PUNSALAN OVERCOMES FAMILY TRAGEDY TO SKATE — (SACRAMENTO BEE)

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SACRAMENTO BEE 

February 17, 1994

Author: Ron Kroichick Bee Staff Writer

Elizabeth Punsalan and her husband, Jerod Swallow, practiced their ice dancing Wednesday. They glided and spun and jumped at the Olympic Amphitheatre, just like all the skaters gathered here for the Winter Games.

One giant difference: They then retreated to a nearby room, where they openly talked about the recent killing of Punsalan’s father – a crime allegedly committed by her brother.

So far, Punsalan is finding a measure of sanctuary in this small Scandinavian town, thousands of miles from home and heartbreak.

“I find being here and being on the ice is a lot easier than sitting at home and thinking about everything,” Punsalan said. “When I’m on the ice, all I have to think about is my feet and skating with Jerod. It’s very comforting.”

Dr. Ernesto Punsalan, 54, was found stabbed in the chest Feb. 4 at the family’s home in Sheffield Lake, Ohio, about 20 miles west of Cleveland. Police say Ricardo Punsalan, on weekend pass from a nearby psychiatric institution, murdered his father.

The tragedy obviously consumed Elizabeth Punsalan with grief. She and Swallow nearly relinquished their spot as the only U.S. ice-dancing tandem.

“We considered not coming right up until the plane ride here,” Punsalan said. “I wasn’t sure I could do this.”

Swallow echoed the doubt over the decision.

“Our families encouraged us to do it in his honor,” he said. “We’ve just had to take it one day at a time to see how we felt. This is awfully early in our relationship to deal with something like this.”

Punsalan, 23, and Swallow, 27, have been skating together since 1990. They were married last Sept. 4, all the while aware of the instability of Punsalan’s brother, known in the family as Rickey.

Wednesday, showing remarkable composure, Elizabeth told the sad tale of Rickey’s drug-induced woes. He was an active athlete as a youth, playing quarterback on his football team and pitching on his Little League team.

Then he was struck with Osgood Schlatter’s disease, causing inflammation in his knees. He fell out of touch with his sports-minded friends and soon fell in with different friends – and drugs.

Elizabeth described her brother’s ailment as “a combination of substance abuse and mental illness.” The family tried treatment after treatment. Ernesto Punsalan did not want his son confined to psychiatric institutions.

The day before the murder, doctors changed Ricardo Punsalan’s medication. They switched him off Prozac and onto another, undisclosed drug.

“I’m angry at what he did,” Elizabeth Punsalan said, starting to cry. “But I know he wasn’t aware of what he did; he wasn’t in control of himself. I just hope he gets the help he needs.

“My brother has been sick for a long time. It’s something my whole family has had to deal with. He’s had so many medications and been to so many hospitals. We tried so hard to help him, but it’s such an unpredictable illness.”

Now, amid all these raging emotions, Punsalan and Swallow will try to skate in the Olympics. Ice-dancing competition is scheduled for Friday and Sunday.

“Fortunately, Jerod and I have both worked with sports psychologists since we were young,” Punsalan said. “You never know when you’re going to need it. It helps to organize your thoughts and feelings.

“We’re definitely not done grieving. It’s going to take a long time. It’s going to be crazy for a long time, but accepting that is part of it.

“The biggest challenge before all this was getting through the practices. Once you get through real life, skating’s not so tough anymore. It’s fun.”

Back and forth Punsalan went, between somber words about her brother . . . and hopeful words about her skating . . . and pleasant recollections about her father.

“He was a dedicated surgeon who was on call 24 hours, every day,” Punsalan said. “He was there when people needed him. He was responsible for saving lives, and he didn’t take that responsibility lightly.”

Asked if her father had any role in her skating career, Punsalan smiled.

“Yeah, he financed the whole thing,” she said.

She laughed, if only briefly.

Record Number: 037