Saturday, 14 October 2017

Silvia And Michel Grandjean: Switzerland's Most Famous Pairs Team

At the turn of the twentieth century, Ali, Jules and Arnold Grandjean-Perrenoud-Contesse, the three sons of a clock and watch maker from the Sagne valley, became friends with a group of sportsmen and caught the sporting bug themselves. Arnold was the most successful, winning the Swiss Championships in cycling in 1911 and 1912 and competing in the Tour de France. Together, they opened a small bicycle store in Fleurier and began designing their own line of bicycles - the Allegro. Eventually, two younger brothers, Tell and Ulysses Grandjean, joined the family business. In 1923, Arnold, Tell and Ulysses built the first Allegro factory in Neuchâtel and expanded their line to include motorcycles. From 1925 to 1927, Tell was Switzerland's champion in motorcycle racing. He even participated in side-car races with his wife. On April 12, 1931, Tell's son Michel Olivier was born and three years later, his daughter Silvia Odette. Little did he know at the time that his children would grow up to be Europe's best pairs figure skating team.

Silvia and Michel Grandjean learned to skate at the Patinoire De Neuchâtel as youngsters during World War II. A skating coach with a good eye suggested that they skate as a pair and together, the siblings both quickly showed promise, earning the Gold medals of the Swiss, English and Austrian skating federations. Following the War, they divided their training time between Switzerland and Great Britain. In an October 1960 interview in the Swiss newspaper "L'Impartial", Michel told reporters, "Fortunately for both of [us as] athletes, [our] parents were understanding. For three years, we could train in Monruz in winter and London in summer, under the direction of the Swiss, Gerschwiler." While in England, Silvia and Michel also studied under renowned ice dance coach Gladys Hogg for a time.

Silvia and Michel entered the international skating scene with a bang at the 1951 European Championships in Zürich, finishing just off the podium in fourth behind Jennifer and John Nicks of Great Britain. At the World Championships in Milan that followed, they placed a credible seventh of the twelve teams competing. Succeeding Elyane Steinmann and André Calame of Lausanne, they claimed their first of three Swiss pairs titles in Flims in 1952. As the top ranked Swiss pair that year, they were entered in the European Championships in Vienna, Winter Olympics in Oslo and World Championships in Paris. Quite incredible considering their lack of international experience, their lowest placement in the three events was seventh. In 1953, Silvia and Michel successfully defended their Swiss title in Arosa, defeating Susy Holstein and Willy Wehl and Albertine and Nigel Brown. At the World Championships in Davos that followed, they lost out on a spot on the podium to the Hungarian duo of Marianna and László Nagy by half a point.

After winning their third and final Swiss title in Villars in early 1954, the siblings made history in Bolzano as the first pairs team from Switzerland to claim the European title. In their final competitive outing, the 1954 World Championships in Oslo, Norway, they endured frigid, thirty below temperatures and skated one of the best performances of their career. "L'Express", on February 7, 1954, reported that "the [top] two couples presented very good programs". At the end of the day, the judges gave first place to Canadians Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden and 10.486 points and 17.5 placings - and second place - to the Swiss siblings.

Silvia and Michel were headliners of the Grand Gala Artistique at the Patinoire De Neuchatel in the early fifties, which brought in an international cast of skating stars of the era including Barbara Ann Scott, Hans Gerschwiler, Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy, Gundi Busch, Jimmy Grogan, Alain Giletti, Liz Manley's future coach Peter Dunfield and Trixi Schuba's future coach Leopold Linhart. Skating alongside these greats gave the Swiss siblings a taste of show biz. Although Swiss audiences were very disappointed to see them go, Silvia and Michel departed from Paris in 1954 via plane and took up residence on East End Avenue in New York City while they awaited the start of their professional careers.

Joining the cast of the Ice Capades, Silvia and Michel really benefited from performing alongside established stars of the professional world like Donna Atwood and Bobby Specht and Ája Vrzáňová. American crowds warmed up to their very European style quickly. On December 27, 1955, "The Spokane Chronicle" said they "move with seemingly effortless grace." One of their signature numbers was an elegant program set to Claude Debussy's "La mer".

In 1958, Silvia and Michel left the Ice Capades and joined the cast of Holiday On Ice, performing in shows in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe and North Africa. In early 1962, Silvia announced her decision to leave the tour. She married a Monsieur Guyonneau, a French industrialist in La Coudre, only a month later. In a July 1992 interview in "L'Express", Silvia reflected, "I found a man on my way, I became a wife and I left with regret the entertainment world that I so love." Morris Chalfen renewed Michel's contract with a new partner. He joined the Asian tour for a time before moving to America. He passed away on December 11, 2010 in Pennsylvania at the age of seventy nine. Roy Blakey recalled, "I was impressed with his quiet elegance and charming accent. Also his wonderful joy for life and great sense of humour. He loved to travel and his Christmas cards always contained a photo together with his long time partner Alex Mangas from their most recent foreign adventure. He was a beautiful skater and a terrific person who is sadly missed."

Michel Grandjean and his dog Domino

To this day, Silvia and Michel remain the only pairs team from Switzerland ever to win the European title or a medal at the World Championships. Whatever the future may hold, these siblings from Neuchâtel certainly took advantage of their family's sporting heritage and sped to the finish line first.

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 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

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Günter's Great Escape

"In power and youth sport handling of enemy activity is particularly focus on the following priorities... Plans, intentions and actions of human beings (especially poaching) and the illegal departure from the GDR...  especially taking advantage of missions abroad." - Released STASI file "Instructions 4/71 on the political and operational work in the field of physical culture and sport", March 12, 1971

Born May 21, 1948 in Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz), Günter Werner Siegfried Zöller took to the ice as a youngster, showed promise and soon found himself training under the indomitable Jutta Müller. He won his first medal at the National Championships of the German Democratic Republic in 1963 and was sent to the European Figure Skating Championships in Budapest, where he made a forgettable debut, finishing nineteenth of the twenty one men competing. By the next season, the teenager was already showing signs of improvement.

Photo courtesy German Federal Archives

Günter won his first international medal at the Pokal der Blauen Schwerter competition in 1964, finishing third behind France's Robert Dureville and future Olympic Gold Medallist Ondrej Nepela. In 1965, he won his first of six national titles and competed in his first of five World Championships in Colorado Springs. Flying under the radar, he slowly inched his way up in the standings in the European and World Championships in the late sixties. By 1970, he handily won a pair of bronze medals at the European and World Championships and established himself as a bona fide contender.

