TORONTO - As one of the oldest competitors to hit ice for the CBC reality series "Battle of the Blades," skating legend Barbara Underhill says she knew she had lot to prove.
It'd been more than a decade since the 46-year-old attempted any of the figure skating tricks that made her and partner Paul Martini world champions in 1984 and when she was approached last winter to join the show she wasn't sure she had the goods.
"I took a little skating dress out of the closet and I put it on and I went, 'Uh-uh, not in a million years, I can't be seen in that!"' Underhill said in a recent interview after a rehearsal at Maple Leaf Gardens with her 52-year-old partner, Ron Duguay.
Although still in good shape, by this point Underhill had reinvented herself as a hockey trainer for young athletes including the members of the Ontario Hockey League's Guelph Storm and prospects for the Anaheim Ducks.
Getting her body back into figure-skating mode would require a lot of work, and of all places she says she found her mojo by throwing herself into tough routines designed by an NHL taskmaster.
"I went to boot camp and I worked with a guy who trains hockey players. He actually trains (New York Islanders phenom) John Tavares and a lot of top hockey players," Underhill says.
"I did lunges and all those exercises - hard, hard exercises to build up those muscles again because I'd lost a lot of the muscle. I woke up every day motivated and inspired."
Underhill's routine included running and 90-minute gym workouts three to four times a week. On top of that, she maintained her regular power skating lessons which ran three to four hours every day. She says one of the biggest challenges was re-learning how to use figure skates after years of using hockey boots.
"I'd make friends with the managers of the arenas and I'd just sneak in and I didn't want anybody to see me," she said of those early turns around the rink.
"I'd just go out there all by myself, and I'd put my iPod on and just skate. I just had to learn to skate again on my figure skates and slowly it started to come back to me but it took a while. There were times where ... I just thought, 'What am I doing? I've got to come into the show and I'm supposed to be the pro!' I would question myself but then I said, 'No way, I'm not giving this opportunity up, I'm going to work as hard as I can to get back out there."
Much of the early attention has been cast on the younger competitors of "Battle" - among them former figure skating champs Jamie Sale, and Shae-Lynn Bourne and former Maple Leaf player Tie Domi.
Even backstage, Underhill says she and Duguay, a former Detroit Red Wings player whose heyday was in the mid-80s, have been nicknamed "Grandma" and "Grandpa."
But both insist they've been underestimated in the contest, which pairs seasoned figure skaters with former NHLers in an elimination-style skate-off. A charity chosen by the winning team gets $100,000.
Duguay says he's lucky that he hasn't suffered any major injuries in his career, and that he's kept fit since his retirement from the NHL by playing a lot of tennis.
"There are people out there that are in their 50s or late 40s and think that 'I can't really do that,' " says Duguay, who is competing on behalf of World Vision Canada.
"I can tell you that we're doing it and you can do it, but there's a price to pay. We have good eating habits, good lifestyle and are careful in our drinking, all that stuff."
"For the last 20 years I've been taking care of myself. Not to say that I'm not sore and tired, I still get sore and tired, but I know that I can stay at the same level and compete with everyone else."
Underhill says her return to the ice has been exhilarating.
"I wake up in the morning, I can't wait to get to the rink. I literally, I can't wait to leave," says Underhill, who is skating for Blooview Kids Rehab, a children's rehabilitation and teaching hospital.
"I'm just so excited and I feel so young again. When you do something you love and you're so passionate about something, it makes you feel young and I love having this challenge in my life again. I think we all need challenges and we all need to take risks in life and that's what keeps you alive inside."