The Tao of Katarina Witt
She steps out of her West Village hotel, takes note of the horns honking, the people scurrying down packed sidewalks, and laughs about the effect of plugging back into all this energy after seven years without a visit to New York. Already today she's hustled between some business meetings with her German lawyer, checked in with some TV executives, solidified a plan to visit the World Trade Center memorial, but abandoned another wish to eat lunch at a sunny outdoor café because she can see some paparazzi out front, which has caused her to slip on her sunglasses and say, "Let's go somewhere else, OK?"
Now, Katarina Witt -- a woman once called "the most beautiful face of socialism," "whiplash" beautiful and "12-car pileup gorgeous" when she won back-to-back Olympic figure skating gold medals for Communist East Germany -- is settled into a quiet Mexican restaurant in New York's meatpacking district. And she is telling stories -- stories about when she found out the notorious Stasi secret police bugged her apartment, or the time she waited until the last minute to break some news to her parents that she knew they might not like. This was after the Berlin Wall fell.
Witt recalls: "I finally had to sit them down and say, 'Look, I have to confess something.' And my dad looks at me right away and says, 'You took all your clothes off for Playboy. You posed for Playboy.'"
"YES!" Witt says, slapping the table and rocking forward to laugh. "So I was like, 'B-b-bb-bbb ... oh God.' And I had the pictures with me, and so now I was like, 'B-b-b-but, I want to show you. Because they're really beautiful.' And they're like, 'Yeah. [Pause]. They're really beautiful. [Pause.] But you're NAKED!' they said."
Witt's eyes widen and she laughs again. The look on her face is impish. She could boast the only other Playboy issue to sell out before her December 1998 edition was the inaugural one featuring Marilyn Monroe. Instead, Witt just says that she was proud of it because she'd wanted to make a point. Before her, athletes from Soviet-bloc countries were pretty much seen as grimly efficient robots ordered to prevail for the glory of the state. And female figure skaters generally chose between only two sanctioned personas: beautiful but chaste, like the elegant Peggy Fleming; or button cute and perky, like Dorothy Hamill.
"Katarina was the first to bring sexuality to skating," says Byron Allen, who produced the "Stars on Ice" shows Witt performed in from 1994-2003. "And she was electric."
But spicing up skating is hardly all Witt did. If anything, that was the least of it ...
'I had to keep winning'
Rivals, regimes, lovers, an entire former country, have come and gone since Witt won gold at the 1984 and '88 Olympics and -- in an unprecedented coup -- became the first East German athlete of the Cold War era to persuade the totalitarian government to let her turn pro before the Wall fell and the country's borders opened in late 1989.
Merely batting her eyelashes didn't allow Witt to accomplish that. It was brass-knuckles work. Witt was selected as a second-grader to train in the German Democratic Republic's state-run sports program, which ruthlessly chased superpower status on par with the United States and Soviet Union, sometimes by any means necessary. Merely surviving such a system -- let alone becoming its unparalleled star, then crowbarring her way to freedom in the West -- demanded guts and imagination. It required of Witt an ability to perform with a what-me-worry smile under the sort of colossal pressure and ultimatums that American Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic men's figure skating champion, admits "would've left most skaters unable to stay up."
"Yes," Witt nods, "but you only have one champion because this is really what sets you apart -- at this second, in this moment, being the one that delivers."
Witt was up to all of it. She had, from a remarkably early age, an amazing apprehension of how power works -- how it's built, leveraged, conflated and defeated; how fame could be used to one's advantage -- even in a closed-borders nation like East Germany, where the state controlled access to everything: travel, jobs, living arrangements, education, even cars. Witt says her understanding of the push and pull started once when she noticed how deeply invested, even personally involved, government officials became in her continued success once she began winning international titles.
"That's when I first realized the power I had, and I knew they couldn't just keep me in the country and hide me away," Witt says. "But to keep the power that I had, I had to keep winning."
And how old was she?
"Sixteen," she replies.
