Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: Skating Hair Through The Years


Keep it under your hat... but we're going to talk about a little hair history today! Until the twentieth century, how a skater's hair looked made little difference. Whether under a top hat or a smart feathered bonnet, the length of a skater's locks was quite irrelevant until the introduction of the Continental and International Styles of skating made jumps and spins de rigueur and the sport gained more of a following as early hotel shows and ice pantomimes became popular in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

It really wasn't until the Sonja Henie era when women's figure skating became more much more glamourized that many skaters really started paying attention to creating a 'packaged look' and it was Henie herself who led the charge. When she was in her early fifties, she had her hair done by a young hairdresser named Jon Peters, who went on to become a Hollywood producer. They became fast friends and she actually lent him one hundred thousand dollars towards his first salon. 

Sonja Henie

By the fifties, tiaras weren't uncommon sights in the hair of competitive skaters and in the popular British ice pantomimes, both men and women often wore wigs. Producers of touring productions led the war on errant hair-pins, which posed particular dangers to skaters performing under dim spotlights. In her 1952 book "Skate With Me", even Barbara Ann Scott warned of their dangers: "Don't use ordinary hairpins. They are too apt to fly out. Be sure that you have your hair tethered down securely, for there is nothing very appealing about a girl skating with her hair flopping all over her face. I used to wear a little bonnet which served the double purpose of keeping my hair back and my ears warm." Scott's reference to bonnets was in line to the trend to cover hair to keep it out of a skater's face when they performed jumps and spins, doubling as added warmth in the subzero temperatures during outdoor competitions. In her husband Tyke's 1959 book "Girls' Book Of Skating", Mildred Richardson noted, "Caps are never worn, as they tend to come off, but in windy or snowy weather hair is covered by a becoming pull-on hood or scarf."

Excerpt from Jacqueline du Bief's book "Thin Ice"

By the sixties, Carol Heiss had dyed her hair black for her role in "Snow White And The Three Stooges" and Sjoukje Dijsktra was jacking it up to Jesus with a beehive that contained more final net than the entire dressing room of the movie "Hairspray". In her interview with Allison Manley for "The Manleywoman SkateCast" in April 2014, she laughed, "You don’t know how much hairspray there was in there... It stayed, you see, it would be stuck. If it would be loose, I couldn’t stand it, if my hair came into my eyes or anything. But it had so much spray in it that it just stayed there. So it was good. I don’t understand now, when I see the skaters with the ponytails slinging around - that must be awful. Mine didn't move, it stayed. It took a lot of hairspray. I’m amazed that I still have hair on my head." Though Dijkstra managed to keep her hair, not everyone was so lucky. In one show, American Olympian Roy Wagelein's toupee got caught in his partner's costume during a lift and came right off his head. 


Without a doubt, the most famous skating hairdo in history was the Dorothy Hamill wedge. Achieved by lifting the hair and cutting at an inward angle, going from the longest lengths at top to the shortest at the bottom, the cut was copied by millions of women around the world after Hamill's win at the 1976 Winter Olympic Games in Innsbruck. After turning professional, Hamill signed a three hundred thousand dollar contract with Clairol and did commercials for their Short & Sassy Shampoo and Conditioner. In turn, the company donated twenty five cents from every bottle of the condition to the USFSA's Memorial Fund. 


By the nineties, short hair was on its way out and ponytails and buns dominated. Josée Chouinard did commercials for Pert Plus, Clairol sponsored a pro-am competition and even Scott Hamilton skated to music from the movie "Hair" in a hippie-style wig. Copying the glorious mane of Gwendal Peizerat, male ice dancers in the early twenty first century grew out their hair in droves... with extremely mixed results.


Whether Tonya Harding's mall bang or Maria Butyrskaya's Florence Henderson bob, the way that the world's top skaters have worn their hair over the years has just been one more way that they have set themselves apart. The grades of execution might have varied, but I think most skaters have earned a 6.0 for composition and style.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The 1985 U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Kemper Ice Arena, photo courtesy Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library

A lot has certainly changed in the thirty two years since Kansas City, Missouri first played host to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Back in January of 1985, Ronald Reagan was President, Madonna's "Like A Virgin" topped the Billboard music charts and single event tickets to see America's best skaters in action only put you out twelve dollars at most. Held from January 29 to February 2 of that year, the 1985 U.S. Figure Skating Championships marked a changing of the guard in the American figure skating world. Scott Hamilton, Rosalynn Sumners and Elaine Zayak, who had all won World titles and represented the U.S. at the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo, had turned professional. The top four pairs teams from the 1984 U.S. Championships had all switched partners or turned professional as well. On paper, it was anyone's game.

Behind the scenes, things weren't all rosy. A key sponsor pulled out at the last minute, leaving organizers to pull off a small miracle. Then there was the matter of the ice. Although the King Louie Ice Chateau and Fox Hill Ice Arena were ready to go for practices and school figure competitions, the main venue - the Kemper Arena - had been scheduled for a basketball game the night before the very first practices 'on the big rink' were to be held. Rink employees worked overtime through the night to ensure the ice was ready.

The people of Kansas City went all out to ensure the event was a success. Over one hundred skaters from the Kansas City, Carriage and Silver Blades Figure Skating Club's participated in the opening ceremonies, handed out awards, retrieved flowers and acted as runners for results and messages. Other organizations that contributed volunteers were the Kansas City Ski Club, University Of Missouri-Kansas City and Sports Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy Associates, Inc. More than three hundred volunteers from Kansas City Young Matrons manned several hospitality suites and a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales benefited the Crittenton Center For Disturbed Youths. For the first time ever, the Christmas lights at the Alameda Plaza Hotel were turned on at a time other than the holiday season in a special ceremony in celebration of the event.

In the end, over two hundred competitors flocked to Kansas City ready to prove their mettle. In promoting the event for ABC's "Wide World Of Sports", Dick Button raved, "What viewers will see is the bare bones outline of who is good and who is going to be good. It's like picking out from a bunch of young colts who has the talent, stamina and strength, artistry and personality. You see all those elements that end up being the basis for someone's style." With a huge thanks to Joanna Marsh, Special Collections Librarian at the Kansas City Public Library, join me in the time machine and take a look back at what made this event so special!

