Differences Melt Away When This Pair of Skaters Take the Ice

Times Staff Writer

As two of the top pair skaters in the United States, Katy Keeley and Joseph Mero have long known that, in their world on ice, unity and synchronization are key elements.

In pair skating, whirls, twirls and spins are truly impressive only when performed with graceful symmetry. So, from their first glide onto the ice, Keeley and Mero know they must think, move and perform as one.

Most often, they do.

But off the ice, Keeley and Mero are as opposite as coming and going, both in background and personality.

Keeley, a resident of Costa Mesa, is a bubbly--some would say boisterous--23-year-old whose muscular 4-foot 11-inch, 98-pound frame almost seems too compact to hold such an enthusiasm for life.

Her passions--she'll reel them off in a flurry--include raising Persian cats; studying metaphysics; practicing yoga, astrology and self-hypnosis; mountain biking; interpreting dreams and premonitions; and the beach.

Mero, 24, a resident of Newport Beach, is quiet and shy, enjoying bowling and baseball in his spare time. A native of Detroit, Mero started a competitive roller-skating career at the age of 5 and was a national roller-skating finalist for the next 6 years before switching to ice.

At 6 feet, 175 pounds, he is one of the strongest and most technically consistent men in pair's competition. He is a thinker and a doer, whose unflappable demeanor seems to balance Keeley's often fluctuating emotions.

No matter how they contrast off the ice, however, Keeley and Mero--who share a friendly, yet strictly business-like relationship--have been nothing but a complement to each other in the rink.

Keeley and Mero will attempt to win their first national title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Feb. 7-12 in Baltimore. The top two pairs will represent the United States at the World Figure Skating Championships in Paris March 14-19.

With the absence of last year's top two ranked pairs, Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard (now with Ice Capades), and Gillian Wachsman (college) and Todd Waggoner (flight school), many think Keeley and Mero will be among the top performers in this year's pairs competition.

The favorite is the brother-sister pair of Wayne and Natalie Seybold from Marion, Ind. The Seybolds, who have competed as a pair for 10 years, including last year when they placed 10th in the Calgary Olympics, have defeated Keeley and Mero in four of five meetings.

Teen-age sensations Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudi Galindo, who train in Fremont, Calif., are considered dark horse favorites.

This will be Keeley and Mero's fifth consecutive try for a national title. After pairing up in 1984, they placed fifth in the 1985 nationals, fourth in 1986, third in 1987 and fourth in 1988.

Last year's competition, which served as the Olympic figure-skating trials, was by far the biggest disappointment in their career. Only the top three pairs advanced to the Olympics in Calgary, so Keeley and Mero, who said they were certain they had skated well enough to make the team, stayed home as alternates. Thoughts of early retirement came soon after.

"It was devastating to them emotionally," said their coach, John Nicks, who coached U.S. and world pair champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner in their prime.

"To just miss it like that . . . They had a lot of soul-searching to do afterwards."

Around this time, Mero's parents had fallen into serious financial straits. His father, Joseph Sr., had lost his job of 35 years at a Detroit paper plant. His mother, Bernie, had suffered from emphysema for many years and needed an in-home oxygen tent that cost about $3,000.

Bernie Mero, who breathes on a partial lung and requires hospital stays every few months, said her husband was fired because her medical costs got too high and the paper company's insurance company refused to pay.

The Meros have since been granted Medicaid, and are seeking damages against the family's former employer.

"It was really a devastating time for all of us," Bernie Mero said. "Joey would've had to quit skating. We couldn't have supported him."

Expenses for top-level amateur skaters--including cost of boots, blades, ice time, coaching and costumes--can be $15,000 or more a year, according to Keeley.

"(Joe) always worked two jobs, but every time he goes overseas, his jobs are gone," Bernie Mero said. "He's always had it rough."

Fortunately for Mero, help was at hand. Skating fans Dori and Don Fitzgerald, a Newport Beach couple, heard about his dilemma and invited him to stay with them indefinitely and free of charge.

Both Keeley, who lives with her mother in a Costa Mesa condominium, and Mero receive free ice time at the Ice Capades Chalet in Costa Mesa, and have some of their expenses paid through the U.S. Figure Skating Assn.'s memorial fund.

In addition, Keeley and Mero, who train on the ice from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily, work as foodservers in Newport Beach restaurants. Mero has a second job at a computer assembly plant in Santa Ana.

Once financially stable, Keeley and Mero had to overcome their shock and disappointment of not making the Olympic team. For Keeley especially, the thought of retirement was a recurring notion.

"I was dumbfounded for a long time at first," Keeley said. "We decided not to make a decision, not to be rash (in retiring). We waited a couple of months; I signed up at Orange Coast College for 16 units just to keep myself busy.

"But I guess we knew all along we weren't really going to quit skating."

Mero's attitude was more matter-of-fact. "I was back on the ice in 2 weeks," he said. "I picked this thing as my career a long time ago, I wasn't just going to let it go."

Once they decided to continue--this time with the help of ballet instructors and choreographers--Keeley and Mero were more determined than ever.

"We knew we weren't finished, we knew we weren't done," Keeley said. "We hadn't won a nationals or accomplished what we wanted yet. I think that made us hungrier."

Their improvements haven't gone unnoticed.

"I saw them in Paris, at the Lalique Trophy last November, and they looked very strong," said Dale Mitch, editor of Skating magazine, the official publication of the USFSA.

"Katy and Joe have improved in their total overall package, their presentation, their unison and the difficulty of their moves."

Because of their size difference, Keeley and Mero are better able to perform exciting lifts and strength moves, such as helicopter spins, where Mero holds Keeley over his head with one hand while spinning on the ice as fast as he can.

One trick that no other current pair has matched, according to Mitch, is their version of the death spiral--the move that has the man spinning his partner around him by the hand while she is fully arched and extended, with her head almost grazing the ice.

In Keeley and Mero's version, Keeley switches from her inside to her outside blade without losing momentum. It's a fight over centrifugal force and nerves.

"It's very difficult because if she lost the edge on either blade, she would just go on her bottom," Mitch said.

Still, neither Keeley nor Mero seems scared to try such maneuvers. Especially Keeley, who exudes fearlessness when she offers--usually voluntarily--her philosophy of life. She said it was shaped last year, after she survived a serious concussion during a London ice show, and, in her car just 4 days later, a head-on collision with a center divider.

"After my concussion, I was literally scared every time I got in the rink," Keeley said. "But then after the car accident, it like boomeranged me back to reality.

"I'm not scared of anything now. Anything life throws me, I can deal with it. Anything."

How does Mero's thinking differ?

"I think Katy gets pretty emotional about things . . . She's like, miss it once and it's a big trauma," he said. "I'm not that way. I handle failure better. I learned to keep all that inside me."

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