This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 31, 1997
Stojko Wins 1997 World Title
From what I focus on, the marks mean nothing. I will never, ever give them control over how I feel. - Elvis Stojko, after the judges placed him fourth in the short program at the World Figure Skating Championships
Among elite-level skaters, STOJKO has always been a little bit different. First, there are his unskaterly pastimes - riding dirt bikes and earning a black belt in karate. Then there is his skating, which has often been criticized for sacrificing artistry to jumping-jack athleticism. And at last week's world championships in Lausanne, Switzerland, Stojko showed something else that sets him apart - extraordinary composure and self-confidence. The 25-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., refused to be rattled by his poor placing in the short program, or by the nearly insurmountable lead of the three skaters - two Russians and an American - who had finished ahead of him. Instead, he skated a technically superb 4 1/2-minute long program, while his opponents faltered or fell victim to injury, leaving the judges no alternative but to award him his third world title in four years. "You get it from all angles," he said of the criticism. "I hear I'm not confident, my program's not up to par, I'm not as artistic as the next guy. But I put it all aside and focused on how I felt."
Stojko may have tuned out his critics in Lausanne, a picturesque city on the shores of Lake Geneva in the Swiss Alps. But he was not able to silence them - even after landing his combination quadruple-triple jump, a precedent-setting feat he first performed at a competition in Hamilton on March 1. As he revelled in his victory, some rivals were picking holes in his performance - "It's slow," sniffed American coach Evy Scotvold. "All he does is stand around" - and looking for ways to beat him at the next big showdown: the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Stojko's coach, Doug Leigh, was already contemplating that event. "What happened here tonight is on the shelf, a completed chapter," Leigh said. "Beginning now, we're building towards the Olympics."
Barring an injury, Stojko will be Canada's best but not only hope for a skating medal in Japan. Ice dancers Shae-Lynn Bourne, 21, of Chatham, Ont., and Victor Kraatz, 25, of Vancouver, continued their rise by capturing their second straight world championship bronze, behind two Russian teams - gold medallists Oksana Grishuk and Evgeny Platov, and the silver duo of Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Oviannikov. "There are still things we have to learn," said Kraatz. "This year, we're very close but, hopefully, next year we'll pass them."
While Bourne and Kraatz reach for the top, Stojko's challenge is to stay there. And that will not be easy, considering the competition he faced in Lausanne. By his own admission, Stojko skated his best in the short program and still finished behind Alexei Urmanov of Russia, Todd Eldredge of the United States and Russian Ilya Kulik, who were all judged to be artistically superior. Stojko achieved his come-from-behind win with a technically superb long program that included eight triple jumps and the quadruple-triple combination. "It was spot on," he said later. "I couldn't have done any better."
Even then, he needed some help from his opponents - and the fates. Urmanov withdrew because of a pulled groin muscle. Eldredge, who won the silver, conceded the technical side of the contest to Stojko by not even attempting a quad, then lost on presentation as well by taking a tumble. Kulik made several errors that cost him a medal, allowing fellow Russian Alexei Yagudin, 17, to move up from sixth place and take the bronze.
Stojko's recent domination of the sport has triggered a vigorous debate over the place of pure athleticism in skating, even as more and more top competitors leap frenetically through their programs. Elvis is an action hero in a sport that has traditionally prized elegance and a stagey expressiveness. To some extent, the judges have plainly accepted his style - only a fall in his short program at the 1996 worlds in Edmonton kept him from winning four straight world titles. But Stojko has also adapted - to a point. "He's definitely come a long way," says Brian Orser, two-time Olympic silver medallist and 1987 world champion. "He used to be very mechanical and rigid. Now, he does have an ease to his skating." Even some people who admire Stojko, however, suggest that he could become even more graceful. "Elvis is an honest skater," says former Canadian champion Toller Cranston. "What you see is what you get. But Elvis can be stretched more than he is."
Still, he has undoubtedly made his impact as a jumper - part of Canada's long line of aerial innovators. The first was Donald Jackson, now 57 and executive-director of the Minto Skating Club in Ottawa, who won the 1962 world championship for a program that included an unprecedented triple Lutz - in which the skater takes off and lands backwards and completes three counterclockwise rotations. Sixteen years later, while competing at the world championships, Vern Taylor performed the first triple Axel, which actually involves 3 1/2 rotations because the jump requires a forward takeoff and backward landing - but he finished 12th.
Orser earned the nickname Mr. Triple Axel because he made that jump, in combination with the double toe loop, a standard part of international competition. The next Canadian trendsetter was Kurt Browning, who landed the first quadruple jump in a competition at the 1988 worlds, the year before he won the first of four consecutive titles. Stojko joined the club by landing the first quadruple-triple combination and, after last week's gold medal performance, he hinted that he is planning to work on even more difficult jumps - perhaps a quadruple-quadruple combination. "It's whatever you believe you can do," Stojko said. "The door is open."
But Air Elvis is more than just a jumping machine. Orser, who trained alongside him for several years at the Mariposa Winter Club in Orillia, Ont., says Stojko is a hardworking, disciplined athlete who has been the most consistent skater in the world over the past five to six years. His martial arts training, Orser adds, has undoubtedly helped him control his anxieties prior to performing, which is a serious problem for many skaters. "I used to say it's good to have butterflies before competing, as long as they're flying in formation," says Orser. "And Elvis handles his nerves better than any of them." In the afterglow in Lausanne last week, a grinning Stojko talked about the satisfaction of rebounding from his poor showing at the 1996 worlds - as well as of confounding his critics. "I was able to push through it all," he said, "and believe in myself." The trick now will be to keep believing all the way to Nagano.
Maclean's March 31, 1997