Rising stakes test mettle

On big stage, athletes use varying methods to cope with pressure

Winter Olympics

February 23, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS AND LAURA MCCANDLISH | MELISSA HARRIS AND LAURA MCCANDLISH,SUN REPORTERS

Sports psychologist Daniel Gould's first client was a tiny, 12-year-old figure skater whose parents were paying thousands of dollars a year for training. But nerves would make the girl physically ill during big performances.

"She felt she had to perform well to justify the expense," Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State, said of the skater, who later became a coach. "You're all alone out there, and you have four minutes to get it done."

For elite athletes like Bel Air's Kimmie Meissner and fellow Olympic figure skater Sasha Cohen, the pressure peaks today. A slip or a catch of the skate's toe pick in Turin could cause international embarrassment and the loss of a medal and millions of dollars in endorsements.

"When I stepped onto the ice, my legs were shaking, and I thought to myself, `I want to go home right now,' " recalled 1998 Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski, who won at the age of 15. "But at the same time, it was exciting. I loved that feeling - well, at the time, you don't, but afterward, you do."

Such stress, she said, is unimaginable to anyone who has not been there.

For older, experienced athletes, years of seasoning on the international stage can add maturity - or make things worse, as they focus on everything that is at stake, rather than on their performances. Youngsters like Meissner, 16, may be spooked by the spotlight - or too excited to notice, as they power past the competition on adrenaline.

No matter what age, these athletes spend years coping with the stress, drawing on everything from superstitious rituals to the advice of sports psychologists to keep themselves calm.

"When the kids are younger, they don't think, they just do," said Ron Ludington, founder and director of the Ice Skating Science Development Center at the University of Delaware, where Meissner trains. "The older kids think too much. They start trying to solve problems by thinking it out, rather than feeling. We want them to go on their feelings."

Cohen - known for failing to skate two clean programs in a row - talked as if she had been channeling a self-help guru after her short program Tuesday.

She told reporters after her near-flawless skate how she had just finished inspirational books by legendary basketball coach John Wooden and cyclist Lance Armstrong. And she said she had moved beyond the shaky and tense skating of her past.

"Salt Lake was very different for me," Cohen said of the 2002 Winter Olympics. "It was my first major international, and I had something to prove that I was out there. I was a different person, a different athlete. I've learned and matured so much, and learned how to handle the nerves I think a bit better since then, and just evolved."

Television cameras often catch athletes calming their nerves backstage, jumping into their landing poses, or walking through their programs with their eyes closed. Before Cohen's short program, cameras caught her revving on a stationary bike, singing along to music on her personal stereo.

Some athletes breathe deeply as they take the ice or recite verbal cues like "power" to themselves before they take off on big jumps.

Others try to avoid the hubbub - and enticements - of the Olympic Village. Cohen and Meissner were ushered to a remote rink in the mountains 90 minutes north of Turin to prepare away from the hype.

That was a smart move, said former Olympic swimmer Theresa Andrews of Baltimore, who won a gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke in 1984.

"It's a great idea [Meissner's] family kept her away from the Village - which is like an A-ticket to Disney World, with restaurants, discos, stores, everything you could ever want," Andrews said. "But when you're in your dorm hearing all that, athletes staying out late, it's hard to keep focus."

Some use mental gymnastics to help them stay calm. While swimming at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Beth Vencill - the former Beth Botsford - imagined she was back in a familiar Baltimore-area pool.

"I treated it as just another competition," Vencill said. "The pool was no longer or deeper. It was no different than any other swim meet, at Towson State or Meadowbrook or anywhere in Baltimore, except for the title."

But while such strategies may help an athlete cope with the pressure, there's no escaping the fact that figure skating leaves little room for error, and that's inevitably stressful.

"Figure skating is different from other sports in that Michael Jordan's career field-goal average was [49.7 percent]," said three-time U.S. champion Michael Weiss, who trains in Laurel and Reston, Va. "That means he made half of his shots, and he's still the best basketball player ever.

"If a skater missed half of his jumps, that would not be a good performance. There is no room for error at all."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

The Associated Press and Copley News Service contributed to this article.

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