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Barbara Underhill returns to the spotlight

Teams with Ron Duguay for Battle of the Blades

Barbara Underhill stars on <em>Battle of the Blades</em>, which pairs female skaters with hockey stars.
Barbara Underhill stars on Battle of the Blades, which pairs female skaters with hockey stars. (courtesy of CBC)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(09/24/2009) - One night about a year and a half ago 1984 world pair champion, five-time Canadian champion, seven-time world professional champion Barbara Underhill was having dinner with her former partner, Paul Martini, and their choreographer, Sandra Bezic. It was when Kristi Yamaguchi was appearing on Dancing with the Stars, and watching Yamaguchi strut her stuff gave Underhill an intense pang.

"I said to Sandra, 'I miss performing so much. I just want to be out there.' She looked at me with this little twinkle in her eye," Underhill recalls.

The twinkle was the concept for Battle of the Blades, which will premiere live from Maple Leaf Gardens on CBC on Oct. 4. The television show pairs female skaters with hockey stars like Claude Lemieux, Stéphane Richer and Glenn Anderson. Underhill's partner is Jon Bon Jovi look alike Ron Duguay. This will be her first public performance since she and Martini skated their farewell show in 1998.

"There couldn't be a more perfect scenario for me right now," says Underhill. "It's like going back in time to the glory days a little bit and remembering what it was all like, but with a different perspective. It's more fun.

"It's like I'm living in a dream right now and I just don't want it to end."

It doesn't hurt that Martini is serving as the coach for she and Duguay and longtime friend Michael Seibert, five-time U.S. ice dance champion and Underhill and Martini's castmate in professional shows, is their choreographer. Also, Underhill has been teaching power skating to hockey players for several years now and she is quite familiar with how they move on the ice.

On the downside for Underhill is that at 46 she's the oldest figure skater in the competition. Also, she lives right outside of Toronto, so while other members of the cast get to go to a hotel after a day of practice, soak in the tub and order room service, she's still running a household with kids, Samantha, 17, Matthew, 14, and Scott, 10, and husband Rick Gaetz.

Underhill says Samantha, a gifted singer and performer, will be a big part of her participation. Since Battle of the Blades is an elimination format where viewers vote by phone, online and text, she'll be rallying her friends.

"She was five when we retired and she was completely devastated when we stopped skating. I recall that night, our finale, she was a mess. She was only five, but she understood the significance," Underhill says. For years, Samantha couldn't even look at tapes of her mother and Martini or listen to the music they'd skated to.

In time, Underhill came to realize it was because skating was the one place where her daughter saw her happy during a profoundly sad time in their lives. Samantha had a twin sister, Stephanie, who died in infancy after drowning in a swimming pool. Skating was how Underhill pulled herself out of the depths of despair and ultimately turned her family's tragedy into a gift to other families across Canada. The night she and Martini retired, they launched the Stephanie Gaetz Keepsafe Foundation, which promotes safety education and injury prevention among children. The foundation works together with injury prevention professionals to support and fund safety related programs for children in schools and communities across Canada.

"Samantha has the voice of an angel," says Underhill. "When she sings she is connecting with something out there and it's beautiful to see. So for her to be part of this and to see me back on the ice, I want to involve her every step of the way. I want her to experience what this is like and what my life was like as a performer. I feel this is a gift I've been given to share with my family."

They actually shot a commercial for one of the show's sponsors, Dannon yogurt, which showed the Gaetz family together at the breakfast table.

Battle of the Blades will have a charitable component, where the contestants are earning money for their designated charities. Underhill has selected one that honors her niece, Melissa, 17, who was born with spina bifida. Melissa has had numerous surgeries in her young life, and she has recuperated at a remarkable facility in Toronto called Bloorview Kids Rehab.

"I wanted to do this for her because I felt it would give her a sense of empowerment and she could get involved with it," Underhill says. A hockey teammate of Matt's also recovered there after a severe back injury.

Although Underhill has remained in good shape over the years, she started training to get into "tiny skating dress" shape earlier this year.

Over the years, Underhill has touched countless people by speaking about her experiences. She credits skating with teaching her valuable life lessons. It's well known that Underhill and Martini skated horribly at the 1984 Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo, where they were among the favorites for gold. After the Games they were on the brink of quitting, but one day Brian Orser was at their rink and he suggested she switch back to an old pair of skates. With that, their skating took flight again, not only resulting in the most exciting competitive performance this reporter has ever witnessed live, but also serving as the springboard to a brilliant pro career.

"It was all those lessons I learned in skating that feed me in life," she says. "After Sarajevo, we had to scratch and claw and dig so deep into ourselves to find what we needed to go on and we did. When I was at the bottom of the bottom after losing Stephanie, there were many times I wanted to curl up in a ball because I couldn't take the pain, but all I could think of was I have to get up. It was in me so instinctively."

Unfortunately, Battle of the Blades will not air outside Canada so the only places in the U.S. that will be able to see the broadcasts are border spots where they get Canadian TV. Voting is only possible from within Canada. But fans from all over the world will be sending Underhill their good vibes and hoping she and Duguay go the distance.