Putting their troubles on ice Skating: Two champions endure disease and tragedy to return as star performers.


They are different now, their lives forever changed, yet they remain very much the same. Scott Hamilton is still the playful imp, Ekaterina Gordeeva the shy princess. They were once part of the same world. Now, they are members of the same extended family.

When they appear tomorrow at Baltimore Arena in the first of a 57-city Discover Stars On Ice tour, Hamilton and Gordeeva will be part of a cast that also includes fellow Olympic gold medalists Kristi Yamaguchi and Katarina Witt.

That they are performing at all is a testimony to their strength, drawn from each other, from within as well as from those around them, including their fans. It is an astonishing accomplishment, equal to or greater than any other they've achieved in their remarkable careers.

Hamilton, 39, is in the first few months of a comeback from cancer that was first diagnosed last spring. Gordeeva, 26, is starting over after the death of her husband and longtime skating partner, Sergei Grinkov, in November 1995.

When Hamilton received a diagnosis of a malignant germ cell tumor in his abdomen last April, the first question he asked his doctors at the Cleveland Clinic was how long it would take him to get back on the ice. He was one show away from finishing his 11th season of Stars, a tour he started after an amateur career that included a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics and four world championships.

"It wasn't that I was so desperate to get back on the ice," Hamilton recalled last week. "I had lost control."

Aside from his girlfriend, some family members and his longtime agent, Hamilton chose at first not to tell anyone. He figured the fewer people he told when he got sick, the less he had to explain once he got better.

"I tried not to burden anyone with my situation," he said. "I tried to look at this time of my life as a real crummy summer. I wanted to delete it when it's over. When you lose control of your life, you become pretty self-conscious. You lose some of your self-esteem. As I got stronger, I came out of my shell a little more.

"A lot of it was that I was scared at first. Cancer is something that happens without your permission. At first, I was a little blown away. It's horrible those first few moments. I was amazed how quickly it changed. I talked with Bob [Kain, his agent] and he said, 'Get on the tour bus, go to Cleveland and we'll get it done.' "

When the doctors removed the tumor, they were confident that the cancer had not spread. But they also gave Hamilton a less-than-optimistic outlook about his timetable for a comeback, given what he had been through and that the chemotherapy had done a number on the lungs and that the scar tissue from the incision would take time to heal.

January, they told him, at the earliest.

"I figured November," Hamilton said.

Actually, he was back in October for his own made-for-television special. But the tougher test came last month in Lake Placid, N.Y., where this Stars on Ice tour previewed. It included a number in which Hamilton plays several characters from "The Wizard of Oz." Initially, he figured the number would take a little more than four minutes.

In reality, it came out to more than six minutes.

"I'm in a lot more of the show than I've been before," he said. "It's not the situation you want to be in coming back from cancer. But I'm coming back a lot stronger than I thought I would. I thought stamina would be the biggest problem, but it's my quickness. I'm not as quick as I was in March. By January, I'll be back to where I'm hitting all my jumps."

A changed life

In the 25 months since her husband collapsed during a practice session in Lake Placid and died, at age 28, of heart failure brought on by a genetic irregularity in two of his heart's arteries, Gordeeva's life and career as a skater have been changed irrevocably.

She lost not only the partner with whom she had won two Olympic gold medals and a world championship, but also her husband of four years and the father of their daughter, Daria, now 5. She went from wife to widow, from pairs skater to individual performer.

"It's definitely getting much better," Gordeeva said after a recent practice session at the MCI Center in Washington. "I'm starting to settle down and feel more comfortable."

Those around her can see Gordeeva slowly emerging from her long period of mourning.

"She's an incredibly strong person," said former world champion Kurt Browning, who is in his fourth year on the tour. "She's made an amazing evolution."

Gordeeva returned to the ice in February 1996, in a show dedicated to the memory of her husband. Being part of a tour that takes up nearly four months of the year has helped Gordeeva, who lives in Simsbury, Conn., with her daughter when she is not traveling.

"When you go through difficult time, it helps to have my friends and family around," she said. "I'm very honored to be included in this show. Every night you can learn how to skate, plus afterward you can go out and have a drink with these people."

Hamilton compares the lifestyle of this tour to a 1960s sitcom.

"It's kind of like 'Gilligan's Island.' We're out there together, and we rely on each other for support," he said. "The traveling part is kind of a challenge. The life part is a challenge as well. Everyone sees what happens on the ice. Nobody sees what happens to get it there."

But this has been a learning experience for Hamilton as well. For years, the tour has contributed to the Make A Wish Foundation for children with life-threatening diseases. The skaters often take these children out on the ice a few hours before show time.

"Now I understand what they've been through and how they feel," he said. "To give them a couple of hours off from their problems makes us feel really good."

Discover Stars On Ice

When: Tomorrow, 7: 30 p.m.

Where: Baltimore Arena

Who: A cast of former Olympic and world champions, including Scott Hamilton, Kristi Yamaguchi, Katarina Witt and Ekaterina Gordeeva performing to music ranging from rock to big band, as well as an opening number by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Tickets: Prices range from $30 to $55. Available at the Baltimore Arena box office, all Ticketmaster locations, including Hecht's, as well as by calling 410-481-SEAT. Portions of tickets purchased with Discover cards go to the Baltimore chapter of the Make A Wish Foundation.

Pub Date: 12/26/97

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