was spinning,” he says. “I saw all this spinning on TV, and I started tugging on my parents to take me skating. When I got on the ice, all I wanted to do was slide and spin and fall, slide, spin, fall.” And soon, jump. From the first, Elvis was a jumping machine.

But the boy’s hero wasn’t Scott Hamilton; it was Bruce Lee. Elvis earned an advanced black belt in karate at age 16, and while other skaters were bringing elegant dance moves into their choreography, he started incorporating punches and kicks. “I tried ballet,” says Stojko unapologetically. “Didn’t fit.”

In a sport without a long tradition of martial-arts stylists, Elvis’ very originality was a problem. The cabal of skating judges, clacking endlessly about athletes’ clothes, musical tastes, hairstyles and breast sizes, looked at this karate kid with the shag and the metal-studded costumes–famously designed and stitched by his mom–and they saw fresh meat. “I was ridiculed,” Stojko says. “The judges said they didn’t like martial arts. I was told to get in touch with my feminine side. I said, ‘Buddy, I don’t have a feminine side. I’m not a female.'”

At the Albertville Olympics in 1992 Elvis skated well and finished seventh. At Lillehammer two years later, he skated brilliantly if insolently to music from Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. He got silver behind Russia’s classically schooled Alexei Urmanov. Says Stojko’s coach, Doug Leigh: “We were the only ones who skated a clean long and short program, and we came home with a dog bone.”

To the judges, Elvis sang Dylan: “Most likely you go your way (and I’ll go mine).” “In my skating, the moves are from me,” he says. “If I skated like someone else because I was told to, that would be plagiarism.” Stojko and Leigh determined to work on speed and footwork while retaining the karate colorations. Redemption came as Elvis vaulted to three world titles with performances of such athleticism that they could not be denied.

While Leigh has tried to pump up the art in Stojko’s martial artistry, it’s still the extraordinary jumping that sets Elvis apart. When he attempts his quadruple-toe-loop, triple-toe-loop combination, he revs his speed dramatically, launches, spins four times in the 0.77 of a second that he’s airborne, lands on one foot with a force four times his weight, then sucks it up and launches again for the toe loop. In practice he routinely bends his blades, and he recently started skating in a boot sporting an outer layer of ballistic nylon, the stuff they use in bulletproof vests.

There’s increasing applause for Elvis’ brand of skating and not just from the awestruck audience. “I think the men’s competition should be judged an athletic event,” says 1988 gold medalist Brian Boitano. “When you have so much athletic ability, you don’t have time to be artistic, and I don’t think you should be expected to.”

Citius, Altius, Fortius, and they give you the gold: it’s the Olympic Way. But figure skating is not there yet, and this makes Nagano tough to handicap. With styles for every judge’s taste, the program will include Todd Eldredge, 26, the five-time American champ from Chatham, Mass., who is back on form after suffering shoulder and rib injuries but has yet to land a quad in competition; a pair of elegant young Russians, Ilia Kulik and Alexei Yagudin, exemplars of old-school, glamour-puss skating; and a sleeper. American Michael Weiss, 21, from Fairfax, Va., will hope that the big names crash and burn, and that he lands the viciously tough quad Lutz he two-footed while finishing second at the nationals last month.

As for Elvis, he’ll be Elvis–in spades. Just watch him open the show. His short program is to the pulsating rhythms of Japanese ceremonial taiko drums–what else?–as he not only plays the home card but also gets to indulge his samurai soul thoroughly. The first 45 sec. involve footwork that might have tripped Astaire–it took Elvis a month to master the steps–and represents the champ’s latest challenge to the skating world, and to himself. A minute into the Olympic competition, Stojko could be headed for the podium or out the door. But one thing’s guaranteed: you’ll know that Elvis has been in the building.

–With reporting by Mary Jollimore/Toronto and Alice Park/New York

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