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Mike Penner, sportswriter extraordinaire

November 29, 2009 |  6:04 pm


Mike Penner, who died Friday at 52, left us too soon. He was not only a fine sportswriter, he was a friendly voice on the phone and a genuinely good person. Those of us who worked with him in The Times sports department knew every story he turned in had the potential to be the most entertaining read of the day. The photo that has accompanied most of the news reports of his death was the one slapped on his company ID badge. Would you want everyone to picture you that way? I prefer the photo above made by Gary Ambrose. That's how I remember Mike Penner.

Today many colleagues and readers are recalling their favorite Mike Penner stories. Former Times baseball writer Ross Newhan offers his thoughts at the Fabulous Forum blog.

I'll never forget a story Penman, as we called him, wrote from the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, when Russian figure skater Ilia Kulik won a gold medal "while wearing his infamous giraffe-spotted rain slicker." The rest of the story (and a photo) is after the jump.

Let us know which of Penner's news stories or columns stand out in your memory.

-- Claire Noland

Photo: Former Times sportswriter Elliott Almond, left, with Mike Penner at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Credit: Gary Ambrose / Los Angeles Times

Sunday February 15, 1998

Kulik Wears Out the Competition
* He Looks Like a Mess, Skates Like a Champion

By Mike Penner

Times Staff Writer

NAGANO, Japan -- They said giraffes would fly before Elvis Stojko won an Olympic gold medal, and that's exactly what happened Saturday night at the quadrennial animation festival known as the Olympic men's figure skating long program.

Penner Ilia Kulik, a 20-year-old Russian who defies the laws of physics as well as the concept of dressing for success, won the championship by spending more time in the air than your average commuter flight, landing one quadruple and eight triple jumps while wearing his infamous giraffe-spotted rain slicker, believed to be on loan from the Moscow Zoo.

Looking like the logo for Toys R Us, Kulik completed what figure skating experts were calling the most difficult technical program ever seen at the Olympic Games--and dressed like that, how could it not be?

Skating to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"--or, as it is known in the States, the United Airlines theme song--Kulik went airborne for a full 29 revolutions above the ice, unprecedented in Olympic history.

At the same time, Kulik overwhelmed an arena full of compelling mini-dramas, including:

* Elvis leaving the building in agony, having aggravated a groin injury he and his coach hid from the media for a month, an injury that prevented him from trying his patented quadruple-toe, triple-toe combination.

* D'Artagnan winning the bronze medal with the fiercest display of air-sword fighting ever seen in a non-fencing Olympic event.

* Alexei Yagudin coming down with flu on the biggest night of his young life, unable to stomach anything stronger than hot tea, and falling twice en route to fifth place.

* Todd Eldredge ending his final bid for an Olympic medal with a thud, crashing on a late attempt to stretch a double axel into a triple and finishing fourth.

The United States has now gone 10 years and three Winter Olympics without winning the men's figure skating gold medal. Since Brian Boitano's victory in Calgary in 1988, the lone American male to win a medal was Paul Wylie, second-place finisher in 1992.

The mantle of world supremacy in the sport has swung from the Americans to a coalition of skaters from former Soviet republics. Since Boitano's triumph, the list of men's gold medalists reads:

1992: Viktor Petrenko, Ukraine.

1994: Alexei Urmanov, Russia.

1998: Ilia Kulik, Russia.

Silver and bronze medalists, however, remained unchanged from Lillehammer. Stojko duplicated the silver medal he won in 1994 and France's Philippe Candeloro--a.k.a. D'Artagnan, the fourth musketeer--repeated as bronze medalist.

Kulik is the first male skater in 50 years to win the gold medal in his first Olympic appearance, a streak dating to American Dick Button and 1948.

Predictably, Kulik spent most of Saturday with his stomach turning triple flips, fretting about a 4 1/2-minute exercise he described as "unbelievable pressure."

"All these eight days, such a big pressure was on me," Kulik said. "Each practice, each day, I have to concentrate so much. Each practice was like a full competition. It was unbelievable.

