A One-Man Spectacular: Holliday on Ice

Chicago's Larry Holliday has persevered during hard times to become skating's unlikeliest rising star
February 11, 1991

At that lonely hour when late night slips into early morning, a driving rain and gusting wind pelt this particularly gritty section of Chicago's North Avenue. The neighborhood's denizens—bar patrons, the homeless, even the loitering thugs—have sought shelter from the ugly weather, leaving the dark, wet street virtually abandoned. A lone taxi trolls for fares. A prostitute, wearing a citrine slicker and no hat, stands drenched on the double yellow line at midstreet, trying to scare up business. And an '84 red Scirocco begins its appointed rounds. Behind the wheel is Larry Holliday, one of this country's fastest-rising male figure skaters and the highest ranked African-American since 1986 world champion Debi Thomas.

For the next two hours, Holliday will navigate his car around the city's Near North Side, delivering morning editions of the Chicago Sun-Times, USA Today, Investor's Daily and The National. This is how Holliday makes the money—some $300 a week—he needs to finance his dream of making the U.S. Olympic figure skating team. "It's scary at this time of night, huh?" he says above the slapping of windshield wipers. Holliday smiles, and his face beams warmth and friendliness, a welcome contrast to the urban scene outside the car's fogged windows.

Holliday is currently ranked 10th in the country. The lanky skater—5'11", 155 pounds—hopes to eventually leap several more spots and thus give himself an outside shot at making either the 1992 or the '94 Olympic team. His dream has been complicated by the recent recurrence of an old knee injury.

The injury, a ligament strain in his right knee, happened on Jan. 10 during Holliday's short program at the Midwestern championships, a qualifying event for the nationals. Holliday is out of the big tournament and is undergoing six weeks of rehabilitation, and this concerns him. At age 26, he's no kid, and he realizes he has precious few chances left to make the Olympics. "People have to remember that you don't just burst to the top in figure skating," says Holliday's coach, Pieter Kollen. "You have to pay your dues and wait your turn. It takes time to climb the ladder."

No one would dispute that Holliday is paying his dues. After his 270 newspapers have been delivered, Holliday will grab three hours of sleep, then head to the Robert Crown Community Center rink for 90 minutes of skating. In the afternoon he may nap before a second workout—light weight reps, roller blading, running, cycling, or even climbing the 28 flights of steps in his Lake Shore Drive apartment building. Then a little more sleep, and at 2:30 a.m. the alarm will ring and it'll be time to deliver papers again. Once a week Holliday forgoes his post-paper-route snooze to drive 160 miles to Indianapolis for a six-hour session with Kollen.

"I fully intend to make the Olympic team," Holliday says. "But even if I don't, the experience alone makes it all worthwhile. I've seen so many beautiful places and met so many interesting people. I've learned a thing or two about myself, too. It's true that you appreciate most what you worked hardest to get."

Holliday got interested in skating when he was 12. He remembers looking down from the 72nd floor of the John Hancock building on Michigan Avenue, at the Lake Shore Park skating rink. "You could look out the window and see these tiny antlike things sliding around on the rink below. I had to try it."

That Christmas he asked his mother, Norma, for a pair of skates. A rink rat was born. "I'd skate after school until 10 at night, when the park closed," he says. Holliday taught himself simple moves like split jumps and spins by imitating skaters he saw on TV. He delighted in the speed with which he could circle the rink. He even caught himself humming ABC-TV's Olympic theme in his head.

Holliday's father, Lawrence, was killed in a street shooting when Larry was seven. Norma Holliday never remarried, so the task of financing her younger son's growing obsession was hers alone. "Before I knew it, Larry needed special boots, special blades, lessons, a coach," she says. "I figured I either had to win the lottery or find more work." For the next 14 years, Norma, a full-time secretary at a commodities firm, held down as many as three jobs at a time. "My own family would take me aside and say, 'Norma, make him quit,' " she recalls. "But I saw how hard Larry was working. I couldn't take this from him."