Photos courtesy German Federal Archives

Then everything changed. An injury forced Günter to miss the 1971 season. While working as an auto mechanic, he began to question his future in the sport and the political regime of the country he lived in. Two of his former competitors, Bodo Bockenauer and Ralph Borghardt, had defected in the mid-sixties and the possibility of getting out of dodge began to creep into his mind. In 1972, he returned to the ice purposefully. His plan? Not to win another medal but to get out of East Germany once and for all. After winning his sixth National title, Zöller headed to Gothenburg, Sweden for the 1972 European Championships. Not long after he arrived, he skipped his training session and called a cab from his hotel. An Associated Press article from January 11, 1972 explained, "He ordered it to the West German Consulate, where he asked for and was granted an Alien's passport. Before boarding a ferry for Kiel in West Germany, he said his motives for the defection were political. He said he would try a career as a trainer in Germany." His simple but effective plan turned out to not be as foolproof as he thought. Before he boarded the ferry, reporters from the tabloid "Bild-Zeitung" met and interviewed him for a feature series on his escape. One of them, a journalist named Manfred Hönel, turned out to actually be a wolf in sheep's clothing - a STASI informant - and fed back every word to the East German government.

Photo courtesy German Federal Archives

Ultimately, The Socialist Unity Party of Germany launched a vicious campaign in the East German press decrying Günter as a traitor. The "Deutsches Sport Echo" - which released STASI files prove was an arm of the party - called it "treason". He later said, "My coach, of course, was affected, too, when her student left the German Democratic Republic. Her daughter [Gaby Seyfert] then called me a traitor in the newspapers." Propaganda, smear campaign - whatever you like to call it - the East German men's champion found safety and success in the West. He started coaching immediately in Ludwigshafen and the next year, crossed the Rhine and established himself as a a trainer in Mannheim. Among his students were Claudia Leistner, Manuela Ruben, Stefan Pfrengle and Petra Ernert.

Photo courtesy German Federal Archives

Günter's West German students (particularly Leistner and Ruben) ended up being highly successful on the world stage but on the same level of awkward as running into your ex while you're on a date with your new paramour, he was constantly snubbed by East German athletes and officials at international competitions. In "Der Spiegel", judge Eugen Romminger asserted that Günter left his West German students to work "for 150,000 marks as a state coach to Italy". This arrangement lasted for two years, and then he returned to Mannheim, where he remains a coach to this day.

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 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

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Are You Ready To Rhumba?

Poster for the French release of Paramount's 1935 film "Rumba"

The roots of the Rhumba as a social dance trace back hundreds of years to Cuba at the time when the West Indies were the first port of call for slave traders . The dance's roots come from percussive traditional dances from the Senegalese, Yoruba, Dahomean and Ashanti people that were adapted to sensual Latin American rhythms. In the thirties, Don Aspiazú and his Havana Casino Orchestra and the Paramount film "Rumba" helped bring popularity to Rhumba music and dance. A toned down version of the dance called the 'Son' became widely accepted in American ballroom circles in the thirties, but the first attempts to translate the dance to the ice came out of England.

In 1932, Howard Nicholson devised the Rhumba Tango, a pattern ice dance which first appeared in the "London Times". Nicholson's dance was known to both British and American skaters, but it didn't really catch on. Walter Gregory's Rhumba, created in 1938, proved to be the Rhumba that stuck. Though its reverse choctaw was considered worrisome to some, Gregory's Rhumba was adopted quickly into the National Skating Association's new First Class (Gold) Dance Test, which Walter was the first to pass. He performed the dance with Muriel Roberts to win the Imperial Professional Skating Association's Open Professional Dance Championship in April 1939. Sadly, Walter Gregory was killed during World War II while serving in the Royal Air Force.

Patterns for The Rhumba Tango and Walter Gregory's Rhumba

Though the Kilian hold has been consistent over time and the pattern of Gregory's Rhumba endured few changes, the tempo increased from forty four measures of four bars per minute in 1941 to forty eight by 1950. The National Skating Association developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with the dance, making it an optional Gold dance in 1948 and scrapping it altogether the following year in favour of the American Waltz. It returned, only to be discontinued again in 1965 and reintroduced three years later as part of the Intermediate Gold Dance Test.

In 1944, Gregory's Rhumba inspired two spin-offs - the Preusch Tango (created by Edith and Arthur Preusch) and the Winterland Rhumba (created by Betty Abbott and Harry Doose). Interestingly, the Winterland Rhumba - named after San Francisco's Winterland rink - was designed so that two thirds of the steps were performed on a straight line. Like Nicholson's Rhumba Tango, neither the Preusch Tango or Winterland Rhumba generated the same interest as Gregory's Rhumba. That said, it wasn't exactly a hugely popular or well-received dance outside of Great Britain for many years.

In his 1950 book "Dancing On Ice", Erik van der Weyden, a contemporary of Gregory who invented the Foxtrot, Rocker Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz and Westminster Waltz with Eva Keats remarked, "No dance has ever created so much controversy, or has caused so many minor storms in a tea-cup - with much to be said for the views of either side. This dance never became sufficiently popular to be incorporated in the dance intervals of the majority of rinks. Even where it was normally included the numbers dancing it were few, and in most cases consisted of skaters of little more than Bronze standard, who were unable to do justice to the movements or rhythm, with the exception, of course, of occasional Silver dancers working up for their Golds. My own feelings on the Rhumba are that the steps can be quite delightful when skated to a different and smoother rhythm, so as to give more play to the essence of skating, and to eliminate that snatch effect which is characteristic of the dance. The actual Rhumba rhythm is for me even more fascinating than that of the Tango, so I feel that surely the solution would have been for the Rhumba steps to have been adapted for more suitable music, and for a new dance to have been created for Rhumba rhythm."

The Jamaican Rhumba

In 1962, two new Rhumbas were presented at Queens - the Jamaican Rhumba (created by Joan Dewhirst and John Slater) and the Cuban Rhumba (created by Peri Horne and Courtney Jones). These dances were exhibited at the 1964 World Championships in Dortmund and placed under consideration for adoption as new compulsories, but the ISU didn't ultimately adopt them. The Jamaican Rhumba, however, was adopted in 1965 as a replacement for Gregory's Rhumba in the National Skating Association's Gold Dance Test.

In September of 1969, the ISU ultimately adopted Gregory's Rhumba as part of its First Class (Gold) Test and added it to the international schedule of compulsory dances. When nearly all of the teams at the 1973 World Championships in Bratislava struggled with the dance, Polly Nelson suggested in "Skating" magazine that it be eliminated from the international schedule altogether. Rather than scrap the dance, the ISU Dance Committee chose to replace the dance's third step with a serpentine LFO-LFI-LFO step. This change would prove to be the first pattern amendment to the dance since its creation.

