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Skating's stars come to Tampa

With the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, quickly approaching in February, many former Olympians are fondly recalling their own Winter Games victories.

For Ekaterina Gordeeva, who will appear at the Ice Palace on Saturday in the NutraSweet Challenge of Champions, the thoughts will be bittersweet.

Since her gold medal performances with her pairs partner and husband, Sergei Grinkov, in the 1988 and 1994 Olympics, her life has changed radically. Two years ago, Grinkov died of a heart attack at age 28. Now Gordeeva skates as a single, trying to cope with the memories yet pushing forward with her life for the sake of herself and their 4-year-old daughter, Daria.

"Everything reminds me of Sergei, where we live, the car, every ice rink, every dressing room," Gordeeva said in a recent Good Housekeeping article. "There is no day I don't think of him. There was something very special about us _ we never changed partners."

The Russian couple started skating together when he was 16 and she was 12.

"With each day I am getting stronger and more independent," she said. "I'm trying to depend on myself. I know I must take care of myself and my daughter."

Her style of skating is graceful, flowing and full of emotion.

Her elegance is the style that Canada's 1948 gold medal Olympian, Barbara Ann Scott, prefers.

"I love good footwork and spins," said Scott, who is traveling with the show as a judge. "Peggy Fleming was lovely in her era."

Scott says skating has changed a lot since she performed.

"The biggest change is the amateurs now earn money," she said in a telephone interview from Milwaukee. "And . . . now you have to be part gymnast (to do all the jumps and flips)."

This show, the Challenge of Champions, is produced by Scott's longtime friend Dick Button, who won America's first gold medal in 1948. He dominated the world of figure skating for seven years, winning two Olympic gold medals, five world championships and seven U.S. titles. He is the only skater ever to make a grand slam sweep of all major titles: U.S., North American, European, world and Olympic championships. A well-known figure skating commentator, Button was also the first to win an Emmy Award for outstanding sports personality.

Button started major professional figure skating competition when he created the World Professional Figure Skating Championship. He expanded this format in 1985 to include the Challenge of Champions.

Returning to Tampa to try to renew their 1992 and 1993 wins in the Challenge of Champions are 26-year-old Kristi Yamaguchi and 33-year-old Paul Wylie. Wylie also won in 1995.

Yamaguchi says the biggest difference between her amateur career and her professional status is the lifestyle.

"(As an amateur,) my time was dedicated to training to perform three or four times a year," she said. "Now I perform once or twice a week. Life on the road is a grind."

Wylie says he is calling it quits after this skating season ends in May. He plans to go back to school either for a law degree or a master's in business.

"The Olympics has a special energy, and I will be revisiting the excitement of it," he said. "My performance (silver medal) in Albertville (France) set up my pro career and rewrote my amateur career to have a happy ending."

Button says the pro circuit has given skaters the opportunity to develop their craft. "It is a wonderful situation for ice skaters today," he said.

Joining Wylie, Yamaguchi and Gordeeva on the ice in Tampa will be Yuka Sato, Viktor Petrenko, Rudy Galindo, Denise Biellmann, Gary Beacom, Elena Bechke and Denis Petrov, Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur, Maia Usova and Alexander Zhulin and Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler.

The competition will be televised Jan. 3 and the exhibition March 7 on ABC's Wide World of Sports.

AT A GLANCE

NutraSweet Challenge of Champions, featuring one-on-one competition with men's and women's singles, pairs and ice dancing. A figure skating exhibition will follow the challenge. 7 p.m. Saturday, Ice Palace, Tampa. Tickets are $38 and $28 at the Ice Palace box office and Ticketmaster outlets. Call 287-8844 or 898-2100.

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