The Legacy Project focuses on people with central Illinois roots who have made significant contributions nationally or internationally in their chosen fields. Together with our partner -- public television station WTVP-TV -- we are asking these people what helped form the character and values that drove them to success and preserving their memories for the future. The unedited videotapes of these interviews have been donated to the Peoria Public Library and to the Peoria Historical Society in hopes they can someday be used for a local history museum.


Proud of his home ice

Peoria helps Matt Savoie reach potential

March 16, 2003

of the Journal Star

PEORIA - Can you imagine a more out-of-place announcement in all of sports? To be a fan sitting in a big arena in Philadelphia, or Salt Lake City, or Dallas, or Detroit, watching some of the best figure skaters in the world, and to hear this boom from the public address:

"And now, representing the Illinois Valley Figure Skating Club, from Peoria, Illinois . . ."

Matt Savoie is used to it now.

He has heard his lifelong hometown announced so many times in so many places, he barely hears it. Doesn't need to. Peoria is there with him, in him, wrapped around him like a warm blanket. Being from Peoria is who he is.

Utter "Peoria" to a skating fan, and you will likely hear, "Oh, that's where Matt Savoie skates."

Think about that. Not Los Angeles or Boston or even Cleveland; not Delaware or Colorado. Not any of those places to which most big-time skaters flee from home to be trained by coaches with superstar resumes.

But Peoria. The city where Savoie was born, where he has lived in the same modest house on the West Bluff for all of his 22 years. Where he went to school, from kindergarten through college. Where he interns for Caterpillar Inc. And where he learned to skate as a 9-year-old at Owens Center and landed in the care of a fun-loving Peoria woman who has been his coach ever since.

"All you have to do in Peoria is say, 'Matt Savoie,' and everybody knows who he is," says Linda Branan, his coach. "He's the only top skater Peoria has, and when he goes out there and travels, people talk about how he graduated from Bradley in four years with a degree in political science, and it's not just that he skates. It's Matt as a great skater, Matt as a great student, and Matt the kid who still has time to have fun."

Third in the nation and third in the international Grand Prix Finals in 2001. Twelfth at the world championships and first alternate for the U.S. Olympic team in 2002. Savoie is intent on finding out exactly how good he really is, and all he can tell you for sure is that he's not there yet.

The notion that he couldn't achieve his goals or reach his potential from Peoria, that he would have to move to a big-name club and hire a famous coach, was discarded long ago by Savoie and his family. In fact, they'll tell you his success in no small part is due to being able to live at home, maintain his small circle of close friends and live as normal a life as you'll ever see a world-class athlete live.

So there.

Matt Savoie is so Peoria, and Peoria is so Matt Savoie, it's scary.

He has enormous potential, but he's prone to underestimate himself. He wants to be great, but he's not sure he deserves to be. Fans watch him skate and love his style, and that makes him feel good, but he doesn't like to talk about himself, and he is uncomfortable with media attention. He'd prefer to be left alone, but that doesn't mean he wants to be forgotten.

Savoie used to love the double-takes when he was introduced and his hometown revealed. That's worn off, but his sense of being unique among his peers has not.

"I didn't train in a big city or represent a popular club," Savoie says, "but I always know that people appreciate my skating . . . because I'm not, I guess, the typical skating-centered athlete."

No, he's not. And that may be his ultimate legacy: You really can do it from here.

'Diamond in the rough'

The Savoies never saw Matt's success coming. World travel and Olympic dreams were not part of some grand plan.

Marina Savoie would scrutinize the Peoria Park District activity booklets and sign up Matt and his sister, Marisa, just to keep her children busy. After all, Marina says, "Busy kids are not-in-trouble kids."

So the youngsters tumbled and swam and played tennis and soccer and played the piano and read books. And they tried ice skating.

Matt quit his first group lessons when he was 5 years old. But a few years later, jumping figure skaters on TV caught his eye, and he asked to try again.

"So we went out to the rink for mini-lessons and learned how to skate backwards, just the two of us," recalls his father, Mike. "We were skating along, and he jumped and turned around in the air, and I said, 'If you're going to do that, you need to take lessons.' "

Matt quickly surpassed what his first group instructors could teach him and was referred to Branan. They clicked immediately. She made the lessons fun, sent him off to the Owens lobby to play video games when he grew bored doing the old school figures, then reined him back in to make sure he kept working.

It wasn't long before Branan was chatting up her hyper-energetic jumping bean of a star pupil to her husband, Larry. 'This little kid could be pretty good,' Linda would say, as Matt progressed to more difficult maneuvers, including double jumps.

"Matt was quick to learn," Linda says, "after he got done putting money in the pinball machine."