Revised 1973 pattern for Walter Gregory's Rhumba

The Rhumba was drawn as the OSP rhythm for the 1975/1976 season, and proved to be a major roadblock for many of the world's top dancers. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves noted, "Ice dancers most wanted Rhumba lessons because they had so little experience with the Rhumba as a ballroom dance. Many pros knew no more about this rhythm than their pupils. Ice dancers move in half circles; ballroom dancers move in straight lines forward, backward, or to the side... Rhumba rhythm called for the body to work as a figure 8, in one direction from the waist up, in the other direction from the hips down." The most successful Rhumba that season was that of Lyudmila Pakhomova and Aleksandr Gorshkov, who studied traditional Rhumba music in libraries and worked with ballroom coaches who specialized in the rhythm to ensure authenticity.

In November of 1983, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean made history by receiving the first perfect marks of 6.0 for a compulsory dance ever at the British Dance Championship. The dance they received them for was the Rhumba, which Dean had actually failed when he first tested it seven years prior. Torvill and Dean received another four 6.0's for the Rhumba at the 1984 World Championships in Ottawa. Their original dance set to the same rhythm at the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer would go down in history as one of the most memorable Rhumbas of all time.

The Rhumbas we see on ice today may have evolved from the Rhumbas of years past, but understanding the history and evolution of the dance can only add to our enjoyment of 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 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

Saturday, 7 October 2017

The 1997 European Figure Skating Championships

Held from January 19 to 26, 1997 at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy in Paris, France, the 1997 European Figure Skating Championships marked the very first time in history that skaters from one country swept the gold medals in all four disciplines at the European Championships. Prior to 1997, Russia or the Soviet Union had won three out of four disciplines seven times but they never quite managed to make the big sweep until they arrived in Paris. Ron Pfenning, Sally-Anne Stapleford, Vanessa Riley, Ann Shaw, Alexander Gorshkov, Courtney Jones and Alfred Korytek were just a few of the names you may recognize that presided over the event as judges and officials. Favourites floundered and flourished, comebacks crumbled and surprises reigned supreme. Let's take a brief look at how things played out in Paris one icy January back in 1997!


Left: Marina Eltsova and Andrei Bushkov; Right: Mandy Wötzel and Ingo Steuer

Reigning World Champions Marina Eltsova and Andrei Bushkov dominated the pairs event, earning marks of 5.7 and 5.8 for technical merit and marks ranging from 5.7 to 5.9 for their free skate. The Russians were helped along in their quest to reclaim the European title they had first won in 1993 when Germans Mandy Wötzel and Ingo Steuer left valuable points on the table by two footing a throw double Axel and singling out on their side-by-side double Axels. France's Sarah Abitbol and Stephane Bernadis, third after the short program, seemed on track for the bronze medal and turned in a wonderful performance in the free skate but a hand down on one of their throws dropped them behind Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. As one would expect, the Paris crowd wasn't too thrilled.


For the enthusiastic French crowd, the only skater that really mattered in the men's competition was the charismatic Philippe Candeloro, who had a late start to his season and was mounting a comeback after a knee operation.

"Mission: Impossible" and "Napoleon", Candeloro's 'characters' in Paris

All of the singles competitors - experienced or not - were required to earn their place in 'the main event' by competing in qualifying rounds and the results of the first men's qualifying group were quite surprising. Former World Junior Champion Evgeny Pliuta of Ukraine managed to place ahead of not only Candeloro but Dmitri Dmitrenko, Ilia Kulik, Michael Shmerkin and Viacheslav Zagorodniuk with one of his finest performances ever. In the second group, 1994 Olympic Gold Medallist Alexei Urmanov led the way ahead of Igor Pashkevich, Alexei Yagudin, Andrejs Vlascenko, Steven Cousins and Cornel Gheorghe. The qualifying rounds seemed a pointless exercise to many as only five men were cut prior to the short program.

Kulik rebounded to win the short program ahead of Zagorodniuk, Vlascenko, Candeloro, Yagudin and Urmanov with an iffy triple Axel combination. Quoted in the January 23, 1997 issue of "The Vancouver Sun", the young Russian said, "I feel comfortable in performing this short program... Concerning the combination, I realized something went wrong during the takeoff. I could have done a double toe-loop for the second jump. But in this kind of competition, you have to do a triple toe-loop.''

The tables turned in the free skate, when both Urmanov and Candeloro mounted incredible comebacks to take the top two spots on the podium. Zagorodniuk claimed the bronze, knocking a less than his best Kulik down to fourth ahead of Yagudin, Vlascenko and Pashkevich. Pliuta, unable to duplicate his outstanding effort in the qualifying rounds, ended up in twelfth. After winning, a shocked Urmanov told Associated Press reporters, "Yesterday I thought that these championships were over for me. Now I am sitting here with the gold medal."


Ice dance medallists at the 1997 European Championships

To the surprise of just about nobody, 1994 Olympic Gold Medallists Oksana Grishuk - or Pasha, if you will - and Evgeny Platov repeated as European Champions in Paris. The surprise was the history they made in doing so. Their "Libertango" original dance earned an incredible six 6.0's. These perfect scores actually tied the record for the most perfect 6.0's ever attained in an OSP or Original Dance at the European Championships, set by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean at the 1984 European Championships in Budapest.

Grishuk and Platov's "Libertango" in Paris

Incredibly, Grishuk and Platov managed to do it again in the free dance, earning a half a dozen more 6.0's on the second mark and a standing ovation for their theatrical program to Peter Gabriel's "The Feeling Begins". Their teammates Angelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov finished second. In a battle royale for bronze between two outstanding French teams, the more experienced Sophie Moniotte and Pascal Lavanchy came on top ahead of the upwardly mobile Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat.


Women's medallists at the 1997 European Championships

Surya Bonaly wasn't even supposed to compete in Paris. In May of the previous year, she ruptured her Achilles tendon and found herself in a fight with the French Federation to even be put on the national team even though she managed to win that season's French Championships in Amiens. Her twenty two year old teammate Laetitia Hubert, who missed the French Championships altogether, found herself in a similar struggle. Ultimately, both skaters were sent to Paris with Vanessa Gusmeroli, but it was clear from the get go that neither were up to their usual snuff.

In their qualifying group, Hubert finished fifth and Bonaly sixth, behind skaters who both had routinely defeated many times previously. In the other group, Gusmeroli fared much better, placing third behind Maria Butyrskaya and Irina Slutskaya and just ahead of the third Russian entry, Olga Markova.