Over the next eight years, Larry worked his way through the local, state and regional competitions. Like most skaters, he went where the coaches were: a year in Madison, Wis.; four years commuting to Rockford, Ill., three hours away. Finally he accepted an invitation to train in Denver with Norma Sahlin, former coach of 1978 world champion Charlie Tickner. Sahlin arranged for Holliday to stay in the Denver suburb of Englewood, at the home of Alex English, then a starting forward with the Denver Nuggets and now with the Dallas Mavericks. "Larry's a terrific kid; my kids loved him," says English. "He was a great skater even then, extremely dedicated. All he lacked, really, was confidence."

Holliday moved back to Chicago in the spring of 1989 after failing to qualify for that year's nationals. At age 24, he seriously considered giving up the sport. "But there was always something about the ice that kept calling Larry back," says Norma. That fall he hooked up with Kollen, a former U.S. pairs champion, and five months later Holliday made the nationals, where he finished 10th.

Soon after that, Elma Douglas and her nephew Ron Tate, both beginner skaters, were attending a session at the Robert Crown rink in Evanston and saw Holliday skate. "He was magnificent on the ice," says Douglas. "So powerful and jumping so high. And best of all, he was black."

Last July, Douglas, a retired public school teacher, used $1,000 of her pension to buy a full page ad in the Chicago Defender, the city's black newspaper. The text read in part: "Here's an extraordinary talent fighting to stay alive." The ad didn't garner a single response. So Douglas and Tate, the founder of the Public Housing Network of Chicago, started making "anonymous" calls to three local television stations. "We disguised our voices so they thought it was a bunch of different people calling," says Tate. "We'd say, 'Hey, did you see that ad in the Defender about the skater?' "

Soon, local and national reporters were enamored with the tale of the kindly retired teacher and the Olympic hopeful. Money began pouring in. Donations came from as far away as Texas and California. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley gave $250. Holliday's financial pressures eased, but other demands grew. "Ron wanted me to party with potential sponsors," says Holliday. "I'd say, 'But what about my sleep?' I'm lucky if I get an hour of ice time a day, and Ron was pulling me off to pose for photographers."

As the relationship between Tate and Holliday deteriorated, accusations flew. Norma Holliday questioned Tate's handling of the fund. Tate claimed that Norma was trying to draw money out of the fund for nonskating expenses. (The Illinois attorney general's office investigated and found no wrongdoing.) The Hollidays believed that Tate was more interested in promoting himself politically than in promoting Larry's skating. "How can they say that?" says Tate. "We gave him our time, spent our own money. He could have had it all."

The rift became public and took on racial overtones. Holliday went on WBBM radio and said that Tate was trying to take control of his life by suggesting that he, Larry, stop hanging around with his white friends. "Ron kept telling me that this is a black-and-white issue," says Holliday. "They wanted me to be this symbol, but they were talking to people like I had already won the Olympic gold medal. I wasn't comfortable with any of it."

Tate called Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mike Royko, who wrote in the Chicago Tribune that Tate admitted to influencing Holliday because the skater needed some "shock treatment." Tate told Royko: "Larry's absolutely uncomfortable in the black community. And we [Tate and his aunt] encroached upon an environment we weren't supposed to be part of. When we started helping, all the whites who skated said, 'What are you doing here? You don't belong here.' "

Last September, Tate transferred control of Holliday's support fund, which totaled $10,000, to the U.S. Figure Skating Association, and the two parties haven't spoken to each other since. "I think the basic problem was that they didn't understand the sport," says Holliday. "One time Ron was angry because I wasn't enthusiastic about a press release. He said, 'Elma and I worked 24 hours straight on this.' Well, I worked 14 years to get where I am now. To them, skating was a means to an end. To me, skating is the end. It's my life."

That's obvious when you watch Holliday work on his newest long program, a military tribute to Americans in the Persian Gulf. Nine bars from Richard Rodgers's Victory at Sea echo again and again through the deserted rink while Holliday practices a triple Salchow, double-loop combination. He soars to the music's cymbals and brass, and spins brilliantly. The pant legs of his black-and-red suit flutter like the sails of a sloop in a gale. His blades leave what looks like a vapor trail in the newly resurfaced ice. His face is determined but at peace, free of distractions. Taking in the sight, an observer understands why Holliday is drawn to the siren call of the ice—because here he is free.

Lisa Twyman Bessone, who lives in Chicago, is a frequent contributor to SI.

PHOTOGWENDOLEN CATESAt the Daley ice rink, Holliday can skate away from trouble and turmoil.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)