A munchkin and a mind-set

As Scott Hamilton (above) whirled to the men's world title, a Swiss and her "Psychopädagogin" took to the clouds
March 16, 1981

The competition didn't catch fire right away, which is how it goes with these meets. Figure skating isn't a fast-break sport; one is lulled at first, perhaps by the music or possibly by the sight of so many gracefully flowing forms. But then things start busting loose, and next thing you know, the place is up to here in fallen bodies and bruised egos.

Witness the 1981 World Championships in Hartford, Conn. last week: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, nothing. Oh, there was skating, sure enough, but blaaaah. And then, on Thursday afternoon: whomp! Little Elaine Zayak, the darling of Paramus, N.J., came falling out of the sky, hitting the ice so hard that she bounced a bit, a shock that produced this year's record collective gasp from a crowd. She scrambled up, a bit embarrassed, a lot hurt—but full of fight. That was Highlight No. 1. That night the men's finals produced as mean a battle as there has ever been for a world skating title, and the closest between two Americans. Highlight No. 2. And the next night, Friday, Zayak returned to face Switzerland's Denise Biellmann in a match that was, in its way, the best of all.

There was no way to handicap any of this when the World Championships, the first held in the U.S. in six years, began in Hartford's Civic Center arena. The mystery element in this meet was the fact that most of the sport's big guns had retired since last winter's competition, creating a sort of open season on titles, a situation that brought out 118 athletes from 25 countries. Gone was 1980 women's champ, Anett Poetzsch of East Germany. Gone, too, was the 1980 men's winner, Jan Hoffmann, also from East Germany. And missing was the Russian pair of Rodnina and Zaitsev, the '80 Olympic champions. The comers were in Hartford.

"I'm one; I'm going to be the world champ," said Zayak as the meet got underway. "But maybe not just yet. This one might be a little too soon for me; I'm pushing now. But, you know, I could make, maybe, second. We'll just have to see."

It was fitting that the pairs competition was staged so early in the week when it wouldn't detract from the aforementioned good stuff to come. If anything, the pairs served to raise a couple of burning questions. One: where are you, Randy and Tai, now that we really need you? And, two: after the velvety technique of Gardner-Babilonia, have we come to this—to Irina Vorobieva and her partner, Igor Lisovsky? They're from the U.S.S.R., of course—except for the brief reign in 1979 of the U.S. pair, Soviets have been champions for the last 16 years—but that's not really the point. These two are assuredly not the fine-tuned Soviets the sport has come to expect, and the shambles of a show they put on last week only served to raise more suspicions about the quality of international judging.

Vorobieva and Lisovsky started sleekly, with that familiar, born-to-skate-together look of the oldtime Protopopovs, but it proved to be pure deception. Along about two minutes into their number, the tape was playing Tiger Rag, but Lisovsky and Vorobieva were skating to the theme from Swan Lake. Their next move called for side-by-side camel spins: Igor came out of his right on cue, but Irina spun on and on and on while her partner stood there, watching in dismay. This was no ordinary bobble; she was so blithely doing her own thing that he had time to send out for pizza. Perplexingly, this performance won Vorobieva and Lisovsky clusters of 5.8s and 5.9s—out of a possible 6.0—and the gold medal. The East German and West German pairs were second and third, respectively. Back in fifth was the American brother and sister team, Peter and Caitlin Carruthers of Wilmington, Del. This explosive twosome lacks only seasoning, and they should find perverse good cheer in knowing that the reigning Soviet team can be knocked off.

And so, with all that out of the way, the meet began to heat up. By Thursday evening, the men's competition had shaken down to a shoot-out between David Santee, 23, of Park Ridge, Ill. and 22-year-old Scott Hamilton of Denver. And they were both under attack from Jean-Christophe Simond of France, Russia's Igor Bobrin and Fumio Igarashi of Japan. Santee was the favorite: he had finished second in the earlier compulsory figures and third in the short program to lead the field into the five-minute freestyle finals. He was also painfully aware that he had been in pretty much the same spot just a few weeks ago during the national championships in San Diego and had finished second to Hamilton. But it wouldn't happen here: "I can take Scotty's best shot," Santee said.

