AIDS quietly ravages the sport of figure skating Rob McCall's death forces sport to confront deadly virus

November 21, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Rob McCall died a few hours past midnight, Nov. 15, 1991, far from the ice, in the arms of his brother, his life's final project incomplete.

He was a figure skater. An ice dancer -- one of the best in the world. Good enough to win a bronze medal for Canada with his partner Tracy Wilson at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta.

Mr. McCall expected to enjoy a lengthy and lucrative career performing and competing on the international professional circuit. Instead, he contracted AIDS, and spent the last months of his life planning a skating benefit just as meticulously as he once choreographed an Olympic program.

He would leave nothing to chance, not even the smallest gesture.

But there was one act Mr. McCall, 33, could not perform in his lifetime: telling the world of his illness.

"It was just never the right time," said Mr. McCall's mother, Evelyn. "But there is something I will always remember. When he was 15, he would tell me, 'Mom, I don't think I'll live long.' I'd tell him not to say that. And he'd say that he was probably going to die of something terrible, and it would have an impact on people's lives. I'd get worried when he'd fly. I never thought of AIDS."

Yet now, it is Mr. McCall's legacy that is pushing his friends in figure skating toward an unprecedented exhibition today in Toronto's Varsity Arena.

And it is Mr. McCall's life and death that is forcing the sport to confront AIDS.

You have read about Magic Johnson. You have heard the fears of football players, boxers and amateur wrestlers as they mix blood and sport in an uncertain medical age.

But figure skating's struggle with acquired immune deficiency syndrome has been waged mostly in silence, far from the glittering, televised settings of Winter Olympics and world championships.

The virus has taken some of the sport's best and brightest, including Ondrej Nepela, Dennis Coi, Shaun McGill and Brian Pockar.

Skating judges have died. Coaches, too.

And last month, John Curry, the 1976 Olympic men's gold medalist from Great Britain, revealed he has AIDS.

Mr. Curry became the first skater to announce he had contracted the virus through a homosexual encounter. His admission was chilling for a sport that has sought to defuse a public perception that many gifted male skaters are homosexual.

Writing in London's Daily Mail recently, Mr. Curry, 43, said: "My whole circle of friends died. That is very hard to bear. It is hard to watch people in that situation, and it was frightening when people started to become ill. You start to think, 'When is it going to be your turn?' "

Who's next? It's a blunt question of reality for a sport built around sequins and music.

Those within this tightknit community on ice say other skaters could develop AIDS. But no one is predicting that AIDS will ravage a skating generation in the same manner the virus swept through the theater, art and design worlds in the early 1980s.

Still, there is concern.

"There was a period of time when there was less education, and people were at risk much more," said Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic men's silver medalist. "Everyone in the skating community hopes the worst is over."

Skating's public anguish began with the death of one of its most beloved performers.

So, too, did the understanding and the healing.

Memories on ice

They remember Rob McCall's laughter, his determination and his skating style.

"Always had a joke," said Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic men's gold medalist. "Always the life of the party. It was hard to have anything but great, funny moments with Rob."

There was a night in 1988 when Mr. McCall and his partner Ms. Wilson packed a career into one performance at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Together, they were radiant, perky and precise, skating a final ice dance number to a Scott Joplin rag, good enough for gold, really, but content with the bronze.

Later, Mr. McCall would tell his mother: "We got a gold -- just a darker shade."

Still, the medal helped them become mainstays on the world tour. They were, if anything, better together after the Olympics. But Mr. McCall was bothered by nagging colds. He was rundown, too, and missed the final two weeks of a world tour in early 1990.

"I knew something was wrong," Ms. Wilson said. "Rob never missed a practice in 10 years. He was known for his strength, for being physically fit. When I saw him again [a few weeks later at the Toronto airport], he had changed so much. He didn't look the same."

In April 1990, Mr. McCall returned to the ice, preparing for a show headlined by 1988 gold medalists Katarina Witt and Brian Boitano. But during the final dress rehearsal in Portland, Maine, Mr. McCall began hyperventilating and collapsed. He was rushed to a local hospital and quickly diagnosed with a parasitic pneumonia common in AIDS patients.

Mr. McCall's friends in skating rallied around him. Men and women in their 20s suddenly faced mortality as Mr. McCall struggled for each breath and fought for his life.

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