AIDS quietly ravages the sport of figure skating Rob McCall's death forces sport to confront deadly virus


Rob McCall died a few hours past midnight, Nov. 15, 1991, far from the ice, in the arms of his brother, his life's final project incomplete.

He was a figure skater. An ice dancer -- one of the best in the world. Good enough to win a bronze medal for Canada with his partner Tracy Wilson at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta.

Mr. McCall expected to enjoy a lengthy and lucrative career performing and competing on the international professional circuit. Instead, he contracted AIDS, and spent the last months of his life planning a skating benefit just as meticulously as he once choreographed an Olympic program.

He would leave nothing to chance, not even the smallest gesture.

But there was one act Mr. McCall, 33, could not perform in his lifetime: telling the world of his illness.

"It was just never the right time," said Mr. McCall's mother, Evelyn. "But there is something I will always remember. When he was 15, he would tell me, 'Mom, I don't think I'll live long.' I'd tell him not to say that. And he'd say that he was probably going to die of something terrible, and it would have an impact on people's lives. I'd get worried when he'd fly. I never thought of AIDS."

Yet now, it is Mr. McCall's legacy that is pushing his friends in figure skating toward an unprecedented exhibition today in Toronto's Varsity Arena.

And it is Mr. McCall's life and death that is forcing the sport to confront AIDS.

You have read about Magic Johnson. You have heard the fears of football players, boxers and amateur wrestlers as they mix blood and sport in an uncertain medical age.

But figure skating's struggle with acquired immune deficiency syndrome has been waged mostly in silence, far from the glittering, televised settings of Winter Olympics and world championships.

The virus has taken some of the sport's best and brightest, including Ondrej Nepela, Dennis Coi, Shaun McGill and Brian Pockar.

Skating judges have died. Coaches, too.

And last month, John Curry, the 1976 Olympic men's gold medalist from Great Britain, revealed he has AIDS.

Mr. Curry became the first skater to announce he had contracted the virus through a homosexual encounter. His admission was chilling for a sport that has sought to defuse a public perception that many gifted male skaters are homosexual.

Writing in London's Daily Mail recently, Mr. Curry, 43, said: "My whole circle of friends died. That is very hard to bear. It is hard to watch people in that situation, and it was frightening when people started to become ill. You start to think, 'When is it going to be your turn?' "

Who's next? It's a blunt question of reality for a sport built around sequins and music.

Those within this tightknit community on ice say other skaters could develop AIDS. But no one is predicting that AIDS will ravage a skating generation in the same manner the virus swept through the theater, art and design worlds in the early 1980s.

Still, there is concern.

"There was a period of time when there was less education, and people were at risk much more," said Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic men's silver medalist. "Everyone in the skating community hopes the worst is over."

Skating's public anguish began with the death of one of its most beloved performers.

So, too, did the understanding and the healing.

Memories on ice

They remember Rob McCall's laughter, his determination and his skating style.

"Always had a joke," said Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic men's gold medalist. "Always the life of the party. It was hard to have anything but great, funny moments with Rob."

There was a night in 1988 when Mr. McCall and his partner Ms. Wilson packed a career into one performance at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Together, they were radiant, perky and precise, skating a final ice dance number to a Scott Joplin rag, good enough for gold, really, but content with the bronze.

Later, Mr. McCall would tell his mother: "We got a gold -- just a darker shade."

Still, the medal helped them become mainstays on the world tour. They were, if anything, better together after the Olympics. But Mr. McCall was bothered by nagging colds. He was rundown, too, and missed the final two weeks of a world tour in early 1990.

"I knew something was wrong," Ms. Wilson said. "Rob never missed a practice in 10 years. He was known for his strength, for being physically fit. When I saw him again [a few weeks later at the Toronto airport], he had changed so much. He didn't look the same."

In April 1990, Mr. McCall returned to the ice, preparing for a show headlined by 1988 gold medalists Katarina Witt and Brian Boitano. But during the final dress rehearsal in Portland, Maine, Mr. McCall began hyperventilating and collapsed. He was rushed to a local hospital and quickly diagnosed with a parasitic pneumonia common in AIDS patients.

Mr. McCall's friends in skating rallied around him. Men and women in their 20s suddenly faced mortality as Mr. McCall struggled for each breath and fought for his life.

"I knew what this meant was that he was going to die," said Brian Orser, a two-time Olympic men's silver medalist. "Rob was going to be the first person who was a close friend who passed away from this. My first feeling was that it was so unfair."

Eventually, Mr. McCall's friends engaged in a conspiracy, of sorts, to shield his illness from the public. It was a necessary dodge, enabling him to cross international borders and perform.

But the conspiracy was also nothing new in figure skating.

Stereotyped skaters

AIDS, spread principally through sexual contact and intravenous drug use, cut to the heart of a stereotype that clings to the sport -- that male skaters are homosexual.

"A lot of people are close-minded," Mr. Boitano said. "They think all skaters are gay. But the truth is, people in skating don't talk about so-and-so being gay, and so-and-so not being gay. When I was coming up through the ranks, the surprise was hearing that someone was gay."

Even at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, the men's medalists were asked if they were gay.

Gold medalist Viktor Petrenko burst out laughing, bronze medalist Peter Barna said his wife had just delivered a baby and Mr. Wylie said his girlfriend had cheered his silver-medal performance.

