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Falls, injuries often come in pairs

Oct. 17, 1999
By Sandra Loosemore
SportsLine Sports Writer

Recently the skating world has been jolted by the news that pair skater Paul Binnebose, who with his partner Laura Handy won a silver medal at the World Junior Championships and a bronze in the senior division at the U.S. Championships last season, sustained a serious head injury in a training accident Sept. 29.

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Binnebose suffered a skull fracture and trauma to the brain from hitting his head on the ice while trying to break Handy's fall from an overhead lift. Doctors had him in a drug-induced coma for over a week to allow his brain to heal. He remains sedated, and his recovery has been complicated by pneumonia developed as a side effect of being on a respirator.

Before this injury, Binnebose might well have been the best male pair skater in the United States. Now it is uncertain whether he will ever be able to skate again.

This accident is a sobering reminder of how dangerous figure skating, and especially pair skating, can be. Figure skating is supposed to be the sport of "grace and beauty," and part of the goal in skating is to make it all look effortless. It's easy to overlook how difficult and risky skating really is, and how serious the consequences of accidents can be.

In the process of mastering a new skill such as a triple jump, skaters can fall hundreds or thousands of times. Falling in a way that minimizes injury is one of the first skills beginning skaters have to learn. But this doesn't change the basic facts that ice is hard, falling hurts, and accidents happen. Just about any skater who sticks with the sport for any length of time develops their own litany of aches, pains, and injuries from falling, ranging from bruises that won't heal to broken bones.

Pair skating adds an extra dimension of danger and risk of injury because of its very nature. When two people are skating in close proximity and at high speed, there's always a risk that they might collide or trip one another or be cut by each other's skate blades. If one of the skaters hits a rut or loses balance, he or she might cause both of them to take a nasty fall.

It's a well-known story now of how Elena Berezhnaya got a deep gash in her head from her former partner's skate blade when they got too close together doing side-by-side camel spins in a training accident in 1996. Germans Mandy Woetzel and Ingo Steuer had to withdraw from the 1994 Olympics when Woetzel caught a toe pick and took a hard fall on her chin in the middle of their free skate. Because of the way she was being held by Steuer, there was nothing she could do to save herself from the fall or reduce its impact.

Even more risky are the lifts and other contact elements that are an essential part of pair skating.

Twist lifts are a required element in the short program for pairs: This is a move in which the man tosses the woman into the air, she rotates two or three times, and then the man catches her and sets her back down on the ice. But botched twist lifts are so common that it's almost a given that anyone who skates pairs, either male or female, will eventually get a broken nose from this move.

Handy, in fact, had suffered such an accident while competing as a junior with her former partner Jim Peterson at the 1996 U.S. Championships. Todd Sand competed with a tremendous black eye at the 1994 U.S. Championships after getting whacked with his partner Jenni Meno's elbow on a twist lift in practice. Kyoko Ina and Jason Dungjen had to withdraw from the 1998 World Championships after a collision on a twist lift in practice left Dungjen with a concussion and a fracture in his skull over his eyebrow. Similar accidents have happened in competition to Woetzel and Steuer, Canadians Kristy Sargeant and Kris Wirtz, and countless other elite pair teams.

Overhead lifts are also required elements for pairs. But these, too, can be very dangerous: The woman is held seven or more feet above the ice, sometimes with only a one-handed grip, and often in a position where she would land head-first on the ice with no possibility of breaking her fall if dropped by her partner. Male pair skaters are taught to protect their partners, but it doesn't always work.

Tristan Vega and Richard Alexander had a horrifying fall in a lift in their long program at the 1993 U.S. championships, as Vega's weight shifted too far behind Alexander's back for him to be able to maintain his grip on her. Miraculously, Vega was able to get up and finish skating the rest of the program without interruption.

Katie Wood, skating with Todd Reynolds in late 1990 at the GosTeleRadio Prize international competition in Odessa, Ukraine, wasn't so lucky. During the exhibition, she fell out of a helicopter-type lift and wound up with a fractured skull and punctured eardrums.

And, in the case of Handy and Binnebose's recent accident, it was Binnebose who was badly hurt in trying to protect his partner.

Is pair skating just too dangerous?

Paul Binnebose's injury is a reason why some people want to see certain maneuvers banned from competition. 
Paul Binnebose's injury is a reason why some people want to see certain maneuvers banned from competition.(Allsport) 

The ISU has already taken some steps to ban certain dangerous "tricks" from competitive skating, and to restrict the kinds of lifts that skaters may do. For example, lifts where the man supports the woman by a grip on her legs or feet, or where the woman stands on the man's shoulders, are not permitted. In this kind of lift, not only is the woman raised even higher above the ice, but the man's grip is too far away from her center of mass to be helpful in steadying her position or supporting her in a fall.

On the other hand, the ISU is sending mixed messages to skaters by rewarding other kinds of lifts with a high element of danger, such as one-handed lifts, lifts where the skaters continually change balance, grip and position, and lifts with acrobatic dismounts where the woman is flipped or swung as she is lowered. In addition, while the ISU might have banned an additional class of lifts where the woman is carried or swung in an upside-down position where she would be most vulnerable to head injury, this proposal from the ISU medical advisors was summarily rejected at the last ISU Congress.

What's more, the ISU has no control over what skaters do in shows or in professional competitions. Tricks like the "head-banger" or bounce spin -- where the man swings his partner around by her feet with her head only inches from the ice -- invariably draw gasps and applause from the audience. So the skaters do these tricks anyway, along with the more dangerous kinds of adagio lifts that would not be allowed in ISU competition.

So can anything be done to minimize the risks to the skaters?

While helmets and pads are conventional, if not mandatory, in many other sports, in figure skating it's unusual for athletes to wear any kind of protective gear, even in practice. It's not seen as being compatible with the aesthetic aspects of the sport. Unfortunately, this leaves the skaters very vulnerable to injuries that could be preventable. Maybe there needs to be a change of attitude among skaters and coaches to encourage the use of protective gear in training, instead of viewing it as a mental "crutch" that interferes with building self-confidence.

Perhaps fans also are in need of an attitude adjustment. Is it really necessary to cheer for skaters when they perform pointlessly dangerous "tricks" such as head-bangers or especially precarious carry lifts? These acrobatic elements have little or nothing to do with actual skating -- the control of the blade on the ice -- and maybe skaters wouldn't feel the need to put themselves at risk by doing them if they didn't feel it was expected of them to be entertaining. It's not entertaining, after all, when the skaters end up in the hospital.