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Fanning the flame

Terri Schlichenmeye

Two nickels stacked atop one another. Half the width of the average ball-point pen. The thickness of a small weekly magazine.

Each of those things measure around an eighth of an inch. About the same as the width of a skate blade.

Imagine balancing your entire weight on two skinny pieces of steel, and moving gracefully on a slick surface while you do it.

Yes, people skate all the time. They’ve been doing it for centuries, but only a handful have won Olympic medals for skating across ice. Even fewer win more than one medal. Katarina Witt was one of those elite multi-winners, and in her new book “Only with Passion” (with E.M. Swift), she talks candidly about her life.

This past spring, Katarina Witt says that she was approached by her manager, Elisabeth Gottmann, who asked Witt to mentor a young woman who wanted to give up skating for the sake of a boyfriend. Witt agreed, and the young woman came to stay at Witt’s apartment in Berlin for a few days.

The girl, whom Witt calls “Jasmine,” was sixteen years old. That she was a talented skater was apparent to many people, but she had little confidence in her ability. This lapse caused Witt to reflect on her own career and her driving ambition to become a champion.

Katarina Witt says that she had to beg her parents to take her to skating try-outs and that, on her first attempt, she was immediately chosen to be coached. Out of 100 students, she says she was the only one who made skating a career.

After a few years, she was hand-picked by coach Jutta Muller, who pushed Witt to practice and focus on her skating. In her book, Witt muses on Frau Muller’s tough-love, the years of competition, rival skaters and friendships, and what it was like to attempt a come-back.

“Only with Passion” has pockets of good and pockets of bad. In her prologue, Witt writes that “Jasmine” isn’t a real person, but a composite of several people. She indicates, though, that she tried hard to re-create the discussions she had during the girl’s stay.

Hm. I’m still trying to figure that part out.

There are strange bits of name-dropping that seem out-of-place in this book. “Famous” people you may or may not recognize are mentioned, which appears less grateful, more ingratiating.

Where Witt shines is in the telling of her life in East Germany. She talks of governmental “privileges” for winning; she was allowed to have an apartment, and later, was permitted to buy a coveted car. She received approval to tour Europe for Holidays on Ice, but was assigned a chaperone to ensure that Witt wouldn’t defect. Even so, Witt says that the German Democratic Republic was not a bad place to live.

If you’re a skating fan who’s eager for the Olympics to start, pick up “Only with Passion;” it will tide you over nicely til Opening Ceremonies. If you’re not really a skating fan, slide on past this book. VT


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