In fall 1994, Matt qualified for the Midwestern Sectionals, as a novice, the middle of five ability levels in the skating hierarchy. Larry Branan, a football/baseball/hockey-type guy who knew nothing more about figure skating than the fact his wife coached it, accompanied Linda, Matt, Marina and Marisa to Colorado Springs for the competition. There, Larry spied a guy who looked and talked as if he knew the figure-skating game and introduced himself.

"I don't know how much an hour you charge," Larry told him, "but I'm willing to pay you to look at this kid."

"I'll do it," the man replied, "but you don't owe me anything."

They stood along the dasher boards at the rink as Matt skated, and the man turned to Larry.

"You don't have a clue what you've got here, do you?" he said.

"No, I don't," Larry replied, "that's why I'm asking you. Is it worth staying with him?"

"You've got a diamond in the rough," the man said. "You could put as much as you ever want into this kid, and it'll come back to you tenfold."

Shocked, Larry returned to Linda and told her what had just happened and pointed out the man with whom he'd spoken.

"That's Gordie McKellen," Linda said, and then had to explain to her husband that McKellen was a former three-time national champion and one of the pioneers of the triple axel jump.

The lights suddenly went on, and a plan began to take shape.

The decision was made to keep Matt in Peoria, rather than send him off to a high-profile club. Matt had no problem with that, since he wasn't yearning to leave home. But the decision also was practical. Figure skating is not a cheap sport - some families have been known to spend upwards of $100,000 a year - and the Savoies were a family of modest means. Mike is a metallurgical engineer at Keystone, and Marina works in the Bradley library, a side benefit of which is that Matt could attend Bradley tuition-free.

"It wasn't as expensive as the legend, because of the way we did it," Marina says. "And Linda for a while didn't get paid."

That didn't matter, Larry says.

"It wasn't about the money," he says, "it was about this kid having some talent."

The Savoies and the Branans also determined that egos would be set aside, and whatever Matt needed, they would get him.

For the next three years, they enlisted McKellen's help in teaching Matt a full array of triple jumps. Larry organized trips for Illinois Valley Figure Skating Club members to Vail, Colo., where McKellen was then based, as group rates helped stem the costs.

For choreography, they hired Tom Dickson, a highly respected coach from Colorado Springs. Eventually, when Matt needed help to learn the increasingly important quadruple jump, they added Gene Hefron of Rockford to the coaching team. When Matt needed to refine his artistry, they got him dance lessons, even though, Larry says, that whole idea was a tough sell to the skater himself.

The point was very simple.

"Why can't you produce a kid out of Peoria?" Larry Branan says. "If you know what you've got to do, then you can do it. As long as he could do what he needed to do, had parents and backing and a rink, what more did he need? Whatever he needed, we could get it for him."

Grounded and balanced

Mike and Marina Savoie are now divorced, and Mike has remarried. But through everything that has happened in their private lives and with the pressures surrounding their public son, they've supported their children and given them a strong dose of good old Midwestern values.

"Mike and I always said, 'You've got to do well in school, or you can't skate,' " Marina says.

Some of that warning was Parenting 101, the standard mantra meant to keep a kid grounded and balanced. Some of it was fear. After all, none of them really expected Matt to someday be in position to command $25,000 for an exhibition. That stuff happens to somebody else's kids, never your own.

Even with Gordie McKellen's predictions of success, there was uncertainty. If nothing else, what about career-ending injuries?

The real possibilities didn't finally sink in with Mike Savoie until 1997, when Matt made his first trip to junior nationals - and skated away with the championship.

"Wow!" Mike thought. "This really could be happening. This really could go on for a while."

So Matt took the admonitions to heart. He graduated in the top 10 of his class from Peoria High School in 1998, despite a skating competition schedule that frequently caused him to miss classes for days at a time. He kept abreast of his peers on the honors track, too, by teaching himself second-year German during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years.

After graduation, he even considered retaking calculus, not because he needed to, but because he wanted to make sure he'd understood it all - a perfectionist tendency that parallels his pursuit of a skating nirvana.

At Bradley, he graduated summa cum laude, on time with his class, an achievement that to this day leaves many close followers of the skating world scratching their heads. Most of Savoie's rivals, and their female counterparts in the top echelon of skating, are not traditional full-time students, in high school or college.

But Savoie always was partly amused, partly put off by incredulous media questions about his course load.

"Football and basketball players travel more than I do and graduate on time," he would say.

Well, not all of them, but that's another story.

Thing is, Savoie could never be a rink rat. He needed a life outside of skating to stay sharp and competitive. And he needed skating to stay on top of his academic game.

If his life the past 10 years had been only skating, or even primarily skating, Savoie is convinced, he would not have succeeded.

