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Differences Melt Away When This Pair of Skaters Take the Ice

January 29, 1989|BARBIE LUDOVISE | Times Staff Writer

As two of the top pair skaters in the United States, Katy Keeley and Joseph Mero have long known that, in their world on ice, unity and synchronization are key elements.

In pair skating, whirls, twirls and spins are truly impressive only when performed with graceful symmetry. So, from their first glide onto the ice, Keeley and Mero know they must think, move and perform as one.

Most often, they do.

But off the ice, Keeley and Mero are as opposite as coming and going, both in background and personality.

Keeley, a resident of Costa Mesa, is a bubbly--some would say boisterous--23-year-old whose muscular 4-foot 11-inch, 98-pound frame almost seems too compact to hold such an enthusiasm for life.

Her passions--she'll reel them off in a flurry--include raising Persian cats; studying metaphysics; practicing yoga, astrology and self-hypnosis; mountain biking; interpreting dreams and premonitions; and the beach.

Mero, 24, a resident of Newport Beach, is quiet and shy, enjoying bowling and baseball in his spare time. A native of Detroit, Mero started a competitive roller-skating career at the age of 5 and was a national roller-skating finalist for the next 6 years before switching to ice.

At 6 feet, 175 pounds, he is one of the strongest and most technically consistent men in pair's competition. He is a thinker and a doer, whose unflappable demeanor seems to balance Keeley's often fluctuating emotions.

No matter how they contrast off the ice, however, Keeley and Mero--who share a friendly, yet strictly business-like relationship--have been nothing but a complement to each other in the rink.

Keeley and Mero will attempt to win their first national title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Feb. 7-12 in Baltimore. The top two pairs will represent the United States at the World Figure Skating Championships in Paris March 14-19.

With the absence of last year's top two ranked pairs, Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard (now with Ice Capades), and Gillian Wachsman (college) and Todd Waggoner (flight school), many think Keeley and Mero will be among the top performers in this year's pairs competition.

The favorite is the brother-sister pair of Wayne and Natalie Seybold from Marion, Ind. The Seybolds, who have competed as a pair for 10 years, including last year when they placed 10th in the Calgary Olympics, have defeated Keeley and Mero in four of five meetings.

Teen-age sensations Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudi Galindo, who train in Fremont, Calif., are considered dark horse favorites.

This will be Keeley and Mero's fifth consecutive try for a national title. After pairing up in 1984, they placed fifth in the 1985 nationals, fourth in 1986, third in 1987 and fourth in 1988.

Last year's competition, which served as the Olympic figure-skating trials, was by far the biggest disappointment in their career. Only the top three pairs advanced to the Olympics in Calgary, so Keeley and Mero, who said they were certain they had skated well enough to make the team, stayed home as alternates. Thoughts of early retirement came soon after.

"It was devastating to them emotionally," said their coach, John Nicks, who coached U.S. and world pair champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner in their prime.

"To just miss it like that . . . They had a lot of soul-searching to do afterwards."

Around this time, Mero's parents had fallen into serious financial straits. His father, Joseph Sr., had lost his job of 35 years at a Detroit paper plant. His mother, Bernie, had suffered from emphysema for many years and needed an in-home oxygen tent that cost about $3,000.

Bernie Mero, who breathes on a partial lung and requires hospital stays every few months, said her husband was fired because her medical costs got too high and the paper company's insurance company refused to pay.

The Meros have since been granted Medicaid, and are seeking damages against the family's former employer.

"It was really a devastating time for all of us," Bernie Mero said. "Joey would've had to quit skating. We couldn't have supported him."

Expenses for top-level amateur skaters--including cost of boots, blades, ice time, coaching and costumes--can be $15,000 or more a year, according to Keeley.

"(Joe) always worked two jobs, but every time he goes overseas, his jobs are gone," Bernie Mero said. "He's always had it rough."

Fortunately for Mero, help was at hand. Skating fans Dori and Don Fitzgerald, a Newport Beach couple, heard about his dilemma and invited him to stay with them indefinitely and free of charge.

Both Keeley, who lives with her mother in a Costa Mesa condominium, and Mero receive free ice time at the Ice Capades Chalet in Costa Mesa, and have some of their expenses paid through the U.S. Figure Skating Assn.'s memorial fund.

In addition, Keeley and Mero, who train on the ice from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily, work as foodservers in Newport Beach restaurants. Mero has a second job at a computer assembly plant in Santa Ana.

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