Surya Bonaly, Olga Markova and Vanessa Gusmeroli

The competition itself was largely a splatfest, with comparative veterans Bonaly, Hubert, Butyrskaya and Markova all finding themselves buried in the standings in the short program. Though not perfect in her "Phantom On Ice" free skate, Irina Slutskaya managed to win both programs and win her second European title ahead of Hungary's Krisztina Czako and Ukraine's Yulia Lavrenchuk.

Butyrskaya finished second in the free skate to move up to fourth and Gusmeroli, who was third after the short program, mucked up several jumps in her free skate to drop to sixth. Markova finished eighth, Bonaly ninth and Hubert twelfth. While in Paris, Dick Button asked Slutskaya, "can I pinch your cheeks?" She replied, "Sure, all the old men like to pinch my cheeks."

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 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

Thursday, 5 October 2017

From Brussels To Antwerp: Three Belgian Skating Pioneers

Belgium... maybe the first thing you think of is Georges Remi's delightful cartoon Tintin, or maybe it's an ice cold bottle of Stella Artois. Perhaps still the first thing that comes to mind is Agathie Christie's famous mustachioed gumshoe, Hercule Poirot. Whatever that association may be, it's most likely not figure skating. Though Belgian figure skaters have enjoyed fine success in the previous two decades - take Kevin van der Perren and Jorik Hendrickx for example - it hasn't been since 1948, when Micheline Lannoy and Pierre Baugniet claimed Olympic gold and their second World title, that a Belgian figure skater has won a major ISU figure skating competition. Today on the blog, we'll meet some of three extremely talented men who put Belgian figure skating on the map in the early twentieth century!


The first men's skater from Belgium to win a medal at the European Championships was named Fernand Leemans. He accomplished this feat way back in 1947, finishing second to Switzerland's Hans Gerschwiler and Czechoslovakia's Vladislav Čáp. Leemans actually remained the only Belgian man with that claim to fame for the rest of the twentieth century. It wouldn't be until 2007 when Kevin van der Perren won the first of his two European medals that a men's skater from that country would reappear on the podium.

Who was Fernand Leemans anyway? Well, he was born on September 13, 1925 in the town of Brasschaat in northern Belgium. His opportunities to compete internationally were obviously limited by World War II but he won an incredible fourteen national titles in his home country as both a singles and pairs skater. In addition to his 1947 medal win at the European Championships, he appeared at the 1948 Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz and 1948 World Championships in Davos, finishing in eleventh place in both events.

What made Leemans' career so unique was that at the same time he was competing internationally as a figure skater, he was also competing at an elite level in roller skating. From December 5 to 7, 1947, Leemans was in Washington for the World Amateur Roller-Skating Championships, where he won the bronze medal in the men's event and the gold medal in the pairs event with his partner Elvira Collins.

In 1948, Fernand turned professional. An article from "The Billboard" on July 28, 1951 (when he and Collins were signed as headliners in the roller skating tour Skating Vanities Of 1952) offered a more detailed perspective on the team's scope of experiences: "Elvira Collins and Fernand Leemans, 22 and 25, respectively, who either as a team or individuals hold 35 titles, also were signed. They had been starring in a Scandinavian skating revue which toured Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Egypt, India, Singapore, Hong Kong and throughout Europe. Collins and Leemans have been working together for 13 years on rollers and ice." After the Skating Vanities tour, Leemans laced up his ice skates once again to perform solo as part of the cast in the Gay Paree show at the Roxy Theatre in New York City, where he skated alongside Jerry Decker, Margo Moore and the Roxy Choraleers and reunited with Collins to join the ice show at the Terrace Room in the Hotel New Yorker. The December 13, 1952 issue of "The Billboard" noted, "Collins and Leemans opened with a smooth 'Gay Nineties' routine, and displayed clever footwork and some cute dance steps that were quite attractive. However, they came over most effectively on their second time around, featuring in their 'Wild Twenties' act some beautifully performed lifts and head spins and graceful footwork. The team projects warmly whenever they are on the ice, adding to their effortless skating with appealing sight bits and gestures that add much charm. The male half of the act, Fernand Leemans, also did a solo, which came over in good style." It was in New York City that the two long time partners would part ways.

Jiřina Nekolová and Fernand Leemans. Photo courtesy Dr. Roman Seeliger.

After his taste of the Big Apple,Fernand returned to Europe to skate pairs with fellow European Medallist Emmy Puzinger in the Wiener Eisrevue in Vienna for several years. While with the popular Austrian show, he even appeared in three skating films from 1956 to 1964: "Symphonie In Gold", "Traumrevue" and "Die große Kür". After his retirement from the Eisrevue in Vienna, he moved to Barcelona, Spain, where he taught skating for over twenty years. He passed away on June 3, 2004 at the age of eighty nine, leaving behind a fascinating and forgotten balancing act of two impressive careers - on rollers and ice skates.


Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Born May 25, 1905 in Sint-Niklaas, a city in the Flemish province of East Flanders in Belgium,
Frédéric "Freddy" Alexis Edwardus Alice Mésot held the distinction of being the first singles skater from Belgium to compete at the Olympic Games. He did so in Chamonix, France in 1924, placing ninth of eleven men who competed... just ahead of future ISU President Herbert Clarke of Great Britain. Following his Olympic appearance, Freddy won the Belgian men's title and competed in a series of small international competitions between French and Belgian skaters that alternated between Antwerp and Paris in the late twenties.

The tall brown-haired, blue-eyed skater who spoke both English and French didn't reappear at a major international competition until 1936, when he placed eleventh at the European Championships in Berlin, Germany and tenth at the World Championships in Paris. In 1937, he moved up to tenth at the European Championships and eighth at the World Championships before opting to turn professional and wisely, get out of Europe.

At the age of thirty four in November 1939, Freddy arrived in New York aboard the SS Normandie from Le Havre with his twenty seven year old Brussels born wife Emma. He joined Guy and Maribel Vinson-Owen and Karl Schäfer in the "Gay Blades" revue for a time, skating pairs with Canada's Mary Jane Halstead. He then took up jobs coaching at the Skating Club of New York, the Timmins Porcupine Figure Skating Club, Granite Club, Bronx Riverdale Ice Skating Club and the Playland rink in Rye, New York.

At the first 'official' meeting of the Professional Skaters Guild Of America held during the 1950 U.S. Championships in Washington, D.C., Freddy was appointed as the Eastern representative for the organization. In this capacity, he worked alongside Maribel Vinson-Owen and Edi Scholdan. In 1971, he was named by the ISI as Man Of The Year and nine years later, on October 31, 1979, he passed away in DeKalb County, Georgia at the age of seventy four.


Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

Robert 'Bobby' van Zeebroeck was born on October 31, 1909 - Hallowe'en -  exactly seventy years to the day before Freddy Mésot passed away. His father Eduard van Zeebroeck, an avid sportsman from Brussels, passed away at age fifty four when Robert was only two years old. Raised by his widowed mother, he started skating at the age of six and soon, through practice in Antwerp and St. Moritz, Switzerland, honed his craft.

Though competent in school figures, Robert excelled in free skating and was known for his high flying single jumps and fast spins. Like Freddy Mésot, he was a regular in the annual France versus Belgium international competitions of the mid to late twenties and even once defeated Pierre Brunet in one of these events. In 1925, he won the Belgian men's title and the Waltz title with one Mademoiselle Lauwers. The following year in Antwerp he repeated as Belgian men's champion and took the Waltz title with a new partner, Mademoiselle Schiffelers.

That same year, Robert made his debut at the European and World Championships. At these events, judges from Finland, Switzerland and Germany recognized his talent as a jumper and spinner, placing him in the top three in free skating. In 1927, van Zeebroeck passed the first class test of the Swiss Skating Federation in St. Moritz under the auspices of the Club des Patineurs de Lausanne and the St. Moritz Skating Club and took up pairs skating with Josy van Leberghe. That winter, at eighteen years of age he entered the Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz. Though he placed only sixth in pairs skating with van Leberghe, he surprised many by skating away with the bronze medal behind Gillis Grafström and Willy Böckl. Two judges even had the relatively unknown teenager in first place in the free skate and in winning the bronze, he defeated Karl Schäfer, Pierre Brunet and Bud Wilson. It was Belgium's first medal in Olympic figure skating, and to date the only one in singles figure skating.

Figure skating historian Gunnar Bang noted, "Both in the compulsory and free departments, he proved to be a skater of great [talent]. He did the most beautiful Axel Paulsens and quick pirouettes that distinguished him in all respects. He said [he gave] great verve in everything he untertook; this is why his overall third place is no surprise." Interestingly, like Mésot, Robert all but disappeared from the international skating world until 1936, when he returned to place tenth at the 1936 European Championships in Berlin. Opting to withdraw from the Winter Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and World Championships in Paris, he instead thrilled audiences that autumn in Paris with an exhibition at the Palais des Sports with Vivi-Anne Hultén, Erich Erdös, Edi Scholdan and Liselotte Landbeck. After placing a disappointing ninth in his final international competition, the 1938 World Championships in Berlin, he retired from skating, later going on to coach for many years at the Murrayfield Skating Club in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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 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

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Rockers In Richmond: Virginia's Early Skating History

Most accounts of early American skating history focus on New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts and Illinois but I was able to find a couple of wonderful sources that explored early accounts of ice skating in the Old Dominion state. Keeping in mind that in the eighteenth century the winters would have been much chillier than they may be today, it really comes as no surprise that as far back as 1766, people were taking to the ice in Virginia. Advertisements from the October 26 and November 2 editions of that year's "Virginia Gazette" indicated that ice skates (with or without leather) were sold at Sarah Pitt's shop in Williamsburg and at Balfour and Barraud's in Norfolk. Other settlers in the state ordered in ice skates from England.

Jane Carson's 1965 book "Colonial Virginians At Play" tells us, "Travelers seldom commented on skating - perhaps because they usually visited Virginia in warm weather. But [Philip Vickers] Fithian spent the winter, and when millponds in the Northern Neck froze over, he joined neighbourhood groups who 'diverted' themselves 'on the ice', either with skates or without them. [William] Byrd's friends, too, played on the ice at Westover and esxperienced some of the hazards of the sport in this climate. On an unusually cold day in December of 1709 he entertained a group of house guests with billiards and reading in the morning and more billiards after dinner until they lost one of the balls. Then they walked the plantation and 'took a slide on the ice.' The following morning they took a walk and 'slid on skates', notwithstanding there was a thaw. In the evening they 'took another walk and gave Mr. Isham Randolph two bits to venture on the ice. He ventured and the ice broke with him and took him up to mid-leg.'"

Gaines Whitley taking a break from ice skating. Photo courtesy Virginia Tech archives.

In the nineteenth century, Lottie Shipman wrote of the joys of winter ice skating in Richmond, Virginia thusly: "Over the ice with a glide, Skimming the frozen expanse, Rapidly darting aside, Joining the slippery dance; Gracefully carving a line. Dashing away out of sight, Cutting a fancy design; Such is the skater's delight." The January 24, 1852 edition of "The Daily Dispatch" noted the development of skating in the state from recreational to bona fide 'fancy' skating: "Some who were quite awkward a short time since, are not only masters of both high and low Dutch, but are making bold efforts at cutting their names on the ice!"

Cadets skating on a pond at Virginia Tech University, circa 1920.  Photo courtesy Virginia Tech Archives.

Two years later, "The Richmond Mail" noted the efficacy of two 'colored' skaters (their word, not mine), named Patrick Brown and George Tate, who competed in a one mile speed skating race on the canal on the Elmira. The winning skater won twenty dollars; those betting on the race won five hundred. By the 1870's, an outdoor skating rink had been built in Richmond, Virginia and fancy dress skating parties with a hired brass band were all the rage. However, advertisements from "The Daily State Journal" seem to indicate more often than not, this rink was open to 'gentlemen only'.  Having never once hosted the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Virginia may not be a state we often associate with figure skating... but that's not to say it isn't one without a skating history.

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 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

Friday, 29 September 2017

The Legacy Of Ludmila

Within forty eight hours, the figure skating world learned about the deaths of 1948 Olympic Silver Medallist Hans Gerschwiler and 1964 and 1968 Olympic Gold Medallist Ludmila Protopopov. Gerschwiler and Protopopov join a long list of skating luminaries who have passed away in 2017 - Bob Turk, Donald Gilchrist, Ricky Harris, Mary Parry and Roy Mason and Arthur Apfel among them.

If you're reading this blog, I don't need to tell you who Ludmila Protopopov was. A two time Olympic Gold Medallist, four time World and European Champion with her husband Oleg, she was perhaps one of the most exquisite pairs skaters of all time. A three time winner of Dick Button's World Professional Championships, her annual appearances in the Evening With Champions shows at Harvard University were an inspiration to so many. She was living proof that age is just a number. She was a figure skating legend from a time before skating put math over mindfulness... but that wasn't the half of it.

