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Ottawa worlds a life-changer for Underhill, Martini

Canadian pair brushed aside Olympic disapppontment by claiming 1984 world title

Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini will never forget their pairs victory at 1984 worlds.
Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini will never forget their pairs victory at 1984 worlds. (Skate Canada Archives)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(03/07/2013) - As we near the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships in London, Ontario, icenetwork.com checks in with skaters who have fond memories of having competed at past world championships in Canada. This week, we speak to Barbara Underhill and choreographer Sandra Bezic about the memorable 1984 pairs competition in Ottawa.

"I don't think we could have told a better story there. We came from Sarajevo -- the bottom of the bottom -- and we had three weeks to get ready for worlds in Ottawa," Barbaba Underhill said. "We came close to packing it in."

Having won bronze at the 1983 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Underhill and Paul Martini went to the 1984 Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo with high hopes. Disastrous falls and weak performances left them seventh. With the world championships in their home country, they tried to prepare, but things were not going well.

The pair's coach, Louis Stong, was on the verge of calling the Canadian Figure Skating Association and withdrawing them when Brian Orser suggested that Underhill switch back to her skates from the previous season.

"She did, and everything turned around from there," Bezic said. "She became completely comfortable, and Louis never made that call."

Bezic recalled a night just before they all left for Ottawa when they had private ice for a run-through of the free skate.

"It was a perfect performance," Bezic said. "We were alone at the Granite Club. That was the night that we all felt they won because they won their journey. It had nothing to do with the gold medal or anything like that -- it was that we did it. From that moment on, everything was kind of smooth."

The arena at which the 1984 World Championships were held was relatively small. The energy the night of the free skate was electric, and it felt like the roof would blow off during Underhill and Martini's program.

Bezic said she and Stong had specific spots near the boards where they stood somewhat superstitiously.

"My spot was in the corner on the left side of the kiss and cry," Bezic said. "Where I was standing, the first row of spectators was just above me. I remember grabbing the wall while they were skating, but it was actually somebody's foot. I still don't know whose foot that was."

Toward the end of the program, Bezic saw Underhill was becoming increasingly excited. Afraid she'd lose focus, Bezic started to call out to her.

"I was screaming, 'Keep thinking!'" Bezic said. "Normally, I would never in somebody's performance start screaming, but the crowd was so loud that nobody could hear me anyway."

Underhill and Martini's victory in Ottawa set them on the path to a remarkable professional career. In the years ahead, they would perform with Ice Capades, Stars on Ice and Brian Boitano and Katarina Witt's Skating tours. They became known for lyrical, romantic programs such as "When a Man Loves and Woman" and "Unchained Melody," with which they dominated the world professional championships.

"Winning the world title really did change our lives," Underhill said. "I often think, had we not persevered, had we just kind of given up and not gone to Ottawa ... we probably would have gone our separate ways, gone onto other careers. We probably would have had very different lives."

Looking toward London, Underhill wants all the skaters to enjoy the warm embrace of the Canadian audience. She hopes to attend, but her work as a skating coach for NHL players keeps her constantly on the go. Even if she doesn't get to worlds, she'll always remember the extraordinary night she shared with Martini, Stong, Bezic and the world.

"To reach the heights, to have the greatest moment of our career in Ottawa, in front of everybody that helped us to get there, to have them share in our victory," she said, "Was very cool."