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.