Brian Orser's bid for figure skating gold is team effort. Current world champion hopes to give Canada its first Olympic title in men's singles event

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the world of figure skating, some pioneers are remembered for the moves they invented. Axel Paulsen, Ulrich Salchow, and Alois Lutz, for example, originated jumps that bear their names. Brian Orser's career has been spent polishing these maneuvers, not creating new ones. But if he wins a gold medal here at the Olympic Winter Games, the reigning men's world champion just might inspire a new event: team singles.

When media people kept pumping Orser for information about his ``entourage'' the other day, the articulate Canadian sought to shed a different light on his support network of coach, psychologist, nutritionist, physical therapist, costume designer, compulsory figures coach, and various other aides-de-camp.

``I don't like to think of them as an entourage,'' he said. ``They're part of my team, and each person has a very important part. Each one has been putting 100 percent into a common goal that we all have, which is to be the best.''

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David Dore, director general of the Canadian Figure Skating Association, explains the strategy this way: ``Brian is really a hero for all the young skaters in this country. So the view of the association was that as much as possible we wanted to give him the support staff needed for him to accomplish his goals. These are things that he has identified as needing.''

This collective concept is not altogether new. In tennis, Martina Navratilova has used it, and in skating, other athletes, including Orser's own Canadian teammates, have increasingly received help beyond that provided by their individual coaches. Debi Thomas, among the American skaters, has tried to enhance her performance by consulting with noted dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.

``This is where skating is going now,'' Orser said of the group approach. ``It's becoming very sophisticated and very, very technical. The sport has progressed a lot in the last five years, and every little bit helps.''

In Orser's case, the attempt to gain an edge has seemingly reached new heights through all sorts of simulation and imagery training. These practices have been initiated by Dr. Peter Jensen, a sports psychologist employed by the Canadian Figure Skating Association.

Jensen has become a highly visible member of the Canadian squad and Team Orser, and stands at rinkside whenever his heralded prot'eg'e competes as sort of a visible reminder to relax. Jensen is living in the Athletes Village during the Games, and even marched in with the Canadian team during the opening ceremonies.

As world champion, Orser must feel under a lot of pressure to win the gold medal in his own country.

No Canadian man has ever won the Olympic skating title (Orser's silver in 1984 is the nation's best showing in the event), and now the stage seems set for Orser. Yet Canada's opening ceremony flagbearer has been running a neck-and-neck two-year battle for superiority with his American friend Brian Boitano, whose main source of moral support remains his coach, Linda Leaver.

In a sense, then, the Battle of the Brians that began Wednesday with the compulsory figures, and continues tonight and Saturday night with the free-skating events, shapes up as something of a contrast in approaches.

Boitano appears to be the more independent, while Orser has left some people wondering if he leans too heavily on Jensen to get him through.

Asked what would happen if Jensen were not fit, and unable to be at his usual location for Saturday's all-important long program, Orser said: ``Peter would be there, but that would be another obstacle that I would have to deal with, but he has taught me how to deal with any obstacle.''

The two consult privately about twice a week, and sometimes arrange elaborate simulations, complete with TV cameras and judges, to familiarize Orser with certain high-stress competitive situations. They even set up an ersatz first Olympic practice - in Toronto's empty Maple Leaf Gardens - since this is often an anxious moment.

Ironically, Orser says that only a few years ago he felt he'd never use the services of a sports psychologist.

He had a change of heart, however, after a bad experience at the 1986 world championships, where he felt the tension and finished second to Boitano after a spill-marred routine. He didn't want to watch the others skate, and hid in the locker room with the showers running to drown out the noise coming from the arena.

``I was in a hope mode,'' he says now. ``I didn't know how to skate knowing I could win.''

Part of the challenge any figure skater faces is the infrequency of major competitions. The superstars, in a sense, train 11 months of the year for one night - the finals of the world championship.

The theory, therefore, behind the simulation work is that it familiarizes the athlete with what those rare moments of truth might be like.