THE NOVICE AND JUNIOR EVENTS

The novice and junior results from the 1985 U.S. Championships read like a who's who of American figure skating in the nineties. For starters, the event was Kristi Yamaguchi's very first appearance at the U.S. Championships. Placing fifth in junior pairs with Rudy Galindo and barely missing a medal in the junior women's event, the young Californian was only just beginning her journey to greatness. Jerod Swallow of the Detroit Skating Club did double duty, winning the junior ice dance event with Jodie Balogh and competing in junior pairs with Shelly Propson. In the junior women's event, Tracey Seliga of the Colonial Figure Skating Club lead after figures and Dedie Richards of the Dallas Figure Skating Club took the lead after the short program. However, Jill Trenary of the Broadmoor Skating Club vaulted to first ahead of Tracey Damigella of the Skating Club Of Lake Placid in the final standings. Representing the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society, the fabulous Doug Mattis took top honours in the junior men's event, besting Erik Larson and Rudy Galindo. However, the event that garnered the most attention from Kansas City audiences was without a doubt the novice men's competition. Though he finished second to thirteen year old Todd Eldredge, sixteen year old Aren Nielsen of Grandview made history as the first skater from the Kansas City area to win a medal at the U.S. Championships... in front of a hometown audience in the first Nationals held in Kansas City. As one might imagine, the crowd went a little berserk. Coached by Randy Brilliantine, Nielsen was only fifth after figures but won the free skate with an outstanding performance that featured a triple Salchow and double Axel/double toe combination. His medal win was particularly impressive in that he had only been fifth at the Midwestern Championships the year prior. Quoted in the January 31, 1985 issue of the "Kansas City Star", Nielsen remarked, "It was like it wasn't even me. I can't believe it, I really can't believe it. I mean, I felt like I was almost like a fighter out there - even during warm-ups. I was pumping myself up. I just kept on saying, 'You've got to make yourself do it. You've got to make yourself do it.' And that's how it went."

THE PAIRS COMPETITION


An unlucky thirteen teams vied for top honours in the senior pairs event, which seemed doomed from the get-go. Margo Shoup and Patrick Page of the Broadmoor Skating Club withdrew after she crashed into the boards during a warm-up; Karen Courtland was taken to a local hospital after skating her program with partner Patrick Daw and treated for an upper respiratory infection. Many of the other teams suffered mishaps on key elements in their programs and judges were tasked with deciding which pair had made the fewest mistakes. Ultimately, that team was twenty one year old Jill Watson of Indiana and twenty five year Peter Oppegard of Tennessee. Only skating together for a few months, they trained in Ontario under Louis Stong. Winning both the short program and the free skate, Watson and Oppegard went for the gusto, attempting both the throw triple Salchow and throw double Axel in their winning free skate and earning marks ranging from 5.2 to 5.7 for technical merit and 5.2 to 5.8 for artistic impression. Coached by Ron Ludington, the brother/sister pair Natalie and Wayne Seybold settled for silver, ahead of Gillian Wachsman and Todd Waggoner and Susan and Jason Dungjen. Quoted in the February 4, 1985 issue of "The Globe And Mail", Watson remarked, "It's like a dream come true. I still can't believe it."

THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION

With Rosalynn Sumners and Elaine Zayak out of the picture, many expected that seventeen year old Tiffany Chin of Toluca Lake, California would be a shoe-in for gold in Kansas City. In reality, she would end up facing some very legitimate competition in her quest for the national title in 1985. Although she took a strong lead in the school figures ahead of seventeen year old Debi Thomas, Jill Frost, Jana Marie Sjodin and Caryn Kadavy, Chin struggled in the short program, botching the triple toe in her competition and losing her balance on the change foot sit spin. Bolstered by her early lead, Chin managed to hold on to the top spot entering the free skate despite her miscues despite very strong performances by both Thomas and Kadavy. In the months leading up to the competition, Jill Frost endured a stress fracture, tonsilitis, strep throat, mono and the flu. She struggled in the free skate, dropping behind Kathryn Adams overall. 


In her first U.S. Championships, Caryn Kadavy delivered a flawless free skate thar featured a triple loop, triple toe and three double Axels. Her marks ranged from 5.5 for 5.8 to technical merit and from 5.6 to 5.8 for artistic impression. It was enough for the bronze, behind Thomas, who landed a double Axel/triple toe, triple toe and double Axel/double toe in her free skate but stepped out of a triple Salchow and double Axel and put her hand down on a triple loop. In winning the silver medal, Thomas became the first African American in history to win a medal in the senior women's competition at the U.S. Championships. 


Rebounding with a clean but conservative program that featured two triple toe's and three double Axel's, Tiffany Chin showed verve and confidence in clinching the gold medal. Quoted in the February 3, 1985 issue of "The Sunday Observer-Dispatch", she remarked, "Last night I wasn't happy at all with my skating. Today, I decided I would be on my own. My coach told me I had to be more independent. I felt pretty aggressive going into it. I decided if I land a jump I'm really going to land it and if I fall, I'm going to do it aggressively." Coach Mr. John Nicks added, "The great thing wasn't the way she skated, but the way she came back after skating poorly Friday." 

THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION

The only winners from the 1984 U.S. Championships in Salt Lake City who returned to defend their national titles were twenty five year old Judy Blumberg and twenty seven year old Michael Seibert. Judy and Michael arrived in Kansas City extremely prepared. They had worked on their compulsories with Bobby Thompson and had a brand new free dance set to music called "Fire On Ice" especially composed for them by Joel Silberman. They took a strong lead early in the event, but two judges placed them second in the Quickstep OSP because they believed their music didn't fit the rhythm. Fourth after compulsories, Renee Roca and Donald Adair brought the house down and earned a standing ovation for their "42nd Street" OSP, put together only two weeks before the competition after judges at the NHK Trophy criticized the program the OSP they had previously used. Suzanne Semanick and Scott Gregory's "Cabaret" OSP was equally well received by the enthusiastic Kansas City crowd. 


In the free dance, Blumberg and Seibert wowed with their unorthodox and athletic performance, yet many were taken with Semanick and Gregory's themed free dance to "Sabre Dance", "Adagio" and "Kalinka", which centered around the concept of escape.



Despite their best efforts, Semanick and Gregory dropped from second after compulsories to take the bronze behind Blumberg and Seibert and Roca and Adair. Lois Luciani and Russ Witherby placed fourth, Susie Wynne and Joseph Druar fifth and Susan Jorgensen and Robert Yokabaskas sixth. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves recalled,
"[Yobabaskas], at 6,4½" tall, was one of the tallest ice dancers in the world. He had lost his 5'10" partner Hae Sue Park to an injury. He found 5'11" Susan Jorgensen, who had quit for three years because she could not find a partner when a growth spurt at 12 years old knocked her out of singles and pairs. 'They said a team as tall as ours could never make it to Nationals,' Yogi explained in a press conference. He and Sue skated with class in their sensual free to 'Slaughter on 10th Avenue', using their height to advantage and placing sixth. Their partnership ended in marriage." The top three teams all advanced to the World Championships in Tokyo, where Blumberg and Seibert hoped to succeed Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean as winners. Quoted in the February 4, 1985 issue of "The Globe And Mail", a confident Blumberg remarked, "We believe we are as good as anybody competing in the event. We didn't stay in it to finish fourth or third or second."

