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October 25, 2014

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Stars on ice: As nice as the kids next door

Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating

By Christine Brennan

Scribner

319 pp., $23

FIGURE skating has landed. The sport has held center stage ever since it was propelled into the spotlight by the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding escapade during the 1994 Winter Olympics. Its artistry has captivated millions of Americans.

In fact, a national study by Sports Marketing Group ranked women's figure skating the second most popular sport in the United States behind pro football. The study also found that three figure skaters - Dorothy Hamill, Peggy Fleming, and Scott Hamilton - are among the eight most popular athletes in the US.

Anyone who has ever doubted that figure skating is a legitimate sport should think again. "Inside Edge" reveals a hidden world of cutthroat competition, enormous pressure, and near-obsession with winning.

Written by veteran Washington Post sportswriter Christine Brennan, this book is well-researched and entertaining. It chronicles a season on the skating circuit from October 1994 to February 1995 and profiles some of the sport's biggest stars, such as Brian Boitano and Oksana Baiul, as well as 1998 Olympic hopefuls Michelle Kwan and Nicole Bobek.

Figure skaters, Brennan writes, are the "nicest people around." And unlike in sports such as tennis, where players hit stardom and puberty in the same breath, skaters are usually in their 20s when they become famous. While many are tutored through high school and never go to college, "figure skaters are people with something substantial to say."

Brennan explores a handful of hot topics such as: how factors other than skating influence judges' marks; the untold story of AIDS-related deaths of many male skaters, coaches, and choreographers; the sacrifices parents make in hopes of seeing their child win the gold; and the sport's great wasted talents, like Christopher Bowman. During some of his skating years, he said, he had a $950-a-day cocaine habit.

In the beginning, the author catches up with showman Scott Hamilton, whose personal mission has been to alter the sissy image of men's figure skating. Brennan also devotes a handful of pages to the Tonya-Nancy saga. "Contrary to what she believed," Brennan writes of Harding, "figure skating didn't do a number on her. She did a number on herself."

The author devotes much to exposing how subjective the judging is. Much of it comes down to "comfort level" - judges have to be comfortable with an athlete's skating. So coaches work hard to promote their skaters' abilities, inviting judges to practice sessions and other events. Usually the big names finish first, even if the newcomer is better. Case in point: Paul Wylie, who skated the performance of his life at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, Canada, won the silver, while Victor Petrenko, already well known, got the gold. The author also claims that Kerrigan should have gotten the gold at the 1994 Olympics in Norway, not Baiul.

A highlight of the book is a revealing interview with Boitano. His parents knew nothing about figure skating, which turned out to be advantageous - he felt no pressure. His coach, Linda Leaver, was the first woman to coach a male US Olympic champion.

The view from the bottom, however, looks a lot less glamorous. Many families split up and live in separate states so their sons or daughters can train with the best. Tara Lipinski, who came on the scene in 1994, moved with her mother to Elkton, Md., in 1993 to train at the University of Delaware. Her father stayed in Texas. The Lipinskis spent $58,000 on Tara's skating in 1994, including living expenses in Delaware, travel, coaches' fees, ice time, skates, and costumes.

But the book's most refreshing revelation is that the skaters who made it to the top made it because they love to skate. Period.

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