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Original Issue

They set the ice ablaze

A new crop of winners popped up at the 1981 nationals in San Diego, transforming a usually balletic sport into a rip-roaring athletic contest of rare fire and zest

This used to be a gentle sport. It was, ummm, elegant. There was an awful lot of what might be called tinkerbelling around, and in the old days folks went to figure-skating meets as one might the ballet. And while there was real rivalry, the champions always advanced in suspiciously orderly sequence through competitions that often seemed more feline than ferocious. But no more. A trend toward combativeness that started a few years back has now really taken hold and—at last—here is a sport that one can curl up with. Oh, sure, figure skaters couldn't be mistaken for hockey players, and they still compete to piped-in music and all that. But nowadays they also go for the throat.

The country's best skaters fought it out through last week and on and on and on into last Saturday night in the 1981 national championships staged at San Diego's Sports Arena. The meet also doubled as trials for the world championships coming up next month in Hartford. Going in, there were 145 skaters in 10 events, including a bumper crop of prep stars who will bear watching. For maximum impact, however, only a few competitors counted. They were the top contenders for the senior men's and women's singles and pairs titles, which were put up for grabs when the old champs turned pro. And within this select group, everybody seemed fully intent upon doing the others in, figuring that when they kicked off their skates Saturday night someone else would be belly-up against the hockey barrier in a far corner of the rink. You've got to hand it to competitors with such fierce goals, and that's what made this a landmark year.

How could anyone not warm up to a guy like David Santee, 23, who used to be colorless and withdrawn, or so he claims, but who recently redecorated the entire inside of his psyche in a Rocky motif? Or Scott Hamilton, 22, the nation's expert at looking wispy and fragile—just moments before he blows your doors off? Those were the top senior men; they've been around figure skating forever, but never as world or Olympic or national champions. The favorite was Santee, from Park Ridge, Ill., who finished fourth in the 1980 Olympic and world competitions. Hamilton, from Denver, was fifth in those meets; both have repeatedly made futile runs at the U.S. title, Santee for nine years in a row. Now that sort of frustration can make a guy really mean.

The women had even more reason to be ticked. Here was the incomparable Lisa-Marie Allen, 20, peerless skater and stunning blonde and the odds-on favorite to win at San Diego. Allen had always seemed to be finishing second behind Linda Fratianne or somebody in the nationals; she was fifth in the 1980 Olympics and seventh in the world meet. But Fratianne was gone now, off to the Ice Follies. O.K., Allen said, I'm going to give this my last best shot; one more time before I turn pro—and if I don't get the title, you're going to see some real teeth-gnashing.

Swell. Except that up pops little Elaine Zayak of Paramus, N.J., who's anything but reverent about figure skating's usual order of things. Zayak is not only tiny, 5'2" and 105 pounds, she's also just 15 years old. She had vaulted from the juniors into fourth place among the seniors at the last nationals, and now, at San Diego, she wore a look of absolute determination. Zayak wore it sweetly, true, but implicit in her every gesture was the promise that one false move and she would leap upon you and bite off your kneecap.

The women did the school figures in midweek, those figure eights traced into the ice, ho-hum, and—what's this?—up went Elaine ahead of Allen. Not by a giant margin, but there it was nonetheless. "Going into this thing, everybody favored Lisa-Marie," said Zayak. She permitted herself a wicked grin; in just the right light, she can look wise beyond her years. "Well," she added, "I don't know about that now." Both Zayak and Allen, however, were well behind another skater, the veteran Priscilla Hill of Lexington, Mass., though it was really too early to start worrying about standings. School figures count for only 30% of the total score, and a skater can blow the school figures if she is a dynamite freestyler. No problem there for either Allen or Zayak.

On Thursday night the senior women tangled in the short program, really a teaser for the grand finale: two minutes of freestyle skating to demonstrate their mastery of a few required moves, with the results counting for another 20% of the total. Both Allen and Zayak showed up in sequined blue costumes, and both were outstanding on the ice—but what can you do in two minutes? Well, you can show off differences in style. Allen is the last of the world's truly fluid skaters, all smoothed corners and graceful swirls. Zayak is power and bounce and verve, a kid who uses up the whole rink, as they say. This time, when the official flash-carding was over, they were still standing two-three behind Hill, but the gap had narrowed a bit and the stage was set for the final showdown on Friday night.

