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PUEBLA, Mexico -- There’s confidence and focus from the first moment he steps on the ice. From the get-go, every warm-up is executed with the tenacity of a champion, and Pablo Lazaro is ready. As he finds his starting position on the ice, the music begins to play. Within a few seconds, he has fallen. His coach skates over and playfully chides him, and the tension is broken.
Lazaro has been known for his ability to bounce back, after all. He has been in figure skating for almost a decade.
“We were at a friend’s birthday party at a rink,” his mother, Luz Maria Escalona, said. “He kept asking me if he could go out there and try skating. I finally said yes. A few weeks later, he was already taking lessons with a trainer.”
Pablo Lazaro was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. According to experts, people with Asperger’s can be overwhelmed by the world around them, causing anxiety. To combat this, Lazaro tries to assert control over whatever he can, a trait that has helped him excel in the choreographed world of figure skating.
The 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games gold medalist is gearing up for another run at this year’s Games in Austria, as he's set to skate Friday and Sunday. His preparation has been grueling. His weekly schedule took him on a three-city road trip just to train with the best. After he’s finished in Puebla, he and Escalona make the trip back home to Mexico City, some 85 miles away. From there, they venture out to Toluca for another session, 40 miles from the Mexican capital.
The travel schedule allowed Lazaro to meet up with his coach, Janet Kopretinka, a Czech-born figure skater who has made her home in Mexico for several years. Kopretinka ran Lazaro through his routine for Austria almost 25 times in an hour. Meanwhile, she gave equal parts praise and advice to the skater, who is an avid listener.
“Skating is my life; it’s what I do,” she said, noting that her own grueling agenda means she sees her daughter only “for breakfast and maybe late at night.” The athlete and coach share a mutual dedication to their craft, making it a positive partnership.
It is perhaps obvious to state that traditionally, Mexico is not a winter-sports powerhouse, nor are its citizens too interested in those competitions. The nation fielded only one athlete in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, Alpine skier Hubertus von Hohenlohe, then a 55-year-old European prince who also dabbles in photography and pop music. But Lazaro’s performances at top Special Olympics events have begun to make people take notice.
“Four years ago, he didn’t even have a uniform,” said Escalona, recalling that her son competed and won in street clothes.
During those 2013 Winter Games, his mother and her husband stayed behind while Lazaro participated in South Korea. They followed along on the internet, often staying up until the wee morning hours to find out how their son was doing. This time around, donations from both individuals and corporations mean Lazaro will be in full garb for the Games in Austria. After finding a designer in a nearby city, Lazaro styled his uniform himself, and now he trains in it as much as he can.
During his practice session in Puebla, he shared the ice with other competitors. Lazaro worked on rhythm and timing. At times, Kopretinka turned off the music entirely so that Lazaro could “hear it in his head” and go through the routine. More often than not, it looked flawless. When it wasn’t, Kopretinka calmly inspired her pupil, and they went back to the start.
At the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria, Lazaro will skate both by himself and with skating partner Carmen Aguilar. Last September, at an international competition held in the southeastern Mexican city of Merida, Lazaro and Aguilar won gold in a field in which they competed against some skaters with no disabilities. The result bred confidence that they can achieve their lofty goals in Vienna.
Just like four years ago, Escalona will not be accompanying her son to the Games, a decision she says she’s comfortable with.
“I’m so nervous when I watch him,” she said. Kopretinka will livestream Lazaro’s event, and Escalona and her husband will follow along online just as they did when he triumphed in South Korea.
After training, Lazaro methodically put his things away in a small suitcase. As mother and coach answered questions, he was preparing, miming answers to questions he was asked. After a few minutes, he was ready.
“This makes me very happy, I love to skate,” he said.
He casually mentioned that he was ready for Austria, and then for further travel in Central America.
That answer prompted another question. Was it for another skating championship?
“No,” Lazaro replied. “I’m competing in an international swimming tournament.”
Swimming was his first love, and around the time he learned to skate, he was angling to join a top team for swimmers with no disabilities. His request was denied, Escalona said, with tears welling up. Instead of getting down over it, however, Lazaro kept going, adding figure skating to his repertoire in the process.
That fall, like so many others, was one he bounced right back up from.