Olympics Winter

Glint of gold never left Orser's eyes

As Kim Yu-na of South Korea skates her sassy Olympic short program Tuesday night, her coach, Brian Orser, is certain to pantomime his own James Bond routine along the boards.
It took Canadian Brian Orser, left, years before he could watch the tape of his devastating loss to American Brian Boitano, centre, at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

As Kim Yu-na of South Korea skates her sassy Olympic short program Tuesday night, her coach, Brian Orser, is certain to pantomime his own James Bond routine along the boards.

He cannot imagine himself standing still in these eager and nervous moments. So he will move his arms, sway with the music, pace back and forth, hoping his energy will somehow become hers. And he will utter instructions under his breath: Pull in, relax, push, push.

"Maybe it's me I'm talking to, I don't know," Orser said with a laugh.

More than anyone, he understands the pressure and expectation that Kim faces as an Olympic favorite and what will confront her during Thursday's free skate - ecstatic victory or knee-buckling defeat.

A Canadian, Orser was also a defending world champion and the gold medal choice of many as the 1988 Winter Olympics approached in Calgary, Alberta. He faced up to the pressure but stepped out of a triple flip during his long program, losing the so-called Battle of the Brians to Brian Boitano by the narrowest of marks - one-tenth of one point on one judge's tie-breaker mark.

"That triple flip haunted me forever," Orser said.

Twenty-two years later, the Winter Games have returned to Canada and Orser has a chance to spin his silver medal frustration into vicarious gold. It is not the same thing, winning as a coach and winning as an athlete. The medal would be Kim's, not Orser's. But her victory would bring some deliverance and symmetry to his career, where triumph has been elusive and defeat has been excruciating.

"If you want to reach your own potential, sometimes you have to help someone else reach theirs," said Uschi Keszler, a former coach of Orser's.

It is the pitiless Olympic nature that one often does not win the silver as much as lose the gold. Few comprehend this as painfully as Orser. At the 1984 Sarajevo Games, he won the short and long programs but finished second to Scott Hamilton after taking seventh in compulsory figures.

Then came the Calgary Games. Orser thought he had skated well enough to win. When he didn't, he walked into the locker room and congratulated Boitano, then lay on the floor near the showers.

"He was in a daze, like he was drugged out," Boitano said.

Canada had failed to win a gold medal while hosting the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, and now its best hope in Calgary had come up short. Later that night, Orser returned to the Olympic Village and tried to sleep on a cot in a medical room, alone in a sterile facility with his consolation medal. It was awful. For 10 years, he could not watch a replay of his performance.

"I never saw myself as other than an Olympic champion," Orser, now 48, said. "I never imagined not winning. Canada had hosted two Olympics and had no gold medals, the only host country not to win any. I took that personally. I felt I let everyone down."

Time has dulled his disappointment. Video of Orser's performance in Calgary is now used to train judges. At these Vancouver Games, Canada finally won its first gold medal on home soil. So there is no longer that burden to carry.

And now there is karmic precedent for coaching redemption. After three decades of silver-medal disappointment, Frank Carroll coaxed a golden performance from Evan Lysacek in the men's competition Thursday. Orser will attempt to do the same with Kim.

"We're lucky we kept her in skating," Orser said in a recent interview, speaking of himself and Kim's choreographer, David Wilson.

When Kim arrived in Toronto in 2006 to work with Wilson, she seemed unhappy and discouraged, Orser said. Exhaustive training, in which Kim was forced by her mother and her coaches to keep repeating missed jumps, also left her with a bulging disk in her back.

She was a world junior champion at 15, but she was also gawky. Her mood seemed as constricting as her braces.

"She didn't have the confidence of just being a young woman on the ice," said Orser, who agreed to coach her. "We started chipping away, trying to expose this humor and spirit that we knew was in there. We got her to understand she could listen to her body and take time to rest and do the proper physiotherapy. She started coming out of her shell. She has developed a great awareness of movement and music."

His laconic coaching style allows for input from Kim's mother. And as pressure has mounted on Kim in South Korea, the way it did two decades ago on him in Canada, Orser has become a knowing sounding board.

When Kim seemed miserable in the fall of 2008, frequently missing jumps, he comforted her, saying, "Nobody knows what you're going through except for me."

As these Olympics approached, Orser's main concern was to keep everyone calm in Kim's entourage. He has encouraged her and her mother not to worry about skating blogs - and to stop believing everything they read.

"I only had to worry about telegrams," Orser said.

He has tried to deflect attention away from himself, and toward Kim. If she wins, Orser joked, he will not run to the medal podium to claim the gold he lost in 1988.

"But maybe deep down, yes, it might make up for it a little bit," Orser said. "Ask me when it's over."

Written by Jere Longman, York Times