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Colorado Clown Brings One-Man Circus to Ice

World-class figure skaters make their sport look easy. Ryan Bradley makes it look like fun.

The Colorado Springs, Colorado, resident is a clown on skates. He winks, smiles and sometimes, even talks to the audience between elaborate spins and jumps. His charm and stellar skating earned him a spot on the U.S. team for next month's World Championships.

There was never a question about Ryan Bradley getting on the ice. His parents used to pairs skate as a young couple and often took their two kids to the local rink in St. Joseph, Missouri. The oldest, Becky, became a strong junior-level skater and soon her feisty little brother wanted some shiny trophies of his own. But Ryan's mother Barbara says that her wild child couldn't win over any coaches.

One coach "put him out on the ice and by the end of the lesson she came back and said, 'Please don't make me teach him anymore!'" Mrs. Bradley recalls with a laugh. Ryan had skated around with his sweatshirt over his head the entire lesson. "Like a typical five-year-old boy," his mother adds with a chuckle.

Typical, except the fearless five-year-old could nail a basic jump and, four years later, triple jumps. It became clear that Ryan's talent needed harnessing. Coach Tom Zakrajsek took him on. When he later accepted a coaching job in Colorado Springs, the Bradleys followed. Ryan won junior nationals at 15 and ascended to the highly competitive senior ranks.

Nervous before one of his first senior competitions, he stumbled upon a new trick. "I'm just going to go out and have a good time," he remembers thinking. "And I went out and kind of screwed around, to be honest. Like I did all my stuff and was serious about it. But like, I got on the ice and kept making eye contact with people. And when you see into someone's eyes and you wink and you see that their expression changes, it's just surreal." It was, he says, an amazing feeling. So he kept at it, adding comedic elements to his routines.

During a recent competition in Colorado Springs, Ryan wore an impish grin and a neon clown costume. He not only did spins, he showed off, blowing kisses to the hometown fans in the World Arena in between breath-taking jumps.

Afterward, in a television interview, Ryan explained that the clown program was his way of silencing his critics, who said. "'He doesn't focus on his skating skills and he's just kind of a clown out there, just tries to make people laugh.' So at the end of last season we really wanted to take a step, and one of my thoughts was, 'Why don't we kind of go with what they're saying, you know?' Do a clown program, but show them that I do have the skating skills and work on that".

It's a turnaround from four years ago, when Ryan had little to chuckle about. He'd finished a disappointing ninth at Nationals and decided to hang up his skates. "I started to get a little freaked out," he admits, "because I was thinking that I haven't finished high school yet and I'm not going to college. I don't just want to be an ice skater. I just don't want this to be all or nothing."

His sister Becky, now a coach, said three years without a break had taken a toll on her brother's body and mind. "He was hurting, there was a part of him that was really hurting."

In 2003, Ryan took six months off with his parents' blessing. He finished high school and enrolled at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he's still a student, trading in his skates for a perfect 4.0 grade point average. The challenge of school made him hungry for skating. Becky said he returned to the ice a more balanced and happy person. "As things started to come a little easier for him, you could see the passion growing. And it was really exciting to watch. Not only as a coach but as a sister, too."

Shortly after, Ryan took charge of his skating career from his parents and began to scale the ranks. At Nationals in January, he learned he'd made the U.S. World team. "I definitely feel like when I skate now, it is just about skating," he says confidently. "It is not about who I am necessarily. It's about going out, having a good time and putting on a show."

The show goes on in Tokyo in March, when Ryan Bradley competes in his first World Championship. The crowd there may find out why they say, everyone loves a clown.