Who could doubt a statement like that? Heaven knows, Hamilton just doesn't look like the sort of fellow who could deliver the paralyzing shot it takes to win a world title. He's just this side of being wispy at 5'3" and 110 pounds, skates, heavy socks, braces on his teeth and all. He got this way by a bitter stroke of medical fate. Hamilton would assurely have been bigger as an adult—he might possibly have been a Merlin Olsen or a Too Tall Jones—but a childhood attack of Schwachman's syndrome literally stunted his growth. Victims of this mysterious malady can't ingest food properly. But the hyperactivity of figure skating pulled him out of it, Hamilton says.

All of this has left him with the look—and attitude—of a madcap munchkin. "You know me," he says, "I go into a department store to buy a new blue blazer; I get the one with the duck on the pocket." And: "I've been playing catch-up all of my life, and I'm not complaining. All I ask of this meet is, umm, some 5.9s." In fact, Hamilton won a bunch of 5.9s. And a standing ovation.

He got all of that, and more. Indeed, it seemed that the crowd of some 15,000 was popping to its feet with every skater: it was one of those nights on which everybody was so hot that, if the skaters had been running the indoor mile, all of them would've been under 3:50 and then some. And as befits such an intense situation, Hamilton was set to skate 19th in the field of 20 finalists. Santee would go last.

Which gave everybody a shot at the two Americans. Simond attacked with a lot of silky stuff; if there was such a thing as a French style of skating, this would be it: all sauce and no meat. Then along came Bobrin, swinging fluidly and finishing with his patented move, a stunt called a Bobrin Spin, which translates into an almost-falldown. Well, thanks, fellas, that was nice; very nice, in fact. But, unh, unh.

The finals shook down to Hamilton's peppery style against Santee's power. Hamilton communicates a sense of pure kick to the crowd while skating, and he laid out every move in his repertoire, so much stuff that at the end, he said, "I was doing a number called 'Illusion of Strength.' "He finished in full spin, with the crowd rising to whoop.

As for Santee, well, "What else can you do?" he said when it was all over. Indeed, he did everything possible and maybe never better. He, too, finished to a screaming ovation from the Civic Center crowd. His rewards: the silver medal—again—and, most likely, retirement. "I've been in two Olympics and this is my sixth world meet." he said, "and I've got a feeling that this is it for me." Bronze medalist Bobrin, 27, was a little less dismayed by Hamilton. "I hope you'll see me next year," he said.

Enter Zayak, 15, tiny and the U.S. champ. And in this corner. Zurich's Denise Biellmann, who is the Swiss and European champion, 18 years old, blonde with big, soft eyes; one of the few women in the sport who can accurately be said to have a willowy figure.

Ah, but that's all material that everyone knows. Now for the inside stuff: Biellmann also brings to the sport a few beautifully kooky touches. Listen, figure skating needs Biellmann. She travels with her own shrink, for one thing, a plump, expensively minked lady named Margarete Friebe, whose profession is Psychop‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üdagogin, which translates roughly into psycho-pedagogue. The Swiss skating federation pays part of Friebe's way and the Biellmanns pay the rest—all of it to "subdue the negative influences in Denise's subconscious and to stimulate the positive ones," says her coach, Otto Hügin. What's this? Negative thoughts in a skater? Well, yes, Hügin says. "Denise is timid and pessimistic by nature; one has to talk to her. I told her yesterday, 'You're the only one here who believes you can't win.' "

Not that the doughty old Hügin believes all that psychological mumbo jumbo. At practice sessions he would stand alone behind the barrier at one end of the ice; the shrink would stand at the other end—and Biellmann would skate between them. There was a lot of glaring, and it led to the kind of situation that could have been right out of an old Billy Wilder comedy.

Before the short program, Friebe had cooed soothingly to Biellmann, "It takes fortitude of soul to perform an extraordinary feat such as this. There should be a certain harmony reflected in the movements; all matters of the soul are reflected in the body."

And away went Biellmann, presumably psyched up. The problem was that she goofed a bit on a triple jump, suddenly deciding in midair to call it all off after just two revolutions. She made it down safely, though it cost a few fractions in scoring.