``The whole idea comes from the space program,'' Jensen explains. ``They didn't just put somebody on the moon. They simulated and simulated and simulated, and finally they tried it. So we try our best to put pressure on the athlete, because it's foolish to try something new at the Olympic Games.''

The same thing occurs in baseball, Jensen says, as the on-deck batter rehearses by swinging at simulated pitches like the ones he will soon face.

Ultimately, of course, the mental and physical practice ends. When it does, Canada's main gold medal contender will stand alone, just like every other skater, challenged in a very private way to release his talent.

Therein lies the true test, the one that seems the essence of figure skating.

Olympic results and upcoming schedule

Results through Tuesday's events

Men's downhill skiing 1. Pirmin Zurbriggen, Switzerland 2. Peter Mueller, Switzerland 3. Franck Piccard, France

Women's 10k cross-country skiing 1. Vida Ventsene, Soviet Union 2. Raisa Smetanina, Soviet Union 3. Marjo Matikainen, Finland

Men's 30K cross-country skiing 1. Alexei Prokourorov, Soviet Union 2. Vladimir Smirnov, Soviet Union 3. Vegard Ulvang, Norway

70-meter ski jump 1. Matti Nykanen - Finland 2. Pavel Ploc, Czechoslovakia 3. Jiri Malec, Czechoslovakia

Pairs figure skating 1. Yekaterina Gordeyeva and Sergei Grinkov, Soviet Union 2. Yelena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev, Soviet Union 3. Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard, United States

Luge, men's singles 1 Jens Mueller, East Germany 2 Georg Hackl, West Germany 3 Iouri Khartchenko, Soviet Union

Men's 500 meter speed skating 1 Jens-Uwe Mey, East Germany 2 Jan Ykema, Netherlands 3 Akira Kuroiwa, Japan

Remaining schedule

Thursday, Feb. 18 Alpine Skiing - women's downhill Hockey - preliminary round games Figure Skating - men's short program Speed Skating - men's 1,000 meters

Friday, Feb. 19 Luge - men's doubles, 1st & 2nd runs Cross Country Skiing - men's 15 km Alpine Skiing - women's combined downhill Hockey - preliminary round games

Saturday, Feb. 20 Bobsled - two-man Alpine Skiing - women's combined slalom Biathlon - 20 km Ski jumping - 90 meters Hockey - preliminary round games Figure Skating - men's singles free skating

Sunday, Feb. 21 Figure Skating - dance compulsory Bobsed - two-man Cross-country skiing - women's 4 x 5 km relay Hockey - preliminary round games Speed Skating - men's 10,000 meters Alpine Skiing - men's super giant slalom

Monday, Feb. 22 Cross Country Skiing - men's 4 x 10 km Hockey - preliminary round games Alpine Skiing - women's super giant slalom Figure Skating - dance short program Speed Skating - women's 500 meters

Tuesday, Feb. 23 Biathlon - 10 km Nordic Combined - 70 meters/team Figure Skating - dance free skating Speed Skating - women's 3,000 meters

Wednesday, Feb. 24 Nordic Combined - 3 x 10 km/team Alpine Skiing - women's giant slalom Hockey - medal round games

Thursday, Feb. 25 Cross Country Skiing - women's 20 km Alpine Skiing - men's giant slalom Ice Hockey - medal round games Figure Skating - women's short program

Friday, Feb. 26 Hockey - medal round games Alpine Skiing - women's slalom Biathlon - 4 x 7.5 km relay Hockey - medal round games Speed Skating - women's 1,000 meters

Saturday, Feb. 27 Cross Country Skiing - men's 50 km Bobsled - 4-man Alpine Skiing - men's slalom Hockey - medal round games Nordic Combined - 70 meters Figure Skating - women's free skating Speed Skating - women's 1,500 meters

Sunday, Feb. 28 Bobsled - 4-man Nordic Combined - 15 km Hockey - medal games Speed Skating - women's 5,000 meters Closing Ceremonies, 7:30 p.m.

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