Canadian skater Brian Orser has jumps on '88 Olympic hopefuls

Brian Orser is a disarmingly modest, quiet-spoken young man with an unmistakable flair on ice. As perhaps the world's best amateur figure skater, his claim to fame is the ease with which he can correctly land the most awesome multiple leaps, including the triple axel, the sport's most difficult jump. Many experts believe this talent gives him the inside track on winning the gold at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

This opinion was endorsed earlier this fall when watching the Canadian champion win the St. Ivel Ice International, the season's traditional curtain-raiser at the Thames-side Richmond rink in London. There, for the first time, he linked his still rarely seen triple axel with a double toe loop -- the most hazardous jump combination yet achieved.

Orser, who turns 24 next month, comes from Orillia, north of Toronto. He has been national title holder for the past five years, and is the latest in a long line of outstanding Canadian exponents in figure skating, following in the wake of Donald Jackson and Donald McPherson, both former world champions, and the innovatively artistic Toller Cranston.

Few experts will disagree with the belief that Orser is today's best free skater and might have wrestled the Olympic gold medal away from Scott Hamilton at Sarajevo in 1984 if his compulsory figures had been better. As it was, he secured the silver with a strong finishing performance.

In fact, he has made quite a habit of coming spectacularly from behind to snatch medals seemingly beyond his grasp after handicapping himself with a relatively poor start in the preceding ``school'' figures.

But this determined lad appears at last to have solved that problem. At Richmond, his quality in figures was higher than previously -- due largely to three months' intensive summer schooling from Karol Divin, a Czechoslovak figures expert who was runner-up to Jackson in his great world triumph of 1962.

Divin augments the work of Orser's regular trainer, Doug Leigh, who has coached him ever since he began to skate at the age of nine -- and is not too proud to call in other help, including choreographic expertise from Uschi Keszler, a former West German champion.

``Mr. Divin has helped me with figures enormously this year,'' Orser enthuses. ``His specialized knowledge in that area ideally complements all that Mr. Leigh has done for me with jumping and spinning technique.''

More often than not, the better jumpers are extroverts, while those able to trace the more accurate figures are introverts. This makes sense, because the courage and daring demanded for the leaps usually go with a fiery nature, while the consistent ``eights'' require patience and a calm temperament.

Brian is an exception, using his reserved nature to conserve energy for when he needs it most. And like the diminutive Hamilton, he gets a lot from a little, showing that at 5 ft. 6 in. he doesn't have to be at a disadvantage to mostly, taller rivals.

After Scott turned professional in 1984, Brian became the favorite to win the world title in Tokyo last March, but he was still recovering from illness and, under the circumstances, did well to finish second behind the Soviet, Alexander Fadeev. Their rematch next March in Geneva will be a showdown Orser is now expected to win.

No other skater will tell you confidently before a competition that he will definitely include a triple axel, the only jump involving three and a half mid-air rotations. ``That's not meant boastfully,'' he explains. ``It's just that this particular jump has come more naturally to me than some of the others -- I don't know why.

``For example, I still find the fairly commonplace triple loop the most difficult and I seldom attempt it.''

That is a curious fact, considering that the number of skaters in the world capable of a good triple axel can still be counted on the fingers of one hand. It defied even Hamilton, Cranston, Robin Cousins, and John Curry, none of whom ever accomplished the feat in competition.

Not that the more spectacular athleticism is the be all and end all of free skating. Spins of many variations, linking moves and intricate step sequences, are also important, as is the way in which the ice is used to give an overall balanced effect.

``That is Miss Keszler's department,'' says Brian. ``She arranges my routines so that each highlight gets maximum impact, and positions the more energetic contents at the moments I am least likely to be out of breath. Such planning is vitally important.''

Many thought Orser would quit the amateur scene along with Hamilton after the Ottawa world championships in 1984, but Brian was not content to retire as No. 2 in the world and dreams of triumphing for the host nation when Calgary stages the next Winter Olympics.

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