CANADA'S GUNSLINGER Browning hangs medal hopes on getting the jump


Kurt Browning once bridged the worlds of sequins and sticks. He was a figure skater who wanted to be a hockey player, a Western Canadian teen-ager who could nail a triple jump in the afternoon and flatten an opponent with a body check at night.

"I'd show guys on the hockey team these half-turn jumps," he said. "Everyone was jumping around. The other teams would look at us, and say, 'They're nuts.' "

Eventually, Browning gave up hockey pads for spandex outfits. And now he is a three-time world champion and a Canadian national hero.

Despite a slipped disk, Browning is favored to win the men's figure skating gold medal at the Winter Olympics. Other athletes may face great pressures in Albertville, France, but few will carry the enormous burden that Browning must shoulder.

He comes from a country that can count its national heroes on one hand. Wayne Gretzky may have gone Hollywood, but Browning remains very much of the Canadian West. He is the local icon from Caroline, Alberta, the son of a wilderness guide out to win fame not only for himself, but also for his country.

"The pressure is what makes skating worthwhile," he said. "It means a lot to me and the people of Canada."

At 25, Browning has written his autobiography, "Forcing the Edge," starred in a television special and been named the celebrity captain of the NHL's Edmonton Oilers.

In a sport known for its frills and flourishes, Browning likes to skate with a macho swagger. He practices while wearing leather riding gloves. He performs in conservative outfits. He turns triples like a basketball player closing out a fast break.

"I'm not going to tell you image isn't important," Browning said. "I have a natural Western heritage. I have the kind of image people find interesting in figure skating.

"But, this year, we want the skating to be everything. In the past, I was starting to have interviews that dealt more with girls that I was dating than the way I was skating. I found it kind of embarrassing and insulting to my sport. This is a very cool sport."

As a three-time world champion, Browning commands an overwhelming advantage at the Olympics. Beginning with Dick Button in 1948, every reigning three-time men's world champion has collected the Olympic gold medal.

Judges are loathe to upset the established order. Since the 1988 Calgary Games, Browning has been the sport's jumping star.

He became the first skater to land the four-revolution, quadruple toe loop jump successfully, at the 1988 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. The next year, he won his first world championship in Paris and began cutting a path to the Olympics.

The men who still could defeat Browning -- 1988 gold medalist Brian Boitano of the United States and two-time silver medalist Brian Orser of Canada -- are re-enacting their "Battle of the Brians" in professional competitions.

Two-time U.S. champion Todd Eldredge is battling a back injury and missed last month's nationals in Orlando, Fla. Viktor Petrenko of Ukraine and the Unified Team of the former Soviet Union also is bothered by back problems. Reigning American champion Christopher Bowman temporarily has reclaimed his career. Yet the long program Bowman displayed at last month's U.S. Nationals likely wouldn't gain him a medal in the Olympic ladies' competition.

"On paper, I'm the favorite," Browning said. "But, until I win, it's just not in my hands. Oh, but when it is, I am going to be a happy camper."

But Browning's bandwagon could crash in Albertville.

In November, he appeared there at the Trophy Lalique championship. Skating with back pain, Browning trudged his way through two mediocre performances. When he finished his long program by hobbling to Stravinsky's "Firebird," he looked square at the judges and mouthed the words, "I stink." Still, he was given the title.

"Sometimes that happens when you're a world champion," Browning said.

Later, Browning's injury was diagnosed as a slipped disk, placing his season and his gold medal in doubt. He skipped the Canadian National Championships last month. Now, each day brings forth a new rumor about his condition: that he was seen on crutches . . . that he landed a quadruple toe loop jump in practice.

Still, until Browning skates, "it's his medal to lose," said 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton.

"Kurt Browning has triple-jump combinations that no one has even dreamed of yet," Hamilton said.

"Nobody can light up a building bigger and better than Chris Bowman. But triple Axel to triple Axel, Browning wins."

Jumps have made Browning special. They have brought him three world championships and nationwide fame. Now, he comes back to Albertville a fragile favorite.

Skating hurt, he will attempt one quadruple and eight triples in his long program. His goal is to present the judges with this vision of power. But what once was a certainty is a gamble.

Browning has seen others fail before. In 1988, he was in Calgary, serving as a warm-up act for the Battle of the Brians. In the end, the only difference between Boitano and Orser was one stumble.

When Orser lost, so did Canada.

"I learned that life didn't stop for Brian Orser," Browning said. "The gold medal at the Olympic Games will not be everything. I won't work four years for 4 1/2 minutes. I'm not going to let whatever happens decide whether I'm happy or not. Whether I win a medal, I'm happy."

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