Originally created 02/12/99

Katarina can be very Witt-y



Two-time Olympic gold medalist Katarina Witt is surprisingly pleasant.

Even at 9:45 a.m., chewing on a croissant that clouds up an already semi-thick German accent, she sounds as if she doesn't mind hashing over her life with yet another journalist.

Ms. Witt is enjoying herself out on the road with many of her friends and former Olympic competitors in Champions on Ice 1999 Winter Tour, which comes to Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center at 7:30 p.m. Monday.

"We're like one big family and laugh a lot. We really enjoy each other's company," she said in a phone interview from the tour's recent stop in Williamsburg, Va. "Of course (1988 Olympic Champion) Brian Boitano and I are old friends, but it's nice to be part of the new generation, too."

The tour, which also features Olympic champions Oksana Baiul, Dorothy Hamill, Victor Petrenko and others, is enjoyable in part because the skaters are performing exhibition routines to their favorite music, and not competing against each other.

"It's much more relaxed, and that really comes across to the audience," said Ms. Witt. "It's not a competition, so we're not as nervous."

It's the traveling that's grueling, even though she gets to see most of the country. "Traveling is the most difficult part because you sit (so much). This is the worst for your back," she said. "As you get older, you have to stretch more. You can't just walk out there (on the ice). I bike, I run, do Stepmaster -- lots of exercise. Anything to keep my bones together."

Ms. Witt, 34, a native of the former East German republic, hasn't always been perceived as such a friendly and fun-loving woman. The skater admits she was once seen as the typical "Ice Queen."

But that wasn't her fault, she said. Her access to the media was limited by a controlling East German government. Because people saw her only when she was concentrating on competitive skating, they got a narrow image of who she was.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, that began to change.

"People didn't know me," she said. "Once you get to know me, you find I have a good sense of humor. I can be very silly. After all, I am a human being."

Since winning her last gold medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics, Ms. Witt has toured Europe and North America extensively, appeared on numerous TV specials, appeared in the movies Jerry MaGuire and Ronin, started a production company and launched a line of jewelry.

"I'm not just a skater -- people accept it more," she said.

Those old icy images are melting even more with a nude photo spread in the December issue of Playboy magazine.

Sex appeal is actually nothing new for Ms. Witt. She was twice voted among People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People in the World. And her provocative skating outfits have generated criticism and boosted her male fan base at the same time. She thought there would be an uproar over the Playboy photos, but she said the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

"There's been no controversy. It's been somewhat surprising," she said.

Even if there had been, she was ready to defend herself.

"Nobody should feel offended. The photos are very pure and natural," she said, adding that she had control over which pictures were used and demanded that an explanatory text she wrote be published alongside.

Her skating colleagues' reactions? "They all said, `Go girl!"'

She said the editors of the men's magazine had been after her for years to appear in its pages, but she never thought the time was right. Now she's glad she did it.

"It was like a third gold medal," she said with a laugh. "Maybe I should have done it sooner."

Although she refers to a boyfriend in the Playboy article, she would not reveal his identity or say if she currently has one. "That's my personal life," she said.

Sorry, fellas.

Kent Kimes covers entertainment and arts for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3626 or feature@augustachronicle.com.