Dancing Away Her Tears Lillehammer 94

February 17, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

HAMAR, Norway -- The hardest time comes in the darkness when she is alone with memories of her father and the violent act that ended his life.

But in the light of an arena,Elizabeth Punsalan can smile, can wear a shimmering black and white dress and dance a rumba on the ice with her husband Jerod Swallow, can forget the nightmare that has engulfed her family even as it gathers for the Winter Olympics.

"We're not done grieving," she said. "But we're trying to set it aside."

This should be a time of celebration for the newlyweds who are America's best ice dancers. But it is instead a time of sorrow.

Eight days before the Winter Olympics began, Punsalan's brother was arrested in connection with the murder of their father.

Ricky Punsalan, 21, is accused of stabbing his father, Ernesto, 57, twice with a chef's knife.

The murder occurred while Ernesto was asleep in his home in Sheffield Lake, Ohio. Elizabeth Punsalan's mother, and another brother, were watching television at the time, and heard nothing.

Ricky had been released from a psychiatric ward at St. John's Hospital, and his medication had just been changed from Prozac the day before the incident. He had a history of emotional illnesses and drug problems.

"I'm angry with what my brother did, but I know he wasn't aware what he did," she said. "He wasn't in control. I hope he can get help."

As she talks, Elizabeth Punsan holds her husband's sleeve, and looks straight into his eyes.

Together, they are a gorgeous match, four years of skating daily turning them into mirror images. They each have bushy brown hair and quick smiles.

She's 23. He's 27. She loved him from afar when she was a teen-ager. He noticed her when she became a woman. They were married last Labor Day and spent their first Thanksgiving dinner at their new home last fall.

"We're young and new at this," Swallow said. "We didn't expect to deal with this so close to home. But we're trying to deal with it, head on."

Punsalan wants to talk of her family, of her father, and of her Olympic dream.

Ernesto Punsalan was an immigrant from the Philippines who arrived in America with a one-way ticket that took him as far as Buffalo. So he stayed in upstate New York, attending medical school, earning a degree, starting a practice, and eventually, meeting his wife.

"He was a dedicated surgeon, on call 24 hours a day," Elizabeth said. "His goal was saving lives, and he took it seriously."

Swallow added: "He was a surgeon with a heart. A surgeon who always asked for God's guidance."

Punsalan remembers her father's sense of humor and his singing. He would bundle his five children in the back seat of a car and take them to school, singing, "Home On The Range."

"We'd usually be asleep before we'd get there," she said.

It was Ernesto Punsalan who supported his daughter's skating, who "financed the whole thing."

"He was always behind me," she said.

She also remembers her brother Ricardo, the boy they called Ricky, the child who was bright and happy when he played Little League baseball and football, but who became withdrawn after spending months on crutches as a fifth-grader. He had Osgood-Schlatter disease, an illness that affects joints in adolescents.

"He lost his buddies," she said. "He got mixed up in the wrong crowd. That's when he got mixed up with drugs.

"He was sick for a long time. It's something that my own family had to deal with. He has been through so many different hospitals and medications. We tried so hard to help him."

Punsalan and Swallow, wife and husband, skating partners, Olympians, were not sure if they wanted to be here. They practiced the day after her father's murder "just to see if they could do it," he said.

And even on the trip to Europe, they were undecided about competing. But they will skate. They have no chance to win a medal. A top-10 finish would be a terrific result.

What was supposed to be a glorious moment in their lives, Swallow said, "is now just a distraction."

Soon, they will leave this world of sequins and glitter and pick up the pieces of a shattered family.

But for a few moments, and a few nights, they will skate together, to help themselves with the grief, to help their family with the pain, to honor a man they loved.

Punsalan said: "My father would have wanted us here."

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