"I normally sleep during the day of a competition, but today that was not possible. I skated the program in my mind all of the time. While waiting to go on the ice, I was very nervous."

Going out and nailing a quad on your first jump can have a tremendous calming effect, however. Once Kulik completed that difficult assignment, he began to ease into the rest of the program.

Never have eight triple jumps in a four-minute span looked more effortless.

Kulik, the leader after Thursday's short program, effectively ended the competition there, receiving 10 scores of 5.9.

"I see Ilia skate," Candeloro said, "and I see a quad, and I see a triple axel-triple toe, and I say, 'OK, he won.' "

Stojko, second after the long program and armed with a potent quad-triple combination jump, was the only skater with a realistic chance of catching Kulik.

But hobbled by a pulled groin muscle suffered at the Canadian championships in early January, Stojko hadn't taken a jump since Thursday night's short program. Stojko skipped all jumps in workouts Friday and Saturday morning, and when he tried a triple jump during warmups before the long program, he fell hard and crashed into the boards.

"That was just a case of him getting back on his feet," Stojko's coach, Doug Leigh, said. "He hadn't jumped since Thursday. In practice, he only stroked around because he didn't have anything left. During warmups, he had to prepare in a hurry."

Stojko never tried the quad-triple combination, the linchpin of his routine, and winced his way through seven triple jumps, landing each cleanly but tentatively.

The moment the music stopped, signaling the end of his program, Stojko's knees buckled and he doubled over in pain. Shortly after he limped off the ice and withstood the medal ceremony with his right leg tightly wrapped, Stojko was transported to a nearby medical center for treatment.

"If there's a medal for bravery, he should get one," Leigh said of Stojko. "That's what he's all about. . . .

"This happened a month ago, at the Canadian nationals. We kept it to ourselves and tried to push through it because the Olympics come and go--you don't get many chances like this. We just decided to do whatever it takes.

"Tonight, it took a lot."

Leigh also coached Canadian Brian Orser to second place in 1984 and 1988, giving him four silver medals and no gold to show for his years with Orser and Stojko.

"Just call me 'Hi Ho Silver,' " Leigh said, managing an unconvincing smile.

Eldredge, five times the U.S. champion, had failed to win a medal in his only other Olympic appearance, in 1992, when he placed 10th. (He failed to qualify for the 1994 Games.) He was third here after the short program, but watched the bronze medal vanish when he doubled his first two planned triple jumps and took a tumble trying to throw in a make-up triple axel near the end of his routine.

Skating off with his hands on his hips, Eldredge knew then that the medal was gone.

"I knew how I skated," he said, "and more than likely, that was not a medal performance. There were plenty of guys left to skate and probably one of them was going to get a medal. And that's what happened."

Candeloro, fifth after the short program, vaulted over Eldredge with a crowd-thrilling routine performed to "The Three Musketeers" by Maxim Rodriguez, with Candeloro in the swashbuckling role of D'Artagnan.

Why D'Artagnan?

"Because I can't be three guys on the ice," Candeloro reasoned, logically. "Just one."

Candeloro hammed it up to the hilt, pulling his shoulder-length hair back into a ponytail and donning full musketeer garb, complete with faux thigh-high boots.

Candeloro brought the crowd to its feet with a mock sword fight as he dashed across the ice, his saber thrusts perfectly timed to the music's metallic clanging of striking swords.

And then there was Kulik's giraffe shirt, undoubtedly the ugliest ever worn en route to an Olympic gold medal.

A reporter asked Kulik where in the world he bought such a monstrosity, prompting a laugh from the usually stoic Kulik.

"I doubt that I can buy this shirt anywhere," Kulik said. "It was made special for me and my program. My good mother from Moscow did it. I like it very much. It's a lucky shirt.

"I don't think there should be questions about this shirt. Because the shirt has won."

Photo: Gold medalist Ilia Kulik of Russia at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Credit: Doug Mills / Associated Press