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Skating Through the Pain : Punsalan, Swallow Carry the Weight of Recent Tragedy

February 16, 1994|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAMAR, Norway — Since their marriage less than six months ago, U.S. ice dancers Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow have been told that they have never skated with more affection and commitment. As they glided across the ice in a practice Tuesday at the Olympic Amphitheatre here, their feelings for one another seemed even more vivid.

When that was mentioned to them later, their eyes met and locked.

"Yes," Punsalan said, "with what we've been through . . . "

Eleven days earlier, they were having dinner with his parents in Northville, Mich., when she received a call from her family's home in Sheffield Lakes, Ohio. Her 57-year-old father, Ernesto, had been stabbed to death while sleeping in his bedroom, and her 20-year-old brother, Rickey, had been arrested.

Even before driving to Ohio the next morning, they released a statement through the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. saying that they would go to Norway to compete in the Winter Olympics because that is what her father would have wanted them to do. But she was not sure until much later that was what she wanted to do.

"We made up a statement before we were sure," Punsalan said. "It happened so quickly. I don't think I was thinking straight at the time. Even on the plane to here, I wasn't sure how I'd feel, whether we'd be able to handle it."

They are handling it as well as could be expected, even agreeing to speak to reporters virtually whenever asked. They met with a small group after their practice Tuesday in the Olympic Amphitheatre, where the dance competition begins Friday.

Not among the contenders, Punsalan, 23, and Swallow, 27, seem to be as enthusiastic about sharing the same ice with Great Britain's Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, the 1984 gold medalists who are making a comeback, as they are about competing. A top-10 finish would be commendable.

Even being here is commendable.

"After the first couple of days, we talked about it a lot with close friends," Punsalan said. "It helps to get your feelings sorted out. But this is just the beginning. I think it's going to take a long time. Some days are better than others.

"It's sort of a roller-coaster ride. I go from being very high to very low to very high. It's tough. I guess I expected it to be tough.

"Jerod keeps talking to me, and (coach) Igor (Shpilband) keeps talking to me, and all I think about is my skating and what I need to do from minute to minute."

Said Swallow: "Our marriage is still young, and we're still young people. At this age, you don't always know how to deal with death this close to your family."

Although accommodations in the athletes' village don't mix men and women, the USFSA arranged for Swallow to move into a room by himself across the hall from the suite Punsalan shares with three other female figure skaters.

"I'm just a door knock away," he said.

Punsalan said she was looking forward to the arrival Tuesday night of her mother, two brothers, a sister and a brother-in-law. Swallow's parents and a brother also are coming. Another brother who lives in Studio City is still cleaning up from last month's earthquake, Swallow said.

"There's just been a lot of craziness in our lives lately," he said.

Beginning with their wedding in Detroit on Sept. 4, the next few months could not have been more idyllic. Before leaving home for Norway, they spent hours looking at photo albums filled with family pictures from their wedding, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

As usual when she skated in major competitions, her father, a surgeon, could not get away from the hospital to travel to Detroit to attend last month's national championships, which Punsalan and Swallow won for the second time since 1991 to earn the United States' only Olympic berth.

But he was planning on taking time off to see them skate here.

When they went to Sheffield Lakes after the national championships, they found a large sign on the front lawn of her parents' home, congratulating them on their victory.

"He said, 'I always knew you'd make it,' " Punsalan said of her father. "He wasn't very surprised. He learned all about ice dancing, and he studied our tapes. This year, he said he could tell we had improved."

Added Swallow: "He was very modest. He'd never talk to the staff at the hospital about Liz. They'd see her on TV and ask him, 'Why didn't you tell us about your daughter?' He'd just smile. He was so proud of her."

They said they are not sure what their future holds except that both plan to return to school to get their degrees, Swallow in art history and Punsalan in medicine.

"My dad always said ophthalmology was a good field, a 9-to-5 job," she said. "He worked around the clock, 24 hours a day, on call all the time. That's why he couldn't come to a lot of my skating events."

Said Swallow: "He was as dedicated to his profession as Liz was to her skating. That's why he understood why she was doing what she was doing."

Punsalan's voice cracked a couple of times while talking about her father, but she did not cry until asked about her brother.

Ten hours after his release from a psychiatric unit of a nearby hospital, he allegedly killed his father with a kitchen knife. He pleaded not guilty to a charge of aggravated murder and is being held in Lorain, Ohio, without bail.

"My family has known that he was sick for a long time," Punsalan said. "He was battling substance abuse and mental illness along with it."

When she paused to compose herself, Swallow patted her on the knee.

"Now," she continued, "he will be able to get the help that he needs."

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