Sears Open Articles

Hard work pays off for Orser as former champ returns to form Third place finish against strong field is good sign for skater
Sports Reporter
Monday, December 6, 1999

Mississauga -- In two weeks Brian Orser will be 38 years old. But the 1987 world champion was the talk of the Sears Open event on the weekend.

Orser finished third behind U.S. star Todd Eldredge and reigning Canadian champion Elvis Stojko, who are kids in Orser's terms. But Orser was magnificent, prompting a noisy, long standing ovation. Without putting a foot wrong, Orser scored a different kind of victory.

During practices for the event, Orser was hot. He looked like the Orser of old, landing a triple Axel -- double toe-loop combination, the kind of work that earned him a couple of Olympic silver medals. He's been trying to revive it again since the end of last skating season.

Earlier this season, Orser won the first round of a Grand Slam competition in Kitchener, Ont., defeating 1998 Olympic champion Ilia Kulik of Russia. He'd like to keep going, and try the Japan Open a month away. "I'm kind of on a roll here," he said.

Orser won one world title, and his Canadian successor, Kurt Browning, won four. But on Saturday, Orser defeated Browning for the first time since he retired after the 1988 season. He had a little help from a timing infraction, but Browning acknowledged his skating forbearer was brilliant.

"We've skated professionally against each other, and I've won parts of competitions but never the final," Orser said. "I feel better than ever as a pro. I always knew this was in me."

Orser said the first few years of his pro career were hectic. The lifestyle was a whirlwind. He came and left it a few times. He didn't always skate well. During the past five years, he's had to endure a lot of personal trauma in his life -- the death of a friend, Rob McCall of AIDS, the death of his mother, a palimony suit -- and it obviously affected his skating.

During McCall's illness, Orser set aside his pro career to help his friend.

But Orser has found peace and happiness in his life since, and last weekend it showed. His interpretive program was flawless, and his special trick, a perfect back flip into a triple toe loop, sparked audience cheers. He's landed it in every competition this year.

"It's neat," Orser said. "You have different rotational things happening all in a second. . . . You wouldn't want to do it with an ear infection."

Since last season, Orser has been training with more intensity. He's fit and trim and boyish and skates with blades that make no noise, just like in the old days when he was battling it out with Scott Hamilton, whose career has wound down.

Orser skates at a very cold rink in Ottawa, almost always alone. It's not comfortable. Every day, he runs through both his short and long programs, just like he used to do. "It's really tough slugging," he said. "But it's really good training. When you come to a comfortable rink, everything just comes together."

His skating triumphs come more often now. "I usually have a pretty good feeling whether they're going to happen or not," he said. "I had a good feeling about it this weekend.

"I know what it takes in order to skate well and that's just training and being prepared."

Those are the kind of things that Orser will be able to teach young Canadian skaters in his new job with the Canadian Figure Skating Association as a skating consultant and talent scout. "I guess I'm living proof, even at my age," Orser said. "It can be done at any age. If you set your mind to it, you can do it."

Orser said the meeting of three generations of Canadian world champions on the weekend gave him extra motivation to train hard. "I wanted to belong," he said. "I wanted to fit in the same rink with these two other guys. I'm very proud of them that they handled themselves so well after I left in 1988 -- on and off the ice."

Orser said he feels he took the sport to a new level. After all, he was the king of the triple Axel, at a time when the jump was a rarity. He said both Browning and Stojko took the sport to new levels, as well.

"I'm quite proud of them, and I'd like to think I had a little bit to do with it," he said.

Orser, Browning, Stojko toe-to-toe
Steve Milton
The Spectator

This afternoon, if they're lucky, an audience will see Brian Orser do his first triple Axel in more than 11 years.

And maybe then they will comprehend what else they are witnessing. Living history. The lineage of leapers. The members of the best relay team this country has ever known.

Orser to Browning to Stojko.

Today, for the first time ever, Orser, Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko will compete against each other.

There are a couple of other noteable men (Todd Eldredge, Steve Cousins) in the Sears Open, but for Canadians it's all about the trio which changed the sport in this country.

Canada has won 10 men's world figure skating titles and eight of them will be represented on the ice in this pro-am, which is a hybrid of "eligible" and "ineligible" (nee, amateur and pro) skating.

Browning has won four, Stojko three (plus two Olympic silvers), and Orser just one (also two Olympic silvers).

