Katarina Witt

Figure skating gifts

Figure skaters recall odd gifts from fans

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Michelle Kwan still has bags of stuffed animals, and she doesn’t know what to do with them.

The toys are mostly at least 10 years old, thrown on the ice by fans after her figure skating performances. Kwan believes the bags are collecting dust in the attic of her parents’ home.

“I think it’s a little too late to give stuffed animals [away to children] because they’re so old now,” Kwan said at a Figure Skating in Harlem gala in New York last week. “The kids will be like, ‘They make these still?’ … I don’t think kids would want to play with them anymore.”

Ardent figure skating fans go to competitions toting presents they heave on the ice after their favorite skaters perform. Whether the skater lands quadruple jumps or falls on a simple spin, they will receive lovely parting gifts.

Usually, children called “sweepers” gather the teddy bears, fake flowers, even candy for the skaters, who will sometimes pick up one or two items themselves on their way to the kiss-and-cry area.

It’s one of the sport’s unique traditions that grew more visible this past season, if one looked closely.

In January, U.S. Olympian Gracie Gold received a small stuffed sea creature at the U.S. Championships in Greensboro, N.C. Her coach, 76-year-old Frank Carroll, appeared to try to take a bite out of it while Gold waited for her scores.

In February, Gold carried a stuffed white bear about half her size to the kiss-and-cry area at the Four Continents Championship in Seoul. The bear wore a pink backpack, Gold opened it and pulled out a bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups while waiting for her judges’ scores.

The world’s most popular skater, Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, is known to have a Winnie-the-Pooh tissue box with him at competitions.

In March, gold and red Pooh bears rained on the ice at the World Championships in Shanghai, China, following Hanyu’s short program. At least 10 sweepers required minutes to clean the surface.

Hanyu’s friendly rival, Spain’s Javier Fernandez, was scheduled to skate after Hanyu in the next day’s long program.

“I’m going to skate around [the bears] and try not to kill myself,” Fernandez reportedly said then.

Active and retired U.S. skaters agreed that Japanese fans are on their own level.

“There’s adoration, and then there’s that,” 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie said. “It’s like worship almost. I think that would be overwhelming for a skater. That is pressure.”

Wylie competed in the pre-sweepers era.

“You would go around, and you would take probably two to three minutes and then greet anyone who was giving you a rose or something like that,” he said. “People wouldn’t throw them. They would stand at the edge of the barrier, and then the skater would come by and have this meet and greet. Based on that, it was taking too long.”

Wylie’s account conjures this Coca-Cola commercial from the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympics:

“Back in the ’90s, it was popular to do flowers, which I don’t think they allow anymore because of the debris,” 1992 Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi said.

In 2001, U.S. Figure Skating banned flowers “in part because of safety concerns related to the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent anthrax scares,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Sept. 11 made the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. move up a decision it was already going to make,” said Larry Kriwanek, chair of the Los Angeles 2002 U.S. Figure Championships organizing committee, according to the report. “Flowers were going to be eliminated. It was just a question of when.”

That did little to quell fans’ creativity.

“We sometimes will get stuffed animals made in custom costumes to match what we’re wearing,” Sochi Olympic ice dance champion Meryl Davis said, referring to partner Charlie White and herself.

Davis remembered as a child watching Kwan skate, and seeing the stream of stuffed animals being thrown by people sitting around her. But she said she’s never thrown a gift on the ice for another skater.

There’s difficulty in deciding which items to squeeze into luggage for the flight home. The others usually go to children’s hospitals.

“It’s tough to leave stuff behind, because you know that people are going out of their way to give it to you,” Davis said. “Usually in Japan, you get the most.”

Sasha Cohen, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist, received marriage proposals and, once in Paris, a bunch of Cashmere sweaters. She made sure to find room for them on her return flight.

“I may have worn them back,” she said.

The 1988 Olympic bronze medalist Debi Thomas once received a box of Domino’s Pizza. Canadian Olympic silver medalists Elvis Stojko and Patrick Chan have both said they received lingerie.

“The panties came out on the ice after my short program,” Stojko said in 2010, according to ESPN.com, “and the top came out the next night after the long program, with a phone number and name attached.”

Kwan, a nine-time U.S. champion, still has a buttoned, navy blue figure skating outfit with a skirt tossed by a fan.

“And it actually fit,” she said. “When I was a kid, I was 13 [years old] at Nationals, I used to keep every single toy. The next year, I got the same amount of stuffed animals, if not more, and I said, ‘What am I going to do with them?'”

Kwan said that, as a young spectator, she once threw a stuffed rabbit on the ice for Tisha Walker, a late 1980s and early 1990s U.S. skater.

Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic champion, said he’s received a bobblehead of himself, among stranger things.