THE MEN'S COMPETITION

With Scott Hamilton out of the picture, the competition in Kansas City was really between the previous year's silver and bronze medallists, twenty one year old Brian Boitano of Sunnyvale, California and twenty three year old Mark Cockerell of Burbank, California. Taking an early lead over Cockerell in figures, Boitano skated brilliantly as James Bond in his short program to music from the soundtrack of "The Spy Who Loved Me". Miming a gunshot in his choreography, Boitano joked to reporters that his intended victim was coach Linda Leaver. She laughed, "I was glad to be shot. It was great!" Cockerell's short program was set to the "Lone Ranger" theme. After his program, a girl came down to the railing and plopped a black cowboy hat with a silver star badge on his head. Seven of the nine judges preferred Boitano's program, expanding his figures lead to fifty percent. 


In the free skate, Cockerell landed a triple Lutz, triple toe/triple toe, triple Salchow, triple toe and two double Axels but stepped out of a doubled triple loop attempt. His gutsy performance was rewarded with marks ranging from 5.6 to 5.8 for technical merit and 5.6 to 5.9 for artistic impression. Boitano did one better, killing it with a quintessential eighties fast/slow/fast medley that included the theme from "On Golden Pond". Nailing a triple Axel, double flip/triple toe/triple toe, triple Lutz, triple flip/double toe, triple Salchow, his only error was a step out on his triple loop. His marks ranged from 5.6 to 5.9 for technical merit and 5.6 to 5.9 for artistic impression, and were indeed enough to earn him his first U.S. title. 


Eighteen year old Scott Williams of Redondo Beach, California was outstanding in his bronze medal winning performance, as was Christopher Bowman, who moved up from eighth after figures to finish fourth, just ahead of Paul Wylie. Quoted in the February 4, 1985 issue of "The Globe And Mail", a relieved and happy Boitano said, "The frustration is finally over. It's like I've made it over the mountain."

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Toller Cranston's 1984 Comeback


At the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the lines between amateurism and professionalism blurred when champions from eras past reinstated to the eligible ranks in hopes of challenging the world's best Olympic eligible skaters. It is a topic we've visited before more than once on Skate Guard, but I am quite confident that the subject of today's blog may be news to many of you. It doesn't involve Lillehammer and doesn't even take place in the nineties.

Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

Less than three years after winning the bronze medal at the 1976 Winter Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, the late, great six time Canadian Champion Toller Cranston was very seriously considering the possibility of attempting a comeback to the eligible ranks and competing in the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo. In an interview with Linda Jade Stearns in the December-January 1979 issue of "The Canadian Skater" magazine, he spoke of his plan in detail: "Charles Snelling will have nothing on me. I have to perform for a couple more years - I want to do a movie and I know that I can't do that if I'm an amateur. Then I'm going to have to throw myself on my knees and ask the CFSA to give me back my amateur status, which will take a year. Therefore I'm basically aiming for the 1984 Olympics... I'm going to do my comeback at thirty-five as opposed to Snelling in his mid-twenties. And he didn't train the way I'm training now... I just competed in the American Superstars show for TV, and my competitive instincts surged - like wild. I became a tiger, a cutthroat, and I became consumed with the desire to win, which I had never really felt before when competing as an amateur. When I enter the 1984 Olympics - even if I have to skate out of Iceland to do it - I'll put skating in its proper perspective. I'm going to take it very seriously, but I know that my career will not hinge on how well I do. It's not like, 'Oh my God, what happens if Ronnie Shaver beats me - I'll be finished, I'll be through.' I learned how to be afraid in the worst way. When people say, 'Oh, you only came third at the Olympics, you blew it,' I reply, 'Third? It's a miracle!' I was so totally overwrought that when I stepped onto the ice I couldn't believe that my legs were carrying me. I can do figures in my free skating boots now that are better than the ones I did in the Olympics in my figure boots. I realize that it's totally a question of control of the brain. It was nervousness, it wasn't that I had bad figures (that accounted for my low standing in figures at the Olympics.) My figures were just as good as anybody's, but I did not have the ability to zero in, to totally concentrate. I wouldn't be nervous now because nothing is hinging on my performance. I'm not going to enter with the attitude that here's my big chance to win the 1984 Olympics. When you come back at thirty-five to compete in the Olympics, people will say, 'Let's see how good he is... can he beat the champion from Luxembourg? Well, probably. But can he beat the French champion?... Let's see how far he can go. I know that I'm not going to out-triple my competitors because by then they're going to have to scrape them off the rafters. In the performance that I would give, the emphasis would be totally on performing. I would perform like wild. It's not that I wouldn't do a number of things, but I would say, let the skaters doing the quadruples and the eight triples do them. I would do all the things that they don't do. I would create a certain controversy."

Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

In the end, the lure of professional competition won out. For seven consecutive years from 1980 to 1987, Toller competed at Dick Button's World Professional Figure Skating Championships in Landover, Maryland. More often than not, he didn't win. We will never know the history books would have looked if Toller had in fact somehow managed a return to the eligible ranks in 1984. Against the likes of Scott Hamilton, Brian Orser, Jozef Sabovcik and the rest, he would have undoubtedly been at a huge disadvantage technically but I don't think anyone can argue that he wouldn't have put on one hell of a show like only Toller could.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.  

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Boitano And Witt's Skating Tours


I don't think winning an Olympic gold medal is something anyone would call easy, but surely forging out into the unknown and designing your own skating tour can't be either. Following their wins at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Brian Boitano and Katarina Witt did just that, headlining in a series of tours aptly called Skating, Skating II and Skating III and bringing a who's who cast of the world's best figure skaters along for the journey.

Marketed towards younger, 'hipper' audiences, the Skating tours were produced by Cellar Door and Bill Graham Presents, sponsored by Chrysler and directed and lovingly choreographed by Sandra Bezic and Michael Seibert. They had three successful runs in North America from 1989 to 1992 and even visited Europe and Japan. At the time, Skating was in direct competition with several other touring skating productions including Stars On Ice, the World Cup Champions On Ice tour, Benson and Hedges Symphony On Ice and Tom Collins' beloved Tour Of World Figure Skating Champions. Despite this, the tours certainly fared well in the height of their popularity, so much so that they became the first skating production to sell out Madison Square Gardens in ten years at one point. Much of the reason for the tour's successes was Boitano and Witt's name recognition but thoughtful choreography and the show's diverse cast made for a well rounded and entertaining tour all around.

In a November 1990 article from "The Christian Science Monitor", Boitano said, "It's the people around us who make the show so good, but it's difficult to cast because a lot of times the producers only hear names. From a personal standpoint, you want people who are good, who will bring a lot of entertainment to the show." Joining Boitano and Witt in the cast were Rosalynn Sumners, Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall, Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini, Gary Beacom, Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev, Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert, Caryn Kadavy, Yvonne Gomez, Robert Wagenhoffer, Vladimir Kotin and Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur.



