Robin Cousins, winner of more than 20 international figure skating competitions, among them the 1980 Olympic gold medal in Lake Placid, vividly remembers his struggling days, before trophies and glory, when success actually ranked above survival on his priority list.
In 1974, Cousins chose between his family and skating, his family finishing a close second. He moved from his home in Birmingham, England, to London, alone at 17, and lived there for two years, sharing his $14-a-week apartment with a dream.
"I was living in what amounted to a converted closet," he says today.
He remembers having a bedroom, a bathroom and a Bunsen burner, which, considering the barren surroundings, almost qualified as furniture. He remembers walking to a nearby skating rink every day at 5 a.m. and working in a department store afterward so that he could finance his skating. He remembers that, despite his efforts, he was getting the same amount of training in one week that most of his competitors were getting in a day.
Yes, Robin Cousins remembers, which is why he has helped develop the Foundation for International Ice Skating Advancement in the hope that future champions won't have a past they might prefer to forget.
With Cousins as the vice president and program developer, the foundation offers opportunities to talented youngsters who might not otherwise be able to afford top-level training. In the skating world, the better you become, the more it costs; but the foundation offers an alternative for those who have a wealth of promise, if not money.
"This is being run by the heart, not the pocketbook," said Cousins, who has been working with the foundation in Blue Jay, near Lake Arrowhead, for the last three years, although he still performs from time to time in skating shows.
Supported by corporate-sponsored scholarships worth $35,000 a year, the foundation gives athletes a place to live year-round. Tucked among the pine trees is a multimillion-dollar facility--10 acres and expanding--complete with dormitories, ice rinks, weight rooms and a 360-degree jump harness, which allows skaters to practice difficult jumps without fear of falling.
"In this country, if you can't afford skating, you won't be skating very long," said Doug Mattis, who is on scholarship along with 17 others. "I can honestly say that I wouldn't be skating right now if it weren't for the foundation."
Mattis, 23, of Philadelphia, is ranked ninth in the United States and shooting to become one of the top three American males to make the world championship and Olympic teams. Like the others, his diet is carefully monitored by the foundation's 40 professional instructors, and he is required to adhere to a strict off-ice program that includes ballet, dancing and weightlifting.
He and the others don't have much time for anything outside of skating. Mattis is up at 5 a.m. for breakfast and on the ice until 7:45. He works in the Lake Arrowhead Hotel's accounting department until 11:45. At noon, he's on the ice again until a little after 4, and then he works again at the hotel until after 6. He must then begin some off-ice training, and he's lucky if he's in bed by 11.
And Mattis, believe it or not, has it easy. He doesn't have to worry about studying. Not so with Cameron McCoy, a 15-year-old from Lancaster, Calif.
McCoy is enrolled in the Antelope Valley Independent Study Program. She goes to school once a week for an hour to be tested and pick up a week's worth of homework. Last February, on the night before the U.S. Championships in Baltimore, McCoy locked herself in her hotel room and began preparing for what she called the biggest competition in her life by doing a week's worth of homework.
"I was a little behind," said McCoy, an A student who hasn't been in a normal classroom setting since seventh grade.
According to Gilbert Holmes, president of the foundation, there is a request before the school district for an arrangement that would allow athletes to go to school within the facility.
McCoy sees her parents only on weekends but has been living away from home since she was 12. Before then, her mother would get up at 3 every morning to take her to the closest available rink, two hours away. The younger McCoy, sounding more like an adult than an 11th-grader, says moving away from home was just one of the many sacrifices she has made in pursuit of glory.
"I'm not missing out on my childhood," she said. "This is preparing me for adulthood, showing me self-determination. Sometimes I do feel like I'm missing out, but then I go out and skate, and it feels wonderful. The thought just disappears."
The motivation, of course, is becoming a champion. The foundation doesn't put a price tag on that opportunity.
"Our main goal is not to make champions," Holmes said. "But our country will certainly have more champions with foundations like this."