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Original Issue

And Now the Front-Runner

Once known as the Alydar of figure skating, Canada's Brian Orser has been affirmed as the man to beat in Calgary now that he has won a world championship. After a silver medal at the Sarajevo Games—Scott Hamilton of the U.S. won the gold—and three second-place finishes in the worlds, Orser had been labeled an also-ran, even a choker, until he finally broke to the front in the 1987 worlds in Cincinnati. "The Canadian press was writing that I was destined to be second the rest of my life," Orser says. "People were giving up hope."

Now that fading hope has been replaced by bright expectations, Orser, 26, will carry the burden of being the favorite in Calgary. Whatever political advantage he gains from skating for the host country should be more than offset by the psychological pressure of trying to live up to the beliefs of 25 million countrymen. "In 1985 the world title should have been mine, and I didn't produce," he says. "I panicked and felt the pressure of being expected to win. Having gone through that once makes this year a little easier."

Indeed, Orser is a different man since winning his world championship. His compulsory figures, once maligned, are now on a par with his free skating, which appears to be effortless and weightless. Known early in his career as the skater who popularized the triple Axel among men—there's a sign in the Brian Orser Arena in Orillia, Ont., where he trains, that proclaims YOU'RE NOW IN TRIPLE AXEL COUNTRY—Orser was able to strike a balance between the athletic and artistic sides of his skating before his competitors did. "I'm flattered that this year Brian [Boitano] has made such great strides on the artistic side," he says. "I feel I've set that trend."

He also feels that he's the best figure skater in the world. "I don't think there's any question right now." Orser says. "I believed that even before I was champion. I was training well, winning all the practices. The problem wasn't physical, and it wasn't technical, so it had to be something else. Then I lost the '86 worlds when I blew two triple Axels—my trademark 'jump. That's when I called Dr. [Peter] Jensen and said. 'Help!' "

For the past two years, Jensen, a sports psychologist, has worked with Orser at developing "mental skills that allow him access to his physical skills." They rehearse actual competitions, plan how Orser will spend the hours leading up to each performance, and steel him against unexpected distractions so that he can maintain the equilibrium necessary to skate his best. And at his best he'll be very tough to beat.