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People Top 5
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- January 25, 1993
- Vol. 39
- No. 3
Fear on the Ice
Their Sport Ravaged by More Than 40 Deaths, North America's Top Figure Skaters Agonize Over the Loss of Their Friends and the Grim Toll of AIDS
Four months later, in April of last year, Brian Pockar, 32, died from complications of AIDS. Pockar's was the fourth AlDS-related death among top-ranked Canadian skaters in the last five years. Dennis Coi, 26, a world junior champion, died in 1987; Rob McCall, 33, 1988 Olympic bronze medalist in ice dancing (with his partner. Tracy Wilson), died in 1991; and Shaun McGill, 30, Canada's 1988 world professional silver medalist, died last March, just five weeks before Pockar. The mounting death toll has stunned Canadians, who rank figure skating close to ice hockey as a national pastime.
Canada, however, is only the most visible focus of the AIDS crisis among figure skaters. This week, as the top amateurs convene in Phoenix for the U.S. Figure Skating National Championships, the extent of the disease is becoming grimly apparent. "I could name more than 20 people in skating who have died from AIDS," says Bandy Gardner, 35, a Los Angeles resident who won the 1979 world pairs championship with partner Tai Babilonia and is now a producer and choreographer of professional ice shows.
"It's a shock," says 1990 world champion Jill Trenary, 24, of Bloomington, Minn. "We don't like to think of AIDS as being am worse in our spoil than others. But it's here, and all of us are beginning to say, 'Whoa, this is serious.' "
The Calgary Herald, in an investigation late last year, found that al least 10 top male skaters and coaches from the U.S. and Canada have died from AIDS in recent years. While no similar study has been done in Europe, it is known that Ondrej Nepela, the 1972 Olympic gold medalist from Czechoslovakia, died of AIDS-related cancer in 1989. And last October, Britain's John Curry, 43, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist, announced that lie too had fullblown AIDS and was returning home to live out his days.
As skaters, coaches and officials privately mourn the deaths of their friends, they remain confused and fearful about dealing publicly with AIDS and with the issue of homosexuality in skating. Skaters, who for years have privately acknowledged a significant number of gay males in their midst, are reluctant to discuss the subject. "Just like the majority in life, the majority of people in skating are straight," argues 1988 Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano, who recently lashed out at the Cilgary Herald investigation, calling it "a witch-hunt."
Scott Hamilton, 34, gold medalist at the 1984 Olympics, understands the reluctance to make an issue of the disease. "More people need to talk about AIDS," says Hamilton, who lives with his fiancée. Karen Plage, in Denver. "But we don't want to cause unnecessary alarm. If AIDS is attached to skating, parents might not want to allow their kids to get involved in the sport."
HIV-positive skaters, many of whom continue working and remain healthy for years, are concerned that divulging their illness could cost them travel opportunities and chances to compete—and even provoke violence against them; HIV-positive coaches fear that they would be unable to attract clients. They cite U.S. laws, for instance, that ban HIV-positive noncitizens from entering the country unless they declare their medical status and obtain a temporary visitor's waiver. Tracy Wilson, 31, says that was one reason partner Rob McCall chose not to reveal he had the AIDS virus. "At the time, [someone with HIV] couldn't travel across the border [to the U.S.]. Rob wanted to continue skating and choreographing," she says.
Only now are friends, families and a handful of the skaters themselves starling to talk publicly about their experiences with the disease.
"He was very calm," recalls Regis Gagnon of skater Shaun McGill in 1989 after McGill was told he had AIDS. Gagnon, 32, a program adviser at the Ontario Ministry of Health, lived with McGill in Toronto for four years prior to McGill's death. "I kept informed about the latest AIDS treatments. Shaun said to me, 'Just tell me what I need to know. I'll take the pills I'm supposed to take. But don't bother me. I've got work to do.' "
Gagnon claims McGill did some of his finest choreography and skating after his condition was diagnosed. "There was an intensity, a real need to produce," says Gagnon of his friend, who never won an Olympic medal but was regarded by his peers as one of the most creative skaters of his generation. "He wanted to get his work out because he knew his time was finite."
McGill, who spent a lot of time traveling, was one who kept his condition secret for fear that he would not be allowed to enter the U.S., where most professional skaters find work with various ice shows. One spring day in 1991 his secret was nearly revealed. On his way to Baltimore, home base of the Next Ice Age, a professional troupe he was working with, he was slopped by U.S. immigration officials in Toronto. "He didn't look totally well, so they look him into a room and interrogated him [about whether he had AIDS]," says Gagnon. "I le had to tell them something so he'd be allowed to cross the border. So he told them he had cancer."
