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Just too cool for words

Hugh Pope, 88, sits in the lobby of Sunblades Ice Arena and laces up his 60-year-old skates, a pair of black CCM Professionals that he owned as a show skater.

They are, like he is, worn and crinkly, but well loved and full of memories.

"I can no longer drive, read or play tennis, but I can still skate," Pope said, making his way to the ice.

"Now we'll see what happens."

He steps on the ice gingerly. Long gone are the days when he performed axels, camel spins and stag jumps in touring ice shows. Now he is content to make several laps around the rink and not fall.

"I fall, but I've never broken a bone," he said proudly.

The St. Petersburg resident is something of a celebrity at Sunblades, an indoor rink in the Icot Center, where the close-knit adult group skates together on Mondays and Thursdays.

Most are aware Pope was a professional skater. He performed in the ice shows popular in the 1940s and '50s, including Sonja Henie's Hollywood Ice Revue. Henie was a three-time Olympic champion and 10-time world champion who made many movies.

On this day, a gaggle of women skated over to Pope, while he rested on a bench, to hold his hand, give him some hugs and soak up his charm.

"He's a babe magnet," said Jackie Mooney, 70, of Largo.

What seems to impress his fellow skaters most is that the octogenarian still skates even though he is legally blind. He suffers from macular degeneration; he has lost his central vision. It affects his equilibrium, yet he refuses to give up the sport he loves.

"He's my inspiration," said Sara Sharpe, 55 of Clearwater. "If I can skate around like that when I'm 88, well, that will be just fabulous."

Pope was born in London, England, during World War I. His family moved to London, Ontario, where he started skating on frozen ponds. As a teenager, he won the senior men's championship of the 300-member London (Ontario) Skating Club. At the same time, he was the men's singles tennis champion of western Ontario.

In 1938, at the age of 20, he turned professional and taught figure skating in the winter, tennis in the summer. For the next 16 years, Pope would alternately teach and tour, skating in ice shows like the St. Moritz Ice Revue, which toured Holland, and the Hollywood Ice Revue, which traveled to major cities around the United States. Often, he performed comedy routines.

"I was never the greatest, but I was a damn good skater," he said.

He remembers Henie as "distant, but very polite."

He said Henie's show claimed to be the most extravagant of the genre.

"Some of the costumes were said to have cost up to $3,000 apiece," he said. "Some had thousands of tiny mirrors sewn into them."

In the mid '50s, Pope moved to Florida, where he met his wife, Joanne, now 77.

He became a travelogue film lecturer, making films in Europe, South America, Canada and Australia.

The couple have been married 49 years. She drives him to Sunblades twice a week.

In 1995, at age 76, Pope became legally blind and had to give up much of what he loved.

But part with skating?

Forget about it.

"It keeps me healthy and active and happy," Pope said, adding that he also lifts weights, walks, jogs, eats right and gets nine hours of sleep each night.

"Most people say I look 65 or 70, but they may be just trying to flatter me," he said.

After his session, he banters with a photographer taking pictures.

"I know you were just waiting for me to fall, so you could go 'snap, snap, snap,' but I didn't do it," he chuckled.