For Witt, the tours proved liberating after so many years of skating in Communist East Germany. In an April 1990 article from "The Sun Journal", she explained "I can now do whatever I want. I do not have to ask somebody 'Please, can I do this?' I do not have to beg somebody to get out of the country and to work with Brian." Liberation and freedom was a strong undercurrent of much of the skating even - Gary Beacom performed a number showcasing his edges to complete silence in one number. Another highlight of the tours was a truncated version of Boitano and Witt's "Carmen On Ice" act.

video

After the tour's third run in 1992, Skating sold its dates to Stars On Ice and Sandra Bezic started working with Stars On Ice in time for the 1992/1993 season's tour. Concurrently, Boitano and Witt were both preparing for comebacks when professionals were allowed to reinstate to the amateur ranks in time for the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway where the pair of Olympic Gold Medallists finished sixth and seventh respectively. Although the tour may not be as remembered as many others due to its relatively short run, it produced some excellent skating and provided opportunities for many professional skaters who may not have had the opportunities to tour North America otherwise. With a cast like that though, I don't know how anyone could forget it.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Pivots And Polar Bears: The Skating History Of Canada's North


When one Clement Bancroft Burns, territorial and federal secretary of the Yukon Territory, arrived in Dawson City in 1902 during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush he ascertained a need for a sporting and recreation facility. Through pledges, forty five thousand dollars was raised to aid in the construction of the Dawson Amateur Athletic Club. Walter Creamer, dubbed the Barnum of Klondike, became involved and soon an enclosed ice skating rink became one of the facility's most popular features.

The D.A.A.C.'s skating rink measured seventy five by one hundred and seventy five feet, and played host to a series of skating carnivals and parties at the turn of the century, replete with music played by a brass band. On July 21, 1909, the "Dawson Daily News" reported, "The great enclosed ice skating rink attracts devotees of all ages, who, making up a neatly and gaily clad throng spin merrily over the long stretches of carefully prepared ice surfaces; it is here that the mardi gras of the Northland is held each winter, and here that the children hold minor carnivals. It is here that many of the swiftest and most expert skaters of the world join in that swiftest of all human physical contests, hockey, in disputing the championship of the North." We know that during this period Minnie Cummings travelled to the Northwest Territories to perform, and it was likely at this very rink.

Peggy Hanulik came to Dawson City from Manitoba in 1965 and set to work teaching the children of Dawson City to skate. Two years later, she headed to Whitehorse, where she became involved in the Whitehorse Skating Club and helped found the Fireweed Figure Skating Club. The Yukon's first CFSA certified judge, Hanulik judged competitions for close to thirty years. She served on countless committees and boards and did everything from bringing CanSkate to the province to cutting music for carnivals and chaperoning at competitions. Her years of dedication paved the way for the 2007 Canada Winter Games in Whitehorse, the first time the Canada Games ever made an appearance up north. Among the winners at that event? A young Liam Firus, Kirsten Moore-Towers and Andrei Rogozine. Today in the Yukon capital, the Arctic Edge Skating Club is the place to be if you're as into press lifts and pivots as you are polar bears.

In the Northwest Territories, outdoor skating was tremendously popular on the frozen Netla and McKenzie Rivers. The Gerry Murphy arena - known to locals as the 'Murphdrome' - was the go-to skating spot for Yellowknife residents from 1950 until its demolition in 2004. The Yellowknife Skating Club was founded in December 1968 and two years later, the first Arctic Winter Games were held in the Northwest Teritories capital, attracting visiting competitors from the Yukon and Alaska in its first year. Figure skating competitions have absolutely been an integral part of these biennal 'Northern Olympics', which have expanded to include athletes from Nunavut, Greenland, Russia, northern Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The skating clubs in Hay River and Inuvik have been around for years and boasted some very talented young skaters, but perhaps the most fascinating figure skating clubs of the North are the Iqaluit and Cape Dorset Figure Skating Clubs in Nunavut. The latter, located in an Inuit hamlet near the southern tip of Baffin Island in the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut, is one of the most remote figure skating clubs in the world. Founded in 1995, the club established a sister club relationship with the Stephenville Skating Club in Newfoundland. When the Cape Dorset skaters needed skates, the Newfoundlanders took up a collection and shipped them up. In turn, the Nunavut club sent down Inuit art that the club could auction off to fundraise. In 1999, when a new rink opened in Stephenville, eight skaters from Cape Dorset were invited down to perform in the Newfoundland club's opening show... alongside special guests Brian Orser and Jamie Salé and David Pelletier. In 2015, Rachel Pettitt made history by becoming the first skater from the Yukon to win a national title when she won the novice women's event at the Canadian Championships in Kingston.


Canada's north may not have produced an endless list of figure skating champions, but it has certainly had a fascinating history thus far! It may not be long at all before we finally start seeing skaters from Canada's north making a greater impact on the national level. The times, they are a-changin'...

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html

Thursday, 5 January 2017

'Jumpin' Jack Flash', A Jack Of All Trades

Canada's Sports Hall of Fame | Panthéon des sports canadiens photo. Used with permission.

Born August 15, 1872 in Perth, Ontario, John "Jack" McCulloch moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba with his parents at the age of four. An athletic young man, he excelled in a variety of sports including canoeing, rowing, track and field, cycling, gymnastics, roller skating and ice hockey; he was in his day very much Canada's answer to Lottie Dod.

It was as a hockey player that McCulloch first achieved real fame. S.F. Wise and Douglas Fisher's 1974 book "Canada's Sporting Heroes" noted, "He helped form the province's first teams in 1889, and as a player with the Victorias, took part in the first regularly scheduled game in Manitoba on December 20, 1890. In 1893, wishing to gain experience against teams in the cradle of hockey, the Manitobans undertook an Eastern tour, playing in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. The outcome surprised both the East and West. The Manitobans won nine victories in eleven games and outscored their opponents 76-36; Eastern newspapers stressed McCulloch's speed and grace."

Speed and grace seem to be appropriate adjectives to describe McCulloch's later contributions to Canadian sport. He achieved most of his fame as a speed skater, first winning the Canadian speed skating title in 1893. At the event in Montreal, there were four distances raced and he won all four.
The next year on Hallowe'en, he married Mary Therese Aikins in Winnipeg. Two years later, he travelled to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he became the U.S. speed skating champion, winning quarter mile, open mile, five and ten mile races. The next year, when the World Speed Skating Championships came to Montreal, McCulloch beat Norwegian speed skating phenom Karl Alfred Ingvald Næss in both the one thousand, five hundred meter and five thousand meter races, becoming World Champion. Renowned doctor, sculptor and athlete R. Tait MacKenzie wrote of McCulloch, "One can hardly call him a specialist, for besides speed skating, in which he is supreme, he is a good figure skater." At the height of his fame in 1898, he turned professional, touring Canada and the northern U.S. competing in speed skating races for money, stilt skating, barrel jumping and giving exhibitions as a 'fancy' figure skater. In many ways, he was a predecessor to Norval Baptie, who popularized the combined speed/figure/trick skating show not long after.

