Behind the scenes of figure skating - Dec. 27

At home with Jozef Sabovcik

Jozef Sabovcik and family.
Jozef Sabovcik and family. (Sabovcik family)


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By Lois Elfman, special to
(12/27/2007) - Christmas came early this year in the Sabovcik household as the family members scattered to far-reaching destinations before Dec. 25. Jozef Sabovcik, 1984 Olympic bronze medalist and former European Men's Champion, left their home in Salt Lake City on Dec. 23 for a skating tour in Lithuania. Older son Blade, 15, headed to see his mother, former Canadian Ladies Champion Tracy Wainman, in Canada. Wife Jennifer, a former U.S. competitor, and younger son, Jozef Jaden, 4, went to California to spend the holidays with her parents.

The family still had a very complete holiday celebration. "Jennifer had the tree up right after Thanksgiving," says Sabovcik. "That's different from when I grew up, because we would not see the tree until the 24th." Sabovcik has lived in Salt Lake City for more than a decade and honored his adopted hometown with his performance in the Opening Ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics. He grew up in Bratislava, Slovakia (he's actually half Czech and half Slovak), where they celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve.

"My parents or my grandparents would close the door and you didn't see the tree until dinnertime," he recalls. "Then the doors would open and there would be the tree with all the presents. Then we would keep the tree until January 6, which is when the three Kings arrived (Feast of the Epiphany)."

When they are all home for the holidays, the Sabovciks have maintained the European style, and they celebrate and open their presents on Christmas Eve. One Slovak tradition Sabovcik was happy to abandon was the traditional Christmas meal. "We had carp, which is a fish, but it's really not a good fish," he says. "The tradition is in November and December the carp come up to spawn in clean waters. That is when they're being caught. The tradition in my house was you get live carp and you put it in the bathtub and it swims in there for a couple of days. Then my dad would whack it over the head and prepare it. For obvious reasons, we don't do that here. Also, carp has an unbelievable amount of tiny bones."

At age 44, Sabovcik, whose pro skating career truly took off in the mid-1900s when he began skating to the music of Bruce Springsteen, is still performing. Including the miles he puts on his car during the summer traveling back and forth between Salt Lake City and Sun Valley, Idaho, he spends about four months of the year touring.

Last year, he got to go home to Bratislava, where his parents still live, to perform on the Slovakian version of Skating with Celebrities. He passed on competing, but was asked to appear as a guest star on several shows.

"It was great, because Jennifer, Blade and Jozef went with me for two weeks," he notes of the family first. "Now they keep asking when they're going back."

Family is always a priority for Sabovcik, and both sons take after their father. They joined him on the ice for the TV special Kristi Yamaguchi Family and Friends. "We resurrected one of my old numbers and they skated with me," he says.

Little Jozef seems to show an inclination for the sport. "It looks like he would have the personality to be a skater. Whether he's going to have the talent remains to be seen," says Sabovcik. "I want him to learn how to skate." Within the next year, his parents will start giving him lessons.

Although Blade certainly knows how to move around the rink, he is more inclined to follow his father's fondness for playing guitar. "About two or three years ago, he insisted on buying a guitar," says Sabovcik. "Then he figured out that his fingers hurt really badly if he tried to play it, so he put it away. Then suddenly it was like, 'I want to learn to play guitar.' He kind of did it on his own.

"For all of junior high school, he took band, but they didn't teach any string instruments, so he was taking percussion. Now in high school, they teach guitar, so he's taking guitar. I think the first week, I played better than him and then that was that. He's learned so fast." Father and son flew to New York in December for a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert (personal friends of Sabovcik's), and Blade's working hard on learning their classically inspired compositions.

When he's not performing, Sabovcik teaches, and he tries to communicate to students the basics he learned by years of practicing school figures. "I try to explain to them things that are completely natural to me, like second nature, but they don't know the feeling," he says. "It's very difficult to explain that kind of feeling if they've never, ever done it. Like what part of the blade to be on, how to increase pressure gradually and things like that."

He says that knowledge helps him still land triple jumps at his age, and he does his best to impart that information.