The Magic Skates

The Magic Skates

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

The Magic Skates

It’s okay if you fail at something, as long as you don’t give up, as long as you say—okay, I will try it again!

Marilyn Bell Di Lascio

We had one hour left before skating the program we’d worked toward for years. I tried to stay focused, but in an hour we could be the Olympic pairs champions!

I thought back to the end of 1983, and how we had finished the season on a high—taking the bronze medal at the World Championships in Helsinki. Some people, however, felt we should have taken the gold. Now, suddenly, Underhill and Martini were one of the favourites going into the 1984 season—and the Olympic year.

I was nineteen and Paul was twenty-two. Here we were, with all these extraordinary expectations for us, and the additional pressure of knowing that this would be our last year. No matter what the outcome of our competitions, we would be leaving amateur skating at the end of the season. Along with our coaches, Louis Strong and Sandra Bezic, we had made the decision to focus exclusively on preparing for the Canadian Championships in January, then the Olympics, and finally, the World Championships in Ottawa.

From the beginning of the season, however, things just started to unravel. My skates had always allowed me to fly, but now they were failing me. I struggled with my equipment for the entire season, never feeling totally on top of my game. Nothing would flow, and we were both constantly frustrated. Then, in early January, a bad fall left me with torn ligaments in my foot, so we weren’t able to skate at the Canadian Championships—our only tune-up event before the Olympics.

By the time we could skate again, there were only three weeks left until the Olympics. On the plane to Sarajevo, we saw the cover of Mcleans magazine: “Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini—Canada’s Olympic Hopefuls!” Everybody felt we could do it, but we just knew we weren’t totally prepared.

Once in Sarajevo, though, we caught the excitement. Our practices weren’t the best, but we still felt we could do it when it counted—in front of the judges.

When we stepped onto the ice, we knew this was our one shot at our dream. We skated well, nailing all the hard elements, and I thought to myself: We did it! And then it happened. As we were stepping into an easy element (a spin we could do in our sleep), my edge just slid off. I smashed right into Paul as he was coming around, sending us both crashing onto the ice. We were very lucky. His blade was just inches from my head, and the fall could have been catastrophic.

We picked ourselves up and somehow finished the program, but it was just a blur after that. We were totally shattered. We finished sixth after that short program, leaving us stunned and without hope. Then, after a sleepless night, we still had to get out on the ice for an early morning practice, which was just terrible.

When we finally stepped onto the ice to skate our long program, we were both just empty shells. We went through the motions anyway, and to add insult to injury, we dropped from sixth to seventh place. We were devastated.

When we arrived home, there was a big crowd waiting for the Canadian team at the airport. Brian Orser walked through ahead of us, and a huge cheer went up because he had brought home the silver medal. We came out next, and suddenly there was total silence. People didn’t know what to say to us. They avoided us, and we felt alone and heartbroken. It felt like people had given up on us—like we didn’t have their support anymore. I had never been to a funeral, but I thought this was what it must be like. It was the death of our dream.

It was only three weeks before the World Championships in Ottawa. As we began to practice, all the same frustrations continued—no matter what we tried. Everything was a struggle, and we just couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Communication was difficult between us, and I had never felt so alone. We’d always had fun skating, but this was more like torture with so much tension.

About a week before the World Championships, we were at the rink for our daily practice. Paul was sitting in the coffee shop, with his feet up, and I was circling the ice—tears streaming down my face. Our coach, Louis, called us into his office and said, “Look, there’s no point in embarrassing ourselves. I’m going to phone Ottawa and just call it off. There’s no point in going.”

He later told us he had been bluffing, but I didn’t think so then. We’d never given up on anything before, and I just couldn’t handle the thought of giving up now. I left his office.

It just happened that Brian Orser was at the rink that day. He came down every couple of weeks to train at the Granite Club. He and I had started together at the Junior Worlds back in 1978, and we were very, very close friends. He was still tying on his skates, so I sat down beside him, put my head on his shoulder and just started to sob. “It’s over,” I managed to get out. “We’re not going.”