Canada's Sports Hall of Fame | Panthéon des sports canadiens photo. Used with permission.

The Saturday, February 5, 1898 issue of the "Brooklyn Daily Eagle" spoke of his performances in that New York, noting "McCulloch is a wonderful trick skater and his jumping, backward skating and figures are marvellous. At all around skating he has not a peer unless it be Nilsson, who heads the professional ranks". Another 1898 article from the "Winnipeg Free Press" suggested that early in his professional career he may have even spent time in the Yukon: "He has left the athletic arena and is endeavouring to take him to the Klondike, from whence he hopes to bring back enough gold to keep his family in comfort." This seems unlikely given the time frame. If he did go looking for gold, he didn't stay long because newspaper records place him in Toronto in 1900.

Early in the twentieth century, McCulloch spent considerable time touring Western Canada. The January 8, 1907 edition of "The St. John Sun" noted that "besides appearing at all the big race meets, McCulloch and [Gib] Bellefeuille will give exhibitions of speed and fancy skating all over the country, starting with a tour through Manitoba and to other western points." The January 21, 1907 issue of "The Winnipeg Tribune" confirmed the duo's trip back to Manitoba: "Jack McCulloch and Gib Bellefeuille are carded for their final exhibition at the Auditorium tonight, giving their fancy figure and stilt skating and a mile dash as a finish. Both men are in excellent trim, having devoted the past month to constant practice. McCulloch shows the old-time gracefulness and speedy work for which he was noted several years ago, as Jack says, 'It's not the years I've been out of the game. It's knowing how, and not forgetting it.' St. Paul is the first stop after the Auditorium, the date in the former city being Jan. 23; from that point on east the boys expect to give no less than sixteen exhibitions as well as meeting half a dozen speedy skaters in Buffalo." 1907 proved to be his final year on tour.

Returning to Winnipeg, he was badly injured in an automobile accident in 1908 and turned his attention to two new pursuits: automobiles and skate making. He opened an automobile repair shop specializing in racing cars and was even a founding member of the Winnipeg Automobile Club. As a skate maker, he constantly experimented with varying techniques before developing and manufacturing his McCulloch tube skate, which was immensely popular with hockey players of the time as it allowed for quick, short strides. This Jack of all trades, master of most passed away in Ramsey County, Minnesota on January 26, 1918 and was posthumously inducted into Canada's Sport Hall Of Fame and the Manitoba Sports Hall Of Fame. Sadly, his contribution to figure skating history is one that has been downplayed in comparison to his more famous accomplishments in speed skating and hockey.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Monday, 2 January 2017

The Jubliant Jakobssons: Finland's First And Only Olympic Gold Medallists

Ludovika and Walter Jakobsson. Photo courtesy Finnish Archives.

The story of how Finland's first and only Olympic Gold Medallists rose to prominence and dominated the figure skating world for close to two decades is one that has sadly been too often neglected entirely. Yet, the story of Ludovika and Walter Jakobsson is perhaps one of the most interesting out there! Thanks to Johan as well as Tua, Harald, Peggy, Klas Johan and Bruno (members of the Jakobsson family) I am thrilled to be able to share their incredible story.

Ludovika Antje Margareta Eilers was born July 25, 1884 in Potsdam, Brandenburg, Germany and raised in Berlin by affluent Lutheran parents Johann and Anna Marie Elisabeth (Hintze) Eilers. The oldest of five siblings, Ludovika acted as chaperone to her brothers Richard, Werner and Rudolph and sister Elisabeth on their frequent winter trips to skate at the Berliner Schlittschuhclub. Though her siblings enjoyed skating, Ludovika lived and breathed it. She soon became regarded as one of the finest young skaters at her club. Her father's money allowed her to travel extensively in her youth. In her teenage years, she crossed the Atlantic to visit a relative in America and exhibited her skating in Vienna and St. Petersburg to the delight of audiences.

Walter Andreas Jakobsson was born February 6, 1882 in Helsinki to Anders and Emilie (Wesström) Jakobsson . He had two sisters, Irene and Lilly, and a younger brother named Gunnar. I guess you could say sport was in his blood to some extent, as his cousin Jarl Gustav Anian Jakobsson was a 1908 Summer Olympian in javelin and long jump. Walter actually got his start on the ice at the age of twelve as a speed skater, switching ten years later (along with his brother Gunnar) to figure skating.
Walter's exhibitions in Helsinki with Miss E. Bergh in the early twentieth century were popular with audiences. An intelligent young man, he spoke Finnish, German and a little English, but Swedish was his mother tongue. He was an avid amateur photographer, joining the Amatörfotografklubben i Helsingfors (AFK) in 1902. The following year, he won second prize in an open photo exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum. Using newly marketed Lumière plates, he was praised for his artistry as a photographer and described by photographer and author Gunnar Lönnqvist as a "happy young man [with a] student cap [on his] head and a tin camera in his hand... This young engineering student mastered the photographic techniques to perfection, doing his most valuable artistic work using special printing methods. In the work of Walter Jakobsson dark tones dominate. He chose sparingly and dramatically lighted subjects. His city views are photographed in rainy weather with gleaming wet asphalt and outlines softened by drizzle and mist. The processing enhanced the character and air of his subjects to comply with his artistic views and aims." Jakobsson's photographs of Finnish figure skaters during this period also helped preserve his country's skating history for future generations.

Ludovika and Walter Jakobsson. Photo courtesy Finnish Archives.

The future Olympic Gold Medallists met in the spring of 1908 in Berlin. Ludovika had just finished skating a beautiful waltz at the Berlin Eispalast with a university library clerk. Afterwards, a group of Finns approached the duo to thank them for their lovely performance. One of the men handed her a bouquet of violets. That man was Walter Jakobsson.

Walter was in Berlin to study at the TH Charlottenburg (Royal Technical Higher School of Charlottenburg) for a degree in electrical and mechanical engineering. He had arrived in Germany without skates as his mother had suggested that if he left them at home, he'd spend less time skating and more time studying. Soon after seeing Ludovika skate, he bought a new pair. Appreciating the Finn's enthusiasm and admiration, she agreed to skate as a pair with him. A year later, they were sent to Budapest to perform and in 1910, they won the silver medal behind Olympic Gold Medallists Anna Hübler and Heinrich Burger at the World Championships in Berlin, Germany.

Ludovika Jakobsson and Anna-Lisa Allardt. Photo courtesy Finnish Archives.

