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1988 -1990 Worlds: Witt, Manley, Thomas, Ito, Trenary and Yamaguchi

Updated on May 23, 2017

Katarina Witt in 1988

Katarina Witt in 1988

Debi Thomas in 1988

Katarina Witt was an amazing skater. Witt bulldozed the field, leaving all her competitors in dust. And more often than not, better skaters who could have outdone Witt crumbled at her tenacity. One of Katarina Witt's weaknesses lied with her poor agility. For a top skater, Witt's bodily moves on ice were not good. Her skating ability remained pretty much the same throughout her career. But Witt's jumping consistency was paradoxically remarkable, let alone her musicality. Perhaps Witt was one of the most powerful skaters among female figure skaters.

Thomas' failure of performing a clean program always cost her the champion seat, so close to her grasp. Even to the eyes of non-experts Debi Thomas was ready made for winner. Thomas' skating accentuated in line, precision, and skillfulness always outshone Witt's. But on ice, Thomas like other contemporary skaters was unable to pull off the final straw while her rival Witt almost always came out "immaculate" in her own way. Though Katarina Witt reigned her time like no other, it is irony that some of her rivals at that time were actually better than Witt as skaters. Despite her less than perfect quality, Witt managed to salvage and push them into her energetic presentation. As Dick Button crisply pointed once, there wasn't anything brilliant in skating wise. Witt's notoriety was that she toyed the audience with non-figure skating elements. Meanwhile other skaters often showed immaculate postures and wonderful flow in and out of jumps and perfect moves without blemish spots, but they often fell. So the battle was set between unclean perfection and imperfect authenticity.

Manley showed a rough outing here. But Manley's skating has speed, flow and attitudinal aggressiveness. At least today's skaters need to learn that from her. Manley's style is close to Elaine Zayak. But her jump consistency held her back. With Witt who was armed with incredible consistency in landing jumps, it was almost unthinkable for any skater to fall once and expect to win. So, theoretically, Witt was almost impossible to beat unless you were Zayak or Biellmann. Moreover, at that time what mattered was clean programs, not qualities. Yes, with her clean program Elizabeth Manley was also a skater who could have beat Witt, but a clean program constantly evaded her. Back then, judges put more values on whether or not skaters pop or fall on jumps and how many times other elements were added or skipped. In other words, no matter how qualitatively superior your skating might be to others, you could not afford to fall on or pop or step out of jumps. But let's face it. Would you rather have skaters skate without a fall or fall once or twice while doing graceful glides and spins and dreamlike poise throughout the program? Basically if Ito's skating was all about jump, Elaine Zayak's skating wasn't just that. Ito was a testament for the ISU judges that they had treated Elaine Zayak unjustly.

Debi Thomas in 1988

Elizabeth Manley in1988

Elizabeth Manley in 1988

Midori Ito in 1988

Midori Ito in 1988

Midori Ito had the world at her heels. Ito's dominance became a poignant reminder that jump is a key element to ladies figure skating too. After the big shots of the 1980s had left the arena, Ito changed ladies figure skating like no other. Ito's skating was different from her predecessors; it's a new way of skating, power-driven and jump-oriented. Eventually Ito became the first female figure skater who landed triple axel. Ito was a genius jumper, but her way of jumping looked more manly than feminine.

You may be surprised at Leistner's free skating. Here she was a silver medalist. But her skating was too poor to be called second to the best. Leistner was slow, unskillful and even awkward throughout the program, unable to use her body properly. Ito's easy, speedy and powerful jumps are attractive enough to make people go wild, but that's not, some felt, what ladies figure skating is looking for. Ito's jumps were strong and powerful, yet her skating was completely devoid of line, extension or any form of aesthetics. But if you compare Jill Trenary to Midori Ito, you will notice how weak and petty Trenary's skating appears.

Interestingly Judges found Ito's skating less offensive. Perhaps they felt that Ito's skating has more merits than flaws, or at least they didn't invent new rules to penalize her as they had done to Elaine Zayak. Perhaps in the 1990s there wasn't anyone against whom Ito's deficiency would be measured. There was no Biellmann, no Witt, no Thomas, and no Sumners. Moreover, people had got fed up with splash-fest. Who would really enjoy skating if skaters kept landing on their butts? Ito's success is a critical reminder of how paradoxical and difficult ladies figure skating is, because the kind of perfection required in the ladies figure skating is only possible with speed, power, stamina and even physiological fitness. It's hard to have them all in one.

Midori Ito's signature triple axel in the program blew up the audience. Simply Ito was a wonder to the 1990s. Even in today's standards, Ito's jumps may top all others, especially regarding speed, height and power. They defied all odds. They were sensational then --- and still are. One thing you can't help noticing that she jumps for the sake of jumps, not perform a figure skating; all other elements she did were completely overshadowed by her powerful jumps.

Despite Ito's brilliance, there was an awkward moment in the middle of her program. Ito looked lost balance. It's in part due to Ito's physiological handicap but largely her lack of basic training. Ito wasn't able to control various positions she intended. Through Ito, you can size up the trend of 1990s; skaters were investing more time in jump technique neglecting other elements in order to challenge Ito's jumping supremacy. This would lead to more technical deficiencies, as skaters lacked of basic training that would help them keep balance in various positions. For Ito, this might not be her concern. Obviously due to her physiological disadvantage, Ito seemed to have no other choice but delve into what she could do better, jump.

Jill Trenary was perhaps the weakest U.S. champion around this time. Trenary wasn't like Zayak or Sumners. By this time, the ISU and its judges had already used up all their causes and resources to fend off Elaine Zayak. It didn't matter whether it's too acrobatic or it's too manly jumps. Ito's merits were far greater than her defects anyway. But think about Elaine Zayak. How amazing a skater she had been! The historic irony was that the ISU had penalized the better skater only to reward the lessor. Although Ito's jumps were all fast, powerful, and easy looking, they were not so efficient as to invoke aesthetic language;

Here is Kristi Yamaguchi. Although Yamaguchi fell twice in the program, her skating appeared well rounded. But Yamaguchi's power looked much weaker than Ito's or even Witt's. With Ito, the judges realized that their so called "undefined" quality of artistry lost to Ito's jumping ability. This time they didn't make Ito rule saying triple axel is not permitted in the ladies figure skating. Thank God for that! Ito's jumps were free and easy and strong. The charm was irresistible. Everyone seemed to jump on the bandwagon. Time to jump.


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