He looked at me, thought for a second, and then said, “Why don’t you go back to last year’s boots?” He said it so easily.

Now I had thought those boots were totally done. But it just so happened they were in my car with all my other stuff, because I was moving. I probably wouldn’t have done it if they hadn’t been out there—but they were. I thought to myself, Why not? What do I have to lose? I retrieved them from the car, Paul switched my good blades to the old boots—and then I stepped out onto the ice.

What happened then was like magic! Within five minutes I knew. The wings were back on my feet, and I was flying again. Paul came out and joined me. He was so excited. After working so hard all season, everything was suddenly effortless, just the way it used to be! I didn’t know whether Louis had made that telephone call yet or not, but I wasn’t even going to talk to him. We were just out there skating, making him watch. The first time we tried a run-through, it was perfect! We hadn’t done that all year. We stayed on the ice that entire day, skating right until midnight!

It was suddenly clear that everything that had happened was all a result of firmly believing that my new skates would eventually “break in” like any other pair of skates. But they hadn’t, and they never were going to.

The rest of the week was unbelievable. Every day, it was all just there: the excitement, the energy, the fun! In one instant we’d gone from the most devastating low to believing that maybe this could still happen.

We went to Ottawa, and every practice was perfect. Our routines flowed and clicked just the way they used to. People couldn’t believe the difference in our skating.

The day of the World Championship finals arrived. When we stepped onto the ice, we knew, right from the first moment. We were in such a zone. Everything happened so easily. We skated flawlessly, effortlessly— and I wouldn’t allow myself to look at the crowd and get caught up in their reactions. However, about thirty seconds before the end of our program, as I was coming down from the top of a lift, I allowed myself a peek at the crowd for just an instant. The people were on their feet, and the building was starting to erupt—something I had never experienced in my life. It felt like the roof was about to come off!

When we finished, the feeling of relief was indescribable. To top it off, everyone who had ever played a role in our career was there in Ottawa that day. We were able to share this incredible moment with all of them. As I looked into the audience, I saw my two sisters sobbing, with their arms wrapped around each other.

It was a long two minutes while we waited for our scores. We were in the “kiss and cry” area with Louis and Sandra, jumping up and down. Everyone was screaming. We kept looking up to Johnny Esaw—he always had the results first on his monitor—but he was so excited that he pulled the cord out of his computer by accident, and the screen went blank! Everyone was wondering: Did we do it? Did we do it? I think we all knew in our hearts that we had, but it wasn’t until we saw and heard the string of 5.8s and 5.9s that we really believed it.

Our dream had come true: we were the new world champions! It was so amazing to realize that we had gone from the lowest possible low to the highest possible high in just three weeks. We had defeated the Russian team that had taken the Olympic gold only three weeks earlier, and the East Germans who had been world champions two years previously.

We stood on the podium with two sets of world champions and the Olympic champions. The flags began to go up. We waited, hearts beating, for the Canadian flag to rise to the top of the pole—but it became caught on something and was lowered again! I thought, No, no, no. This is such an amazing moment. Don’t ruin it. But they unhooked the flag, sent it back up and then the sounds of “O Canada” spread across the arena. As we stood there listening to our national anthem, it felt like we had ten thousand friends sharing this special moment with us. After all we had been through, it seemed like a miracle that we had managed to deliver two perfect programs. We both had tears running down our faces. It was amazing going from what we were feeling a week earlier to being part of this incredible celebration! To this day, every time I see a Canadian flag go up, I relive that moment at the World Championships.

All these years later, people will stop one of us in a mall or on the street—they recognize us—and say, “I was there that day. . . . I was there.” And we instantly know that they mean they were there in Ottawa, when we skated that miraculous, memorable skate.

Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini
Mississauga and Bradford, Ontario

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