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Behold The Shining Star Of The G.D.R.
Rick Reilly
January 20, 1986
Lovely Katarina Witt, the world and Olympic figure skating champion, is a luminary in her hometown of Karl-Marx-Stadt
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January 20, 1986

Behold The Shining Star Of The G.d.r.

Lovely Katarina Witt, the world and Olympic figure skating champion, is a luminary in her hometown of Karl-Marx-Stadt

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Today Witt wears pink cropped pants, a pink, blue and black sweater, a chic blue oversized coat, pink scarf, blue suede boots, and blue, blue eyes. The coat she got in Hungary, the rest in France, but Dorothy always comes back to Kansas and Katarina always comes back to Karl-Marx-Stadt. Home is home.

Although the G.D.R.'s wunderkind system of Olympic success is a science, it was not design but chance that brought Witt to greatness. Living on the hill not far from the Küchwald rink in Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz before 1953), Katarina was five years old the day she first saw skaters glide. She begged her mother to enroll her in the skating club. At 10, she was taken under the tutelage of the G.D.R.'s most famous and fearsome skating coach, Jutta Müller, who paid her brilliant student 20 marks ($7.50) for turning her first triple Salchow. Müller became Katarina's parent, more than her mother, Käthe, who once danced with a folk dancing group before becoming a physical therapist, and more than her father, Manfred, a department director at a plant and seed co-op. "It seems easier to go to her with my problems, more than to my parents," says Katarina of her coach, "except that she doesn't like to hear about boyfriends."

No, Müller, now 57, lives for skating. Though a handsome skater once herself, it was not until she left the ice to coach that she climbed the top step of award platforms. In all, Müller has coddled, pestered, tricked and summoned from her charges 48 international medals, 23 golds alone, including Anett Pötzsch's first at the Lake Placid Games in 1980.

Half of Müller's secret is that if you skate for her, you do it looking as if you have just stepped out of a stretch limo at "21." To Müller, style is as paramount as triple Salchows. She spends hundreds of hours teaching smiles, contact, glitz and sass. Besides schooling Witt in the intricacies of splits, spins and toe loops, Müller coifs Katarina's hair, applies her makeup and fusses about her costumes. More than for any master of the sport, for her the look must be just so. "If Katarina has put on a little extra weight, I see it immediately," Müller says. "It's not that she can't jump anymore. It's just that I want that ideal look. I want the skater's figure to have absolutely no fault. For esthetic reasons, it must be absolutely perfect. And that takes discipline."

Discipline means no Eis (ice cream), no staying out late at the disco (Witt adores dancing), no zooming about at all hours with her friends in her Soviet-made Lada ("I go too fast," Katarina says) and, since there is so little time left after six hours of practice and the specialized sports high school that she attends, no Liebchen (sweetheart). That's cool, says Witt. "I just like to flirt." Besides, "a skater should be there for everybody," she says. "Imagine if the people hear that I'm tied down! They would be quite disappointed."

And she does flirt with her crowds, shamelessly. She has been taught to pick one face out of an audience and play to him, as though when the show were over, and if the moon were just right, the two of them might catch a pizza and a flick. "A skater does not skate just for herself," Müller says. "She should please the crowd."

Nobody in skating does it better than Witt and Müller, an intoxicating team. To help the evening along, Müller is partial to American musicals. For years, she banged on an electric piano in her apartment in Karl-Marx-Stadt in search of songs that would set the right mood for Witt. She has fallen mostly for Gershwin, and, thus, Katarina has tripped the ice fantastic to Girl Crazy's I Got Rhythm and Embraceable You.

Witt has been a flamenco dancer (she took flamenco lessons and watched the movie Carmen), a Hungarian peasant bride, even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (she wanted to wear knickers as Mozart, but the International Ice Skating Union insisted on a dress) and now a belly dancer, complete with a spangled Arabic dance outfit that looks like it cost several hundred marks, including three or four pfennigs for the cloth. It has, she admits, "very little material."

Does sex sell in the G.D.R.? Did Lenin sleep in red pajamas?

But Witt is not just another socialist sex symbol. She can be whimsically stubborn and unpredictable. At the 1985 world championships in Tokyo, the finals came down to a duel between Witt, the defending world champion, and America's 17-year-old Tiffany Chin. Witt skated first, scoring high enough to require near perfection from Chin. But instead of going back to her dressing room, Katarina stood by the rail to watch, an unheard of notion and somewhat nerve-racking for Chin, who fell and lost.

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