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People Top 5
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- January 26, 1998
- Vol. 49
- No. 3
Dancing Through the Dark
After Family Tragedy, An Olympic Couple Survive the Heartbreak Together
The death of the 57-year-old surgeon, a Filipino immigrant who forged his version of the American dream in the Cleveland suburbs, came at a particularly devastating time for the third of his five children. Married only five months, Elizabeth and her longtime skating partner, Swallow, were about to leave for Norway to compete in their first Olympics when they got the tragic news. They thought of withdrawing, then decided to carry on. "Liz's skating was a rallying point for the family," says her mother, Theresa, 63. "Her father never would have wanted her to quit." Eventually nine members of both families rooted for the pair in Lillehammer—only to see them finish 15th after a spectacular fall. "Years from now we'll look back at this," said Punsalan, "and tell our kids, 'We made it to the Olympics, we had a great time, and we skated like crap.' "
Then again, future Swallows may be hearing a happier tale if the couple's showing in Nagano next month reflects their recent performance at the U.S. Nationals. On the way to winning their fifth U.S. championship, Punsalan and Swallow, 31, had the packed house at Philadelphia's CoreStates Center cheering as they swooped and pirouetted across the ice, their bodies a graceful spiral of Lycra and silk seemingly melded into one. "There's definite passion," says ESPN skating analyst Judy Blumberg of the pair, who finished sixth at last year's world championships. "You know they're married, and there's a connection between them that's very strong."
Although the two didn't team up until 1989—the year before they began dating—they'd known each other far longer. Punsalan was just 12 when she developed a crush on the dashing Swallow, a Northfield, Mich., native she first spotted at a regional meet. Two years later she moved to the Detroit area, boarding with a local skating family, so she could train full time with Sandra Hess—who also coached Swallow. For four years they skated alongside one another but with different partners. Says Punsalan: "Jerod was always like a big brother to me."
But the love that began to blossom between the pair in 1990 was far from fraternal. As it flowered, so did their skating; they took their first national title the following year. After winning again in '94, with choreography by new coach Igor Shpilband, the two seemed poised for Lillehammer—until the night of Feb. 4. While dining with Jerod's parents, they got the call telling them that Dr. Punsalan was dead from two stab wounds to the chest and that Rick, then 19, hospitalized more than 30 times for drug and emotional problems, was under arrest. (Diagnosed as schizophrenic, he was later judged not guilty by reason of insanity.) "Rick had tried committing suicide in the past," says Punsalan. "But he had never been outwardly violent except toward himself."
It was, for both Elizabeth and Jerod, a testing experience, and one with a lesson. These days, visitors to their cozy colonial in the Detroit suburb of Pontiac won't see a trophy in sight. "What happened to my father changed my whole life," says Elizabeth. "What I've concluded is that skating is a hobby at the end of the day and there's more to life than Olympic glory."
That doesn't mean the couple, who plan to turn pro after Nagano, won't be competing as intensely as ever. On the contrary, "We'll go for broke," says Swallow, who'll be leading Punsalan in a new free-dance number, a tango intended as a tribute to her father. "This tango is about death and rebirth," Elizabeth explains, "and how love and life outlast death."
LORENZO BENET in Pontiac
- Lorenzo Benet.
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