Coach's tough love helps Peorian reach Olympics
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2006
BY KIRK WESSLER
OF THE JOURNAL STAR
Sometimes, you've gotta break the rules.
Kathy Johnson understands that, as surely as she cut to the core of Matt Savoie's being almost the instant she met the Peoria figure skater.
Johnson saw talent that was only self-limiting. She recognized willpower turned oddly inward. She demanded Savoie explain himself, listened to his existential philosophy, determined he was hiding behind his intelligence and told him he was full of baloney. Only she wasn't that polite.
The people around Savoie pulled Johnson aside and warned her to be careful: You don't know the rules of dealing with Matt.
"There are no rules," Johnson replied. "I'll tell him exactly what I think."
And this is what Johnson told Savoie:
"I will, if I have to, drag you kicking and screaming to the next level, because you are that talented. I don't care what you say. What matters is what's inside of you, and it is fully within your artistic grasp to get it out of yourself. You can disagree with me all you want, but on the ice, you will create something magnificent out there."
As it is kicked in the butt, so let it be done.
Savoie will compete Tuesday and Thursday at the Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, because what he created last month at the U.S. championships was, indeed, magnificent.
Improving the artistry
The last piece to the Matt Savoie puzzle was Johnson.
Savoie's first coach was Linda Branan, with whom he linked up at Owens Center at age 9. Sixteen years they've been together; an eternity beyond comprehension in the musical-coaches land of elite skating.
But Branan is not Savoie's only coach. She put aside whatever jealousies or insecurities that might have tempted her and resolved to get help whenever it was needed. Over the years, Gene Hefron of Rockford joined Team Savoie to help perfect the skater's jumps, and Tom Dickson of Colorado Springs came aboard to direct choreography.
Savoie's athletic ability was never in doubt. From the beginning, he exploded into jumps. The most difficult ones, the Axel and the Lutz, he executes with the greatest ease. Skating fans rave on his classic line. If Savoie wanted to turn his spins into a virtual trademark, as retired seven-time national champion Todd Eldredge did, he could.
Gordie McKellen, a former three-time national champion, saw Savoie at age 13 and predicted greatness. Dick Button, who parlayed five world championships and Olympic gold medals in 1948 and '52 into a career as the sport's king of television commentary, has been unabashed in his respect for the Peorian. Savoie's fans waited for him to break through. And waited. And waited.
But he forever seemed to hold something back.
So much of figure skating's appeal is the way a skater's artistry makes seem effortless the raw strength and coordination required to jump and rotate and land on a skate blade one-eighth of an inch wide. The ability to sell that illusion to the audience and ultimately to the judges is where the real lines of separation between the competitors are drawn.
But Savoie is not into illusions.
Though his artistic marks in the old 6.0 scoring system improved steadily, they did not reach the consistent 5.8s and 5.9s of his chief rivals. In the new Code of Points, there is more emphasis on the difficulty of the technical elements, plus bonuses for such nuances as entries into jumps, long a Savoie strength. But the artistic component, how the skater interprets the music and ties all the elements together, is where he continued to come up short.
Until Dickson introduced Savoie to Johnson, a graduate of Julliard School of Dance and resident modern dance teacher at the World Arena in Colorado Springs.
"She's a smart cookie," Branan says of Johnson. "She can read people very, very easily."
Johnson read Savoie so well, sometimes the skater would wonder whether she resided in his brain.
An honors student who will enroll at Cornell University's law school this fall, Savoie can be a masterful debater. Appeal to his intellect with a rational argument, and you can convince him to go along. Flub your point, and he'll go his own way.
But there was more.
Though Savoie is flattered by the appreciation fans shower on him, he disdains the spotlight. He is one of the most self-critical people you could ever meet, and his knowledge of his own shortcomings fuels his fear that he might not deserve his accomplishments, let alone the accolades that accompany them. Then there's the guilt he feels for even having a desire to, say, defeat an opponent and win a championship. Or, heaven forbid, be an Olympian.
Johnson spotted all of that and set about deconstructing every layer of Savoie's psychological defenses.
"Everything people achieve in life, from the mundane to the loftiest things, starts with a deep desire for something," she says.
"I told him, 'If you didn't desire this, you would've quit. You had better desire to be on that podium. I hope you desire an Olympic medal. Why would you not?'
"He said, 'That would be self-indulgent.' "
Savoie's comment set off Johnson, who challenged why he would take a position so counter to his natural humility. She turned the skater's contention back on him and called him a hypocrite; implied he was an elitist who looked down on anyone who desired such things.
"I'd better feel desire coming out of every inch of your body," Johnson told Savoie before nationals. "I want you to skate with the desire to do the best skate of your life."
Ready for the largest stage
Moments before Savoie took the ice for his free skate at nationals, Dickson got in his face and asked, "What are you going to do out there?"
"I'm going to be a different person," Savoie replied.
Dickson calls that moment the turning point in Savoie's career.
"The way he looked at me was different than ever before. It was almost shocking." Dickson says.
What Savoie did that afternoon in St. Louis transcended any program he had performed.
Dickson choreographed the 4-minute, 40-second performance with music from "The Mission," a story of Portuguese missionaries in the jungles of Brazil. The character Savoie plays begins with uncertainty, wrestles with self-discovery, squares off with the devil and emerges reborn, triumphant and whole. It requires little stretch of the imagination to see the parallels to Savoie's own skating life.
True to form, Savoie brushes off suggestions that the storyline could be his autobiography.
"If I tried to self-identify with the part, I would be a lot more subdued than would be effective," he says.
Dickson and Johnson chuckle: That's Matt.
Dickson credits Savoie for finally coming to the realization there "could possibly be two different Matts, and he uses the program to transform himself."
Johnson agrees, but emphasizes the two Matts are still one in the same being; one drawing on the other for its inspiration and giving both life.
"Tom is a choreographic genius," Johnson says. "It's a great piece for Matt. It's totally part of him. Matt would fight it. He would ask how I wanted him to do something with the character, and I would say, 'It's not my story, Matt. It's your story. Bring what you feel. That's what imbues a character with its life.' "
Savoie is this part. He feels it, breathes it, works through the pain and fear of it, embraces it, celebrates it. At nationals, he grabbed the fans and carried them through his journey until they no longer could contain themselves and sprung to their feet to celebrate with him.
"Matt doesn't look at himself as an artist," Johnson says. "But I believe skating is an art form, or (the skater) would have turned to skiing or something that was just athletic. Artists are rarely able to transport themselves to that other side of life. That's why they turn to art.
"The audience desires to see the art. The audience wants to be transformed. They want to be taken to and shown another place."
The place in which Savoie now finds himself is unlike any other. The Olympics are the sports world's largest stage. Fairly or not, they are viewed by the masses as the pinnacle of achievement in the sports that comprise the Games.
Savoie arrives there a long shot, as usual. But he comes armed as never before, with the perfect program at the perfect time. All he has to do is live it. And skate it.