Sports minister Egon Krenz or his agents met with her for debriefings. "We were taught in school that it takes dozens of embassies but only one Katarina Witt to make East Germany known in the world," Martin Plant, a university instructor originally from the East German city of Rostock, told the Chicago Tribune.
Witt has since gone from a child reared to be a Communist propaganda symbol to an international celebrity and adroit capitalist. No European athlete approached the crossover appeal she had on both sides of the Atlantic until, perhaps, David Beckham.
Even today, the 47-year-old Witt enjoys enviable staying power. She lives in Berlin, runs her own entertainment production company and endorses products from BMW to cosmetics. She served as chairman of reunified Germany's unsuccessful bid to capture the 2018 winter Olympics for Munich, and appeared as judge last season on Britain's "Dancing on Ice" TV show. She remains resolutely never married, usually laughing when people ask why, explaining, "I love my independence."
("It would be a very interesting book if she just talked about men," laughs Boitano, a decades-long friend and skating tour partner. "There are so many times she tells me stories and I think: 'Oh my god! Did you really just say that? Is that your outside voice?'" But why? Because she's hilarious? Detailed? Shocking? "Yes," Boitano says.)
Witt was performing on the professional skating tour almost constantly in the early 1990s, when she was harassed by an American stalker who was sentenced to three years in a psychiatric hospital. But the way she navigated even that difficulty was typical: If Witt was haunted by skin-crawling threats and sudden appearances the man made, or by having to testify in a California courtroom against him, it's hard to tell. Witt recently produced and starred in a movie about -- what do you know? -- a figure skater chased by a stalker. It aired on German television earlier this year.
To hear how Witt turned even that dark moment into another triumph is to be reminded this is how Witt has always wanted to be seen. Figure skating is the art of making the difficult look effortless, after all. And it was perfect training for the remarkable sweep and challenges in her life. When obstacles have arrived, big or small, Witt likes to give the appearance that she's found a way to vault lightly over them, out of reach in a world beyond defeat, cynicism or even doubt. She picks herself up, laughs it off and gives you an upbeat take on how she navigated it all.
"I'm just a glass-half-full person," she says, taking a forkful of some guacamole the waitress has just brought -- then immediately coughing and patting her throat and laughing as she croaks, "This is way ... too ... spicy."
Send it back, she is urged.
"No, no, I ordered it. And I am going to get through it," Witt says, laughing some more.
"I think what Katarina learned to do, it's sort of the Tao of things, right? The idea of how rivers flow," Boitano explains. "If something isn't turning out for you, you have to re-approach it from a different angle and say, 'I'm going to get around it.' Not slam into it. It's the same way a river flows around a rock sticking out of the water. You just go around the rock if the rock is in your way."
The Tao of Katarina? That's one way of visualizing it.
Another is to imagine someone traveling over Niagara Falls in a barrel, prying off the lid at the bottom after being tossed ashore, then emerging from the roiling water smiling and seemingly unscathed.
But if either depiction was entirely accurate, there would've been little reason for Witt to sit in a darkened movie theater at the Tribeca Film Festival in April a couple of nights before we spoke, gripping the hand of one of the filmmakers and crying throughout the first screening of "The Diplomat," an affecting documentary about her life before and after the Wall fell. ("The Diplomat" premieres Aug. 6 as part of the ESPN Films and espnW Nine for IX documentary film series.)
Nor would Witt have much cause to look out the window of this Mexican restaurant, which has now emptied of its lunch rush, and quietly admit that revisiting all of that -- the wonder of her career, cast against the emotional toll it took and the now-it-can-be-told government skullduggery that could've derailed her at any time -- can seem astonishing, even to her. She says: "It sometimes seems like I lived on a different planet. In a different life ... "
American skater Rosalynn Sumners, the '83 world champion who finished second to Witt at the '84 Olympics in Sarajevo by one-tenth of a point, says: "We heard all the stories when we were competing about if the Eastern-bloc athletes didn't win, their family wouldn't get fruit, things like that. To this day, when I look back on why I lost, I think 'No wonder she was tougher and so together.' Just the way she grew up could account for that one-tenth-of-a-point difference."