Soon, romance blossomed and the two skaters became engaged. Walter proposed that the couple move to his native Finland. In a memoir discovered by historian Henriikka Heikinheimo, Ludovika
wrote, "He wanted to marry me... Maybe I was a diva or a practical German or whatever - but for some time, I was [against] having been [sent to] Helsinki. I asked what was his actions [were] and in the future our apartment - not just go there and get married." She agreed to go to Helsinki to check things out, and when accommodations weren't found that suited her, she announced she was leaving for Berlin. Disappointed, Walter followed her back to Germany, where they married on July 27, 1911 at the ages of twenty seven and twenty nine. They lived in Berlin for a time while Walter worked for Siemens as a construction engineer before taking up residence in an apartment in Helsinki's Punavuori district owned by Walter's grandparents. He got a job with Strömberg Oy, a company that produced electric motors and later became the technical director of Osakeyhtiö Kone Aktiebolag, a company that manufactured cranes, elevators and electric hoists.

Postage stamp commemorating the Jakobsson's released in conjunction with the 1977 European Championships. Courtesy Harald Lindner. Used with permission of the Jakobsson family.

Helsinki welcomed the talented couple with open arms, taking them into the fold at the Helsingfors Skridskoklubb and reserving them a private section of ice north of the city's harbour to train during the long Scandinavian winters. To keep fit in the summers, the couple ran for twenty minutes every day... in their apartment to the horror of their servant.

Painting of The Jakobsson's. Courtesy Klas Johan Roos; Used with permission of the Jakobsson family.

The duo's competitive record prior to World War I was nothing short of stellar. They both claimed Finnish titles in both singles and pairs and won five consecutive medals at the World Championships, two of them gold. Ludovika even claimed the bronze medal in the women's event at the 1911 World Championships in Vienna. While competing with Ludovika, Walter routinely acted as Finland's judge for men's and women's figure skating competitions. The December 24, 1909 issue of the Finnish newspaper "Helsingin Sanomat" noted the Jakobssons skated with a "kind of rigidity, which is a nice charm [of the] Nordic style."

Ludovika and Walter Jakobsson. Photo courtesy Finnish Archives.

When international competitions resumed following the first World War, the Jakobssons won their first of two Nordic titles in Oslo in 1919. After welcoming their first of two daughters to the world, the following year, they headed to Antwerp, Belgium to participate in the 1920 Summer Olympic Games. They arrived a few weeks before the figure skating competition to practice every morning and afternoon at the Palais de Glace d'Anvers, which had been constructed specifically for the Games. Many Belgians flocked to see the talented pair skate in warm spring weather as it was a novelty. He dressed in slacks, long socks and a sweater, white starched shirt and tie and her in an ankle length black dress and a smart jeweled black hat with a feathered spray, they made quite the sharp looking pair when they took to the ice as the last of eight teams contesting for Olympic gold. Sakari Ilmanen wrote of their performance, "They did not have many moments on the ice when you realized that they were not in a great mood for ice skating. Not a trace of the competition fever, severe jumps and turns succeeded perfectly, the skating was punctual and full presentation of the music. It was ice skating which received enthusiasm [from] the audience. Almost incessantly throughout the skating time, they showed tumultuous applause." Defeating Norwegians Alexia and Yngvar Bryn and Britons Phyllis Johnson and Basil Williams by a wide margin, they became Finland's first and only Olympic Gold Medallists in figure skating. Although Greco-Roman wrestler Verner Weckman was Finland's first Olympic Gold Medallist back in 1908, the Jakobsson's were the country's first Olympic Gold Medallists since the country achieved independence from Russia in 1917. Additionally, Ludovika became Finland's first female Olympic gold medallist in any sport.


Following their Olympic win, the Jakobssons made a cameo in the Finnish film "Polyteekkarifilmi" and won a silver medal at the 1922 World Championships in Davos, their third World title in Oslo in 1923 and an Olympic silver medal at the 1924 Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix, France behind Austrians Helene Engelmann and Alfred Berger. After a four year hiatus from competition, they returned to participate in their third Olympics in St. Moritz in 1928, where they placed a disappointing fifth.


Ludovika appeared in a few Finnish silent films and took up judging for a time before focusing her attention on training young skaters in Helsinki. She is credited with helping build the Finnish skating program and in particular for her work with young women. Walter served as President of the
Helsingfors Skridskoklubb for decades and was responsible for the development of the Johannesplan in Helsinki. However, his primary focus was always judging. He pushed the International Skating Union to drop the highest and lowest marks in an effort to curb national bias and helped decide the results of countless World and European Championships. Walter often called it as he saw it, even if his decisions were deemed controversial by others. At the 1929 World Championships in Budapest, he placed Sonja Henie third in the free skate behind Austrians Melitta Brunner and Fritzi Burger. At the 1933 World Championships in Stockholm, he was the only judge to place Vivi-Anne Hultén ahead of Henie in the figures. One can only imagine the stress of his post as the referee of the women's competition at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where Sonja Henie won her third Olympic gold medal as the Nazis looked on.


"Walter and Ludovika were the most charming and friendly couple with families in Finland, Switzerland and Germany. They had also friends all over the world," recalled members of the Jakobsson family in a December 2016 letter. "They did a lot of voluntary work and were good gardeners. They had a very large and beautiful garden in their very charming summerhouse outside Helsinki by the sea. Walter was also a handyman, making his own garden furniture as well as giving the knowledge to his grandchildren, and their friends. He arranged also sailing competitions and [taught] sailing rules and gentlemanship to the neighbouring children. He also arranged 'Olympic Games' for the children when Helsinki had the Olympics in 1952. They are still mentioned by their family and by people who had been trained by them."

Photo courtesy Johan Nygren; 1955 Elsa Snellman painting courtesy Tua Lindner. Used with permission of the Jakobsson family.

Walter passed away on June 10, 1957 while in Zürich, Switzerland and Ludovika retired from coaching, passing away eleven years later on November 1, 1968. Inducted posthumously to Finland's Sports Hall Of Fame in 2010 and the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in 2013, they remain the most successful pairs team ever to have represented Finland in international competition. Skating historian Gunnar Bang once argued, "They are the rightly considered the most skillful exponents of good style in pair skating that perhaps ever existed."

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Best Of 2016: A Skate Guard New Year's Spectacular

Over the last twelve months, Skate Guard blog has shared over one hundred and fifty fascinating stories from figure skating's rich and colourful history. It's been an absolute pleasure hearing from so many of you throughout the year. Learning about your own connections to and perceptions of these important stories has to be the best part of 'doing what I do' and I cannot wait to continue to share even more of these gems with you in the coming year! To cap off what has certainly been in an interesting year in the world, I wanted to share a perfect 10.0 of my favourite pieces from the past year that you may have missed. If you haven't read any of these yet, make the time... they're honestly just fascinating tales!

10. THE STATUE IS DONE: THE JACQUELINE DU BIEF STORY


In 1952, Jacqueline du Bief of France claimed the Olympic bronze medal and World title. An artistic skater far beyond her time, she introduced elements of the avant garde to the amateur figure skating world at a time when many were more than content to stick with the status quo. Learn more about her story in this July 2016 blog.

9. FANCY DAN'S AND FIGURE EIGHTS


Skating's history has a long and troubling history of expecting "men to skate to like men". This June 2016 blog explores skating's quiet war on effeminacy from a historical perspective.

