Paul Wylie, former figure skating medalist, on why the Olympics still matter

U.S. figure skaters Paul Wylie, of Denver, and Nancy Kerrigan, of Stoneham, Mass., perform during the figure skating exhibition at the XVI Winter Olympic Games, Saturday, Feb. 22, 1992, in Albertville, France. Wylie won the men?s silver medal and Kerrigan the bronze. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)
U.S. figure skaters Paul Wylie, of Denver, and Nancy Kerrigan, of Stoneham, Mass., perform during the figure skating exhibition at the XVI Winter Olympic Games, Saturday, Feb. 22, 1992, in Albertville, France. Wylie won the men?s silver medal and Kerrigan the bronze. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau) AP

Next week, Paul Wylie heads to Pyeongchang, South Korea, to do radio commentary on figure skating from the XXIII Winter Olympics, a brief interlude when triple lutzes and double axels assume prominence on America’s sports stage.

“I think it is thrilling to have that moment every four years, when it becomes watercooler conversation,” says Wylie, 53, who took to the ice at age 3 and began figure skating before he reached teenhood. “There are things which are very different from other sports. That’s how I think about our sport – it’s almost like a unicorn. It’s very unique in the sporting world, to have the music and the emotion but the sheer athleticism and technique that goes into it. So I love figure skating, how about that?”

As we’ve seen in numerous Olympic sports, figure skating judges tend to bring a subjective lens to gauging performances despite a detailed set of supposedly objective guidelines. While that unevenness generates sharp criticism – as erupted over selections to the current U.S. Olympic figure-skating squad – Wylie sees variation in judging as one of the sport’s charms. “That’s probably one of the coolest things about skating,” he offers. “It’s a very human sport in the sense that it’s about interpretation.”

Silver medal

Wylie’s appreciation for wiggle room and ambiguity may be colored by his disputed selection to the 1992 American squad at Albertville, France, despite what TV commentator Tracy Wilson called his “lifelong reputation as a runner-up.” He had finished eighth at the 1988 Winter Games, and was second at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1988, 1990 and 1992.

Wylie quashed any controversy by winning a silver medal in ’92, overcoming two spills while warming up for his original program. Wilson, an ice dancer, wound up praising the energetic Wylie as “a brilliant artist” as he glided and twirled, dressed in black, his thick, dark hair rippling in a breeze raised by his own constant, graceful movement.

“I would say that I try to embody a story. My strengths are in my artistry and my musicality,” Wylie says. “Some skaters are just flat out entertaining to watch, and that’s what makes our sport different than track and field. It’s not just who can land the most jumps. There’s also a subtle and human quality of how does this person relate artistically. No apology for that.”

Paul Wylie of Denver, Colo., performs in the men’s figure skating original program at the 1992 Winter Olympic in Albertville, France on Thursday, Feb. 13, 1992. Wylie finished the first portion of the program in third place. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau) Lionel Cironneau AP

Wylie, a 5-foot-4 native Texan now residing in south Charlotte, is attending his seventh Winter Olympics as a competitor, corporate host, or newspaper and radio commentator. He’ll be paired on Westwood One with Patrick Kinas, the Durham Bulls announcer. The Atlantic magazine noted without irony in 2014 that to most casual observers during the Winter Games “the benchmark of a good skate is not falling.” Wylie appreciates that accepting nature, which Olympic audiences share with casual fans tuning in back home.

A contrasting attitude was on display during one of Wylie’s earliest forays overseas. He was 18 and appeared in the “Golden Spin,” an international figure skating competition held at Zagreb, now Croatia’s capital. Cold War antagonism was high, and the crowd wasn’t welcoming. “People were drinking, the locals,” Wylie recalls. “One thing that they would do in the audience was, they would laugh when you fell. Which is particularly demoralizing when you fall on the first jump of your program, as I did. It’s indelible.”

Nancy Kerrigan

Most often at events like the Figure Skating World Championships, audiences are knowledgeable and tough, but not that tough. “If you make a subtle mistake in your program, you can hear a gasp,” Wylie says of those circumstances. “As opposed to the Olympics; if you pop a triple into a double they’re still appreciative. They’re like, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen skating before!’ It’s a better crowd.”

Wylie was far less enamored of the attention figure skating garnered in 1994, when an unprovoked assault on Nancy Kerrigan by accomplices of Tonya Harding, a jealous rival, turned the sport into the setting for an improbable soap opera. “Unfortunately someone was really hurt,” Wylie exclaims, afraid that’s lost in the drama.

He saw first-hand the toll taken on Kerrigan, his friend and workout mate, as she scrambled to recover in a month’s time to compete at the ’94 Winter Olympics. Following intensive rehab, including water, massage and emotional therapy, Kerrigan won a silver medal.

Not surprisingly, then, Wylie was angered by the audience reaction when he saw “I, Tonya”, the new movie based on the incident. “People were actually laughing in the theater as Nancy was screaming out,” he says. “I thought to myself, what was wrong with this picture?”

By the time Kerrigan was attacked, Wylie had turned professional. Figure skating not only provided an income, but had led him to train in Boston, where he attended Harvard and earned degrees in government and business administration. While residing in Massachusetts Wylie met his wife, Kate, a former figure skater and college hockey goalie. Later he took a job in North Carolina and began coaching figure skating, his base the Extreme Ice Center at Indian Trail southeast of Charlotte.

(North Carolina has six established skate clubs, the largest with some 160 members the Carolinas Figure Skating Club located at Indian Trail.)

Health problem

Wylie’s ice tale took a darker turn in 2015 while running sprints with friends in advance of a relay race. Aware he was pushing beyond his limits, with an Olympic athlete’s assurance he took for granted he would adapt. Instead Wylie suffered sudden cardiac arrest – which afflicts about 300,000 Americans annually and has a 10 percent survival rate – and fell to the ground, essentially dead.

Several running partners administered CPR until emergency workers arrived and restarted his heart. Following standard, if oddly appropriate, protocol, Wylie was packed in ice and taken to a nearby hospital, where a coma was induced. He awoke two days later. Recovered fully, the father of three left medical care with a defibrillator/pacemaker implanted in his chest, no memory of the incident, and no explanation for why he experienced the arrest.

Wylie laughs when asked if the ordeal taught him anything. “It should,” he admits playfully. But after calling his rescue and recovery “humbling,” he struggles to seize upon some guiding lesson, settling finally on a desire to act in a manner consistent with his beliefs.

“It causes me to be accountable,” Wylie concludes of the life-threatening experience. “But I don’t really suggest it.”