FUTURE IN FOCUS : At 14, Tisha Walker of Thousand Oaks Begins to Realize Unlimited Potential in Figure Skating

Times Staff Writer

Bonnie Walker was worried. A video camera recently had been pilfered from her van, which had been parked right outside her Thousand Oaks home. Now she and the family were going out of town and she didn't want to take any chances.

Who knows? Maybe some sort of crazed videophile was prowling the neighborhood. So before leaving, she hid the family's prized possessions: a pair of VHS tapes.

"I didn't want anyone stealing these," she says, holding up the tapes a few days after returning from a trip to Baltimore.

The tapes, which had been concealed somewhere on the second floor of the two-story, Spanish-style house, do not contain rare footage from Hitler's bunker or anything that makes them valuable to anyone but the Walkers. They're videos of Bonnie and Steve Walker's 14-year-old daughter Tisha, a tiny cotton top who is among the world's best up-and-coming figure skaters.

In her living room, Bonnie turns on a rear-projection TV and starts a VHS by remote control. Her smile explains why the tapes are priceless. On the 50-inch screen, Tisha glides onto the ice at an indoor arena in East Germany, then performs a nearly flawless program to finish second among 28 junior ladies in an international meet last November.

The Walkers did not go with their daughter to East Germany, but the family, including son Chad, 17, did travel to Baltimore earlier this month for the U. S. National Championships, and that tape will soon be added to their collection. Tisha, a freshman at Thousand Oaks High, improved on her eighth-place finish of a year ago, placing third in the junior ladies behind Kyoko Ina and Jessica Mills. Tisha won the short program but four mistakes in the long program, including a missed triple loop, prevented her from winning the overall title.

"She had an off-day and still finished third, which shows how good she is," says Doug Varvais of Simi Valley who, with wife Lauri, coaches Tisha. "Her potential is unreal."

Skating is a sport "I was natural at," Tisha says, but it's something she might never had tried were it not for her mother's "loneliness."

About 10 years ago, Steve saw the housing boom in east Ventura County as a huge market for his swimming pool business, so he moved the family from Granada Hills to Thousand Oaks. Bonnie needed to make new friends.

"I didn't know a soul," she says. A Canadian whose father was a speed skater, Bonnie heard about a "coffee club for adults" at the Conejo Valley Ice Skating Center, only five minutes away. The next thing she knew she was skating with the rink's precision drill team. One day, Tisha, then 4, came to a practice. Presto. A skater was born.

"I watched my mom and liked skating and skated ever since" is how Tisha matter-of-factly describes her beginnings. Was she good right away? "I can't remember," she says with a giggle. Her mother has a more vivid memory: "The first time we put her on skates she stood right up and took off across the ice."

And turned the Walkers' life around. Like most every figure skater, Tisha didn't reach the international level by practicing a few hours over the weekend on a frozen pond. She has had to dedicate her life, spending countless hours at the rink instead of the mall. And the Walkers have had to spend tens of thousands of dollars--about $30,000 a year, Bonnie says. "We've given up fun vacations to go on skating vacations."

Since Tisha started skating, her daily schedule has consisted of five or six hours of practice at the Conejo rink, three hours starting at 6:30 a.m. before school and the rest in the afternoon. One day a week she and her mother get up at 4:15 a.m. and drive to Burbank to practice at Pickwick Ice Rink. She usually takes only a day off a week.

"We decided to go with her all the way as long as she wanted to do it," Bonnie says. "We'd never push her."

Skating has prevented Tisha from leading what's considered the "normal" teen-age life. "Most of my friends are skaters," she says. "I don't do much with my school friends. I don't go to a lot of dances or rallies or football games, but I'm very happy doing what I'm doing."

Skating, however, has exposed her to a world that most teen-agers only see on their TV sets. She has traveled throughout the United States and even went behind the Iron Curtain. What other kid at Thousand Oaks High gets fan letters from East German boys? And what other kid has a room overflowing with stuffed animals, dolls--and dozens of trophies and medals?

Tisha, only 5-foot-1 and not expected to grow much taller, has set her sights on the Olympics. Women skaters generally peak in their late teens and early 20s. Tisha may not be physically ready for the 1992 Games, so 1994 (the Winter and Summer Games will be held separately two years apart after '92) is her first realistic shot at making the U.S. team.

"It should be a perfect year for her," Varvais says.

First, however, Tisha will have to move up to senior ladies--the Olympic level--something she plans to do this spring. "There's a good chance she'll be in the top six" in seniors, Varvais predicts.

And the videotape possibilities will be endless.

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