8. THE 1990 WORLD FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS


With the assistance of the wonderful folks at Halifax Public Libraries, I took an in-depth, behind the scenes look at the only World Championships ever held in Atlantic Canada in this November 2016 blog.

7. SKATING'S BEST SUPPORTING CHARACTER: THE HARRISON THOMSON STORY

Harrison Thomson and Rudy Richards. Carl Van Vechten photograph. Used with permission of the Van Vechten Trust. 

Canadian Junior Champion Harrison Thomson was born in the United States, got his start in professional skating in England and skated alongside three thirties doyennes of figure skating: Sonja Henie, Belita Jepson-Turner and Vivi-Anne Hultén. His storied career, which was nothing short of enthralling, was revealed in this April 2016 blog.

6. A CENTURY OF SKATING FASHION (SERIES)


In June 2016, Skate Guard took an in-depth look at the evolution of figure skating fashion from 1860 to 1960. The research for this particular piece was a mammoth effort to say the very least and if you enjoy fashion history, this one's for you! It's divided into parts one, two and three.

5. DOWNTON ABBEY ON ICE: THE SENSATIONAL STORIES OF SKATING SERVANTS


Prior to the twentieth century, classism played a very significant role in figure skating history's development. This February 2016 blog explores how 'the other half' skated.

4. ECHOES OF THE EISBALLETS


In the early twentieth century, legendary skating star Charlotte Oelschlägel took Berlin, Germany by storm with her lavish ice ballets at the Admiralspalast. This July 2016 blog sheds new light on these pioneering professional ice shows.

3. ADELE INGE: THE GIRL WHO DID BACKFLIPS DURING WORLD WAR II


Contrary to popular belief, women have been doing backflips on the ice long before Surya Bonaly defiantly performed one at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. In this July 2016 blog, we explored the story of just one of these fearless femmes.

2. BON APPÉTIT: A JOURNEY THROUGH SKATING'S CULINARY HISTORY


How on earth could there be enough material about the relationship between skating and food to make an entire blog? And if you could, why would that even be remotely interesting? If you're asking yourself those questions, you clearly haven't read this May 2016 blog yet.

1. ISABELLA BUTLER: FIGURE SKATING'S BEST KEPT SECRET


When we think of women's figure skating in the early twentieth century, the image we often conjure up in our minds is someone wearing a fancy hat and a long dress that barely shows off an ankle... certainly not a circus daredevil who brought figure skating to the Vaudeville world. Isabella Butler's story, shared in this March 2016 blog, has to be one of figure skating history's best kept secrets.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

#Unearthed: The 1979 Arnold Gerschwiler Interview


When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. Today's gem comes to you from the December/January 1980/1981 edition of the "Canadian Skater" magazine. It's an interview that former British sportswriter John Hennessey conducted with the late, great Arnold Gerschwiler. A controversial and revered coach, Gerschwiler's dozens of champion pupils included Sjoukje Dijkstra, John Curry, Ája Vrzáňová, Daphne Walker, Valda Osborn, Michael Booker, Helmut Seibt and his own nephew Hans Gerschwiler. To this day, he is widely remembered as one of the foremost experts on school figure technique in skating history. At the time Hennessey's in-depth conversation with Gerschwiler, he was sixty six and still actively coaching.  Shared with you with the permission of the good folks at Skate Canada, I think you're going to be fascinated with this inside glimpse into the perspective of one of the most decorated coaches in history:


CS: To start the ball rolling, how do you think Canadian skaters are doing right now in compulsory figures?

AG: I don't think Canadian skaters are so bad at figures. The truth is that the standard of figures has gone down everywhere since they were cut to three and the short program introduced. They are now worth only 30 percent of the marks, so there is a tendency to neglect them and concentrate on the free. Perhaps Trixi Schuba was the last person to receive the marks and skated the figures to the value of 4.9 or 5.0. Nowadays you rarely see anything over 4.3. Professionals throughout the world are giving too little attention to figures, which is wrong. What a shocking example we had in Kovalev; that Kovalev could win the figures in a world championship with the body positions he produced and no running edge. He violated every rule in the book.

CS: Isn't that a case of bad judging?

AG: Is it bad judging or is the case that the other skaters didn't skate any better? Whatever the tracings are like, from the ankle up he was awful, and I can't see how that would not be reflected in tracings, because body position is a strong influence on the tracings.

CS: I assume then that you were opposed to the new format?

AG: Certainly. Mastery of the figures is the foundation on which all good skating depends. I read the other day that Carlo Fassi said that Robin Cousins had a bad day in figures. That doesn't exist for me in the figures. Either you can do it or you can't. And you don't have to have any special talent. You have to learn the right movements and if you do the right movements you get the right results. If you start learning when you are young and learn the right way you do not need to spend hour after hour on them later on when you have to master new jumps and spins.

CS: Is it not possible to have a bad day if the figures drawn are not among your favourites, on the wrong foot, the wrong edge or whatever?

AG: You are not allowed a weakness. If you have one you must work on it and master it long before you arrive at the top. A champion has to be good at everything. The same with tennis. We've just had a marvellous example at Wimbledon. If you have a weakness it deserves to be exploited.

CS: The readers of this magazine will be particularly interested in your overall view of Brian Pockar.

AG: Brian spent four summers with me and improved in the figures considerably. He skated really well here at Richmond in the Rotary competition last autumn in all three sections and I am surprised as anyone that he did not do better in the Olympics and world championships. Given a top mark of 4.4 for a figure these days, I would Brian's standard at 4.3, just a whisker below the very top flight. But even on present standards he has the potential to bring his figures up to 4.9, even 5.0.

CS: That would put him head and shoulders above every other skater in the amateur ranks today?

AG: Yes, and that's where he ought to be.

CS: I wonder if nerves played a part in Brian's disappointment? Even assuming complete mastery, what about the tension of the moment, the thought that your hopes, even your career as an amateur and later professional, your future livelihood may depend on these coming minutes?

AG: Tension doesn't come into it, because at that stage a champion who has been skating for eight or ten years should be above that. There's no way I'll take that excuse from anyone.

CS: But you will agree, wouldn't you, that even if properly trained you might be nervous and that would lead to inferior school figures?

AG: No, not if you're properly trained. Everyone is nervous. I read that Borg was nervous before he went out on centre court against McEnroe but it didn't stop him from playing wonderful tennis.

CS: At what age do you like to get a skater?

AG: I like to get a skater really early, but not submit her to heavily concentrated training so that everybody says: "Isn't she marvellous, isn't she terrific, isn't she wonderful?" That creates an exaggerated idea of what she will be, in, say eight years time. I like them to enjoy their youth and have varied pastimes - also schooling - but skating training should have first priority.

CS: What stage should they have reached before you take them for teaching?

