Ice skates, blue collars Trucker Marval, waitress Urbanski chase Olympics


Forgive the confusion of the new employees at R&M; Trucking in New Egypt, N.J., when the boss sometimes shows up on television dressed in tight polyester pants and sequin-studded shirts, or bolts the office for a ballet class in the middle of the afternoon, or comes to work after appearing in a fashion show at Longwood Gardens.

By night, Rocky Marval might be out on the interstates, looking like just another 26-year-old Teamster in jeans and a sweat shirt, balancing his work boots on the gears of a dump truck, pouring out gravel as if it were gold. But during the day, he is a figure skater, part of a blue-collar pairs team with Calla Urbanski that might be the best in America.

Wanna make something of it?

"In high school, I was called all kinds of names," Marval said. "I was made fun of very badly. To all the people who had their doubts about me being a figure skater, here it is back in your

face. I made it. This is my payback."

There are all sorts of compelling stories at the U.S. Figure Skating championships that begin today in Orlando, Fla., and reach a peak Saturday night with the naming of the team that will represent the U.S. next month at the 1992 Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, France.

But in a world of glitter and mink, there may be no tale more captivating than this match of Marval the truck driver and Urbanski the waitress. In their second time around, they are discovering that skating is exhilarating.

"You know how you hear other athletes say they have sacrificed so much," Marval said. "Well, we didn't sacrifice anything. I've never had so much fun in my life the last 1 1/2 years."

The ride has been beautiful, starting with a second-place finish at last year's nationals. Oh, they're still the underdogs when they skate, even in America. Defending U.S. champions Natasha Kuchiki and Todd Sand have that squeaky-clean image the judges adore. And in the Olympics, performers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (the former Soviet Union) are expected to dominate.

But on the ice, Urbanski and Marval are a perfect blend of spee and artistry, power and finesse, as they expertly complete the lifts and throws that make pairs skating's most breathtaking and dangerous discipline. The hard knocks they often encounter in practice at the University of Delaware could serve as symbols of their bid to become Olympians.

There is Urbanski, who breaks nearly every mold in a sport where success is often judged by how many roses the audience tosses on the ice. Skating likes its champions young and pure as ice. But Urbanski is a woman of 31 who is married for the second time and works as a waitress in a bar-restaurant in Wilmington, Del., for $2.33 an hour plus tips. She has an opinion about everything, and has been known to tell off a coach or three.

"My mom is from Yugoslavia and she's the same way," said Urbanski, who was raised in Skokie, Ill. "She gets away with it, though. Must be the foreign accent."

Urbanski has a laugh that could fill an entire arena. Good thing, too, because she has used a sense of humor to emerge as a survivor.

The first time someone told her to quit the sport was when she was 18. She ignored the coach then, and ignored other doubters later. When the injuries kept mounting -- seven knee strains, a broken tail bone, five broken ribs, a fractured wrist and a cut on the side of the head that took 45 stitches to close -- she refused to give up.

She waited for her perfect match.

The partner who would come in and out of her life was a tough kid from Jersey named Rocco Marvaldi.

The kid hated the theatrical aspects of the sport, especially the makeup, but OK, he was willing to take a stage name. And he had survived a few injuries of his own, although the biggest one was self-inflicted. When he was 19, Marval went dirt-biking with friends, and crashed head-on with another biker at 70 miles an hour. Marval flew face first into the handlebars of the other bike, broke his nose and shattered his left eye orbit. When he regained consciousness two days later, he heard the voice of his mother, Sharon, screaming at him. He knew he was OK.

"I looked like the Elephant Man for a while," he said.

Urbanski and Marval skated together briefly six years ago, but a coach advised Marval to get another partner. The reason: Urbanski had recently divorced, sullying the image for a would-be Olympian.

"I trusted people to give me direction and I basically did it for all the wrong reasons," Marval said.

The pair drifted apart, and found other partners, but little success. In 1990, Marval and Maria Lako were in the midst of a souring personal and professional relationship.

"It was living hell," Marval said. "I thought I would get stabbed in the back. I had battle wounds. Scratches. Scrapes."

Urbanski was also having problems with her partner, Mark Naylor. They simply weren't growing together as a team. So, Urbanski and Marval drifted back together again, and found skating bliss.

Now, they're working to make ends meet for the Olympics. Financing a medal dream is like coming up with a down payment for a house. Urbanski and Marval figure the trip to Albertville, which detours through practice arenas, ballet studios and costume shops, will cost $100,000.

The U.S. Olympic Committee kicks in $5,000 a year for training. The U.S. Figure Skating Association gave the pair a $20,000 grant. And nickels, dimes and dollars pour into a collection box at the snack bar at their training rink.

Urbanski and Marval will have to come up with the rest. So Urbanski waits tables and collects tips. And Marval oversees his fleet of nine dump trucks.

They skate on their terms.

"Live hard," Marval said. "And die young."

1992 U.S. Figure Skating Championships

When: Today through Sunday

Where: Orlando, Fla.

TV: ABC, Saturday, 4:30-6:30 p.m. and 9-11 p.m.

Defending champions: Tonya Harding, ladies' singles; Todd Eldredge, men's singles; Natasha Kuchiki-Todd Sand, pairs; Elizabeth Punsalan-Jerod Swallow, dance.

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