Sunday, 10 March 2013

Come Back, Come Back, Whoever You Are

Nobody loves a good comeback more than me. As difficult as it is for skaters to reach an elite level of competitive skating and maintain it, it is probably twice as hard for skaters to reach that level again after time away from the sport. In 1993, the International Skating Union allowed for an extended period where skaters who had lost their eligibility (due to the great number of professional skating competitions, shows and tours of the time) to reinstate to eligible competition. Additionally, there have been many skaters who have simply retired from the sport or been away for extended periods for a variety of reasons (injury, illness, not being able to find a suitable partner, etc.). From triumphant returns to difficult setbacks, let's talk about 6.0 of the sport's most memorable comebacks...

ELAINE ZAYAK (1994)



If I could transport myself to Detroit, Michigan in 1994 and give Elaine Zayak a standing ovation right now, I would. Probably one of the most amazing comebacks I've seen was Elaine's return to competition in 1994, where she skated two outstanding programs, performing the same triple jumps she had made famous when she won her 1981 U.S. and 1982 World titles and showing great attack and wonderful competitive spirit. Although she just barely missed the Olympic and World teams that year with a 4th place finish, she warmed the hearts of thousands with her gutsy performances and went on to return to competitive professional figure skating from 1994 to 1996. Going out and finishing 4th at your national Championships 10 years and popping off multiple triple jumps ten years after you last skated in eligible competition is nothing to sneeze at, that's for sure.

KATARINA WITT (1994)



Music has it's Shirley Bassey's and Julie Andrews'; figure skating has Katarina Witt. People were shocked when 2 time Olympic Gold Medallist and 4 time World Champion decided to join fellow Olympic Gold Medallists such as Viktor Petrenko, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov and Brian Boitano when the International Skating Union allowed reinstatement of professionals in time for the 1993/1994 season and Lillehammer Olympics. After all, the diva and darling of ladies figure skating had not only won once but twice. Although she didn't have the technical difficulty to compete with the ladies field six years after retiring from eligible competition, she proved she had heart, delivering a flawless and dramatic short program to "Robin Hood" and an emotionally charged free skate to "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" dedicated the people of the war torn city of Sarajevo, where she won her first Olympic gold medal in 1984. The way people related to and cheered on Katarina and her easier jumps in Lillehammer is proof and parcel that the skaters who move us and who we FEEL something for are the skaters we cheer on.

MIDORI ITO (1996)



The 1989 World Champion and Japan's first real Olympic gold medal hope at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, Midori was under immense pressure and ultimately faltered slightly and took the silver to Kristi Yamaguchi in 1992. Neither skater was perfect, although both close. Turning professional after the 1991/1992, Midori won herself a World Professional title and performed the first triple axel by a lady in both ISU eligible AND professional competitions. And we're not just talking executed, we're talking nailed. Midori was one of the finest jumpers that figure skating has seen - with huge and consistent triple jumps and a triple axel that could compete with any men's skater of the era. When she returned in 1996 in time for the 1996 World Championships in Edmonton, Alberta, it was not the dream she had imagined. Under immense pressure from the Japanese federation yet again, Midori handily reclaimed her Japanese national title and demonstrated her trademark triple axel in front of 'hometown' fans. Unfortunately, when it came time to compete at the World Championships, she arrived anemic and weak and just didn't seem herself. She managed a top 10 finish but was not in top form. Like Witt and Zayak, she returned to professional skating, competing in the Japan Open competition twice with great success and performing in shows in Japan. Returning to competition yet again at the 2011 ISU Adult Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany, Ito demonstrated a fearless attack on the ice and that her competitive fire still hasn't died. It's clear from looking in her face she just loves to skate.

TANJA SZEWCZENKO (1997)



She was the "new Katarina Witt", even defeating Katarina at the 1994 German National Championships and performing strongly at the 1994 Winter Olympics and later at the 1994 World Championships in Makahari, Japan, where she won the bronze medal behind an emotional and tantrum throwing Surya Bonaly. And then injuries and inconsistency began to plague her and just when it got bad, it got worse. Tanja contracted a rare and near deadly combination of viral infections that nearly killed her. As the saying (and Kelly Clarkson) says "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger". Battling back from illness, Tanja really arrived back on the scene in the fall of 1997 just in time for the Champions Series (now called the Grand Prix) and rocked her way through her Grand Prix assignments and gave the skate of her life at the 1997 Champions Series Final, nailing each and every element and finishing a controversial 2nd to Tara Lipinski. Sadly, things again unravelled when she had to withdraw from the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano due to illness and did not deliver the same outstanding skates she had throughout the fall at the World Championships that year. I stole her "Speed" movie soundtrack music, she went on to star in German soap opera "Unter Uns" and skate pairs with Norman Jeschke in Holiday On Ice. The rest, they say, is history.

JOHNNY WEIR (2012)



Always "controversial", always entertaining and always pushing boundaries, the three time U.S. National Champion Johnny Weir may have gotten married and settled into life as a reality star on his LOGO reality show "Be Good Johnny Weir", but he wasn't done competing just yet. Weir staged a comeback by competing at the 2012 Finlandia Trophy, finishing off the podium. He initially had planned to continue on to try to reclaim his U.S. title at the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Omaha, Nebraska, stating he needed to step back and prepare more before continuing to compete at that level. At any rate, love him or not, you have to respect the courage and tenacity it takes to try to return to competition after time away. If there's one thing that Johnny Weir IS, it is fearless.

EMANUEL SANDHU (2013)


When 2004 Grand Prix Final Champion and 3 time Canadian National Champion staged a comeback in time for the 2013 Canadian National Championships, he shared something in common with all of the other skaters that decided to return to competitive skating after extended absences: his love of skating. Walking away from competitive skating six years ago, Sandhu had rediscovered his love of the sport. A finalist on "So You Think You Can Dance Canada?", Sandhu had to endure the qualifying process just as an any aspiring national competitor would have had to, and showed his trademark elegance and musicality. Although he finished out of the top 3 at both the Skate Canada Challenge and the Canadian National Championships, Sandhu's return to competitive ice reminded Canadian skating fans everywhere that it's never too late to do what you love.

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