Well, purely a technical matter, right? Why had Denise missed the triple, Hügin was asked. "Why don't you go and ask the Psychop‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üdagogin why she missed the blankety-blank triple?" he snapped.

But if Biellmann was a snarl of psychological problems, Zayak also had problems of her own—all of them more in keeping with a perfectly adjusted kid who knows exactly where she's going. Foremost among them was that Zayak had perhaps the No. 1 cold in Hartford and couldn't risk taking any medication for it because of possible doping violations. "There ought to be a part in my music where there's a sort of, you know, a big crash of cymbals," she said. "And then, while that's going on, I could quickly sort of go snuurrrrffff and clear my nose. Listen, yesterday I actually had to wipe my nose on my sleeve while skating—I tried to make it look like a balletic gesture—and that's certainly not very glamorous, is it?"

Zayak also had skated a less-than-perfect short program, the one that had ended in that hard, bouncing fall. But it only served to make her more determined. She's that way. Once, she said, she had fallen out of a triple and landed on her eye. "I got up and looked at my coach [with her good eye, one presumes] for sympathy," she said, "and he said, 'Do it again. Get it right.' " That's Zayak. And Coach Peter Burrows.

So off they went into the finals, one of the women obviously full of fight, the other seemingly full of shapeless dreads—plus a sort of spooky last-minute admonition from her Psychop‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üdagogin to think in images. Think, Friebe suggested, "of a white cloud that moves slowly across the sky."

But that was mental. In reality, this was the situation: Biellmann was in second spot after both the compulsory figures and the short program; Zayak was in fifth. And while Zayak is a sensational charger—at the last World Championships, she bounded from 22nd to finish 11th—she would have to do some extra mighty charging here. Or to put it even more statistically, Zayak could win the gold only if Biellmann finished fourth or worse.

Well, it was close. Zayak banged out what must surely be called a powerful program, with nary a sign of sniffle, a routine punctuated with seven triple jumps—six of which she polished off perfectly—and a balletic section accompanied by a sort of tiny secret grin that perhaps the cameras couldn't quite pick up. She obviously knew that she was doing well. The effort produced a string of 5.8s and 5.9s.

A couple of skaters later, here came Biellmann. Maybe there's something to this white-clouds-across-the-sky imagery, after all. She started slowly to sensuous, soothing guitar music and simply flowed through her program. And everybody—that is, everybody who hasn't been living in a cellar for the past few years—knew what was coming next. Biellmann's skating trademark is die Pirouette, a stunningly acrobatic spin with left leg held high overhead, the sort of thing that is flatly impossible to do on skates. But Biellmann does it, and in a graceful climax that, again, brought a roaring, standing ovation, tons of flowers and the highest marks both for the night and the meet.

There was the obligatory pause to build suspense. Everybody knew, of course, that Biellmann had won the gold medal and was the new queen of the ice. But then came the awaited announcement: there in second spot was Zayak. Some jump. Claudia Kristofics-Binder of Austria, who had led at the start of the freestyle, finished third.

All this was the beginning of the prelude to the 1984 Winter Olympics in Yugoslavia, and we will now end this story with a prediction: Biellmann won't be there. In fact, you can go to lunch on that. Bigger things beckon already. There are, of course, the ice shows; "Holiday on Ice has already called," she said. But her real secret wish is to be a movie star, in movies where she can skate and sing and do die Pirouette. She's studying jazz dance, she's taking singing lessons, and a composer back in Zurich is writing a song just for her.

Well, then, at least Biellmann's victory had been a triumph for psychiatric techniques. Friebe, the psycho-whatever, stood off to one side, looking hugely self-possessed.

Let's ask Biellmann. All that stuff about slow-moving white clouds and fortitude of soul, knowing at the same time that, somewhere out there, Zayak was waiting to pounce. Did you really feel calm and confident in the finals, Denise?

"Not really," she said. "In fact, I was scared all the way."

PHOTO PHOTOAfter spinning and sniffing, Zayak struck silver. TWO PHOTOSBiellmann subdued her subconscious, did "die Pirouette" and won the gold.