“I got a self-sufficient ecosystem with a statue of me in the middle, so if the earth ever like came to an end, you could open this up, and the earth would regrow again from the center of this ecosystem with a statue of me,” he said.

Wylie remembered a famous fan story from the late 1980s, when he skated on a tour that visited Milan.

The star of the show was East German Katarina Witt, the 1984 and 1988 Olympic champion. Wylie noticed a famous spectator, Italian Alpine skier Alberto Tomba.

“Tomba was kind of after her, you know,” Wylie said of the man-about-town, five-time Olympic medalist. “He came into the boys locker room and noticed that there was this mound of flowers that we had sort of set there because they were going to go to the hospital or whatever. He kind of second-hand picked up the flower and gave it to Katarina.”

Was the gift well-received?

“She kind of liked him, I think,” Wylie said, smiling. “I think it worked.”

Yevgeny Plushenko to return to figure skating competition

Memorable U.S.-Germany clashes in Olympics

Jesse Owens, Luz Long
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The U.S. and Germany will face off with advancement on the line at the World Cup on Thursday, adding to decades of sports clashes between the two nations.

Of course, there is the World Cup — Germany beat the U.S. in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals (with Torsten Frings‘ handball) and the 1998 World Cup group stage (where Jurgen Klinsmann scored).

But even more memorable moments have occurred at the Olympics, where the nations have long been among the top medal winners and thus battled for gold often. In particular, the U.S. and Germany were one-two, in some order, in overall medals at the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Winter Games.

Here are five U.S.-Germany Olympic duels:

Jesse Owens vs. Luz Long, Berlin 1936

The most fabled of Owens’ incredible four gold medals in Nazi Germany came in the long jump. Owens, the favorite, was surprisingly in danger of missing the final, down to his final qualifying jump.

The long-told story, though specifics have been questioned, is that the German jumper Long tapped Owens on the shoulder before that do-or-die final qualifying jump and offered advice. Owens used the pointer, to jump from a few inches behind the takeoff board, and made it into the final.

Owens went on to win with an Olympic record jump of 8.06m, Long took silver at 7.87m and the two became friends. Long would be killed in action in World War II. He was posthumously awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal for his sportsmanship.

Debi Thomas vs. Katarina Witt, Calgary 1988

The figure skaters engaged in the “Battle of the Carmens,” dubbed so because they both performed long programs to music from the same Georges Bizet opera “Carmen.”

They had also finished one-two at the 1986 and 1987 World Championships; Thomas winning in 1986 and Witt in 1987.

In Calgary, the Stanford pre-med Thomas led after the compulsory figures and short program, with the East German Witt in second place. But Witt performed her “Carmen” better in the free skate than Thomas, who erred on a few jumps. Canadian Elizabeth Manley surpassed Thomas for silver.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee vs. Heike Drechsler, Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992

Joyner-Kersee and Drechsler combined to win every Olympic and World Championship long jump gold from 1983 through 1993, except the 1984 Olympics. Their friendship shined at the 1991 Worlds in Tokyo, where Joyner-Kersee injured herself on a jump, and Drechsler came over and wiped tears and sand off her rival’s face, according to Sports Illustrated.

“They are the Ali and Frazier of the women’s long jump,” Bobby Kersee, coach and husband of the American, told SI in 1992.

Drechsler won the 1983 World Championship for East Germany at 18. Their head-to-head showdowns began after that:

1987 Worlds — Gold: Joyner-Kersee; Bronze: Drechsler
1988 Olympics — Gold: Joyner-Kersee; Silver: Drechsler
1991 Worlds — Gold: Joyner-Kersee; Silver: Drechsler
1992 Olympics — Gold: Drechsler; Bronze: Joyner-Kersee

Drechsler won the 1993 World Championships with Joyner-Kersee absent, and Joyner-Kersee’s memorable final Olympic medal, long jump bronze in 1996, came without the injured Drechsler in the field. Drechsler won the 2000 Olympic title after Joyner-Kersee’s retirement.

After Soviet world-record holder Galina Chistyakova, Joyner-Kersee and Drechsler own the seven longest jumps in history.

Picabo Street vs. Katja Seizinger, Lillehammer 1994 and Nagano 1998

The U.S. and Germany had a few Alpine skiing battles — Lindsey Vonn and Maria Hoefl-Riesch split World Cup overall titles at their peaks and Tommy Moe was denied 1994 super-G gold on his 24th birthday by Markus Wasmeier.

Let’s focus on Street and Seizinger, the two best speed racers of the 1990s. Idaho’s Street won downhill silver in 1994 and super-G gold in 1998. Germany’s Seizinger won back-to-back downhill golds in 1994 and 1998. From 1992 through 1998, they won every World Cup season title in the downhill, save 1997.

