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Hotest skates on Ice // Her golden career still glitters

Even in real life, Katarina Witt feels very much akin to the Ice Princess she will portray in her next HBO television special. All it takes, she says, is lacing up a pair of ice skates and hitting the rink.

"I feel like something in me comes alive when I put on my skates," said the not-quite 30-year-old figure skater by phone from her hotel room in Detroit. "It's a magical feeling that I try very hard to bring to the audiences and share with them."

Twenty-four years after she began her skating career in Karl-Marx-Stadt, East Germany, often under the watchful eyes of Communist authorities, Witt has emerged as one of the sport's dominant figures. Her beauty and skillful athleticism have made her a two-time Olympic gold medalist and have turned nearly everything else in her life golden as well.

As she travels the country as a star of the Discover Card Stars On Ice tour, she also looks forward to the March broadcast of Ice Princess, her second HBO special, a program in which she not only stars, but one she helped to create.

"It's based on Cinderella, and quite a bit of the story comes from growing up in an oppressed country where people were never free to live their dreams," said Witt. "For my character, the ice represents freedom, just as it did when I was growing up."

At age 10, Witt was plucked from obscurity to undergo a rigorous program of study and practice under the tutelage of Jutta Mueller, who would prepare the young girl for her championship career. As a star athlete, however, Witt was afforded luxuries that most East Germans would never attain: cars, travel, private housing, all provided by the government. She would return the gratitude over the next few years by bringing home six European championships and top honors in four World Championships.

In 1984, she made her Olympic debut in the games at Sarajevo and won her first Olympic gold medal. Witt returned to the games in Calgary in 1988, this time to face the tough U.S. hopeful Debi Thomas. Little did the world know that Witt had been handed a directive by government officials.

"I was given the condition that if I wanted to continue to skate professionally I had to win the gold," she recalled. It was during those games that Witt gave the performance of her career. Skating as the seductive temptress Carmen, Witt enchanted the worldwide audience.

She admits that much of her fame is owed to the fact that in the past 10 years or so figure skating has emerged as one of sports television's leading draws. "People are drawn to the fantasy of ice skating, the glamor and beauty of it," said Witt, who says she was disgusted by the events that surrounded the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, where she made a third try at the gold.

But attention was diverted from the Olympic competition to the rivalrybetween Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, following an attack on Kerrigan by a members of Harding's camp.

"It was totally out of control," said Witt. "It was sad that the attention was taken away from the other athletes and (it was) unfair to the sport of skating."

Even though she did not win a medal, Witt left the games with a blossoming career. She has starred in several television programs (winning an Emmy for her title role in HBO's Carmen On Ice), performing on numerous commercials and her appearing on the cover of dozens of magazines.

A few years ago, Witt returned to her home in the now-unified Germany. "I feel so fortunate to be doing what I've always loved," said Witt. "And when I go out on the ice, I can still be a little girl if I want to."