For starters, there's the story of Ludmila and Oleg's 1979 defection from the Soviet Union. Yuri Felshtinsky and Boris Gulko wrote of the events that fueled the Protopopov's decision to leave the Soviet Union in their book "The KGB Plays Chess": "For a number of years, the outstanding Soviet figure skaters Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov came under pressure from Soviet sports functionaries. The harassment campaign was initiated by the KGB, which did not like their independence, their extensive contacts with foreign athletes and representatives of foreign sports circles and media. 'Little Vermin' kept on writing reports about the skaters' negative attitudes toward Soviet reality, about their admiration for the Western way of life. On the basis of these reports, memos were prepared for the Central Committee, which then gave orders to the State Sports Committee would clamp down on the couple. The consequences were not slow in coming... When in 1988, at the Calgary Olympics, the famous duo with other former Olympic champions and prizewinners, the head of the State Sports Committee, Gramov, told the Canadian organizers of the event that if Belousova and Protopopov came out on the ice, the Soviet delegation would boycott the closing ceremony at the Olympics. (They) did not come out on the ice." According to a March 1988 article from the "Montreal Gazette", Soviet officials were apparently concerned that if the Protopopov's skated an exhibition, "the crowd would boo the Soviet athletes as they marched into McMahon Stadium."

Now let's back that truck up back to their actual defection. In my best Sophia Petrillo voice: "Picture it! Switzerland, Mid September, 1979!" The Protopopov's made it five defections in that month alone when they followed in the footsteps of three Bolshoi Ballet dancers who defected to the West. Then forty seven and forty four, Ludmila and Oleg were in West Germany and Switzerland on an eight city, four week skating tour when they vanished on the day they were have flown back to the USSR. To anyone with half a clue, the defection shouldn't have come as a shocker. When they arrived in
Zürich that August, the couple didn't pack light. They brought ten pieces of luggage, including a video camera and a sewing machine. They had approached the Swiss government asking for asylum in Switzerland while performing there, and in turn Swiss Justice Ministry spokesman Ulrich Hubacher refused to disclose the skater's whereabouts or plans. Perhaps feeling the heat from the Protopopov's actions, their host and tour organizer Kurt Soenning was particularly critical of their decision to defect: "If I knew where they are I would tell them, 'Go home,' but I guess it is too late... I don't think they have much of a chance in the West, professionally. They are well past their peak. After all, they are in their mid-forties. Never did they drop the slightest hint that they were planning to stay in the West. If they had I would never have invited them. I am shocked. I think they abused my hospitality. I had planned to invite other Russian skaters to make tours. But those plans are now destroyed.'' Soviet officials were so alarmed by the string of defections that September that they cancelled a twenty eight concert tour of the Moscow State Symphony in the United States. Life ended up being grand for the veteran pair though. They enjoyed considerable success in professional competitions and shows for well over a decade and in 1995, the Protopopov's became Swiss citizens, making their home base the village of Grindelwald in the Bernese Alps. In his book "Ice Cream", Toller Cranston aptly noted, "The Protopopov's, had they not defected, would eventually have evaporated into obscurity. By rising again like two phoenixes from the ashes, they remained huge American box-office attractions."

In 2003 - less than a decade after their failed attempt to come back to the amateur ranks representing Switzerland - the Protopopov's returned to Russia for the first time since they defected at the invitation of then Minister Of Sport and former NHL hockey star Viacheslav Fetisov, receiving a standing ovation from a crowd of fifty thousand people in St. Petersburg. After so many years away with so many bittersweet memories, that moment would have been heartening for anyone. Yet, after reading a Gererd Zerensky interview with Ludmila and Oleg with the headline "Twenty-Two Pounds Of Grace" that appeared in a 1966 issue of "Soviet Life" magazine, it became clear that to me that their story was far more complicated that one could ever imagine...  


Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov need no introduction. Scores of articles about
the famous Olympic and 1965 and 1966 world figure skating champions have been written,
and their pictures have appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the world. But they
have never written any detailed stories about themselves, and their rise to the summit refutes
all the canons of this big-time sport. Recently Belousova and Protopopov visited the editorial offices of "Yunost" magazine. Part of the interview sports correspondent Gererd Zelensky had with them is reprinted.

Q: Most people think that figure skaters, to reach world class, should begin at the age of eight, or even as early as five. Do you agree?

A from Ludmila: Oleg and I often get letters from children 10 or older who complain that they
were turned down at skating classes because they were too old. I started figure skating at 16. I saw the movie "Sun Valley Serenade", and I was dazzled by Sonja Henie's skill. We lived near the Central Army Park, and I used to skate there on hockey skates. I had no idea, or hope, of learning figure skating. But I happened to see a poster at the gate of the Dzerzhinsky Children's Park announcing a figure skating class. I was lucky. It was taught by Samson Glyazer, a kind-hearted man and a great figure skating enthusiast. He accepted all comers. He heard me out and said, "This way, miss, to the
rink." I went out on the ice and flopped right down. But after a while I got used to it and even managed to skate a little on one foot. That was on November 22, 1951, and I had just turned 16. My first trainer was Larisa Novozhilova. I trained for all I was worth and in three years made the first sports class in both singles and pairs skating. That was when I met Oleg. Let him go on from there.

A from Oleg: I was also nearly 16 when I began figure skating. Early in 1948 I went to the Leningrad Young Pioneer Palace - I wanted to play the piano. They said no, that I couldn't make out differences in pitch and key. What did I do? I enrolled in a percussion class and began playing the xylophone. The pianists had turned me down because I had no ear, and I was playing Glinka's "Skylark" and Mozart's "Turkish March" by ear! There was a figure-skating class at the palace, too. Once I wandered into the garden where the Rossi Pavilion stood, and there in the middle of all the noise were figure skaters training on the ice-covered lanes. Up to then I had skated like all boys did, hitching on to passing vehicles with a hook. I used hockey skates that I tied to my felt boots with string. I came to the class with them on and asked to be let in. Nina Lepninskaya, my first and last trainer, thought that my toe spins were good and my centering also. In short, she accepted me, and I was faced with the choice of going on with the xylophone or taking up figure skating. The skating won out. I did have to skate in shoes two sizes too small -  there were no bigger ones at the Pioneer Palace, but my desire to skate was stronger than the pain. A year later I took second place in singles skating at the national youth championship. In the fall of 1951 I joined the navy. I was in the ninth grade at the time.

Q: The ninth grade?

A from Oleg: Yes, I was overage, because I hadn't gone to school during the war. First the blockade and then we were evacuated to Central Asia. When we came back to Leningrad in 1945, I was 13 and they put me in the third grade.

Q: It means that besides a late start, you had a five-year break in your training?

