Figure skater Tim Goebel landed jump after jump at a skating practice several weeks ago, grimacing with each landing, shaking his head, talking to himself. He was a picture of agony, yet a fount of optimism. Asked after the training session what was wrong, the Olympic bronze medal winner replied bluntly. "I'm just in pain," he said.
But Goebel, fresh off a summer season in which he along with nearly all of his fellow Olympic medalists skated in more than 90 shows, shrugged it off.
"I'm not worried about it," he said. "It's just one of those training aches."
The day after that practice, Goebel competed in a minor international competition in Daytona Beach, Fla. He fell twice during his program. He finished last. Several days later, an MRI exam revealed what Goebel had tried to deny: a strained right hip that will keep him out of competition this fall. He withdrew from Skate Canada, a part of the prestigious grand prix circuit that ended Sunday with a depleted field in Quebec City, and Trophee Lalique, which begins Nov. 18 in Paris.
Goebel is joined on the sport's unofficial injured list by a host of skaters who have succumbed to exhaustion or injuries early in a season that ends in March with the world championships at MCI Center in Washington. Athletes and coaches say Olympic-eligible skaters, who are not true amateurs because they are permitted to earn paychecks at events sanctioned by the International Skating Union, are pushing themselves harder and taking less time for recovery as they capitalize on opportunities to reap the financial rewards of their fame.
All of the men's Olympic medalists are fighting injuries: Russian Alexei Yagudin, the Olympic champion, withdrew from Skate America last weekend because of a degenerative hip problem; he said he fears his career is over at 22. Russian Evgeni Plushenko is recovering from an ankle sprain. Goebel, Yagudin and Plushenko are considered the sport's technical masters. All routinely land two quadruple jumps in one program, a feat unimagined 10 years ago. Goebel performed the most difficult program in Olympic history in February, landing three quadruple jumps. On the women's side, Olympic gold medal winner Sarah Hughes will miss the fall season because of a muscle tear behind her right knee. Ice dancers Shae-Lynn Bourne of Canada and Naomi Lang of the United States have tendinitis that forced them, and their partners, to withdraw from early-season international events.
"Skaters are trying to skate hard all year round, with very little rest," U.S. team physician Edward Reisman said at the recent Smart Ones Skate America in Spokane, Wash. "If you look back at the '70s . . . when you got done with the world championships, you could easily take a break. You had many months to develop your program for the next competition. . . . Now, it's a full-packed schedule."
Many skaters haven't taken a break since October 2001, the start of the ISU Grand Prix circuit. Most competed through the February Olympics and March world championships, then immediately joined summer tours. Nearly all of the world's best skaters accepted invitations to the prestigious Tom Collins' Champions on Ice tour, which took skaters to 85 cities over four months. Many athletes -- including those who have not had health problems -- did more than 90 shows, including Michelle Kwan, Irina Slutskaya, Michael Weiss, Elvis Stojko and Lang and Peter Tchernyshev. Yagudin and the dance team of Bourne and Victor Kraatz did a reduced Champions on Ice schedule, but they also performed with the similarly acclaimed Stars on Ice tour. Skaters say they enjoy the camaraderie of the tours, the responsive crowds and the absence of demanding judges. But, according to Alexander Zhulin, a 1994 Russian silver medalist in dance, there is a more prevailing incentive.
"Because," Zhulin said, "of the money."
In most sports, athletes give up their amateur status in order to turn pro and get rich. In skating, the very best Olympic-eligible skaters will earn far more than the so-called professionals, whose competition opportunities are less demanding and more limited. Olympic-eligible skaters of any age can earn six-figure incomes if they are successful on the ISU's Union's Grand Prix circuit, which takes place from October through the winter, and most can double or triple their incomes with money earned on Collins's wildly successful tour and other events sanctioned by the ISU.
Most, though, are merely trying to pay the bills. It can cost more than $50,000 annually to fund an elite skater, given expenses for costumes, skates, ice time, coaching and travel.
"The dollar factor comes into play," said John Nicks, who has coached a number of Olympians, most recently Sasha Cohen. "When these young figure skaters have the ability to earn these amounts of money, I think it's very difficult to say no to it."