"I'm going to do seven triples in my final exercise," Elaine said. She bubbled with more competitive giggles while that sank in. Uhh, seven triple jumps? Come on, Elaine. Senior women can't do that; oh, maybe one or two, but most women just aren't strong enough. "Listen," Zayak said, "I'm dying at the end of my program, and I still got one more triple to go at the very end. Now that's hard; you've got to really train to do that." And she grinned again, an imp frozen for just this competition between being a child and a young woman. "This is a tough age for me," she said. "I do and I don't want to become a woman. You know, I want to be older so that I'm treated like a lady—but I want to look younger so that people will see me and say, 'Awwwww.' "

Now, how can anybody beat a calculated force like that? Elaine is a little sequined steamroller and in the long program on Friday night she crushed everything in her path. Take that, Prissy Hill. Watch this, Lisa-Marie. Can you do one of these? There were some sizzling flashes of double-lutz-into-triple-toe combinations, triples, double spins—even a brief shot of some old Sonja Henie smoothie stuff in the middle of her four-minute number. "Well, I was kind of sure of myself," Zayak said later. "Now, for the world meet, I'm going to do some even harder things." How many triples had she attempted, one newsman asked. "Seven," she said. That many triple jumps in one routine would be a world record. And how many had she completed? "Seven," she said. And giggled.

The official finishing order was Zayak, Hill and Allen, who ironically had fallen while attempting the one triple in her program. The top two will go to the world competition—and on that bitter note ended the long and frustrating amateur career of Lisa-Marie Allen. "Well," she sighed, "life goes on, doesn't it?" In her case, it will no doubt go on to a well-paid starring spot in one of the ice shows, where her elegance can be displayed to its best advantage. Indeed, Allen is too tender for this new breed; she's the classic lyrical skater caught between generations.

On Saturday night, along came the senior men in their big finale. "I'm coming out firing," said Santee, showing off his new aggressiveness. His feisty mood had come from watching Rocky, which, as movies will sometimes do, had hit Santee at just the right impressionable moment in his life. He had memorized the whole story, absorbed its overcome-all-odds moral, and had even added the theme song to his skating routine. All of which was fine with Hamilton, who was slightly ahead in the standings going into the long-program finals and had tensions of his own to think about. He paced backstage, cracking his knuckles nervously and practicing his whiplike look. "It ain't over until it's over," Hamilton said, "but right now"...snap, crack..."I can hardly wait."

What followed was perhaps symbolic of the new mood in figure skating: it was an old-fashioned barn burner. Santee indeed came out firing, executing jump after jump—triple-flip, triple-toe, walley combination, triple salchow, triple-toe loop—coming down off the last one shaking a defiant fist at the ceiling, a la Sylvester Stallone, while the audience went bonkers. He stirred in some spins and loops, all his good stuff, and finished to a standing ovation.

Could Hamilton top an act like that? Well, yes. At one time somewhere in his exercise he was step-spinning so fast he threatened to rise into the air like a helicopter. Add to that a handful of truly soaring triple leaps and a Heinz 57 of axels and lutzes, and the crowd leaped to its feet for another whooping ovation. The judges agreed, displaying a passel of 5.9s on their cards, plus two perfect 6s, the only ones awarded at the meet and the first ever in Hamilton's career. That did it.

The new national champ was Hamilton, the silver medalist, Santee. The bronze went to Robert Wagenhoffer of Fontana, Calif., and it should be noted here and now that Wagenhoffer is a new flash who will one day wipe the other two out. "It was one of those nights," said Santee. "It was like there was a certain magic in the air and one guy passed it on to the next guy."

Fair enough. It was a fitting end to a skating meet in this new era of combativeness. One must also note that the pairs title, held for five years by Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia, was, as expected, passed along without too much struggle to Peter and Caitlin Carruthers of Wilmington, Del., a brother-and-sister act. But after all, the meet had to have a few unsuspenseful moments.

So what lies ahead for this new order? Well, here's a clue: the morning after the women's finals, America's new champion turned out for an early breakfast. Zayak was wearing her brand-new mature look. She was also wearing a pair of signature-model designer jeans, high-heeled clogs and earrings and bracelets. Awwwwws behind her, here she comes.


The silverware was Zayak's, the silver, Hill's.


Allen crashed in one triple; Zayak flew through seven.