Underdogs from Down Under
By Steve Milton.
The Hamilton Spectator, Monday January 19, 2004

If you're wondering just how important figure skating is in Australia, consider the national team's uniforms.

The athletes had to pay for the outfits themselves.

Australia is one of the many International Skating Union countries where skaters must clear high hurdles to make any kind of international impact. Distance alone makes it difficult for Australian skaters, especially when they're young, to face the kind of steady competition which fosters rapid development. Fewer top international skaters pass through on tour to provide frequent inspiration and, when we're in the height of skating season in the northern hemisphere, Australians are sweltering through summer.

"It was about 30 degrees when I left on Boxing Day," says Australian women's champion Miriam Manzano, who also encountered 30 degrees - below zero - in Barrie as she trained at the Mariposa Club the past two weeks in preparation for the Four Continents Championship.

"I came here because I get to rub shoulders with the best (Takeshi Honda, Jennifer Robinson, Jeffrey Buttle et al.) It just inspires you to work harder and get better."

At 28, Manzano is one of the oldest singles skaters on the international scene, but she's been rejuvenated since returning to the sport in 2000 after a self-imposed two-year exile.

In 2002, she finished 16th at the world championships, the best Australian finish since Joanne Carter (also here this week) was 11th seven years ago. In 2003, Manzano dropped to 25th in the world, but when you hear the details you also understand why.

Manzano grew up in Canberra, where elite skating is a foreign concept. She would skate at dawn for an hour or two, then go to work all day at the Attorney-General's office, and come back for another session at 7 p.m., all the while being the only skater who was even attempting triple jumps. The rink isn't regulation size, the compression units don't work well, she would have to skate with hordes of little kids during training sessions, and the ice rarely got resurfaced.

And that's when things were going well.

During last year's Great Canberra Fires, her coach's house burned down, understandably distracting his attention. And the arena was closed.

"And when they got it going again, the ice had melted," she laughs. "I realised I couldn't compete at this level without better training and I couldn't put more into the training because we couldn't get more ice in Canberra."

"I felt like I was working full-time and skating part-time."

So for this season she moved to Brisbane and well-respected caoch Colin Jackson. She's enthused and figures she made the right decision to return to the sport and stay until the 2006 Games. She's won three straight national titles, adding to the first she won a decade ago.

She started on roller skates and didn't take figure skating lessons until she was 12, and didn't land a triple until she was 18, but now she's got all of them, plus a triple lutz/double toe loop combination.

"I came up quickly, won the senior nationals, and then I hit a wall and I was always coming second to Joanne," she says. "I felt like I hit a wall. When I left I didn't think it would be for two years. Then, one morning, I said, 'I'm ready.'"

Normally, to be an Australian international figure skating is to be a lonely figure skater.

But this week at Copps coliseum, it'll be like a convention of the Salchow Set's Down Under chapter. There are, as usual, more Australian figure skaters at the Four Continents than any other even outside their own continent, largely because entry limits aren't based on past performances as they are at world championships.

There are three women's entrants, three men's and two dance teams from Australia. Some of them, such as men's champion Bradley Santer and dance champs Natalie Buck and Trent Nelson-Bond train full time in the U.S., and others, such as Carter, are frequent visitors to North American coaches.

"Most of us are out of the country trying to rub shoulders with the best skaters," Manzano says.