Jewish figure skater hopes to ice spot in 98 Olympic Games

Two years ago, Foster City resident Jeffrey Weiss was laboring in the icy obscurity of amateur figure skating.

But this week, Weiss, 18, and partner Erin Elbe, 14, are competing at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, one of only 16 senior pairs competing at the high-profile event.

In figure skating, fates are changed as suddenly as a triple lutz can turn into an embarrassing tush-spin on the ice. Hopes can be lost quicker than the time it takes for Nancy Kerrigan to ask "Why me?" Likewise, unknowns like Weiss can be catapulted onto the international skating scene.

All he needs is four minutes and 30 seconds — of absolutely clean skating, that is.

That's 30 seconds longer than it took the Jewish figure skater and his partner to capture second place as juniors in the U.S. Olympic Festival in St. Louis two years ago with their long program. That win qualified the couple for the Junior Worlds, Junior Nationals — in which they placed second — and a string of international competitions that took the Bay Area team from France to Budapest.

"It's been a snowball ever since, we're just trying to catch up to it," Weiss said in an interview the day before his first short program in San Jose. At press time, results were not available.

Weiss, rushing from practice to a physical therapy session for a strained shin muscle, stopped to chat about his skating, his hopes for the 1998 Olympic Games and his self-discipline. He has managed to fit both secular and Jewish education into a life filled with ballet lessons, gym workouts and an endless string of 5 a.m. ice sessions.

For the former San Mateo High School student, what makes 15 years of work on the ice worthwhile is being able to perform well in front of a capacity crowd.

Even Peggy Fleming, Olympic and Disney diva turned TV commentator, remarked on television that this young pair "has no trouble connecting with the audience."

The dark-haired 5-foot-8-inch skater and his tiny blond partner work a room, smiling easily through one-handed lifts, throw-axels and daredevil spins.

"It was funny," said Weiss, recalling the St. Louis competition that changed his life. "The other skaters were standing around, saying, `look at all these people.' Erin and I were like `yeah, but there's an empty seat, there's another empty seat.' We want crowds."

Only a year before that day, it looked like Elbe would never skate — or even walk — again. But after surgery for a bone disease in her leg, she surprised doctors by achieving a full recovery.

The Olympic Festival was a year to the day after Elbe got her cast removed.

"That was why that competition was so dramatic. They thought she'd never grow again, never walk, but she skated. It was a sweet taste to be back on the ice," Weiss said.

Around the time of Elbe's surgery, Weiss was struggling to prepare for his bar mitzvah at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. Because of his demanding training schedule, Rabbi Gerald Raiskin allowed the skater to cram four years of Hebrew study into two.

Despite worries over Elbe's health and an already full schedule, Weiss made time for Jewish studies.

"I told my parents I wanted to do it. I just woke up one day and thought, I would really feel better about myself, as a Jewish person, if I do this," he said.

"It's my heritage. It's who I am," added Weiss, who worked with a Hebrew tutor several hours a week until his bar mitzvah at age 16.

Weiss also hopes to start college in the fall, but is only applying to colleges in the Bay Area so he can train with Elbe. While there's talk of medical school in his future, the skater admits the 1998 Olympics loom large in his mind.

"If I quit tomorrow, though, I wouldn't be sorry or look back and be upset, because we've done so much already,"he said.

One thing Weiss has already done is develop a personal philosophy to help him deal with the pressure of judges, split-second mistakes and stiff competition: It's not some impossibly Zen attitude involving not worrying about what he can't control. Weiss worries — but only after he skates.

"I don't think about what the judges will do. I really just do my thing. I skate, and than I get nervous. There's no sense worrying about the marks before. That will just lead you down the wrong path."

Weiss may sound confident now, but the first time he hit the ice, he says he was shaky.

When he was 4, his mother, Nancy, took him to the Fashion Island ice rink. She brought him to the middle of the ice and asked him to skate toward her, but instead he saw the Zamboni (ice machine) and started crying. "I was scarred for life," Weiss joked.

It was perhaps an inauspicious beginning to what is shaping up to be a smooth glide from baby steps to championship double axels.