February 23, 2010 at 1:00 am

Neal Rubin

Westland ice dancer shares memories from 1984 Olympics

Though Carol Fox Splawn, 53, now lives two suburbs south of Denver, her roots are in Metro Detroit. (City of Westland)

The good stuff Carol Fox Splawn remembers -- the 1984 Olympics, the friends and values skating gave her, the places the sport took her.

Amid a life spent in chilly ice arenas, she retains a decidedly warm and sunny outlook. Maybe that's why she had to be reminded of the Shoe Polish Incident.

Twenty-six years ago, she was Carol Fox of Westland, and the Olympics was still a place where a pair of skaters with lots of drive and virtually no money could compete. She and Richard Dalley of Livonia finished fifth in ice dancing at the Sarajevo games.

Since then, Metro Detroit has become a spawning ground for Olympic-quality skaters. Two of the United States' ice dancing couples this week were made up of University of Michigan students, and the third used to live and train here.

In Splawn and Dalley's era, the one before entourages, nutritionists and the gaudy and goofy costumes rampant in Vancouver, they stood out. And if a TV network had been filling hundreds of hours of air time from Sarajevo, the Shoe Polish Incident might be skating legend instead of just local lore.

Then again, maybe not; 1984 was the year Britain's Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean melted the ice, and that was a tough spotlight to edge into.

Life out of the spotlight

Splawn's life today is lived largely behind the scenes, though the neighbors know there's an Olympian on the block.

At 53, she lives two suburbs south of Denver with her husband and two kids. Breanna, 15, is into music and dance; for Travis, 13, it's music, track and wrestling. Skating is "the one thing I could do without getting a checkbook out," she says, so naturally, they aren't interested.

She's a busy coach and also runs an annual ice dancing weekend, set this year for May 14-16. On the side, she's a Mary Kay consultant, aiming for a pink Cadillac even if it would make her old-line Ford family blanch.

It's been a scramble, she says, since her husband Don had a stroke three years ago. He's 67, an engineer she met through a ski club and married even though he didn't share her love for ballroom dancing.

They tried it for a while, she says, "but he found it kind of stressful." So they switched to co-ed softball, where he pitched and she caught.

She's never had a problem being adaptable.

The shoe polish incident

Splawn and Dalley, who now lives in Grosse Ile, started out as roller skaters. Their mutual coach wanted them to try ice skating, and it turned out to be a life-changing suggestion.

After Sarajevo, they turned professional, winning two titles and hitting the road for four years with the Ice Capades.

"I definitely would have pursued a longer pro career," Splawn says, "but Richard was ready to stop traveling and have a more normal life."

For her, the skating as a pro was refreshingly smooth. When she was an amateur, her mother worked multiple jobs to pay for training, travel and ice time. Splawn worked as well, and her family and friends would hold fundraisers.

Connie Hill, now living in Highland, used to sew her daughter's costumes. Splawn would bead them. She packed three outfits for the competition in Sarajevo -- and she also brought a bottle of white shoe polish.

Naturally, it broke. Not only did one of the crucial black dresses arrive streaked with white, parts of it were dissolving.

That was the extremely bad news. The good news was that like many Olympic parents with no cash to spare, Hill was staying with a host family -- and as she said at the time, "I probably wound up staying in the one house in Sarajevo with a sewing machine."

While her daughter practiced, Hill stitched. Disaster and zebra stripes were averted. Splawn and Dalley finished as high as they realistically could, and their futures were launched.

Splawn still watches Olympic ice dancing with an unwavering eye. Among the things she saw this year was Dalley, in Vancouver as a team leader for U.S. Figure Skating.

She's planning to call him there, she says, "to let him know it's not fair to go to the Olympics without his partner" -- and maybe to make sure he was careful when he packed.

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Splawn, then Carol Fox, and Richard Dalley of Livonia finished fifth in ... (Carol Fox)
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