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Belgrade Finds a Ringer in Burbank

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

The torch isn’t always lighted in an ancient stadium.

Sometimes it happens outside an airplane bathroom.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 11, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Olympic weather -- A graphic in Friday’s Winter Olympics preview section describing weather conditions transposed two labels under the Olympic Venues section. Turin is the venue for short-track speedskating, figure skating, hockey and speedskating, and Pragelato is the venue for cross-country skiing, Nordic combined and ski jumping. Also, a chart in the same graphic showing the elevations of Olympic host cities covered the Games since 1960, not 1964.

That is where he stood, alone, late Monday night, tired eyes, wrinkled jacket, another disheveled tourist lost in the clouds above the Atlantic.

He stuck out his hand. I warily took it. He started talking.

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He said he was a figure skating teacher in Burbank. He said it wasn’t a luxurious living, but an honest one, and he loved it.

He taught group lessons, private lessons, how-to-avoid-embarrassment lessons. He carried crying kids off the ice. He counseled seniors on their aches. He skated around the rink -- free! -- during public sessions.

He said he lived in a $600-a-month duplex apartment, drove a Mazda, played pickup hockey with his buddies, watched sports on TV, wore throwback jerseys on weekends.

He was 30, a regular guy, a lifelong L.A. guy, a crammed-into-coach-class-like-me kind of guy.

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I told him I was flying to the Winter Olympics. He said he was also flying to the Winter Olympics. I laughed.

You going to cover them? Watch them? Scalp tickets at them?

“No, no, no,” said Trifun Zivanovic. “I’m in them.”

Introducing the one, the only, the first member of the Serbia and Montenegro Olympic figure skating team.

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Yeah, as soon as we landed, I ran to a computer and confirmed it.

“When I told my landlord I would have to pay my rent a couple of days late because I’d be competing in the Olympics, he didn’t really believe it either,” Zivanovic said.

Who would?

One day he’s holding little hands at Burbank’s Pickwick Ice Center, and two weeks later he’s grabbing for Olympic gold in the Italian foothills?

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He’s skating for a country whose language he barely speaks, whose anthem he doesn’t recognize, and whose one main rink isn’t even open year-round.

His red-and-white Serbia and Montenegro jacket? Bought at a sporting goods store. Its giant emblem was taken from the Internet and handed to a seamstress.

The costume for his short program includes an old T-shirt swiped from his father’s closet. The music for his short program comes from two Kevin Costner movies, and the long program is filled with the eloquent sounds of “Batman.”

He didn’t even learn he was going to Turin until last week, then boarded the plane with an empty suitcase for souvenirs, but no winter coat. Having watched countless parka-covered athletes marching in previous opening ceremonies, he figured somebody would give him one.

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His father is Serbian, his talent was once exceptional, but this is crazy.

And, of course, perfect.

“That’s the Olympic dream, isn’t it?” Zivanovic asked.

Assuredly it is, as vividly as those belonging to millionaire ice queens and MTV snowboarders.

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For all the publicity given those who will carry the flags and shoulder the sponsors, that fire being lighted in today’s opening ceremony is Zivanovic’s fire. The oath that will be taken is his oath. The entrance march will be to his beat.

The Olympic motto is not “Fastest! Highest! Strongest.” It is, “Faster! Higher! Stronger!”

Although the pressures of money and fame have long since whittled it beyond recognition, the Olympic ideal was never about defeating others, it was about triumphing over self.

And, goodness, Zivanovic has really outdone himself this time.

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“When we got the news, we cried,” his mother, Glenda, said by phone from Los Angeles. “And then, we laughed.”

The unlikely journey began on the outskirts of Beverly Hills, where Zivanovic grew up as the athletic son of an auto mechanic. During a hockey clinic when he was 9, a coach, impressed with his speed and dexterity, persuaded him to try figure skating.

In 1999, at 23, his career peaked with a second-place finish in the U.S. championships. Two years later, when it was obvious that judges considered him too old and the U.S. Olympic team seemed out of reach, he and his mother devised a plan.

He would return to his father’s roots in what had once been known as Yugoslavia, a country that had earned only one medal in the history of the Winter Olympics.

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“I knew his chances of making the Olympic team from there were good, because they didn’t have any other skaters,” Glenda said.

First, he had to move to Belgrade for a year to re-establish citizenship, which he did.

It was a long year.

Belgrade’s only rink was usually closed, so instead of working on technique, he worked on a relative’s farm.

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He still managed to become the country’s national skating champion, his chief qualification staying upright. It is a title he has held for four consecutive years, leading to his spot in the world championships in Moscow last spring.

He needed to finish in the top 24 to make the Olympics. He finished 30th.

Then, several months later, he entered a last-ditch European Olympic qualifier in Vienna.

He needed to finish in the top six. He finished ninth.

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“That was it,” he said. “I thought I was finished.”

He returned to Burbank, to his life of skating lessons and club hockey; no place among the 30 Olympians for the 74th-ranked skater in the world.

“It’s a good life. I love skating, I love to teach people, I was OK with everything,” he said.

A student’s car broke down on the way to his lesson? Zivanovic would pick him up at the garage and take him to the rink.

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Some rich students wanted skating entertainment at a party? Zivanovic would show up and give lessons as entertainment.

Skaters were needed to put on a show at the rink at Pershing Square downtown? Zivanovic was there.

“I love Los Angeles,” he said. “I’m everywhere in the city. Anybody needs a skater, I’m there.”

Then, a world away, an Olympic skater dropped out. Then another. Then another.

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Then, a week ago in the middle of the night, an official from Serbia and Montenegro phoned Zivanovic with the news that he had made the Games.

How did he react? He didn’t. He didn’t answer the phone. He never answers the phone when he is sleeping.

Officials also phoned his mother, who kept calling him until finally, in the morning, he heard the good news.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Zivanovic said. “I mean, I still can’t believe it.”

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It was even harder for others, particularly those who drive the Mercedeses that his father fixes.

“It was like, ‘That little mechanic covered in grease in the back, you’re telling me his son is in the Olympics? What are you talking about?’ ” said his mother.

Then there were the looks of surprise from his students, who knew he once skated seriously, but ...

“I had to tell them that I would miss a few lessons,” he said. “When I told them why, they were, like, ‘Wow!’ ”

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While Zivanovic packed, his friends partied. There was a celebration at a Burbank sushi place. Another celebration at a Burbank bar.

Then, on the Saturday before he left town, between early-morning lessons and the public skating session, he was summoned to the center of the Pickwick rink.

There, amid much cheering, a class participation medal was placed around his neck.

It wasn’t gold, but, then again, it was.

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“It was really cool,” he said.

On Sunday, in a perfect L.A. send-off, he ate a farewell dinner from Jerry’s Deli.

Then, on Monday, we met on the airplane, where he expressed some concern.

Not about winning, but about finishing.

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“This is going to be hard,” he said. “I really just want to make it through the week.”

The men’s field is pared to 24 after the short program. It will be a huge victory for Zivanovic if he makes the cut.

Heck, he has already experienced victory simply by making today’s opening ceremony, where he’ll march behind a flag he does not fly, for a country where he does not live, but on a dream he would not surrender.

His mother, disabled by muscular dystrophy, will be watching with his father from their Los Angeles home.

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They are not sure television will show his short program, but they know they will see him tonight.

“He’ll be on there, we think,” Glenda said. “They show everybody, don’t they?”

Indeed they will, the Olympic ideal briefly suspended in time, the stars and the starry-eyed, the sports titans and the skating teachers, from Apolo to Zivanovic.


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