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A munchkin and a mind-set
Bob Ottum
March 16, 1981
As Scott Hamilton (above) whirled to the men's world title, a Swiss and her "Psychopädagogin" took to the clouds
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March 16, 1981

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

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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.

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