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Getting Her Balance : Kerri Strug Says the Ice Capades Tour Gives Her a Creative Outlet That Gymnastics Didn’t Offer

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kerri Strug, the 18-year-old gymnast who vaulted, then hobbled, to fame during the 1996 Summer Olympics, can now add “ice show star” to her growing resume. And she doesn’t even skate.

Starting today at the Pond of Anaheim, Strug joins “The Magic of MGM, an Ice Capades Production,” a splashy salute to the movies featuring chorus skaters, special effects, videos, bungee jumping and gymnastics in production numbers inspired by well-known films from the MGM/UA catalog. Strug will do two original routines, the first as part of a “Rocky” production number and the second in the show’s finale.

The professional athlete-cum-entertainer makes her Ice Capades debut this weekend in Orange County and will continue at selected shows in 10 cities, including L.A. and Las Vegas, during the show’s nine-month tour. The production premiered Sept. 25 (without Strug) in Texas, opened Thursday at the Pond, where it continues through Sunday, and moves to the Forum in Inglewood on Wednesday through Oct. 13.

If you saw the Olympics coverage or bought a box of Wheaties recently, you probably know that Strug is the gymnast who competed on an injured ankle to help clinch the gold medal for the U.S. team.

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She’s been in and out of the limelight ever since, racking up numerous television appearances, “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Saturday Night Live” among them. In addition, her sports agent, Leigh Steinberg, said she’s been negotiating product-endorsement deals, schmoozing with the Clintons at the president’s birthday bash and having her photo snapped for magazine covers. She recently enrolled in her first year at UCLA and will soon join other top-ranked gymnasts in the 1996 World Gold exhibition tour.

Strug said that after the demands of the Olympics, she’s looking forward to the Ice Capades gig because it will allow her to bring gymnastics to an even broader audience. She said it also will be a creative outlet for her skills.

“In gymnastics, everything is set; you have to wear a standard leotard, you have to have so much difficulty in your routine,” Strug said by phone from Philadelphia, where she had performed a flip--of a coin at the start of Monday’s football game between the Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys. “I got involved with gymnastics because it was fun and I liked it, and although the Olympics were fun . . . it was more of a love-hate relationship.

“Now, I’m excited to be in a situation where I can have a lot more fun in my sport [and] get the crowd involved.”

Strug performs on the balance beam and in a floor exercise during the two-hour show. According to executive producer Barry Mendelson, she was invited to join the Ice Capades tour “to let her have fun and give a larger profile for her talents.”

Her public image as an athlete who overcame adversity to help win the gold didn’t hurt either, he admitted.

“The ‘Rocky’ scene is a real strong inspirational moment,” Mendelson said. His firm, On Ice, Inc., was hired to create the show after Ice Capades was bought last year by DelWilber and Associates.

“ ‘Rocky’ demonstrates that if you work hard and persevere, you can rise up and be a champion,” Mendelson said. “It’s a metaphor for the true American spirit, and Kerri embodies that spirit.”

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The routine features high-energy gymnastics (there are 10 gymnasts and 38 skaters on the tour), video footage on massive screens, a musical montage of movie scores and precision skating. It is typical of the variety this latest Ice Capades has to offer, Mendelson said.

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Other numbers include a sci-fi scene inspired by the film “Stargate” with bungee-jumping aliens and a hovering spacecraft. For the kiddies, there’s a “Pink Panther” number and several vignettes introducing Leo the Lion, MGM’s mascot.

Topping it off is a full-cast finale with “lots of bows and feathers and a glorious MGM fountain that rotates,” Mendelson said.

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The lavish variety show is Mendelson’s attempt to “bring back the majesty” of Ice Capades past. It’s a definite departure from Hamill’s shows, which had elegant, often understated settings and emphasized figure- and pair-skating over big production numbers.

“An arena is a massive structure, so our view is we need a really big, multidimensional show with beautiful sets, lots of variety and an emphasis on ensemble skating that will appeal across the board,” he said. “I wanted to return to the glory days of Ice Capades.”

* “The Magic of MGM, an Ice Capades Production” continues through Sunday at the Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. Performances today at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. (Strug appears at all but the 5 p.m. show Sunday.) $5-$36. (714) 740-2000.


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