"It's something we have been teased our whole lives about," Mr. Wylie said. "It's a price you have to pay to do something you love."

For Mr. McCall, skating wasn't just about love and beauty -- it was about life itself. He was driven to compete again, despite AIDS. Two more bouts with pneumonia would not stop him. The spread of cancer would not prevent him from choreographing new programs.

Eventually, he returned to perform with Ms. Wilson.

Nearly two years before NBA players voiced their concerns about competing against an HIV-positive opponent, driving Magic Johnson back into retirement, Ms. Wilson, then pregnant with her first child, quietly -- and some say courageously -- skated with Mr. McCall. Doctors told her she faced no risk skating with Mr. McCall and she declared: "I'm not afraid."

Mr. McCall and Ms. Wilson skated some exhibitions and made a wondrous comeback together to perform at the 1990 world professional championships in Landover. But, eventually, they had to split with the birth of Ms. Wilson's son.

Soon, Mr. McCall became ill again with pneumonia, and then cancer attacked his brain. In his final months, in and out of hospitals, Mr. McCall hit upon the idea of a skating benefit for AIDS. It would draw all of the best performers in the sport in a night of fund-raising and education.

He planned to speak of his illness to help others overcome fear. He even made some notes in preparation of writing a book. But, before he had a chance to speak out, to write, he became too weak.

"Ultimately, people who are infected with this disease have this wish that there was a cure -- yesterday," said Mr. Orser, the silver medalist. "We all know there is a lack of funds. And Rob asked for his friends to help."

McCall's final days

Skaters would come to Toronto and visit. Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Boitano and Ms. Witt and Mr. Orser. But, with AIDS, there is no reprieve from judges, no opportunity to choreograph a final, fitting exit.

In and out of consciousness, Mr. McCall spent the last weeks of his life at his apartment in Toronto.

The ravages of AIDS were apparent to all who saw Mr. McCall. His weight had dropped from 175 pounds to 85. Steroids, needed to reduce the swelling of his brain caused by cancer, had rendered him temporarily diabetic.

There were the treatments for pneumonia, the chemotherapy for cancer. There was even a time when he was unable to slip his skating boots over his feet because of tumors.

Finally, in the early morning of Nov. 15, a few minutes after his mother went out for a walk, Mr. McCall died, embraced by his younger brother Steven.

Without hesitation, the family revealed that Mr. McCall had died of AIDS-related brain cancer, although they never disclosed how he contracted the disease.

The story was merely a footnote in the United States, the country still coming to terms with Magic Johnson's announcement earlier in the week that he was HIV-positive.

In Canada, the grieving was confined to Mr. McCall's friends in skating. There was a who's-who list of skating stars at his funeral in Toronto. The Scott Joplin music opened the service. Soon, the crowd was laughing, and then crying, remembering Mr. McCall's life, mourning his death.

"So many people were touched by Rob," said Evelyn McCall, his mother. "The big dream for Rob was that they would find a cure for him. But, you know, there are a lot of other people out there who have AIDS, and they have that same dream. I always remember a card that Rob once sent me. It said, 'Cry when you feel like crying. Be sad when you feel like being sad. But, after every storm, there has to be a rainbow.' "

A tribute by friends

In Toronto, Mr. McCall's friends are preparing for an extraordinary skating exhibition today.

The sport's brightest stars will gather for two shows called "Skating the Dream: A Tribute to Rob McCall."

From Ms. Witt to Mr. Boitano to Mr. Hamilton to the Duchesnays to Debi Thomas to Kristi Yamaguchi to Dorothy Hamill, the greatest skaters will perform to help raise more than $500,000 to establish a Toronto Hospital-based research center to focus on the immune system.

But the impact of Mr. McCall's death can't be confined to a show.

The Canadian Figure Skating Association, after intense debate, decided to throw its support behind the benefit. Even more important, the organization has begun distributing medical literature on AIDS to its skaters.

U.S. Figure Skating Association officials say they have counseled their skaters about AIDS for the past three years.

Skating officials say there is no need for mandatory AIDS testing for elite competitors.

Dr. Irving Salit, who, as director of the HIV clinic at Toronto Hospital, helped treat Mr. McCall, said placing groups in risk categories for AIDS is counterproductive.

"It's not so much them vs. us," he said. "It's everybody. AIDS is happening to everybody."

But, for now, at least, in sports, it is figure skating that has been touched most profoundly by the affliction. And it is a generation of figure skaters who have decided, after silence, to speak out about the disease.

So there is Mr. Curry, at his home in Warwick, England, telling the

world about his ailment.

"There are days when I'm just a mess, and I wake up and think, 'What's the point?' But those are few and far between," Mr. Curry said in last month's statement.

There is Mr. Boitano, training for his Olympic comeback in San Francisco, talking of potential danger of the virus spreading through skating's heterosexual population.

"We have to address safe sex, period," he said.

And, finally, there is the blinding glitter of an exhibition, of a

world of figure skating come together for one day in Toronto, coming together in the memory of one skater.

The highlight is expected when Ms. Wilson, now pregnant with her second child, skates on to the ice alone as a recording of Michael Bolton singing "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes," echoes through the arena.

She said she will think of her partner. And she will try to smile through tears.

"Rob would have given anything to skate," she said. "What this makes you realize is how precious your craft is, and how important life is. Anyone who knew Rob is still heartbroken."

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