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Stand Up for Life inspires standing ovation

Skating greats -- past, present and future -- gather for cancer fundraiser

Lisa Spitz Iuliano, who received a special tribute at the show, smiles with former ice dance partner and fellow Olympian, Scott Gregory.
Lisa Spitz Iuliano, who received a special tribute at the show, smiles with former ice dance partner and fellow Olympian, Scott Gregory. (Lynn Rutherford)

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By Liz Leamy, special to icenetwork.com
(05/05/2009) - Last Saturday, figure skating's finest convened at the Richard J. Codey Arena at South Mountain in West Orange, N.J., for a fundraiser in support of the North Jersey Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure®.

More than 1,000 people attended this event, hosted by two-time U.S. Olympian and world bronze medalist JoJo Starbuck and comic Ray Ellin.

"You may wonder why this event isn't called 'Skate for Life," Starbuck said. "As skaters, especially with all the difficult jumps you have to do now, we always want to stand up. And that's what breast cancer survivors, and those who didn't survive, do: stand up and never give up."

Stand Up for Life honored survivor Lisa Spitz Iuliano, a former U.S. ice dancer who competed at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo with partner Scott Gregory. Gregory joined her on the ice for a brief tribute, the first time the two had seen each other in 10 years.

Headliner Oksana Baiul, the 1994 Olympic champion, performed her famous "Swan" program, in memory of her mother, Marina, who died of cancer when Oksana was 13.

"My love for skating is unconditional, and I'm here to support research to find a cure for breast cancer," said Baiul, who wore a stunning pink costume with sparkling bow trim designed for the event by Tania Bass. A version of the dress, along with a skating lesson with Baiul, was auctioned off during the evening.

After watching her Olympic free skate on a large overhead screen, Baiul executed her trademark camel spins and spirals but fell on a double Axel. She had the music cued up again so she could give the jump another try, much to the crowd's delight.

"I did the best that I could. It's funny, because I'm getting old," the 31-year-old said. "I'm still falling on my tush and getting up, but I love you all so much and I will do it again and again, until midnight if I have to."

Rosie Tovi, a former U.S. and international competitor, produced the show through her company, Tovi Productions.

"This has been such a special night in so many ways. Everyone has just been fantastic, giving their time and energy to help out, and it's really touched me," she said.

Tovi and an enthusiastic group of volunteers from Susan G. Komen transformed the arena with an enormous pink ribbon, the charity's symbol, hung from the rink ceiling. The ice was lined with state-of-the-art lighting, and skaters performed under moving spotlights. The rink lobby was decorated with pink and white balloons, flowers and candles. There was even a clown on hand creating pink balloon sculptures for the kids.

"We wanted to make sure we made this a special event for everyone -- the skaters, volunteers and all of the other people who came out to support this cause," Tovi said.

Lindsay Belfatto, a coach and former competitor, kicked things off with a lovely rendition of "Angel" by Sarah McLachlan. The performance was dedicated to her mother, Deborah Q. Belfatto, a 20-year cancer survivor and executive director/co-founder of the North Jersey Affiliate of Komen for the Cure.

"Tonight is all about persistence, perseverance, patience and passion," said Deborah Belfatto. "Every skater here clearly lives by these words, as does every [breast cancer] survivor."

The show is the brainchild of Aaron Gillespie, a former Junior Olympic medalist who trains with Tovi at the arena. The 22-year-old, who is resuming his competitive career after a long hiatus, performed to Josh Groban's "February Song."

"We really want to make this an annual event," he said.

Angela Maxwell, who placed eighth in senior ladies at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships, lit up the crowd with her energetic rendition of a Michael Jackson medley, choreographed by her coach Olga Orlova, a former ice dance competitor. She did two back flips, some "moonwalking" and a fast camel combination spin.

"There is such a good feeling here. Everyone has been so nice, and it's great to just be here," said Maxwell, 16, who trains in at the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J.

She added she will use a Tango for her short program this season and is still undecided about free skate music. This summer, she is working to add a triple-triple combination -- either Lutz-loop or Lutz-toe -- to her repertoire.

U.S. competitor Scott Smith showed off a hip-hop number created by Stephanie Rosenthal.

Smith, the 1998 U.S. junior champion, trains in Salt Lake City under Stephanee Grosscup. He withdrew from the 2009 U.S. Championships because of a herniated disk flare up; lately, he has battled a hip injury.

"It's been tough with the injuries, but I feel really good about competing this year," said Smith, who is coaching in Salt Lake as well. "I want to see what I can do with four solid months of injury-free training under my belt."

Smith, who lived and trained in Boston for many years, added that he loves the Salt Lake lifestyle.

"Everything is so open there -- the streets, the mountains -- and everyone is active," he said. "In Boston, people might ask, 'What do you do?' In Salt Lake, they'll ask, 'Which mountain did you climb today?' I can see myself settling there."

Shaun Rogers' pumped-up program to "You Really Got Me" by David Lee Roth was also a real crowd-pleaser. The skater, who placed 12th at the 2009 U.S. Championships, knocked out a high triple flip, triple toe, tuck single Axel and a Candeloro-style sit spin with his knees on the ice.

"I had a great time out there. Everyone was so full of energy," said Rogers, who has been practicing the quad loop and hopes to add it to his free program this season.

Wesley Campbell, seventh at the 2008 U.S. Championships, was a hit with his self-choreographed program to Coldplay's "Fix You." The Nashville native did a double Axel, triple Salchow and a high death drop. His footwork was especially interesting.

"I enjoyed creating this program," said Campbell, who hopes to establish himself as a choreographer.

Kristiene Gong, 16, showed tons of energy and a nice layback spin and split jump in her rendition of Celine Dion's "Taking Chances."

"I felt I learned a lot last season; it was my first year back in competition," said Gong, who placed fourth in junior ladies at the U.S. Championships. Like Maxwell, she trains in Hackensack and hopes to add a triple-triple combination to her repertoire this summer. Gong is coached by 1982 world champion Elaine Zayak.

Other performers included two-time Israeli champion Tamar Katz, who showed a dynamic interpretation of Whitney Houston's "One Moment in Time," featuring a solid double Axel and Ina Bauer; Azerbaijani ice dancers Kristen Fraser and Igor Lukanin; former U.S. novice men's champion Colin Pennington, who performed to music by Justin Timberlake; and Felicia Zhang, whose program to "The Prayer" by Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli included a nice Ina Bauer and a layback.

Two New Jersey synchronized skating teams, the Synchronettes Novices and Juveniles, entertained the audience with charming interpretations of a Beatles medley and circus-themed music, respectively.

Olivia Yao, 10, an up-an-coming juvenile competitor, stunned the crowd with her technical and artistic skills, as well as her speed. She did a Charlotte into a double Lutz, a double flip and a terrific Biellman spin.

"It was really fun to be out there tonight. Everyone here is so nice and supportive," said Yao, who is coached by area pro Neil Rubin.