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Thursday, January 18, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Aids Grips Skating World; More Awareness Needed

The Washington Post

AIDS is a horror that has afflicted male figure skaters more than any other athletes, and the disease continues to pose a threat to top-flight U.S. skaters, according to a book published this month.

"I could name close to 30 people in skating who have died from AIDS," Randy Gardner, former U.S. and world champion pairs skater, is quoted as saying in "Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating," written by Christine Brennan of The Washington Post.

According to the book, the U.S. Figure Skating Association, the governing body for the sport, has not responded with sufficient urgency.

But USFSA officials say the organization has been actively engaged in AIDS-awareness programs in recent years, and is expanding its efforts through a program scheduled to begin early this year.

Brian Wright, a former skater and current skating choreographer who has AIDS, has been lecturing on the subject, and he said he believes he and others like him could help the USFSA.

"I bring a sort of frightening element to it, which is essential," Wright said. Since being found HIV-positive, he said he has lost part of his intestines and bowel, the use of his right eye, and has suffered increasingly from blood clots throughout his body. Yet to emphasize how difficult it can be to impress young people, Wright said that "five or six times in the last two years" he has been shocked to learn from young skaters the extent of their sexual

experimentation.

"I hear nothing about practicing safe sex," he said. "I hear a lot about exploration. When they (gay male skaters) talk to me of their sexual exploits, they never talk about practicing safe sex. With heterosexual boys, condoms don't come up. Even though here I am, 30 pounds thinner than last year. It's kind of astounding."

Troy Petenbrink, spokesman for the Washington-based National Association of People with AIDS, said there is a high level of "denial" in HIV cases, especially among athletes.

"Sports is the (symbol) of health," Petenbrink said. "So people wouldn't come out and say they're HIV positive." AIDS education is "very difficult," he added, "because you're talking about things people don't like to talk about...Athletes, in some cases, don't even consider it an issue."

"Part of the athlete's nature is to defy," said skating coach Audra Weisiger. "It's the invincibility complex."

Wright said the USFSA, which includes about 450 clubs and 125,00 skaters, should increase AIDS awareness by coordinating with AIDS groups"Young people can choose not to get AIDS. They need to know."

USFSA President Morry Stillwell, of Malibu, Calif., said the figure skating organization has addressed by USFSA officials and medical staff at "parents meetings" during annual regional, sectional and national championships. He added that AIDS awareness would be taken up again at the national championships in San Jose.

Kristin Matta, spokesperson for the USFSA, said ongoing AIDS-awareness information is provided to top skaters at the annual national championships and at twice-a-year sports-medicine camps, and, this spring, the USFSA will initiate "grass-roots camps and seminars" across the country..

Olympic hopeful Michael Weiss, 19, of Fairfax, Va., said recently that he has been made well aware of AIDS through skating officials' discussions at several Olympic training camps. "The figure skaters are more aware of it than the general public is," Weiss said.

Weisiger, who is Weiss' coach, said the USFSA is trying to address the problem, and that AIDS awareness is not the sole responsibility of the USFSA. And she said that she has observed skaters "tuning out" when officials, including doctors, spoke to them on AIDS.

"The list of dead men grows longer every year," Brennan writes. "The list begins with John Curry, the celebrated 1976 Olympic gold medalist from Great Britain, who died in April 1994 after learning he was HIV-positive more than six years earlier."

AIDS deaths have included Jim Hulick, Kristi Yamaguchi's pairs coach; Barry Hagan, an ice dancing specialist; and Bob Lubotina, a U.S. skating judge.

A respected San Francisco area coach, Richard Inglesi, and William Lawe, the 1984 national junior champion, died of AIDS during the writing of "Inside Edge," which chronicles the 1994-95 season on the skating circuit.

Czechoslovakia's Ondrej Nepela, the 1972 Olympic gold medalist, died from an AIDS-related cancer in 1989. Four decorated Canadian champions from the late 1970s and 1980s, including 1988 Olympic ice-dancing bronze medalist Rob McCall, died of AIDS.

"Whether it's awareness on shin splints or triple-jump phobias, once we realize there's a problem to be addressed, it is incorporated into our sports-medicine program, and we have a very sophisticated sports-medicine education," said Claire Ferguson, former USFSA president. "We've covered it as well as a sports-governing body can. There will be people who will disregard all the warning signals. And there always will."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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