It's a dance story, a love story: How U.S. couple beat the odds

February 14, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

ALBERTVILLE, France -- They should not be here.

By all rights, they belong at home, wondering what happened to their dream of making the Winter Olympics.

She was sick. And he was unsteady.

But it was her toughness that brought them back to the ice, brought them all the way to a town in the French Alps via a city made famous by Mickey Mouse.

So it's Valentine's Day at the Winter Olympics. There is no need for chocolates or flowers because the ice dancers have arrived.

There will be couples from the Unified Team of the Commonwealth of Independent States and France, who will begin skating for gold medals. They'll do the pasodoble and the blues tonight. The polka Sunday. And the free dance Monday.

But there also will be these partners from the United States, the ones who have already achieved a victory.

April Sargent Thomas and Russ Witherby are here.

"My life is flying," Sargent said.

It should be. Sixteen days before last month's U.S. National Championships in Orlando, Fla., Sargent was rushed to a hospital for emergency surgery to remove an ovarian cyst.

Doctors told her to skip the nationals. But she wouldn't. She went out and skated and won. And now, she is an Olympian.

"I felt I owed it to Russ to be healthy and ready to go," Sargent said.

Ice dance is filled with illusion. It is the sport of frills and fluff. Sometimes it's difficult to tell where the show ends and the reality begins.

But Sargent and Witherby are merely playing parts. She's the tempestuous brunette. He's the red-headed straight man.

Although they have skated together for four years, her heart belongs to her husband of six months, Jon Thomas. They met while training in Canada. They fell in love. They married.

It's a skating story and a love story with a twist -- she skates in public with another man.

"You think of actors, they do love scenes in bed," she said. "Russ and I do them on ice."

As skaters, Sargent and Witherby are traditionalists. They'll take "Oh, Susannah" over "Bolero," any time.

But they have taken a long, steady climb to the top of American ice dancing. She began skating at age 7 in the hockey rink her father built in their backyard. He was a swimmer who switched to the ice at 14.

In 1988, they missed the Olympics by one place, finishing third at the nationals. For three more years they finished second in America.

But when adversity struck, they finally climbed to the top.

It was December 21. April and her husband were visiting her parents in Ogdensburg, N.Y. Suddenly, she became ill with stomach pains.

"She was greenish," Jon Thomas said. "She didn't want to go to the hospital. I took her there."

April was examined and told she had an ovarian cyst. There was a 90-minute operation. And there was internal bleeding.

"She was starting to go into shock," Jon Thomas said. "They couldn't get IVs into her veins. They took seven ounces of blood out of her abdomen."

It was Jon Thomas who called Witherby and told him of the operation. Witherby also was ailing. He was home in Cincinnati, undergoing dental surgery to fix his front teeth, which were chipped in a skating accident.

"I was devastated," Witherby said. "We had just taken the weekend off. Jon broke the news to me. I couldn't believe it."

Neither could April. When she emerged from surgery, two doctors told her she wouldn't be ready for the U.S. trials.

"I kept thinking, what other doctors do I know?," she said.

She found a doctor in Toronto who worked with the Canadian Olympic team. He told her to ease back into skating. And she did.

She was on the ice within one week of surgery, wearing a girdle to protect her midsection. Within two weeks, she was able to perform the complex footwork that gives the couple its personality.

"It meant so much to her to compete," said Jon Thomas, a former ice dance Olympian who skates with an Ice Capades troupe in Canada. "She is a very cool cookie."

And tough.

Asked if there were any lasting affects from the surgery, Sargent said: "Just a big ugly scar."

But this is Valentine's Day, a time for love and passion. Two partners will perform on the ice. A husband will sit in the stands.

It's a show. It's a romance.

"I think Russ and I are better because of all this," she said. "It's pleasing to see a couple. It's romantic to see a couple dancing."

RF Her heart will be on the ice. And her heart will be in the stands.

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