The officials told McGill that they would have to confirm his statement and asked for the name of somebody they could call. He gave them Gagnon's. Then, while the officials left him momentarily unattended, "Shaun sneaked out of the customs office, found a phone and called to tell me what kind of cancer he'd told them he had," says Gag-non. "It was pretty traumatic."
Only when McGill grew too weak to skate, shortly after that incident, did he stop performing. McGill's friend Tim Murphy, a cofounder of the Next Ice Age, remembers McGill's final performance with the company. "He said, 'I think this is the last time I'll do this,' " Murphy recalls. "We had a little cry and a hug. It was the only thing I ever heard him say about how he was affected by AIDS."
John Curry, the British skating legend and the most celebrated skater with AIDS, learned he was HIV positive; on Christmas Day 1987. In a first-person account he wrote last October for Britain's Daily Mail newspaper, Curry recalled that his doctor telephoned him with the news in Switzerland, where he was staying alone in a friend's apartment. "I didn't know what to do," Curry wrote. "I put down the phone in a daze and stayed in the flat for two days on my own trying to lake it in."
From then on, he said, "every day was a gift." He performed, choreographed and taught skating—and told no one about his condition. From his experience as a competitor, he knew he had reason to fear recriminations. "Some judges said quite openly they wouldn't put me first because I was 'queer.' " he wrote. "I knew other [skaters] who were HIV positive, but people were terrified of being exposed. I was afraid people would throw bricks through the window."
Curry, who had lived and worked for the last 16 years in the U.S., was in New York City last summer when he discovered a small brown patch on his arm; it turned on to be Kaposi's sarcoma, an AIDS-related cancer. It was only then, after returning to his mother's home in Binton, England, on July 2, that he told his family—and finally the rest of the world—of his illness.
Brian Pockar learned he was HIV positive in 1989 after a bout with the flu. Although he told his family, he too decided not to make his illness public. "He battled with the decision right from the beginning," says his sister Leanne. "I know his biggest regret was that he wanted to go to schools to talk to children about the illness and what it does. But he didn't want the people he loved to look at him with sorrow."
Pockar, who lived alone in Toronto, continued to skate for nearly two years after his diagnosis, but by the summer of 1991 he could no longer handle the physical stress of the sport. The following January, he finally returned home to Calgary. "Brian wanted to spend time going back and seeing the people who had contributed to his life and to his career," says Leanne.
At least one former U.S. skater is willing to speak bluntly about his illness. "I'm gay and contracted HIV sexually," says American Barry Hagan, 35, who skated with Kim Krohn for 12 years during his amateur and professional career that lasted from 1970 to 1986. "I don't have anything to hide." Hagan, who shares a two-bedroom apartment in L.A. with a male friend, noticed swelling in his lymph glands in 1982 but didn't learn he was infected with HIV until 1986. when he first had himself tested. Today he looks trim but has lost muscle lone. A bout of meningitis in 1987 impaired his sense of balance, and in 1991 he experienced hearing loss. "Skating is a fantasy world, and [the skating community] wants it to be perfect. That's why they're defensive about this," he says. "But if you keep your illness private, there is nothing anyone can do to help you."
For all the controversy surrounding the media's airing of the AIDS crisis in their midst, many of the world's finest skaters turned out For Skate the Dream, a benefit last November in Toronto that honored the memory of Canadian skater Rob McCall. The event, featuring such stars as former Olympic gold-medal winners Katarina Witt, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano and Kristi Yamaguchi, raised some $500,000 for AIDS research at the Toronto Hospital. The show of support was also an emotional balm for McCall's mother, Evelyn. The night before the benefit, which her son had helped plan even as he lay dying, she awoke in her hotel room and felt compelled to go to the window. "The mist was rising, and it was sort of illuminating the street lights," she recalls. "I saw all these red and yellow blinking lights, and I thought, This is like an arena.'
"Then I felt Rob by me, and I just sort of broke down. Tears were streaming down my face, and I couldn't move. I don't know how long it look, but cars started moving, and I became aware again. I went back to bed and prayed. That's the first time I've been able to pray since Rob died."
For the performers themselves, the benefit was the beginning of a recognition that AIDS has hit skating hard—and that the stricken need their help and understanding. "We wanted to show that because someone is HIV positive, you can't put them aside," says Katarina Witt. "They are part of us. We are a community."
FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Toronto and LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles
- Fannie Weinstein,
- Lorenzo Benet.
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