The number of lucrative events for Olympic-eligible skaters exploded in the wake of the Tony Harding-Nancy Kerrigan theater in the mid-1990s. Various tours have been around for years, but only in the last decade have they become truly big business. And the business is biggest right after an Olympic Games, when the stars are fresh in the public's mind.
This summer's Champions on Ice tour was longer than usual. Hughes admitted she felt rushed to get ready for the season, even after competing in only about 40 shows so that she could complete her junior year of high school. She said the tour, though abbreviated, was more taxing than expected. In her haste to get ready for Skate America, she suffered the injury that cost her a place in that field and this weekend's Skate Canada.
"She just didn't have the preparation time we're used to in getting ready for an event," her coach Robin Wagner said. "As careful as I tried to be, the body retaliates. . . . All of these skaters, coming off an Olympic year, they probably pushed their bodies harder than ever, and now they are just tired. They don't have enough time to rest and recuperate."
Goebel, who did all 93 Champions on Ice shows, said he worked to increase the difficulty of his competitive long program even while performing.
"I don't think I'm taking too much of a beating," Goebel said before he learned the nature of his injury. "I am a little worn out, a little tired, but it's sort of a trade-off. . . . I wouldn't have been as far along in my training. . . . If anything, I'm hungrier now to do more."
Zhulin said Goebel's mentality permeates figure skating, a sport in which young, ambitious skaters are constantly pressing those at the top of the sport.
"There's a lot of pressure right now on skaters," Zhulin said. "It's a lot more competitive right now. Young skaters, they're pushing hard. If you want to be on top, you have to do more risk and work harder. . . . If you ask a skater, 'How do you feel?' he will say, 'I feel great.' "
Yagudin, who competed in the short program at Skate America before withdrawing, speculated that he aggravated a congenital hip problem by refusing to take time off during the summer.
"Everyone is not in such great shape at all," Yagudin said. "That's because the [Champions on Ice] tour was so long. . . . It was too much, way too much. . . . After winning the Olympics and worlds, I wanted to be everywhere. I was just enjoying that time. . . . Sometimes you have to stop."
Tom Collins, the creator and owner of the tour, said Yagudin's criticism of Champions on Ice was unwarranted, given that Yagudin performed in only about 40 shows. (Yagudin also did numerous shows with other tours, including Stars on Ice.) Collins said he understood the scrutiny and questions about the Champions on Ice schedule, but he defended it by saying it may have appeared more brutal than it actually was. Steps, he said, were taken to provide breaks for the skaters. The tour started later than usual, a week after the March world championships, and several rest periods -- of four and 10 days -- were built into the schedule.
He also said he did not force any skaters to do the entire summer season and that several even pleaded with him to extend it.
"Kwan, Slutskaya and Goebel, they all came to me and said, 'Tommy, can we go longer because we're having such a wonderful time,' " Collins said.
Collins speculated that the sport's rising technical demands and increasing international competition schedule have taken far more of a toll than his tour.
"The kids now, they're like Mexican jumping beans," he said. "They're like gymnasts. They're doing so much more difficult jumps, difficult feats in skating."
The technical demands have indeed risen every year, especially among the men. Zhulin, who coaches Russian Alexander Abt, said top male skaters realize they must have at least two quadruple jumps in their long programs to break into the truly elite. At Skate America, two teenagers became the first women to land triple axels in 10 years. The last two female Olympic champions, Sarah Hughes and Tara Lipinski, each landed not one, but two triple-triple combinations in their gold medal programs.
Mahlon Bradley, a Boston orthopedist who has treated two of the elite injured skaters and assisted with the U.S. figure skating team in Salt Lake City, said coaches need to look out for their athletes, urging them to rest even when they protest. He pointed out that the United States fielded an injury-free Olympic team last year after the U.S. Figure Skating Association funded a sports medicine program that gave each Olympic-caliber skater access to a staff of medical experts during the season.
Bradley and Reisman said the sport's technical evolution cannot be blamed for the injuries. They speculated that training too hard and doing too much were more likely culprits.
"Overuse is our primary problem," Bradley said. "Our job has been to educate coaches and athletes about that. . . . They only realize it when they get into trouble."
Yagudin said he planned to see a host of doctors throughout Europe in an attempt to find the right treatment for his hip. He cried when he discussed the injury with reporters recently.
"It's just really sad . . . " he said. "I don't know what to blame."