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Pain Eases for American Ice Dancer

By Nancy Armour
Associated Press
Monday, February 16, 1998; 9:14 a.m. EST

 Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow overcame the sorrow of Lillehammer to place seventh in ice dancing.
(Ed Reinke/AP)
NAGANO, Japan — Elizabeth Punsalan spent the Lillehammer Games in mourning, practices and the ice dancing competition the only relief from her overwhelming grief and pain.

Her father, Ernesto Punsalan, was dead, fatally stabbed by her younger brother only days before she and her husband-partner Jerod Swallow were supposed to leave for the Olympics.

Four years later, the pain has eased. This time, the Olympics are a time for celebration.

"It's been a totally different experience,'' Punsalan said. "We've had a great time being able to come in early and go through the processing.''

Punsalan and Swallow had been married less than six months when they got the shattering, heartbreaking call. Dr. Punsalan had been killed while he slept at his Ohio home, stabbed to death by his son, Ricky.

Ricky Punsalan, then 20, had been released from a hospital psychiatric unit only a few hours earlier. He was found innocent by reason of insanity in January 1996, and remains in a maximum-security psychiatric hospital.

Punsalan and Swallow decided to go ahead and compete at Lillehammer, dedicating their performance to her father. But during their free dance, Swallow caught an edge as he was lifting Punsalan and lost his balance, sending Punsalan crashing to the ice on her back. The couple finished 15th.

"The distraction was a good thing,'' Punsalan said. "We didn't have a lot of time to sit around and sulk and get so depressed.

"It kept us busy, and made us realize that life was going to go on. Whether we were ready or not, at some point, life would go on.''

It has. Punsalan and Swallow won their record-tying fifth U.S. dance title last month and qualified for their second Olympics. They've climbed in the international rankings, and finished seventh tonight.

They decided that this time, the Olympics would be about them, a chance to celebrate their eight years together. They came determined to enjoy every moment, and they have.

"Ever since we got here, it's been a different feeling,'' Punsalan said. "We're a lot more excited and relaxed. We've taken advantage of all the opportunities here, gotten out to do and see some things.''

Like the snow monkeys. The couple took a day off last week and traveled to Kanbayashi Snowboard Park, where a pack of macaques bathe in the hot springs and mingle with tourists.

"We left the Olympic Village zoo and headed to the mountains to see the monkeys in their natural environment,'' Swallow said, laughing. "We headed up to see the skiing, but it was canceled so the monkeys were the next best show.''

It's not all fun and games, though. Punsalan and Swallow scrapped their free dance after last month's national championships, deciding they needed something with more spark to be competitive.

They've worked almost non-stop the past six weeks to perfect the new routine, an Argentine tango, which they'll perform in competition for the first time tonight.

"It's extremely hard, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone,'' Swallow said. "Usually, you put a program together in the summer and you've got six months to get used to it. We've got three weeks to make it look like we've been doing it for six or eight months.''

But they didn't have much choice. A longshot for a medal to begin with, they knew they had no chance with their old routine, a medley of Elvis Presley songs.

The new routine is steamy, and showcases their passion — the couple's strength on the ice.

"We're in the perfect position to take the risk,'' Punsalan said. "We have nothing to lose.''

And nothing to mourn.

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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