Winning brought the best East German athletes special privileges from the German Democratic Republic government -- no one more than Witt. And yet, what really nourished her, what has always nourished her, was her love of performing. If you want to know what drove and separated Witt from the very beginning, start there.
Jill Trenary, a U.S. skater who placed fourth at the 1988 Olympics, said the very first time she saw Witt step onto a practice rink, "I couldn't stop looking at her." Witt's charisma had a similar effect on Jutta Mueller, her demanding lifelong coach and GDR-assigned chaperone. Mueller plucked a 9-year-old Witt out of a crowd of young skaters and started grooming her to be the next world champion.
The two of them made a formidable pair. By then, the stern-looking Mueller was well on her way to developing skaters who together would win more than 40 international medals. They included her daughter, Gaby Seyfert, the 1968 Olympic silver medalist behind Peggy Fleming; and Anett Poetzsch, the 1980 Olympic gold medalist (who later married Witt's brother, Axel). Mueller, now 84, was not only expert at the hard work of training world-class athletes and the stagecraft of selling a champion. She was also terrific at the subtle political nuances that would appeal to international judges and crowds. Witt became her most magnetic star.
After American Debi Thomas beat Witt at the 1986 world championships -- the only dent in Witt's amateur résumé after her first Olympic gold -- Witt and Mueller materialized at the 1987 worlds in Cincinnati, one draped in gold jewelry, the other in fur. Witt's choice of music for her long program was calculated to draw attention too. It was the Broadway classic "West Side Story," and included a blade-flashing footwork sequence set to the song's famous refrain, "I like to be in America."
The message was unmistakable. Witt hadn't just come to Thomas' neighborhood, she was setting up shop in Thomas' kitchen to reclaim her title. When Thomas' coach, Alex McGowan, griped to the press that Witt was unabashedly working the judges and playing to the crowds at practices leading up to the final, Witt and Mueller doubled down with an unheard-of gesture for an East German athlete.
The next day, Witt strode into stands and signed autographs for a good half-hour. And the surprised fans clamored and swooned.
The sport was my tool to live my freedom, and it was a very strict tool in a way, because you had to become the world's best. But that was my freedom: To try to be a good athlete. And I think one thing that always helped me ... was that, for me, the glass is always half full. Not half empty.Katarina Witt
McGowan should've known better than to chirp. This is how world-class skating has always worked. No gesture is safely left to chance. On the final night in Cincinnati, Thomas skated sensationally and the crowd was still roaring and screaming for her when Witt calmly skated out and took her position. Then Witt seized back the world title with a scintillating performance that included spontaneously throwing a fifth triple jump, a show of gall that prompted the late Carlo Fassi, Dorothy Hamill's former coach, to rave, "It was the best I have ever seen a woman skate."
The Cincinnati comeback was one of the many times Witt uncannily summoned whatever it took to win. "You either have this," she says now, "or you don't." Skating has always wanted its women's champions to look like prima ballerinas but throw themselves into triple jumps like predators, and Witt was able to do both seamlessly while still consciously playing against Eastern-bloc stereotypes. Swagger? She had it. Vamp and pout like a flirt or glide like an angel? She could do that too.
Witt always bridled at the idea that Westerners might view her country as full of pitiable creatures. ("It was like, 'Ah! You have grass too? And you have trees!'") But she also pushed back at East German authorities' strict orders that their athletes avoid contact with outsiders or look through their fellow competitors "like air."
"In skating," Witt says, "we had the opportunity to say: 'Well, wait a second. This is a sport in which we depend on judges! I have to be nice to everyone else.' And I wanted to be. And so, maybe sometimes I was more provocative than some of the others."
