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A Sad Day Gets Sadder in the Skating World

March 21, 1997|RANDY HARVEY

SAN ANTONIO — The first thing that caught my eye in the newspaper Thursday morning was that Scott Hamilton had been found to have testicular cancer. I thought immediately of the cloud hovering over figure skating's World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland, because of the concern for Hamilton. There is no truer gentleman in the sport.

At the same time, the article I read quoted his doctors as saying that the success rate for chemotherapy treatments for that type of cancer is between 70% and 80%. Knowing Hamilton, who overcame a serious childhood illness to become a four-time world champion and the 1984 Olympic champion, his chances of recovery are much higher. He'll be back.

I was not comforted for long, however. The phone rang in my hotel room here and a friend told me about Carlo Fassi. Sadly, he won't be back.

Fassi, a widely known figure skating coach, died Thursday of a heart attack in Lausanne. He was 67.

Fassi had complained of indigestion and feeling faint Thursday morning while waiting for his skater, Nicole Bobek, to begin her practice session. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital and died 2 1/2 hours later.

If the subject is the greatest coaches this country has been blessed with, you can make a list of John Wooden, Knute Rockne, Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Red Auerbach and Dean Smith, and then write Fassi's name right alongside theirs. He was that good.

Like several other outstanding, young European coaches, Fassi, an Italian, came to the United States after our elite figure skaters and their coaches were killed in a plane crash en route to the 1961 World Championships in Prague.

The feeling at the time was that it would take a decade or more for the United States to redevelop world-class skaters. Yet Fassi, operating from the renowned Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., needed only four years to put a graceful young Californian, Peggy Fleming, on the podium with her bronze medal in the 1965 World Championships. By the end of winter in 1968, she was a three-time world champion and an Olympic gold medalist.

If Fleming lured American TV audiences into a love affair with figure skating, Dorothy Hamill made sure they remained enthralled. Fassi coached her to an Olympic gold medal in 1976, the same year he coached the late John Curry of Britain to the men's title. Fassi did the same for Britain's Robin Cousins in 1980.

Fassi had no more Olympic champions. His only other world champion was Jill Trenary in 1991.

But even in leaner years, the skaters he coached demanded attention from judges. Like Wayne Lukas' horses or Angelo Dundee's boxers, Fassi's skaters could never be discounted.

He wasn't the coach for everyone, especially before he mellowed with his semi-retirement of a few years ago. His skaters knew that he cared deeply for them, but, like a demanding father, he had his impatient moments. Fortunately for the more sensitive skaters, his wife and assistant coach, Christa, was there to soothe them. They were a perfect team.

She wasn't home the last time I visited Fassi in their two-story, Swiss-like chalet near Lake Arrowhead in October. There was a bust of Fleming in the living room and a painting over the mantel of him inside the Milan rink where he coached in the '50s. Otherwise, there was nothing in the house to indicate that he was a figure skating coach, much less the best one.

More than anything else, he was proud of the models of World War II battleships he collected.

I went there to talk to him about his latest project, reviving Bobek's career. He said when I'd called earlier that he would have her come to the house so I could interview her. When she wasn't there, I guessed that he was having the same difficulties as most of her previous coaches in controlling her.

He said that wasn't true, that he had gotten along with Bobek since he served as her first coach several years before in Colorado Springs. The only reason they separated was because he moved back to Milan in the early '90s to open a new rink. Bobek even went with him for a few weeks before returning.

"She didn't like the food," Fassi said, laughing.

Although Fassi never lost his thick Italian accent, he had become too Americanized and also returned a couple of years ago. He didn't intend to plunge back into coaching but felt he owed it to Bobek when she called.

She hadn't made it back to where she was as the 1995 national champion when Fassi died. She was close, though, finishing third in this year's nationals and hoping for a medal in the worlds.

A friend told me recently that he was worried about Fassi, that he looked drawn and pale. That wasn't the case the last time I saw him, disappearing over the hill near his home as he briskly walked his miniature schnauzer. The mountain air was chilled, the leaves were changing colors and he had his sweater buttoned to the top.

I figured I'd visit him again in the spring.

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