That hyper little 9-year-old needed to stay busy, and he needed a lot of diverse activities and interests to keep his mind occupied. It's hard to imagine now, when you talk to this quiet, thoughtful, soft-spoken young man, that he was such a handful a former teacher suggested a Ritalin prescription.

If you don't know him, it's probably easy to wonder whether Savoie might not already own an Olympic medal if he had left town and devoted his entire life to skating. But some people simply aren't wired that way.

"He's got a more complete package than most athletes," says Mike, a proud father with a broad perspective. "He's not dependent on skating.

"Some look at his other activities and don't think he's a serious skater. I was offended by that, especially knowing the history of amateur athletics in this country. We are losing focus as to what is a true amateur athlete. The concept of an amateur athlete, a scholar-athlete, has gone by the wayside."

Pushing the envelope

Most casual fans of figure skating don't know this. But over the past three seasons, Savoie has defeated Michael Weiss, the three-time U.S. champion. He has beaten Olympic bronze medalist and 2001 national champion Timothy Goebel, a.k.a. the "Quad King" for his mastery of the quadruple jumps. He has beaten Takeshi Honda and Alexander Abt, both of whom have placed among the top five in the world, and he has finished competitions on the heels of the dynamic Russians Alexei Yagudin and Yvgeny Plushenko, who have won the last five world titles and claimed the gold and silver medals at the 2002 Olympics.

Savoie has done this by skating very well - and, yes, by sometimes doing so on days when the others were not at their best.

To beat them at the highest level, when each skater is at his best, to make the last step to the very top level of international figure skating, Savoie must incorporate a consistent quad into his programs. He had hoped to do it this season. Two factors intervened.

First, he was battling tendinitis in his left knee, and nobody realized the severity until January, during national championship week in Dallas. Savoie would practice only once all week and ultimately finish a disappointing fifth.

Second, Savoie has this perfectionist streak that keeps him from performing an element in competition until he is completely confident in his ability to do it on command.

And so it was that the pain in his knee, which was caused in part by the stress of doing quads, for months limited the number of times he would practice the quad. Thus, he often didn't feel right practicing the jump in his program. Finally, if every other element in the performance leading up to the quad was not exactly right during competition, he would decide not to try it.

Savoie's reticence finally prompted Tom Dickson, his choreographer, to challenge the skater.

"He can be big, big-time internationally," says Dickson, who believes Savoie's athletically capable of the same envelope-pushing programs done by Yagudin, Plushenko and Goebel.

When he received Dickson's e-mail earlier this winter, however, Savoie was not pleased.

"He hated it," Larry Branan says. "But he needed to hear every bit of it, and he didn't need to hear it from Linda. He needed to hear it from another man."

After Savoie got over his anger and analyzed what Dickson was saying, he understood.

"(Dickson) thought there was a box I had put around myself, so he wanted me to push those boundaries," Savoie says.

Savoie never has been one to talk about his goals. It's as if saying he wants to win a national championship or make the Olympic team will set up the people around him for disappointment. He puts incredible pressure on himself not to let down the people who love him most.

But after a controversial judging decision last year dropped him to fourth place at the nationals, one spot shy of the team, Savoie grew so upset he refused to watch the Olympic competition on television. He now acknowledges that he wants to qualify for the next Olympics, in 2006. And he knows that to get there he will have to master the quad.

A key to that will be for this very smart young man to not think about it. Everyone who knows him loves his intelligence. Yet everyone around him will tell you he thinks too much - especially when he's on the ice. He needs to focus, but not think.

Warming up for the long program at the nationals in Dallas, for example, Savoie landed a perfect quad, injured knee be damned. He then skated over to his coaches along the dasher board and asked, "Did I just do a quad?"

If for no other reason, Savoie wants the quad to take pressure off himself, because the way the sport is going, not competing this most difficult jump has become a disadvantage.

Nobody does a better triple axel than Savoie. Now that six-time national champion Todd Eldredge is retired, Savoie has the best spins among top American men. And his spread-eagle - his legs wide apart, his feet pointing opposite directions, his body arched backward as he sails down the ice - into a triple axel jump is simultaneously one of the most difficult and most beautiful moves in the sport.

But the quad is the difference-maker. Savoie can do it. He has done it many times in practice. Now he must perfect it for competition.

"My primary goal for next year," Savoie says.

Not because clean quads in competition can guarantee him a place on the world or Olympic medals podium, you understand. No, but because clean quads in competition will prove to that most important audience - himself - he belongs among the elite, and he pushed himself as far as he could go, that he skated as well as he could.

And that's all. He is, remember, a Peorian. And proud of it.

Copyright Peoria Journal Star, Inc. 2002