Witt's deep yearning to connect to audiences and the outside world was part of what made her skating so irrepressible. She liked to say: "You can just skate to the music. Or you can interpret the music. ... I always looked at it as if I was playing a role." Talking to Witt at length, it's easy to feel that if she'd grown up in Los Angeles instead of Karl-Mark-Stadt, she might've skipped skating and chosen acting, which she began studying in her late teens. And Witt is the first to admit she never really loved the skating workouts as much as the performances.
Witt tells tales on herself, too. If you ask her what she and Mueller fought over back then, Witt laughs and groans: "Oh, just everything. My poor coach. Sometimes just to make her mad, I would sometimes on purpose not deliver the jumps in practice. ... She would say, 'You will never see the world championships again!' And I would say, 'Then you won't either!'"
There are also many comical anecdotes about her cat-and-mouse games with Mueller, usually over two things: Chasing fun (which often meant boys) or sweets. Sumners tells a story about a panicky Witt sending an intermediary to Sumners' hotel room one day during a little post-1984 Olympic tour of Europe to ask if Witt could please have Sumners' unopened box of chocolates, a gift each of them had received. It seems Frau Mueller was demanding that Witt produce her box. "And Katarina had already eaten the whole thing," Sumners laughs.
During the long, often-boring months of training for Witt's 1988 Olympics "Battle of the Carmens" showdown against Thomas, Mueller again grew frustrated with Witt's lapses -- until she noticed something when the GDR men's speedskaters were also training in the rink. "Then I would just be faster! And better!" Witt says, laughing harder now. "And then my jumps -- my jumps, they would be higher! After that, Frau Mueller says, 'OK, let us also start scheduling an hour at 8 or 9 p.m.' because they realized I always needed an audience. But even then, it was not until the first time I performed 'Carmen' in a competition that my choreographer looked at me and said: 'Finally! This is what I wanted the whole time!'
"And I thought, Well, of course. At practices there are just walls. I see nothing but these empty walls."
Witt's chances against Thomas at the 1988 Olympics were rated such a toss-up that their showdown was hyped as one of the Games' two or three must-see events. The two of them had split the previous two world titles, remember, and now they were both skating to "Carmen," the opera by Georges Bizet. Thomas, a 20-year-old premed student at Stanford, was considered the better athlete and jumper; Witt, the better stylist and competitor. When Witt was asked to describe her relationship with Thomas during a rollicking pre-competition news conference that more than 500 reporters attended, she answered, "There really is none."
How could there be? What no one outside Witt's inner circle knew was that she was skating in Calgary with even more staggering pressure: At a meeting she and Mueller sought with GDR officials a short time before the Games, Witt says, "I asked them, 'Will you let me go [pro], or you don't?"
And their response was this ultimatum: Become the first ladies figure skater in a half-century to win back-to-back Olympic golds, or the answer is no.
Witt was still only 22. It was as if everything she'd been shouldering to that point was cast in vivid relief: The times she and Mueller would travel places and Mueller would tell her: "Make sure you go to see something. You might never get to go to America or Paris again." The times other GDR athletes were mysteriously bumped from teams that traveled outside the country with no public explanation given. The way authorities would confiscate their passports upon their return until the next amateur competition, and for a rare moment even Witt would privately think, "Maybe someday all this stops. ... What then?"
Witt was aware the Stasi was surely watching her some, even though they knew "defecting was never a question for me," Witt says, "because I knew I'd have to leave my beloved ones behind." But Witt also knew -- too achingly well -- how Mueller's own daughter, Gaby, wasn't allowed to turn pro, and the sadness that hung on her two decades later. Witt says: "I get so emotional because Frau Mueller never wanted to let that happen to me. And I wanted to shine. For both of us."
The final at the Calgary Games was bearing down on them now, and Witt remembers thinking: "What if they really don't let me go? What then?" Then she skated out. She knew everything in her life quite literally funneled down to these next four minutes.
And she nailed her program anyway.