AG: I like them to have reached the bronze test. I took Sjoukje Dijkstra, for instance, at about eight or nine. That's about the right age. Or I like to take them at about 16, at a much higher level of performance, from another teacher who perhaps has gone as far as she can. I look particularly then for someone with the potential to go to the top and the willingness to work.

CS: Is Brian Pockar an example of a skater who came to you at an advanced stage?

AG: Not really. Brian came to me for extra help with the agreement of his trainer at home. I was in no way a replacement for her. I have never poached a skater from another teacher. It's just that a teacher sometimes welcomes the second opinion that another teacher can give and the added expertise that he can provide. That's how Brian came to train with me. And he was not only an advanced skater, but also an intelligent one with a receptive mind.

CS: Would you say he's still got it in him to be world champion?

AG: Yes, certainly, provided he's still willing to work and be prepared to make the sacrifices involved in dedication to skating and to keeping fit.

CS: What if a skater doesn't seem to have the right kind of dedication?

AG: Once upon a time I would have accepted them in the hope of disciplining them, but I wouldn't do that now. If they do not show the right attitude from the word go I've no time for them. I'm too old for it. I've done my fair share of disciplining!

CS: You've made it clear that you regret the decline in figure skating. What about the free? Do you think there is too much emphasis on gymnastics and athleticism?

AG: No, I think it's finding the right balance between artistry and athletics.

CS: Would you attribute that to people like Curry and Cranston?

AG: No. We've had skaters like that in the past, Belita Jepson-Turner, for example, and Jackie Dunn, and Hayes Jenkins and especially pair skating, the Protopopovs are a fine example. Naturally we've moved on to more intricate jumps, but I see nothing wrong in that - progress is progress in any sport - provided the rest of the program does not suffer. So far as I can see there is an equivalent effort in improving spins, steps, etc. Watching the Olympics and world championships at home on television I was impressed by the high standards.

CS: Did anyone particularly impress you?

AG: I liked Hoffmann very much at Lake Placid and I am glad I was not asked to make the decision.

CS: As a compatriot of Cousins, would you allow me to pass quickly on to another subject? Another fundamental change in the last decade or two has been the use of indoor rinks for the main championships. What kind of effect do you think that has had?

AG: It has helped the free skaters, of course, but figure skaters have suffered. In the old days you had to get into the figure, you had to feel the circle. You had to contend with slower ice and possible wind changes, so you had to push off harder and use your body weight, which means you had to work harder. Nowadays they hardly have to push at all and the body doesn't draw the figure enough. There's no flow in it.


CS: We seem to be on the verge of the first quadruple jump. Would you regard that as a healthy development?

AG: Certainly, as long as nothing else suffers in order to accommodate it. There must be right preparation and the right build-up and it must fit correctly into the program. I would never force a skater to try a jump merely for effect before he is ready for it and sure of it. One newspaper the other day, referring to tennis, talked about the surgeon and the butcher. Similarly, I say that a skater should use the skate like a surgeon doing a heart operation and not like a butcher hacking at a piece of beef!

CS: In skating parlance who would you identify as the surgeons and who the butchers?

AG: The surgeons would include Curry, Cousins, Cranston and Hoffmann. Many people would disagree with me about Hoffmann but that's because he is less artistic and has not the same feeling for music, but he uses his skates very well. I would also include Rodnina and all the top dancers. I wouldn't want to be unkind and identify the butchers. Must you press me? Then I would have to include Cramer and of course, Kovalev, who for me just doesn't exist as a skater.

CS: Many teachers, in skating as well as other sports, complain about interference by parents. How do you handle that one?

AG: It is perfectly natural that parents should want their children to do as well as they can, get as far as they can. But they musn't come between the coach and skater at vital times. I always explain to parents that they will have the chance to sit down with me and criticize after a competition but until then, the responsibility is mine alone. Nor do I want them to interfere during training and lessons, because that's when the pupil and I really have to concentrate.

CS: Do you look for a special physique among skaters?

AG: Physical attributes mean nothing if you haven't the basic talent and are not ready to dedicate yourself. There's no doubt though that a good physique and a pretty face help to create a favourable overall impression. A good personality on the ice is important too. All these things come together in the final analysis. Skating is the one sporting area where everything counts: talent, looks, physique, musical interpretation. In tennis you can pull all kinds of faces and your face look like a traffic accident, but it doesn't matter as long as you score the points! In skating you have got to be able to present yourself and project yourself.

CS: Are you in favour of the short program?

AG: I don't like it. I don't see why a skater should benefit because he does a particular jump better than another one and has the luck of the draw. All the various aspects of free skating will be revealed in the long program, either by the inclusion of certain elements or their omission. And on top of that it has devalued the figures. Television is the real villain. They want the best free skater to be the champion and as the skating authorities want the revenue they have to bow down.

CS: Another topic of never-ending interest in this sport is the judging. Do you share the general cynicism.

AG: No, I don't. I think the judges are trying to do a good job and I do not believe in the idea of conspiracies among them. But I wish they didn't feel the need to keep in line all the time. They should feel free to mark as they see, but of course they might face suspension. The blame lies with the ISU for not encouraging independence of thought among the judges. It would be much better to make an honest mistake occasionally than feel the need to tow the line. And they should not be allowed to compare notes before the first marks are made public. The judges should be encouraged to have the guts to mark what they see. One judge was barred for giving Kovalev low marks in the figures and I couldn't have agreed with her more.

CS: Some people maintain that there is a distinct East versus West favour about judging. Would you go along with that?

AG: No.

CS: Are in favour of the present system of reaching a result, from a majority of five?

AG: Yes.

CS: The Canadians are understandably excited about little Tracey Wainman. Have you seen her skate?

AG: I saw her skate at Queen's during the Jubilee Gala. She's a very talented little girl with lots of personality. Now let's see what they can do with her. There's no reason why she should not go right to the top under a teacher like Ellen Burka. But there are problems to face as she goes through adolescence, both in physical terms and in her perhaps wanting to pursue other interests. Beyond that, the main worry would be a temptation to push her too far too fast. They need to have the patience to build the girl up properly and let the results come in their own good time. By all means pick up the glory on the way but don't try to force it in a year or two. There is always a temptation in a case like this to look for quick rewards too soon. She won't reach her full potential until she's about 16 or 17.

CS: Would it be wrong to expose her too much to the public at her present age?

AG: Not if they do it in the right way. They should let her have all the success she can, provided it's understood that it's a means to an end. Ellen Burka will have to decide how much the child can take without it going to her head and she will have to resist any pressure by the Canadian association to overstretch the child. A glaring example of how things can go wrong is provided by Denise Biellmann, who was pushed too much by the Swiss association against the wishes of Otto Hugin, her teacher. The association interfered too much and has destroyed her chance of becoming world champion. If she had been left to Otto I think she might have already won the title. She still can, of course, but they should have left the one man in charge. They can shoot him afterwards, not before! Let that be a lesson for the Canadians!

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