Canadian Elvis Stojko, a man at peace with himself, especially now with that piece of gold dangling from his neck, successfully defended his men's world figure skating championship Thursday night, a scant eight weeks after suffering a torn ligament in his right ankle.
The right ankle is the one Stojko lands on and certainly is the wrong one to injure two months before the biggest skating competition of the year.
"They told me I wouldn't be ready," he said. "They said it couldn't be done. They said I was making a dumb move to even try."
But there Stojko was, hobbling up to the top tier of the victory podium, standing taller than Todd Eldredge of the United States and
Philippe Candeloro of France, despite an improvisational piece of work by Eldredge that drew gasps from the audience.
Eldredge, the leader after Wednesday's short program, skated before Stojko on Thursday and fell while attempting to land a triple axel late in his routine, spoiling what to that point had been a gold-medal-worthy performance.
Seconds before his program was due to end, however, Eldredge scratched a scheduled double toe loop-triple toe loop combination and ad-libbed the more difficult triple axel instead.
"I had nothing to lose," he said. "I had done the same thing in practice before, so I said, 'What the heck, why not go for it?' "
That Eldredge did, and when he hit it, the arena erupted. The judges were impressed too, handing him four presentation scores of 5.9 and slotting him in first place with four skaters left.
Stojko had to play from behind, and he knew any comeback would require some derring-do. His program comes equipped with just the thing--this Elvis' trademark move, the quadruple toe loop.
On this quad, however, Stojko came up one rotation shy and wound up spinning on the seat of his pants. Halfway through his program, his title was slipping out from under him.
Stojko's solution was to one-up Eldredge and throw in a triple lutz-triple axel combination during his final minute on the ice.
"I did it not to win but I wanted it down," Stojko said. "I just put it in because I wanted all my attempted triples down. I didn't do it with the quad, so I tried it with the lutz."
The final triple axel gave Stojko eight triple jumps, compared to seven for Eldredge. It was the margin he needed. Stojko received five technical scores of 5.9 and one 6.0, from the French judge, which must be some kind of figure skating first.
Go splat on the ice in the middle of your program, receive a perfect score just the same.
Silver medalist Eldredge had no complaints, though.
"Elvis skated great," he said. "He had a little trouble on the quad"--a thought that brought a chuckle--"but I can live with that. It's a difficult jump."
Fellow American Scott Davis, third after the short program, faded to seventh with a jittery turn that included a pair of two-footed landings. That enabled Candeloro, his pony-tailed hair inexplicably streaked with gray dye for the occasion, to move into third for the bronze.
Doug Leigh, Stojko's coach, couldn't stop marveling at his skater's triumph.
"He wears his own shoes," Leigh said, trotting out a Canadian folk saying of some sort.
"He wears his own shoes--and he wears them in his own way."
Actually, eight weeks ago, Stojko could not wear his own shoes. Five days after hurting his ankle, Stojko reported, "I still couldn't pull on my boot. The foot was swollen like a balloon."
Many advised him to give up the title defense then and there, but Stojko persisted, attributing his rapid recovery largely to the mystical Chinese art of Tai chi , a sort of Zen aerobics.
Stojko spent much of his post-skate news conference discussing such principles of Tai chi as space and movement and "everything flowing up from the blades, up through the body and out."
Leigh listened patiently to all this and came up with a simpler explanation.
"He's just tough," Leigh said. "Very tough."