Witt later said that she knew she'd win when Thomas went to exchange her customary slapping of the palms with McGowan just before taking the ice last -- and they missed. "Too nervous," Witt told author Christine Brennan.
Witt's Olympic victory was in February. In March, East German officials kept their promise and Witt was allowed to join the European pro touring company of "Holiday on Ice" after she won her fourth world title. By November of 1989, she and Boitano had been in Seville, Spain, for months filming "Carmen on Ice" (which won an Emmy). She was living her dream. A cast of 200 worked on the set. They were outdoors, shooting night scenes in a village, and she remembers, "One night around 2 a.m., the director comes in and says, 'The Berlin Wall has come down.'"
Say that again?
Witt finished the shoot and got back to her hotel after 5 a.m., then turned on the TV news. Throngs of people had ripped away the concertina wire in places and were sitting atop the wall, something the East German guards in their turrets could've shot and killed them for doing before. She remembers feeling amazement and joy -- "Of course" -- but also a rush of bewilderment. She told Boitano: "I want to be here. And there."
"When you grow up in a bubble like we did, so many choices are made for you," Witt says. "So I was happy. But at the same time, you think, Oh my god, everything now is falling apart. Who do I talk to? Who is responsible for me? What's now? What's next?"
Television news footage of the "Carmen on Ice" opening in Dresden in the spring of 1990 shows German protesters shouting obscenities at the beautifully dressed Witt as she emerges from a car and makes her way toward the theater. She blinks a few times, but a tiny forced smile never leaves her face. "They closed it down in theaters after that," Boitano says. "There were bomb threats. It was rough."
And it was about to get rougher.
Witt had been warned before she returned home that privileged athletes were targets for resentment. But a special contempt was reserved for her. Many West Germans saw her as a well-treated tool of the fallen Communist state; many East Germans regarded her as a capitalist, a brazen opportunist. Witt's pride about competing for East Germany and indebtedness for the training she received was thrown back in her face when she didn't completely denounce the outgoing regime despite its wide-ranging abuses. She felt conflicted, and her comments continued to reflect that for years.
"I'd seen the really good things about the way democracy works," Witt explains. "But I'd seen the real sad things too, like people living on streets. Being poor. For us, at least it was always for sure that you had a place to live, and you had work. The question of course was, if you liked it, if you were forced to do things. ... So [back then], I was one of the persons saying, 'It's great that the Wall comes down, but ...' And my 'but,' whatever it was that came afterwards, they would turn against me.
"They'd say: 'She's not happy! She's not happy!' And it wasn't true. I was just saying you have to learn how to handle freedom. If you don't live in a free country like the U.S., you have to learn what it means to be free."
Witt was soon broadsided a second time: The Stasi's secret archives were thrown open in early 1992, and she was horrified. Her dossier filled 27 boxes and consisted of more than 1,300 pages. They contained names, dates, entire conversations, even timed transcripts of audio recordings. She remembers tearing through page after page and thinking, "That's true ... oh my god, yes ... oh my god, that happened too! ... Where did they get this conversation? Is it from a tape [recorder] under a table?"
It was also in those files boxes that Witt discovered authorities had sabotaged her relationship with a drummer in a rock band whom they'd sent away when she was 18 so nothing would interfere with her winning medals. "My first love," she says. Also stunning were the names of those who had been enlisted to spy on her, including fellow skater Ingo Steuer, who at 17 was threatened with jail if he refused. She even read a report claiming that she'd once had a sexual encounter at an East German hotel with an American that was timed as lasting from 9:00 to 9:07.
"Seven minutes?" Witt scoffed to a British newspaper. "Rather fleeting."
But that was the unsinkable Katarina talking. Katarina the Great.
It is a different Katarina sitting here in this Mexican restaurant in New York. There is no Tao at work now, no going around these rocks. She hit the shoals. Hard.
What was more mind-bending? The fact that "the Stasi were always sniffing around, even under my bed"? Or the date of the Stasi's first entry about her: Oct. 29, 1973? Witt was only 7.