But it was Orser who blazed a trail through the barrens Canadian skating had become in the 1970s, and built that first road to the podium. Browning paved it, and Stojko increased the speed limit.

The way it will be remembered by history is that when, after four years of knocking on the door, Orser won Canada's first men's title in 24 years in 1987, he showed Canadians they could win. Browning showed Canadians how to win often. And Stojko showed them how to win with everything stacked against you.

Each rocketed to the top on his technical strength and innovation, then added showmanship.

Vern Taylor, also Canadian, may have done the world's first triple Axel, but Orser did the next half dozen or more and made the jump synonymous with his name.

Browning did the world's first quad. Stojko did the world's first quad-double and quad-triple combinations.

But by the end of their "amateur" careers Orser and Browning had become better known for their artistry than technicality, an alchemy Stojko has still to perfect.

Besides, the envelope he prefers to push most is the technical one.

Orser, Browning and Stojko have combined to make figure skating a widely-respected male sport in this country, where once it was greeted only by a nudge-nudge, wink-wink cynicism. Because of them, tickets for the one-day Sears Open at the Hershey Centre were gone only hours after they went on sale.

And think of that delicious irony for a moment: Figure skaters almost instantaneously selling out the rink most closely associated with Donald S. Cherry. All three were not only participants in Canadian sport history, they were passionate observers of it.

"In our country it all started with the guy with the balls to go against the world and win," said Browning, who was at his second Worlds when Orser won in 1987.

"I was more emotional when he won in Cincinnati than I was for any of my wins. I think it set something off in me that needed to be finished. I just saw someone ... really close to me, a real human being, someone who talked to me . . . teach me how to win. He was probably my hero without my knowing it. I've said Scott (Hamilton) is my hero, but now that I'm older, I recognize that Brian was one of my heroes.

"With Elvis and me there was kind of a crossover, which really sucked for me, because I didn't want to lose in my own country.

"But for the sport I thought it was kind of cool to have that blend rather than, 'you're next, you're next.' It's a lot easier to take now, though, than it was then."

Stojko once told Browning that he appreciated his leadership in their head-to-head battles -- most notably at Hamilton in 1993 -- and recognized how hard it must have been to be the established champion with this challenger quadrupling on his heels. He still gets a little choked up recalling Stojko's respect for his forerunner.

"Brian was always the guy I had looked up to and trained with," said Stojko, who moved to Orillia at the age of 13 to work with Orser and his coach Doug Leigh.

"Then this guy (Browning) shows up and follows Brian from there, and then picks up the world title the next year. I come into the picture a couple of years later and follow Kurt along the way. I don't know if there was as much of the rivalry with Brian and Kurt as what we (he and Kurt) had. I think that pushed the sport to another level.

"The three of us did a lot of changing and helped the sport in a lot of ways."

For Orser, perhaps more than for his successors, today is special. Since the day he turned professional in the spring of 1988, he has not performed the triple Axel in public.

Rarely, in fact, in private. But for six months, he's been training for today's event, has trimmed down, and has been landing the King of triples that once bore his stamp, and his alone.

"I'd love for the audience to see the three generations and the passing of the torch," Orser says. "But I don't want to be the old man out there. Poor,sad old Brian. So I've worked hard for this.

"We started a roll, that's for sure. I guess getting on the podium in '82 with Brian Pockar and me eventually winning in '87 was the start.

"They just kept the ball rolling. There was some momentum here. Kurt sort of fed off of that, because he got to witness that and I think he thought that was kind of cool. Plus, he was in a position to take the bull by the horns and do something, as Albertans do, pardon the pun.

"Then Elvis did the same thing. But Elvis also had a taste of it because I was training with him. He saw all the behind-the-scenes stuff and five or six years later learned what it was I was going through and maybe could learn from it.

"That it's stressful, that there's a huge weight on your shoulders, and that it's important."

Orser had no one from whom to learn how to become a champion. But perhaps he's learned from the generation which learned from him. He's in better shape than he's ever been as a pro, is creating more time in his schedule for practice and is nailing Axels fairly consistently in workouts.

And his thirst for competition has been revived. Stojko and Browning each remarked how much Orser wants to win today.

"Did they say that?" he laughs. "That's funny."

And then, pausing for a moment, he nods his head.

"They're right."

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