From the World Cup to (hopefully) the Olympics: Ilhan Mansiz's unlikely journey

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports
Ilhan Mansiz and girlfriend Olga Bestandigova hope to become the first ice skating pair to represent Turkey in an Olympics. (Facebook)

Ilhan Mansiz

Ilhan Mansiz and girlfriend Olga Bestandigova hope to become the first ice skating pair to represent Turkey in an Olympics. (Facebook)

Every Olympian has their own tale to tell, their own unique and personal path to the crowning event of athletic achievement.

Yet if Ilhan Mansiz fulfills his dream of stepping onto the ice as a pairs figure skater for the 2014 Winter Olympics, he may well be the most unlikely and improbable competitor taking part in Sochi.

For Mansiz's story reads like the kind of script only the most open-minded Hollywood director would entertain, one so unusual that you couldn't make it up. It goes like this:

A World Cup soccer star is forced to quit through injuries caused by a car crash. Reluctantly persuaded to take part in a reality television ice-dancing show, he falls in love with his partner and wins the show. Not content with that, the pair then embarks upon a six-year quest to qualify for the Olympics as figure skaters … and go on to win the gold medal.

Okay, so that last bit is far-fetched, and Mansiz and his skating partner/girlfriend Olga Bestandigova face a tough challenge just to secure one of the precious qualifying spots that will be up for grabs at an international meet in Germany in September.

However, overcoming the odds is nothing new for this pair, and experts have been surprised by their rapid improvement over the past few years, especially since a recent full-time move to Scottsdale, Ariz. There they train at the Ice Den in Scottsdale under the tutelage of former Olympic pairs skater Doug Ladret, a ground-breaking Canadian who wowed the crowd with his skating and fashion style at the 1992 Albertville Games.

It is all a long way removed from Mansiz's former athletic life as a soccer star, a tough and skillful forward who helped the Turkish national team record a shocking third-place finish at the 2002 World Cup.

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These days time away from the ice is spent on yoga, stretching, cardio and technical lifts, leaving him no time to watch his former profession, even on television.

Speaking to the pair on the telephone, it is easy to understand why this duo works both on and off the ice. Bestandigova is bubbly and energetic and laughs gleefully when revealing how she was initially dismayed to learn she had been paired with a soccer player on the Buzda Dans TV show back in 2007.

"I thought it would be a disaster," she said giggling. "Most soccer players do not skate well, and he had never been on the ice before. But it wasn't like that at all, he was committed and fantastic and we won easily. He is the most amazing athlete I have seen, the way he can pick up new things and learn them and control his movements."

Mansiz makes no secret of his intense desire to succeed, the same personality trait that helped him play a key role in Turkey's 2002 World Cup charge, where it lost to Brazil in the semifinal before beating co-host South Korea in the bronze-medal playoff.

His winning goal against Senegal in the quarterfinal will eternally remain one of the greatest moments in Turkish sporting history, and his robust performances as a substitute mirrored the tough, no-nonsense approach of the team. Yet Mansiz was not short on flair either, famously bamboozling all-time great Roberto Carlos with a stunning rainbow kick in the tournament before being hastily bundled to the ground by the Brazilian defender.

"People think I had an advantage coming from another sport, but it is totally different," Mansiz said. “Skating is like a science, it requires its own kind of technique and coordination. It is a huge challenge, but I want to give a message to people that no matter what you are doing or how old you are, you can achieve something special. Most of the time life is not how you planned it, but that can be a great thing."

Mansiz is 37 and Bestandigova 33, and by the time Sochi rolls around it will be 12 years since each were at the pinnacle of their respective careers. A few months before Mansiz lit it up at the World Cup, Bestandigova was in Salt Lake City for her only Olympic appearance, where she and her brother Jozef Bestandig finished 17th.

There has never been an athlete who played at a World Cup and competed at a Winter Olympics, so history awaits for Mansiz. There also has never been an Olympic pairs figure skating team representing Turkey, whose government will offer Bestandigova, originally from Slovakia, a passport if they qualify as part of its pro-sport national policy.

For Mansiz, entering the record books is somewhat less important than teaming up with his girlfriend for a collaborative effort that has only brought them closer together.

"We have this dream together, and we try and work every day to make it happen," he said. "We believe we can do it, and we share in this goal with each other."

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