In another entry -- this one made when she was 11 -- Stasi agents complimented her "political ideological maturity," but warned "because of her vivacity she sometimes leans toward behavior patterns that need to be controlled." Who aspires to drum the joy out of a child of 11? And writes it down, let alone orders it up in writing?
Having read her file, Witt questioned if it had all been worth it. "I felt really betrayed," she says. "I thought, You know what? I was so honest and loyal to my country and they didn't trust me. But I always came back! I always said I would not leave. ... I was always thankful. ... And it's just the fact that you don't realize the extent that they'd go. It's just the fact that somebody is really playing with your destiny. On purpose. And deciding your life. That's what's so hard. There are other people deciding your life."
Like many Germans, Witt went to court to have her file suppressed. She won a partial victory. Only 181 pages were ever made available for public view. But regard for her remained mixed. She eventually got an apartment on New York's Upper West Side. She did commentary work at the 1992 Albertville Olympics -- for an American network, CBS. Boyfriends came and went: another rock musician; a producer; Richard Dean Anderson, the actor who starred in "MacGyver." But usually Witt was on the road, barnstorming 60- or 70-city tours.
By the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, where Witt finished seventh, she told the Chicago Tribune's Phil Hersh that in the eight years since her Calgary victory, "I think I've had a total of two months' vacation." And this: "Many people are surprised I haven't had a nervous breakdown."
She now admits for a long time she was left feeling, "I am in the middle of nowhere."
'The glass is always half full'
Witt takes another forkful of guacamole. She coughs a little again and decides the red pepper flakes are best avoided. Her admission of the magnitude of the heartache and challenges she went through still hangs in the air. Her future had quite literally teetered on the quarter-inch width of a skate blade and the whims of her minders. But now, she says: "Aw, but you know what? Some of the stuff in the Stasi reports was also just so stupid."
And by the time she finishes giving an example -- how fellow skater Steuer filed a report saying after Witt got her driver's license at 19, her fast driving made him and two other skaters so "pale" they were unwilling to pile back into her Lada for the one-hour trip back from seeing a circus -- Witt is laughing so hard she is dabbing her eyes a little.
And the Tao is back.
Witt even adds a surprising postscript about that first thwarted love of hers: The man is married now, with two kids, and she is still friends with him. She says they discussed their shock over how far the Stasi went to sabotage them. Then she pauses, comically bites her lip a little as if maybe she shouldn't say this, then laughs and adds that her heartbreak was kinda sorta mitigated by the fact that "maybe they were right."
Meaning what? That if the authorities hadn't intervened, instead of being a four-time world champion, six-time European champ and the legendary Sonja Henie's equal when it comes to Olympic skating golds, she might've ended up playing tambourine in some cheesy East German pop band whose name is now lost to history? "Yes, yes, something like that," Witt nods, laughing harder.
Hard to imagine that.
"She's always been the first to laugh," says Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic men's champ. "And her laugh was always the loudest in the room."
Witt suggests perhaps there's a lesson in that last trait -- "A secret to my life," she says -- and she seems to think it explains nearly everything: How she grew into an indomitable woman who convinced a regime to let her go free, and into an athlete who willed herself to defeat the challengers the rest of the world stacked up to stop her. She knew that the price of delivering herself to the life she wanted was doing the unprecedented. Either you have this or you don't. But she was determined to keep her humanity along the way. That was not negotiable.
"I guess as more time passes by, you create more pride about what you've done," Witt says. "The sport was my tool to live my freedom. And it was a very strict tool in a way, because you had to become the world's best. But that was my freedom: To try to be a good athlete. ... And I think one thing that always helped me, that I have always had in my life, was that for me, the glass is always half full. Not half empty.
"And so I always felt, It doesn't matter, somehow everything will continue the way you want.
"I will figure it out.
"I will work for it. And somehow, it will work.
"This is sort of my spirit: Somehow, it will work."
Different planet. Different life.