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Passing The Torch

March 29, 2009|Diane Pucin

Brian Boitano loves to watch figure skating on television. He is, was, always will be a charismatic Olympian, a gold-medal winner with the entertainer's flair and the athlete's grit.

He's not a coach at heart, in fact he's still a skater, at the age of 45, still doing exhibitions and showing off.

Still, one afternoon when Boitano was watching Alissa Czisny in a competition on television Boitano had the thoughts of a coach. He saw in Czisny's face a tension and in her jumps tentativeness. He saw in her a young lady with grace and elegance but also without the confidence to be a performer.

"Skating is a sport," Boitano said, "but it's also entertainment and I saw in Alissa that she had so many skills but she was missing just a little something."

Boitano didn't feel bold enough to call up Czisny and say, "Hey, girl, I'm a champ, you want to be, let's get together."

So instead he put out a feeler to Czisny's agent. Boitano's coach, Linda Leaver, made contact with Czisny's coach, Julianne Berlin. Yes, everyone agreed, Czisny would love to have Boitano's wisdom about her psyche, critiques of her jumps, spellbinding stories of how to calm one's nerves moments before a program is skated. She would love, in fact, to just have a chat with a champion.

From that was born a program of mentoring that is informally helping a group of young American skaters learn more about themselves and what might be their futures.

Obviously, there's no guarantee that one legend in one year can correct all the psychic or physical issues a skater may have developed over a dozen years. While Czisny starred at the U.S. nationals, she has faltered here at the world championships, falling twice in her short program.

Rachael Flatt, a 16-year-old from Del Mar, has had sit-down talks with former Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill. "I mean, how cool is that?" Flatt said. "I sit down with one of the greatest skaters ever and she tells me about how she felt right before the Olympics."

Paul Wylie, an Olympic silver medalist who had, as he said, "a nonlinear career" that was filled with skating interrupted by school, took an interest in Jeremy Abbott, a late-blooming 23-year-old who also has struggled to make life and skating fit in a way that takes into consideration all of Abbott's interests.

Wylie did a speaking engagement at the U.S. nationals, where he talked about his career, the ups and downs that ended in an unexpected and emotional triumph with a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics. In the audience was Abbott, whose coach, Tom Zakrajsek, called Wylie.

"He said Jeremy had really responded to what I talked about," Wylie said.

Like Boitano and Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, Olympic pairs skaters who are mentoring Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, Wylie didn't want to step on a coach's toes, irritate an agent or seem like the pushy old know-it-all.

"I'm more like family," Wylie said. "I'm somebody who has already traveled this road. Jeremy has a coach in Tom to push him in a certain direction. I might listen in a different way."

Babilonia said she got a call after Christmas from people involved with McLaughlin and Brubaker, a young pairs team.

"They were entering this world of pressure and expectation building up," said Babilonia, who had gone through the same pressures as a pre-Olympic favorite in 1980. "For the next year there will be a ton of pressure before the Olympics. People who have already been there, I think we who have been there can help."

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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latimes.com/sports

Ticket to Vancouver

The Olympics blog is featuring posts this weekend on the World Figure Skating Championships and includes guest bloggers who have competed in this event and won. Today is Tara Lipinski, winner at the 1997 worlds.

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