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Champions on Ice
S.L. show to feature 25 top world skaters

The 21st annual John Hancock Champions on Ice tour will bring 25 of the world's top figure skaters -- soloists and ice dancing duos -- to the Delta Center for one night only on Tuesday, June 15.

For many of the skaters, the showcase marks a return to the arena where they've previously participated in national and international competition.And some, like petit and energetic Michelle Kwan, would like to be back in Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Others, like Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow, are keeping their options open -- they may be here in 2002 simply to cheer on some of their skating colleagues.

Kwan, Punsalan and Swallow talked about their careers and the Champions on Ice tour during an interview by phone from Colorado Springs, where the show was making its 29th stop on a 45-city tour. (It was an appropriate stopover -- Colorado Springs is the home of the United States Figure Skating Association and its affiliated World Figure Skating Hall of Fame.)

Kwan, who was in Salt Lake City just four months ago for the 1999 U.S. Figure Skating Championships -- and became the first ladies repeat winner in nine years -- says that touring can be tiring at times. "There are nights when I don't remember where I am, and I'd much rather be home in my own bed.

"But it's great to be in a city where audiences understand skating. Some audiences can't tell the difference between a double and a triple, but others appreciate it when you do a triple lutz."

Kwan has fared well in Salt Lake City before and "I'm hoping to be back here in 2002, if all goes well," she said, despite some naysayers who claim "I'll be over the hill."

Now approaching 19, Kwan would be only 21 for the Winter Olympics, but the new skaters entering the competition arena are "like 12 or 13 . . . they make me feel like a grandmother."

They also remind "Grandma Kwan" of herself when she first began competing.

While spending much of her growing-up years on the ice, Kwan missed out on the social life that comes with attending regular high school. She's going to try to capture some of that missing element when she enters UCLA this fall.

"I always had a tutor, from eighth grade until now, so it's time to make up for that," she said.

What's the difference between "professional" and "amateur"?

"This tour is both," said Kwan, "and there's a very fine line, now. As long as the skating union sanctions the events I'm doing, then I can still keep my eligibility. There are both professional and amateur skaters on the tour."

Beyond her skating career, Kwan also finds the time to serve as a national spokesman for the Children's Miracle Network's Champions Across America program.

Visiting ailing children in hospitals is an activity Kwan enjoys.

"When I was about 15 or 16, I started receiving stuffed animals from appreciative audiences. I had a whole roomful of stuffed animals, so I started visiting hospitals and giving them away to the kids. Now that's an annual thing I do. It's fun to see them smile and be happy," she said.

Partners on and off the ice, Punsalan and Swallow will be celebrating their sixth wedding anniversary in just a couple of months.

"I think audiences these days are a lot more educated than they used to be. There's so much more skating on TV, and there are so many more events going on these days -- they just know a lot more about what they're looking for and looking at and they know how to pick out good skating," she said.

They began skating together 10 years ago.

"I first saw Jerod when I was 10 years old at a regional competition, just a very local event," Punsalan said. "Then, a few years later, I moved to Michigan in order to train with another partner, and Jerod was training at the same rink. We've been training at the same rink for 14 years, but we didn't get together until four years later, when Jerod's partner had decided to pursue school."

Swallow was looking for a new partner, and Punsalan was interested.

"I just jumped at the chance," she said.

"We're pretty compatible both on and off the ice," said Punsalan. "I've felt much more settled in life -- and Jerod, as well -- since we were married. It gives us a direction outside of skating, but it's also bound to show up in what you do. We've heard from a number of people who watch us skate, and when they see us, they say we look comfortable together. We have a connection that you don't always see with other figure skaters."

"We try to do something new every year for this show," Swallow said. "This time, we're doing a Sonny and Cher medley. Ann Beck of San Francisco designed our costumes. She specializes in dying her own material and did some wonderful tie-dye for us that works well with Sonny and Cher. It has a real '60s look."

Right now, Swallow isn't sure of any Olympics aspirations for 2002.

"We're kind of keeping our options open, although I'm not sure that we'll feel the same way in three years that we felt in 1998. We're trying to move on a little bit with our lives. I can't say that we won't be there, but we may not be competing. We have a lot of friends competing, and it's in the U.S., and past Olympians always have a chance to visit the other Olympic Games, so we'll probably be there cheering on for a change instead of competing," Swallow said.

Other skaters scheduled to perform on the tour include soloists Oksana Baiul, Elizabeth Manley, Surya Bonaly, Nicole Bobek, Victor Pretenko, Todd Eldredge, Elvis Stojko, Philippe Candeloro, Alexei Yagudin, Rudy Galindo, Michael Weiss and Laurent Tobel.

Pairs and ice-dancers include Oksana Kazakova and Artur Dmitriev, Elena Bereznaya and Anton Sikharulidze, Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz, and Maya Usova and Evgeny Platov.

Tickets, ranging from $25 to $50, are available at the Delta Center box office or all Smith's Tix outlets. To purchase tickets by phone, call 467-8499 or 1-800-888-8499. The performance is Tuesday, June 15, at 7:30 p.m.