A from Oleg: Just about. At first I was stationed in Severomorsk, and there was no place there
for figure skating. A year later, when I was transferred to Leningrad, I got into town from time to time, but not regularly. If I managed it twice a week, I was lucky! By today's standards this was not training, just skating for the fun of it. Now we train four hours a day - from eight in the evening
until midnight. But then I'd leave at seven, get to the stadium by eight, train for an hour or so, and then rush back to the ship. Four hours of training a week was just about the limit.

A from Ludmila: We met while he was serving in the navy.

A from Oleg: In 1953 only two pairs trained for the national championship. Leningrad figure skaters advised me to make up a pair with Margarita Bogoyavlenskaya. With only two other pairs competing, they said, the least you can get is the bronze medal. In a week's time we had some sort of a program ready. I talked my commanders into letting me go to Yaroslavl, and there we really did win a third place diploma at the USSR championship. The diploma made quite an impression on the unit, but actually it wasn't worth much, we lost each other several times during our performance. If there had been 15 pairs at the championship instead of three, we would probably have scored fifteenth. Just
goes to show you what an important role documents still play in this world. The diploma gave me a new "lease on life." There was a new attitude toward my training. In 1954 I was even allowed to go to Moscow for a month-long rally. That's where I met Ludmila. Here's how it happened. The rally was held in the same Dzerzhinsky Children's Park where Ludmila began skating. At one point in the rally there was a forced intermission - one of the groups had not arrived. I put on my skates and went
out on the ice for practice. Ludmila was already skating there. The rink was small, 30 by 30, hard not to bump into each other, so we held hands and began spinning around together just for the fun of it. This chance spinning was the beginning of our pairs skating. Somebody looking on asked, "Have you
been skating together long? About two years? You do it so naturally." Others said, "Keep it up, you're doing fine!" Yes, but I lived in Leningrad and she in Moscow! There was no way I could get transferred to Moscow. But here Ludmila had a lucky break. She finished school in 1953 and did not get into the Power Institute.

A from Ludmila: I took the entrance exams but only got a Fair in mathematics, so I was eligible only for the Railway Engineers Correspondence Institute. But I wanted to become a regular student, so I decided to try my luck in Leningrad. Who knows, there probably wouldn't be a Belousova-Protopopov skating pair if not for that Fair in mathematics.

Q: Let's get back to the question we started with: At what age do you think it is still not too late to begin figure skating?

A from Ludmila: Some of our trainers are too much inclined to follow foreign methods. They forget that we have different aims in sports! Many parents abroad, I think, try to get their children into a figure skating school as early as possible so they can win a title and get into a professional revue...

A from Oleg: ...To justify the money spent.

A from Ludmila: That's why there are so many who go professional at an early age, as soon as they win a title or get to be known.

A from Oleg: And then they skate in ice reviews for another 20 years! [Belgian] Fernand Leemans is past 40. And how old is American Dick Button? But he still skates and makes money. And the way he jumps. If all young skaters jumped like he does!

Q: So, even starting as late as 16, a skater can get to the top?

A from Oleg: If he has what it takes.

A from Ludmila: The older a person gets, the better he should be able to skate. I know that I'm skating better now than I ever did.

Q: Still, what is the age limit for beginning?

A from Oleg: I think it is a crime to tell any 10-to 15-year-old that he's too old for figure

A from Ludmila: It's very important for a beginning figure skater to train conscientiously.

A from Oleg: A person should first get used to skates by himself, and only when he feels
thoroughly at home on them should he be taught figure skating. Training a figure skater is a complex and primarily mental process. It requires the utmost concentration and attention. Figure skating today demands intelligence. Unfortunately our skating experts now stake everything on so-called prospects. And what does that mean? It means that they let you join a class at 6 and at 19 they write you off, the way they wrote off Tanya Likharyova, for instance. Who knows how many victims there are of that very questionable "prospects" theory?

Q: I believe there was a time when you too were considered a nonprospect?

A from Oleg: Even before last year's European championship in Moscow, Skating Federation
secretary Sergei Vasilyev said that if Belousova and Protopopov did not become Olympic champions, he'd raise the question of keeping them on the national team and of their prospects. But we won the European championship and then the world championship in America. At the 1964 European championship we took second place. Though we were in fighting form, the unexpected happened: Ludmila tripped on a hairpin the skater before her had dropped. And so before the Olympic team left
for Innsbruck, head trainer of the national team Georgi Felitsin was saying, "Well, in my opinion, Belousova and Protopopov won't do much better at the Olympic games than they did at the European championship." And even when we came back from Innsbruck with gold medals, he kept on saying that we had won by a fluke, that the chances were 98 per cent against our winning. Yakov Smushkin of the Central Physical Culture Research Institute also prophesied our defeat. He calculated on an electronic computer (using the "prospects" theory, of course) that the curve of match results of
our opponents was rising and that ours was heading downward. On the eve of our departure for Austria he said, "Too bad, kids, but the best you can hope for at the Olympics is third or fourth place." Whenever I meet Smushkin now, I ask him, "Well, how's your computer doing?"

Q: Who helps you prepare for competitions?

A from Oleg: Anybody and everybody. You can help too. We don't mind asking anybody for help, even people who have nothing to do with figure skating. In 1962, for example, we first took second place at the world and European championships. And who trained us? The fellow who drove the ice waterer at the Central Army Rink, Sasha Smirnov. He's a first category gymnast and plays a trumpet
in an amateur jazz band. We trained alone, and he saw that we were doing too much arguing, considering the contest was so close. Some of the things we were trying just didn't come off because we were nervous. This young fellow would come up to us and say: "Don't worry, you're doing all right, except there's a glissando here in the music, which calls for smoothness, and your movements are too abrupt." Or: "You, Oleg, spread your legs wide when you jump, and Ludmila's knees are close together, that's why your jump is too long and hers is too short." We got very used to him and he to us. He would work his shift till nightfall and at six in the morning show up at the rink again. Instead of resting, he'd train us. Sometimes it was hard to force ourselves to go over the whole composition just for him. But Sasha would say: "Come on, kids, let's see how it all looks." It was hard, but we repeated it for him. I later told that same Vasilyev, "And do you know who trained us? A chauffeur." And he said, "Well, just don't let anyone else know that."

Q: Why don't you have a permanent trainer?

A from Oleg: That's a long story. At the Dynamo Sports Club in Leningrad, Pyotr Orlov was considered our trainer. But he hardly ever worked with us - we were "nonprospects." Then we got transferred to the Locomotive Club, but there they had a pretty poor class and no trainer at all. Again we were on our own. In recent years we were helped a lot by former USSR champion Igor Moskvin. He helped us tremendously just before the Olym- pics, after we insisted that he be invited to the
rally. But Igor lives in Leningrad, and we're only nominally Leningraders. We do most of our training in Moscow. Our home is in Leningrad and we study there, but Leningrad still doesn't have an artificial rink fit for figure skating.

