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Manley says "she feels like a million dollars"

Skater proud to be four pounds off her Olympic weight

Silver medalist Elizabeth Manley of the Canada (left), gold medalist Katarina Witt of East Germany (center) and bronze medalist Debi Thomas of the U.S. (right) at the 1988 World Figure Skating Championships.
Silver medalist Elizabeth Manley of the Canada (left), gold medalist Katarina Witt of East Germany (center) and bronze medalist Debi Thomas of the U.S. (right) at the 1988 World Figure Skating Championships. (Getty Images)

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By Amy Rosewater, special to icenetwork.com
(02/14/2010) - Elizabeth Manley doesn't look too much different than she did back in 1988. In fact, as she proudly will tell you, she's just about four pounds off of her Olympic weight.

Yet a lot has changed for the Olympic silver medalist who won over the hearts of skating fans across Canada 22 years ago.

In the days since she soared over the ice in Calgary, Manley has struggled through bouts of depression, hair loss, significant weight fluctuations, and the loss of her mother. But with the Winter Olympics returning to Canadian ground in Vancouver, however, Manley has in many ways come full circle.

"I feel like a million dollars,'' said Manley in a recent telephone interview from her home in Ontario. "I'm in a really good place right now.''

Manley, now 44, is in Vancouver working for the Canadian network, CTV, and will be providing commentary for the ladies and men's skating competitions. CTV, which hasn't had the broadcasting rights to the Winter Games since 1994 in Lillehammer, did televise the Olympics when Manley was competing in Calgary.

"I remember getting the call saying that I got the job,'' Manley said. "I was coaching in Ottawa and I got the message when I was going to my car. I started jumping up and down in the parking lot. I truly believe my mom sent that to me as a gift. I think she was pulling the strings from up above.''

It wasn't long ago that Manley's outlook wasn't so bright. She had been coaching at Ice Works in Aston, Pa., and had many close friends at the rink. But in May 2007, she found out that her mother, Joan, had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Immediately, Manley packed up and headed back to take care of her mother in Kingston, Ont.

Uschi Keszler, the skating director at Ice Works, is a breast cancer survivor herself who is very active with a foundation called Pennies in Action. As sad as Keszler was to see Manley leave, she fully understood. A banner with Manley's name still hangs in the rink and she has been told she would always be welcome back in Aston.

Reflecting on that time, however, remains difficult for Manley.

"That was a really hard time for me,'' Manley said. "I had been living in the States for about 18 years but I knew I needed to go home and I never left my mom's side. I literally slept at the hospital and she died in my arms. I was there at her last breath.''

When her mother died in July 2008 and the ensuing year "was just a blur to me,'' Manley said. Manley, who had suffered from bouts of depression as a teen, began struggling again.

She threw herself back into work, coaching at rinks in three different cities, including at the Gloucester Skating Club, where the rink bears her name and which features an exhibit of her photos. The girl in the pictures wasn't at all like the woman she had become. She wasn't eating properly and added about 30 pounds to what she described as her "four-foot-nothing'' frame.

"By February of 2009, I was so burned out and I just fell apart,'' Manley said.

She took a break from coaching and then she got a call from Herbal Magic, a Canadian-based weight loss and nutrition center. The company gently asked her to become a company spokesperson and Manley accepted. Now she jokes that she's become the Valerie Bertinelli of Canada. She said her husband, Brent Theobald, a former junior hockey player, has also lost about 35 pounds with the program.

"I'm healthy and there is color in my face again,'' Manley said. "When I went to Canadians last month, people noticed and for me, it was a gold medal.''

As a competitive skater, Manley had always been under the impression that she shouldn't eat much and recalls days later when she was touring when fellow skaters would turn to laxatives and diet pills to maintain their weight. Nowadays, she said she understands how to eat better. She even laughs now that she is being called upon for cooking tips these days.

Shortly after she finished this telephone interview a week ago, she was going to finish packing for a trip to Toronto. There, she was going to be on a morning TV program preparing succotash. Perhaps she might follow in the skates of fellow Calgary hero, Brian Boitano, who now hosts a cooking show on Food Network.

In addition to her work with Herbal Magic, Manley has also become very involved with Ovarian Cancer Canada and serves as a spokesperson for the organization.

"There's no screening, no way to detect it and usually when it is diagnosed it's at the Stage 3 rate.''

Manley participated in the 2009 Winners Walk of Hope in September and the event raised $2.3 million for research.

"Next year, my goal is $4 million,'' Manley said.

As part of her participation in the event, Manley's photo appeared in Winners stores all over the country. Winners, she said, is comparable to America's T.J. Maxx.

"My face was everywhere,'' Manley said. "It was a little weird. My niece called me one day because she was trying on clothes for school in the store and she said, 'Oh my God, that's Auntie Liz's face in the changing room.''

Back in 1988, Manley's likeness wasn't so prevalent. She had placed fourth in the 1987 World Championships and all eyes were focused on the "Battle of the Carmens,'' which pitted 1984 Olympic gold medalist Katarina Witt and American Debi Thomas, both of whom were performing to "Carmen.''

Manley hadn't been thought of much as a serious Olympic medal winner throughout her up-and-down career. In 1982, she earned a silver medal at Canadian nationals and qualified for the world team but she failed to make the podium the following year and considered quitting the sport. She struggled with her weight and even lost her hair as a result of her depression and anxiety.

