U. S. CHAMPION SKATER : A Whirlwind on Ice

Times Staff Writer

Chris Mitchell is an athletic 17-year-old, but he's not your average teen-age jock. He's physically fit with strong, muscular legs, great cardiovascular conditioning and a trim physique. But he doesn't play football, baseball or basketball like most high school athletes his age.

Mitchell isn't even in high school. He's a freshman at UCLA, and when he competes he looks somewhat more graceful than a center fielder catching a fly ball or a basketball player slam dunking. His performances are as smooth as a bird cruising through air. He glides on ice, occasionally doing double axles and loop jumps, always landing slickly.

"That's why I really like what I do," Mitchell said, "because nobody else (in high school) does it. I like going against the crowd."

The Chadwick School graduate, who grew up in Rolling Hills, is a national champion amateur ice skater who won the novice men's title in Pittsburgh when he was a petit 12-year-old. A year later he went to Czechoslovakia and placed fourth in his first international competition.

"When he came to me I knew he was a very good figure skater," said Mitchell's coach Robert Taylor, a former national amateur figure and free-style skater. "He's a great competitor and I really think he has a chance for a medal."

Mitchell's opportunity for the medal lies in this week's U. S. National Championships in Denver, where he'll be among the country's top competitors. Last year he placed sixth at the national competition in Washington.

This year he qualified for the event by placing among the top four in two previous competitions in the junior men's category.

The first was in October, when he placed third in the Southwest Regionals at Lake Arrowhead. Last month, he finished second in the Pacific Coast Championships in Stockton.

Not too shabby for a guy who was going to throw in the towel a couple of years ago because of bunions and knee problems.

"I thought nothing was going to work to stop the pain," Mitchell said, "so I just thought I'd bite the bullet and quit."

He stopped skating for half a year and the rest did him good. Mitchell started training again about six months ago at a new rink, with a new coach and a new, more positive attitude.

"I have no illusions of an Olympic gold medal or anything," he said. "I'm still not an optimist. I'm more of a realist and I don't like to look too far ahead anyway.

"Right now all I want is to do well at nationals."

It doesn't bother the 5-foot-11 teen-ager that he has to get up at 5 in the morning to drive to Burbank and hit the ice by 7. Nor does it bother him that he didn't really participate in "normal high school activities" because all his spare time was spent in a rink.

"I never really missed the social high school stuff," Mitchell said. "I really don't think it could have offered me anything that a good sport couldn't.

"Besides, I'm too individual to just go along with the crowd."

Mitchell has been different from the day he was born. His mother, Diana, who says he was a "big surprise," had him when she was 44 after raising five other children. Her last toddler was a true challenge, so she tried everything from pony rides to swimming to keep him busy.

"He was just so energetic," she said in her British accent. "I remember one day the rubbish man was screaming at the top of his lungs in Spanish and he was pointing to the roof. Well it turned out that Christopher was up there with the dog running around.

"I don't know how on Earth he got up there. He was only about 3."

So Diana came up with a new idea to keep her hyperactive son busy. She took him to the local ice skating rink and Mitchell has been perfecting his axle and loop jumps ever since.

"I don't even remember when I first started doing this," Mitchell said, laughing. "I've just heard these astounding stories and I know that my mom had me do a lot of stuff.

"She did anything to make my energy go so I could sleep at night."

Now the extra energy is paying off. Mitchell needs plenty of it to skate five hours a day, especially when he does free-style routines that require top conditioning.

In Colorado, where he will compete in both short and long free style and in his specialty, figure skating, the excess energy will definitely be an asset.

"I don't know how I'll feel in a couple of months or years," Mitchell said, rolling his eyes and shrugging, "but right now I could go all day. Skate, skate, skate!" he added, clenching his fist toward the ice. Go, go, go to Denver!"

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