Seizinger was nicknamed Die Millionärs-tochter by the German press as the daughter of a wealthy German industrialist. Her Type B reputation and preference to race far away from home (and the European media and stress) was a stark contrast from Street.

Seizinger’s first Olympic gold, in Lillehammer, was greeted by the silver medalist Street, who reportedly kissed her rival on the cheek and exclaimed, “You’re the queen!”

source: Getty Images
(Getty Images)

Dara Torres vs. Britta Steffen, Beijing 2008

This must be the closest U.S.-Germany duel in Olympic history, coming in swimming’s splash-and-dash 50m freestyle.

Torres, at 41, had come out of retirement, for a second time, to become the oldest female Olympic swimmer ever. Steffen, then 24, was coming off a fourth-place finish at the 2007 World Championships and was the second fastest qualifier into the final, .16 behind Torres.

But Steffen prevailed at the Water Cube by one hundredth of a second — 24.06 to 24.07.

Torres swam an American record, which still stands, but Steffen claimed the Olympic record. Torres, denied her first career individual Olympic gold, joked, “I shouldn’t have filed my nails last night.”

The next year, both lined up for the 50m free final at the World Championships. Steffen finished first and Torres last, but they embraced on the deck afterward with Steffen having snatched the world record.


Perhaps the most notable U.S.-German head-to-heads came outside the Olympics in boxing, where Joe Louis and Max Schmeling fought in 1936 and 1938 and split knockouts.

Another interesting Olympic fact between the two nations is the longtime relationship between top U.S. biathlete Tim Burke and German Olympic champion biathlete Andrea Henkel.

1936 Olympic swim champion still in pool daily at 95

Figures skaters use Olympics as regular reunion

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SOCHI, Russia – Olympic sports are different compared to their counterparts that gather on a yearly basis: Every four years the Games act as a certain kind of class reunion. This is the time that they’re sport – and themselves – are back in the spotlight for a short amount of time.

Figure skating is no different. In fact, it may the standout of the bunch.

There’s Katarina Witt, sitting in the TV booth doing commentary and watching if Yuna Kim can match her back-to-back Olympic gold mark. She somehow looks better than when she did in 1988 in Calgary, some 24 years ago.

There’s Tara Lipinski, 16 years after being a 15-year-old champion, calling the action for NBC Sports alongside fellow former Olympian Johnny Weir. The duo might win new golds for commentary glamor. Which somehow is a new event.

VIDEO: Watch the complete free skate replay

Scott Hamilton is also in the booth, as he has been for almost every Games since his memorable win in 1984 in Sarajevo. Paul Wylie runs back and forth to the media mixed zone, the 1992 silver medalist grabbing quotes and doing radio spots, his petite frame holding a microphone over the interview barrier.

“I was a long-program skater, too,” he tells Gracie Gold one night, reassuring her. On another he’s greeted warmly American ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, themselves new gold-medal winners.

At the practice rink, too, a close look in the crowd means several recognizable – and historic – faces: 2010 Olympic champion Evan Lysacek chats with two-time medalist Michelle Kwan while Jeremy Abbott works on his short program. Two-time silver medalist Elvis Stojko of Canada watches too, his brow furrowed as he studies the skaters on the ice.

VIDEO: Compare routines of Adelina Sotnikova and Yuna Kim

Russia’s Irina Slutskaya and Joannie Rochette of Canada, three medals between them, watch from the broadcasters’ booth as Adelina Sotnikova delivers a gold on Thursday night. Afterwards Slutskaya gets a picture with Lipinski, a then-and-now side-by-side.

Viktor Petrenko is at the boards, coaching both the Czech Republic’s Michal Brezina in the men’s event. Tanith Belbin, the U.S. ice dancer who won silver in 2006, interviews Maia Shibutani at one point in the seats of the Iceberg Skating Palace, talking about Maia’s free skate costume as it glitters under the TV lights.

Nancy Kerrigan happens through practice one day, the 1994 silver medalist watching 15-year-old American Polina Edmunds with curiosity, eventually making her way down to the mixed zone to observe the teen in press.

VIDEO: Sneak peek of Sunday’s Kerrigan-Harding documentary

Two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser coaches Yuzuru Hanyu to gold, Japan’s first-ever men’s singles winner. It’s four years after Orser led Yuna Kim to gold in the ladies’ event. But here, he has to console another skater, Javier Fernandez of Spain, who finishes fourth in the men’s event.

And Kristi Yamaguchi, winner of gold in 1992, does spots around the grounds for different TV engagements, just over 20 years after her victory – at the age of 20.

“Every four years it’s amazing to be able to come back and be able to be a part of the Olympic movement,” Yamaguchi says. “We share similar experiences – there’s a bond. Whether you’ve won a medal or not, you’ve been to battle together. It’s something very special.”