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UD coach pushes for helmets for ice skaters

NEWARK, DE.--A member of the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame, Ron Ludington, director of the Ice Skating Science Development Center at the University of Delaware, has had some anxious moments in his 39-year career on ice.

All of them pale, however, in contrast to the 10 seconds last Sept. 29 when he watched in horror as one of his rising stars, pairs skater Paul Binnebose, crashed onto the ice in a near fatal fall.

Ludington, who still seems shaken by the accident that left Binnebose with a severe head injury, now says he plans to lobby the International Skating Union (ISU) to make helmets mandatory for all skaters during practice.

He knows it’s not a popular stance.

"I’ve thought about helmets for years and even keep one right here in case anyone wants to wear it, but of course they don’t," Ludington, a former Olympic pairs skating champion, said. "If Paul had been wearing a helmet he might have suffered a concussion or had a bad headache, but he wouldn’t have been injured as seriously.

"The girls–the ones who will fight this the most–need to wear them, too," he said. "They are the ones who get thrown up in the air. Before this I had seen girls injured–four of them in the course of 39 years, all with head injuries, but nothing as serious as this.

"I’d like to be the one who initiates this change. Maybe it’s something I should have done 30 years ago. There’s no doubt that skating is a dangerous sport, but the ISU would have to be the one to enforce a helmet policy. If they don’t require it, no one will wear them."

Speaking of the frustration that comes from a sport that is so closely linked with appearance, he points to a young skater whirling around as she practices at the UD ice arena and says, "Look at that little girl out there with her hair all done up. She’s not going to want to put a helmet on."

Appearance plays such a role in figure skating that Ludington doubts there could ever be a rule requiring helmets during performance, but having skaters wear them for practice would cut risks significantly, he says.

"The helmets would have to be sharp and nice looking, to get the kids to wear them," he says. "They’d need to be thin, light and hard.

"Skates," he says, "work very well when you’re going frontwards or backwards, but they don’t go sideways. Skaters have to learn how to clear the ice as they move, and if they catch an edge or a rough place, there’s nothing they can do. They’re going to fall."

Skaters are trained how to fall from a young age and are experts at it by the time they reach the elite ranks Binnebose and his partner Laura Handy had attained when they qualified last year as members of the U.S. National Team. Binnebose’s fall resulted from a previous undiagnosed back injury, Ludington said.

"It appears now that Paul’s back was broken some years ago and he never knew it. The way the bone healed itself caused muscle spasms. He’d been complaining prior to the accident, and he fell at one point during a more difficult lift that we had put in the program. Neither he or Laura were hurt in that earlier fall but we decided to take the lift out. We said, ‘we can’t risk it; we’ll put in a simpler lift.’"

Ludington said Binnebose complained most mornings that his back felt stiff, and it became routine for the pair not to attempt any lifts until the afternoons when he felt more limber.
On the day of the accident, Ludington remembers that Binnebose and Handy did one lift and Paul winced.

"I asked him if he was okay, he said yes, and we decided to put the program on and do a run-through. His mother was videotaping it to monitor their progress. Everything was just routine, going like clockwork, when I saw his back swivel to the left. In a tenth of a second, he had fallen and hit his head and was having seizures."

Ludington and several other skaters went immediately to Binnebose’ aid and a UD ambulance and University police responded right away.

"We almost lost him in the ambulance, then he had to have surgery to remove a piece of his skull. He was heavily sedated–in an induced coma--for six weeks.

"His road to recovery will be a long one. He’s lost 40 pounds; his right eye has trouble focusing; and his face is paralyzed on the right side. But, his memory is 100 percent and the doctors think the other things will go away in time. He’s a great kid, he’s strong, he’s stubborn and, because of those traits, it’s likely he’ll be back on the ice again."?

Contact: Beth Thomas, (302) 831-8749, bethomas@udel.edu; or
Feb. 17, 2000

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