The ice was like a flattened, frozen cloud last Saturday, and one by one the other skaters, their warmups finished, left it to the heavenly Katarina Witt. Finally, she stood alone, leaning on the boards, picking at the ice with the toe of her right skate. At 28 she had never been more nervous, and her public, clapping in unison, seemed to sense this.
Embarking on her comeback to competitive skating at the European Championships in Copenhagen, Witt had landed out of a double Axel on both feet, instead of the requisite one, during her short program on Friday. It was a routine movement that she said she could do in her sleep. The judges deducted an automatic 0.4 of a point from her short program, which counted for one third of her overall score for the championships. Then they kept deducting for other movements, almost until the knife could cut no more. For required elements, six of the nine judges gave her ratings that ranged between 4.6 and 4.8. This was how the sport greeted her after the six years away? She was seen crying like a girl half her age.
"It was not the judging that bothered her," said German teammate Tanja Szewczenko, 12 years Witt's junior. "She wanted to be good."
After Friday's performance Witt ranked ninth. She had won Olympic gold in 1984 and '88, but now her modest ambition was just to finish second among the three German women in Copenhagen and win one of two spots on her country's '94 Olympic team. Szewczenko, the '94 German champion, was uncatchable in fifth place. Marina Kielmann, 25, who had medaled at the last four European Championships, was 14th after a miserable short program. At a team news conference Friday night, Kielmann stared straight ahead while Witt self-destructed. "I don't regret it," Witt said of her return to amateur competition, her head resting on her left hand, fingers shielding her eyes. "I had a real interesting time this year trying to come back. I would regret it if I never tried it."
Why had she tried it? The sport had changed immeasurably since she turned pro following the '88 Games. Twenty-year-old Surya Bonaly of France, who would win her fourth straight European title in Copenhagen, attempted six triple jumps in her long program and talked of including a quadruple jump someday. World champion Oksana Baiul, the wispy 16-ycar-old from the Ukraine, who was Saturday's runner-up, appeared capable of floating into the rafters. Witt, who had been more famous for her grace and sense of drama than her athletic skills, said, "I spent hours on those stupid compulsory figures," a reference to a once-vital part of the sport that has since been eliminated. "The competition is different. They're jumping more—which I respect. But it's not my skating."
Kielmann was the first of the Germans to skate on Saturday, and her performance would, in the end, elevate her to ninth place.
Then it was Witt's turn. The music began. Dressed in red she took off into a triple toe loop/double toe loop combination, followed by a triple Salchow. With each solid landing her confidence grew along with the cheers of the crowd of 2,500 in tiny Brondby Hall. The song Where Have All the Flowers Gone? began, and she started spinning wonderfully—the way one spins a flower stem between one's fingers. Near the end, though, she became tired—landing on two feet coming out of one triple and off-balance out of another—and the spell was broken. She concluded with a single Axel where a double had been planned, then skated toward center ice, breathing in apparent pain.
From all around came a roar as emotional as the one Marlene Dietrich heard in 1962, when she performed the same song in West Germany following her self-imposed exile in the U.S. Roses and stuffed animals landed at Witt's feet. Eight of the nine judges gave her marks from 5.0 to 5.3 for technical merit. All scored her from 5.4 to 5.8 artistically. In the championship she had once won six straight times, she finished eighth, 3.5 points ahead of Kielmann, good enough for an Olympic berth.
Afterward, Witt discussed the changes in Sarajevo since she struck gold there a decade ago, and how it had influenced her choice of music. She said Brian Boitano had faxed her a note of support after her depressing short program. She admitted she hadn't been sure she could do it.
"But when you go to Lillehammer," a reporter asked, "it is impossible for you to win the gold medal?" Impossible? Her brow jumped. "Oh, yeah, sure," she agreed, smiling.
The former champion won an Olympic berth but most likely won't be spinning for gold.