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Ice Show Gives Manley’s Career a Silver Lining

The women’s figure-skating event of last February’s Winter Olympics in Calgary was touted as “The Battle of the Carmens,” referring to the opera score that both defending champion (and eventual winner) Katarina Witt and U.S. champion Debi Thomas chose in their bids for the gold medal.

But the fireworks at the free-skating finale were provided instead by the surprise hit of the evening, Canada’s Elizabeth Manley, who blazed across the ice in a hot pink dress, effortlessly knocking off triple jumps and graceful spins. In the process, she claimed the silver medal, relegated Thomas to the bronze and became the first person in five years to defeat Witt in free skating.

The three-time Canadian women’s champion garnered another silver medal at the world championships the next month and turned professional shortly thereafter. She opens tonight at the Forum as the star of Ice Capades, part of a 3-year contract with the show.

Having made her Ice Capades debut just last month, Manley, 23, is still adapting to show life. “As an amateur, you stay at home training for months, and then two or three times a year you go to competitions,” she said by phone last week from Quebec City, the Ice Capades stop before Los Angeles. “Now, I’m on the road constantly, performing nine times a week. I used to train five to eight hours a day. My performances have now become my training.

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“There’s no longer pressure from the judges, but I put pressure on myself, to leave the audience knowing I’m still skating as well. Los Angeles audiences, for instance, are very knowledgeable about figure skating, so it’s a little bit nerve-racking to perform here. And one major adjustment is learning how to jump in the spotlights. You feel like you’re skating in total darkness.”

Manley performs two numbers in the show, the slow-paced “Only You” from “Starlight Express” and “The Night They Invented Champagne” from “Gigi.”

“I much prefer doing ‘Gi” she noted. “It’s bubbly, fun, and that’s what my style is--very quick, alive and fast.”

She is hoping to add a third number, “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” from “Dirty Dancing,” which she performed for several weeks this spring to sold-out arenas for the Olympic and World Figure Skating Tour of Champions. That sentiment particularly reflects her life since the Olympics, she said.

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“The Olympics was the highlight of my life, for sure. When I do interviews, they often show clips of that night, and every time I watch, I still get the same great feeling.”

Her Olympic triumph was all the more meaningful in view of a much-publicized dark period in Manley’s amateur career. She had begun skating at age 3 with her hockey-playing older brothers and decided as an 8-year-old to pursue the sport seriously. In the autumn of 1982, she found herself stagnating under her coach of eight years and left her native Ottawa to train for several months in Lake Placid.

But separation from her family and other factors made the experience emotionally difficult: She became depressed, gained weight and lost her hair and ultimately her place on the Canadian world team by finishing fourth at her national championships.

“I came back home and decided to quit skating, go to a university and get on with a new life,” she recalled. “But two or three weeks after I returned, I met coaches Sonya and Peter Dunfield, who said, ‘We know you can be a champion.’ So I lost the weight, and they went on to be my coaches for the next six years. But to be 18 years old and go through something like that. . . .”

Manley now gives motivational speeches in Canada and has made a television commercial for the U.S.-based Charter Canyon Hospital chain. Her other post-Olympic endeavors include a commercial for Canada’s “Mr. Juicy” bars, a public-service announcement about Canadian voting and a print endorsement for the Fur Council of Canada. Her line of figure skates will be introduced in January, and also in the works are a book and a fine-art porcelain doll.

While in Los Angeles (the engagement ends Nov. 6), Manley is taping her own Canadian television special and will star in an Ice Capades special for ABC. She is also preparing to screen-test for a film about Sonja Henie, and in December will return to competition in the first World Cup of Figure Skating.

“I’d like to do TV commentary for the 1992 Olympics,” she said. “But other than that, I’ll just wait and see how successful I might be over the next three years.

“I’d like to be remembered in skating as a role model,” she added. “Someone who got along with everybody. Before the Olympics, children in Ottawa used to come up to me when they’d see me in malls. Now they don’t--they feel shy. I don’t ever want people to feel that way. I’m still the same Liz Manley I was before. I haven’t changed just because I have a medal around my neck.”

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