Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Cold Reality Skater Is First Female Athlete to Announce She Has the Virus That Causes Aids

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Cold Reality Skater Is First Female Athlete to Announce She Has the Virus That Causes Aids

Article excerpt

NICOLE LESH had a secret that was killing her. She could have taken it with her to the grave, but how many lives would that have saved?

So last month, Lesh, a veteran of such figure skating productions as "Snoopy's Nutcracker on Ice" at Knott's Berry Farm, became the first female professional athlete to reveal publicly that she has the virus that leads to AIDS.

Lesh's platform was the sheet of ice inside the Skating Club of Worcester (Mass.), site of the 11th U.S. Open Professional Figure Skating Championship. In four powerful minutes, Lesh peeled away her emotions like layers of an onion until it made onlookers cry.

"My whole objective was to show people what it's like to live with HIV," said Lesh, 25, who skated her program with a red silk ribbon flowing from her waist, a conspicuous symbol of her tainted blood.

"When I was finished I felt very vulnerable, like a marked person," Lesh said, adding, "I also kind of felt like I had lost 20 pounds."

Lesh could have spent the holiday season kicking up ice shavings in the chorus of the "Nutcracker" production at Knott's Berry Farm, in Buena Park, Calif. But she turned down the job to be with her husband, Corey.

"I've been on the tour skating for the last four years at Christmas," Lesh said. "I really wanted to spend this time with Corey."

That's why on a recent Saturday the Leshes were holed up in their San Francisco apartment, putting on happy faces.

"I'm trying not to look at it like I'm going to die this awful death," Nicole said. "When I think like that, it strikes a nerve. I start thinking about what it might be like, and I get really scared."

Lesh, of course, is not the first professional athlete to admit testing positive to the human immunodeficiency virus. The Los Angeles Lakers' Magic Johnson seared the sports landscape with his announcement in November 1991. But it didn't appreciably change things.

Figure skating has lost four world-class competitors to AIDS since Johnson's announcement. Tracy Wilson, who lost her ice dancing partner, Rob McCall, to AIDS four years after they won the bronze medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, says that everyone in the sport knows someone who has been touched by the disease.

And yet a group of skaters moved by Lesh's sixth-place performance in Worcester couldn't persuade skating officials to let Lesh repeat her program as an exhibition during the finals, for which only the top three in her bracket qualified.

In rejecting the request, officials purportedly explained that the competition was already recognizing one charity - cystic fibrosis.

Lesh was saddened by the rebuff but not surprised.

"Skating has this pristine, snow-white image," Lesh said. "I kind of feel there are some people in the skating world who want to keep the fact I have HIV hush-hush."

At first, Lesh wasn't sure she wanted to broadcast her past. She had unprotected sex as a teen-ager and thinks she probably contracted HIV from a boyfriend with whom she lived briefly in England. Lesh found out later that he dealt heroin, and might have used the drug. That could have placed him in a high-risk group for HIV.

She feared society would judge her more harshly than if she had come by the virus blamelessly.

"It makes me angry that if you have cancer you don't have to be ashamed of it because that's not your fault," Lesh said. "But if you have HIV, it can be like you're a marked person. That's not helping anything."

It may be too late to help herself, but what about others? After discussing it at length with her husband, Lesh decided she'd rather have people know her history than repeat it.

"For me, there was just no other alternative," Lesh said. "Why hide in a closet? It's not doing anybody any good. I've had to learn some lessons in an extremely difficult way. But if my life is taken, maybe there's someone who can identify with my story and whose life can be saved. …

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