Meanwhile, Sonya and Peter Dunfield, elite-level coaches who were looking for a place to work when their rink in New York City closed, came to Gloucester in Ontario to check out a new coaching opportunity. They weren't sold on making the move as there was no Olympic-sized rink in town.

"Then out runs Elizabeth,'' said Peter Dunfield. "She had no hair then and she was out of shape and she practically begs us to come.''

The pleas worked. The Dunfields came to Ontario, and they managed to get Manley back on track. In 1984, she placed second at Canadian nationals and earned a spot on the Olympic team in Sarajevo, where she placed 13th. She started climbing in the world rankings, and by 1987, she was fourth in the world.

Still, in Calgary, all eyes were on Witt and Thomas.

"If you had asked me a month before Calgary, I would have told you that I can't believe that I'm not getting any media attention,'' she said. "I was hurt.

"But talking to you now, that was the best thing that ever happened to me. There was no pressure on me.''

As it turned out, Manley probably wouldn't have been much of an interview in the days leading up to the women's event in Calgary. She was extremely sick, suffering problems with her ear drum and said she even considered withdrawing. She was so ill that after the Opening Ceremony, she returned home and pretty much stayed in bed.

Manley was ill but started having dreams of a perfect Olympic skate. She relayed one of her dreams to her coach, Sonya Dunfield. Dunfield said she looked at Manley square in the eye and said, "Park it,'' and Dunfield added, "We didn't discuss that again.''

The dreams kept coming but they didn't seem like they would come true as Manley was still ill when she returned to Calgary. Yet when she found herself in fourth place in the school figures portion of the competition, the high placement seemed to rally Manley's spirits. She skated a strong short program and had moved up to third place overall entering the free skate.

Still, when she entered the free skate, not many thought she would be strong enough to cast herself for a role in the "Katarina and Debi show.'' When she took the ice for the long program, ABC-TV commentator Jim McKay said, "She could win a bronze medal.''

Manley, however, had other plans.

A natural jumper, Manley had been landing some triple Axels in practices and even considered attempting one in an effort to become the first woman to land one in competition, but ultimately she decided it wasn't worth the risk, especially considering her illness. As Sonya Dunfield recalls, Manley didn't even complete a full run-through of her long program in her practices in Calgary.

Somehow, however, Manley pulled it together and although she didn't make skating history with a triple Axel, she did become the first woman to land a triple Lutz. And she reeled off one triple after another, captivating the crowd with her high-octane performance and ever-lasting grin.

"I think all that energy of the event ... really just pulled me through,'' Manley said.

So did the home-country crowd, which was still reeling by the fact the Canadian men's hockey team had been bounced from the medals earlier in the day.

"That was so important,'' Manley said of the crowd. "The fans can get an athlete through a miracle.''

Manley, who had been plagued over her career for inconsistency and falls at major events, was so strong in her free skate that it overwhelmed the crowd in the Saddledome. Afterward, she sported a white cowboy hat, true to the Calgary western tradition, and Peter Dunfield, lifted her up in celebration.

"Wouldn't it be great if every human being could have one moment like this once in their lives?'' McKay remarked afterward.

Peter Dunfield is no longer coaching but he never let any of his later students use the piece of music he selected for Manley, a rare Canadian concerto he discovered in a bin at a small store in Ontario. "That's Elizabeth's,'' he said.

As excited as the Dunfields were with Manley's gutsy performance, the couple still are angered by the fact that she didn't leave Calgary with a gold medal. The Dunfields said that politics played too big a role in Witt winning the gold. (Thomas, meanwhile, skated so poorly in the long program that she barely stayed in the medal picture, finishing third).

The Dunfields, who live in Sun Valley, Idaho, where Sonya still coaches, believe Manley should have won the school figures as well as the free skate.

"It was not fair,'' Sonya Dunfield said. "When I was skating I kept telling my mom, 'I'm going to be so good that they're going to have to give it to me.' Then, when I was 16 years old, I was told that the political machine wouldn't let me win. So when they did it to Elizabeth, that really hurt.''

Manley didn't bring home the gold, but her performance in Calgary still lives on today. In fact, Canadian world silver medalist Joannie Rochette, considered to be a contender at the Winter Games in Vancouver, said she recently watched Manley's long program and said, "It was really inspiring to see it.''

Rochette could become the first Canadian woman to medal in figure skating at the Olympics since Manley. When Manley earned her silver medal in 1988, she was the first Canadian woman since Barbara Ann Scott to capture an Olympic medal. Scott, Canada's lone Olympic gold medalist in men's and women's skating, achieved that feat back in 1948 and had a role in the Opening Ceremony. The Dunfields, meanwhile, are considering traveling to Vancouver just to see the women's event.

As the Olympic Winter Games approach in Vancouver, Manley is beginning to get a case of Olympic fever once again, only this time around she's feverish in a good way. She ran with the Olympic torch a few weeks ago and said, "This country is just on the edge of its seat.''

She's even talking about skating again after the Games. When she was coaching in Pennsylvania, Manley said she was working on triples again. Now, she believes she can regain that form. Not to compete in the Olympic Games again, of course, but for herself.

"I'm not going to lie to you,'' Manley said. "About two to three times a week, I have cries and my breakdowns. I miss my mom. But things have really around for me. I'm so elated that I'm going to Vancouver, and I feel great.''