Q: How do you train? Let us in on your secrets.

A from Oleg: During training Ludmila puts on a 22-pound training belt. We call it "22 pounds of grace."

A from Ludmila: It's hard to skate with an extra 22 pounds on you, but when you take it off, you feel almost weightless! It's so easy to skate and jump.

Q: How do you get along when you train? One article I read said that Oleg was domineering.

A from Ludmila: I'm calmer, and he's more nervous.

A from Oleg: Sometimes I get the feeling that she isn't trying as hard as I am and that upsets me, so I yell, "Come on, get a move on!"... But that's the whole beauty of pairs skating: The manliness of the male should be blended with the grace of his partner. If we were both the same, like two grasshoppers, it would make dull viewing.

Q: How is it with you, Ludmila? Does Oleg hurt your feelings when you're training?

A from Ludmila: I hurt his feelings, too. But as soon as we leave the rink, it's all forgiven and
forgotten, of course.

Q: Oleg, where did you get your music background?

A from Oleg: My mother was a ballerina, and I grew up in that kind of world. I heard many
famous singers and saw the great ballerinas. I've been interested in music since childhood.
After the blockade, Mother worked on the variety stage, and I often waited for her at rehearsals. The musicians didn't get insulted when I'd tell them they were off key. On the contrary, they all told Mother it was a crime not to make a musician of me. My mother would answer, "I don't want my son to play in an orchestra." And so I never did! But I did try, as you know. And I still love music as much as ever. When Ludmila and I skate to a melody we are especially fond of, we forget that people are watching. There's only us and the music. We mostly choose classical music. My favorite composers are Liszt and Rachmaninoff. When we do Trdumerei, the audience is interested because we try to make them see the music in movement. We never try to play up to the audience or put on a showy display that says: Look how pretty we are! This is not true figure skating. It's cheap,

Q: How do you combine the music and the purely athletic elements of the program?

A from Oleg: Sometimes we have to combine things that just don't go together. Have you seen our demonstration dance to Massenet's "Meditation"? It lasts 4 minutes and 27 seconds and has only one lift, but it makes a bigger impression than a purely athletic program with nine lifts. So that you ask yourself: Which is more important - the athletic elements or something else? Say we're preparing a new program, and we see that artistically it is complete and expresses the music, but we're faced with a dilemma: Somewhere we have to make a double jump or else we'll be told that it is not complicated enough.

Q: How do you think figure skating might resolve this contradiction?

A from Oleg: The German term 'Eiskunstlauf' is a fine definition of figure skating. When West German sports writers were trying to figure out why Kilius and Bäumler lost out at the Olympic Games, one well-known commentator got up a press conference with these skaters. The statement they made there was that they skated better than we did. The commentator analyzed the telerecordings of their performance and ours. First minute. "Yes, that was good," agreed our opponents. "And here is your first minute." "Yes, we were a bit off." Second minute. Third minute,
and so on to the fifth, until our opponents admitted that we did skate a bit better. Then Bäumler suddenly spoke up, "But still we were better, because we had more athletic elements and they had more ballet." Then the commentator remarked that 'Eiskunstlauf' (ice art skating) was not 'Eissportlauf' (ice sport skating) and should not include just anything. This is just what we're getting at. The complexity of the program must be justified by its content. But the way it is, you can do anything you like as long as you put in enough jumps and lifts! This is the salvation of skaters who
cannot interpret the music with their movements. They use jumps to patch up the holes. According to the judges, our demonstration programs "Traumerei" and "Meditation" are not complicated enough for competitions. But from an artistic point of view they're head and shoulders above our sports program.

Q: Why is it that Soviet figure skaters do so well in world pairs skating contests and are behind in singles and dance skating?

A from Oleg: The answer is ice.

A from Ludmila: Single skaters and dancers can't practice compulsory figures on a wooden floor.

A from Oleg: That's right. With the competition what it is today, for us to train without ice is the same as for a swimmer to train in a bathtub.

Q: By ice, do you mean artificial rinks?

A from Oleg: That's exactly what we do mean. There's a lot of talk in our country about mass sports. This is the reason given for our victories in international matches. But believe me, the success of Belousova and Protopopov does not reflect the level of development of figure skating in our country. What mass figure skating can there be when a city like Leningrad, where Russian figure skating was
born, where our first Olympic champion Nikolai Panin lived (and where even now our best figure skaters are turned out), has no large artificial rink!

A from Ludmila: Every children's sports school should have its own artificial rink. And we only have one such school - at the Young Pioneers Stadium in Moscow. We've won world recognition with our pairs skating, but we won't hold on to it long if there is no one to take our place.

A from Oleg: Tons of rocks have to be shifted to obtain one gram of uranium ore. The same holds for sport. To produce gifted figure skaters, first of all you need ice, and second long years of hard work on it.

Q: What kind of skates do you use?

A from Oleg: We use British-made skates, ours are not good enough for figure skating. The workers at the Leningrad skate factory have a good answer to our complaints: "We can make better skates than the British. We have the necessary steel and the skilled workmen. But an extra-class pair takes much more time and labour than skates intended for mass consumption. The factory does not as yet have special wage rates for such work." So they stamp out mass-produced skates that you can't hope
to win international competitions with.

Q: What do you do besides sports?

A from Ludmila: I'm in my fifth year at the Railway Engineers Institute.

A from Oleg: And I'm in the Hertzen Teachers Institute, the physical training department.

A from Ludmila: The trouble is we spend only a month or two a year in Leningrad.

A from Oleg: We're excused from class attendance, but the last time we came to Leningrad I took two exams and ten tests. We don't have any special privileges, and we don't get good marks for nothing. Without bragging, to get where we did in sports (though we still have a long way to go) took a lot of work and knowledge. We had to study a lot of biology, physiology, psychology, mechanics, physics,

Q: Who are your favourite figure skaters?

A from Oleg: The Americans Dick Button and David Jenkins, the German Ina Bauer, the Canadians Donald JacksonBarbara Wagner, Robert Paul. All of them are very musical. It touches your heartstrings to watch them. Heart - that's what is missing most often. You see a figure skater going all out to do a complex turn. He does it gracefully and cleanly. It would seem that there is nothing more you could expect. But it lacks the principal ingredient.

A from Ludmila: His heart isn't in it.

A from Oleg: Yes, it's skillful and correct, but it's not artistic. Very often the mastery of a figure skater boils down to artistic processing of spiritual vacuity. It always comes out in the movements. There are thousands of high-class athletes but someone must be first, and the first is the one who can reach your heart. That's the way it is.

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 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