Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Norton Skate: Skate America's Humble Beginnings

As the action gets underway this week at the first stop on the ISU Grand Prix Of Skating series, it's hard to think that Skate America wasn't always this prestigious event with extensive media coverage and a who's who cast of international figure skating stars. After all, the list of previous Skate America winners reads like a figure skating hall of fame. Olympic Gold Medallists Yuna Kim, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Scott Hamilton, Kristi Yamaguchi, Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat, Jamie Salé and David Pelletier, Brian Boitano, Artur Dmitriev (with both Natalia Mishkutenok and Oksana Kazakova), Viktor Petrenko, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, Alexei Yagudin, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, Evan Lysacek, Oksana Baiul, Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev, Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin and Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov have all won Skate America gold at one time or another, in many cases more than once.

The very first Skate America competition wasn't actually called Skate America at all but instead Norton Skate, named after a Massachusetts manufacturer who sponsored the event. Held in Lake Placid in the autumn of 1979, Norton Skate was actually a test event for the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics. According to "The History Of Skate America" document from the World Figure Skating Museum And Hall Of Fame provided by U.S. Figure Skating's museum archivist Karen Cover, Norton Skate attracted sixty five skaters from sixteen countries. In Candus Thomson's 2009 article "Stars remember how Skate America began" in The Baltimore Sun, several of the stars of the first Skate America reflected on their participation in the event. Scott Hamilton, who won the men's event defeating World Champion Jan Hoffmann, said "the memories are wonderful and specific. I remember standing on top of the podium and thinking, 'I've got to start winning more because the view is amazing.' I really turned some heads in that competition. From that point on, I had to be taken seriously." Ladies winner Lisa-Marie Allen recalled "I won compulsory figures, an oddity because I had a reputation of not being able to skate cleanly. The short program, I don't remember, but I must have been good enough. I fell on the triple salchow in the long program, but it must have been good enough to win."

Scott Cramer competing at Norton Skate in 1979

Although Hamilton and Allen were able to win on home turf, the pairs and ice dancing competitions at the Lake Placid event favored international skaters. Sabine Baess and Tassilo Thierbach of East Germany fended off Kitty and Peter Carruthers to take the pairs gold, whereas Hungarians Krisztina Regőczy and András Sallay of Hungary, Soviets Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin and Canadians Lorna Wighton and John Dowding all stood on the ice dance podium. Americans Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert and Carol Fox and Richard Dalley were fourth and sixth, respectively. 

Although Norton Skate was originally only intended to be a one time event and there wasn't a Skate America competition in the fall of 1980, in 1981 the event was again held in Lake Placid and according to the World Figure Skating Museum article, "this time with the understanding that it would become an annual, international, invitational competition because of its popularity among international skaters, coaches and spectators." Following the 1982 Skate America, a national bidding process was opened up for potential host cities and interestingly in 1987 the event wasn't held due to an agreement between the USFSA and CFSA that international events wouldn't be held during seasons when either country was hosting the Olympics. Skate Canada International wasn't held in 1979 for this same reason. Adopted into the Champions Series which evolved into what is now known as the ISU Grand Prix, Skate America is one of the most prestigious events on the autumn figure skating calendar.

As you cheer on your favourites in the competition, don't forget that Skate America will be the first of the seven Grand Prix events (including the final) this season that you'll find coverage of on Skate Guard! I'm not going to be doing a play by play of any of the Grand Prix events but will be weighing in with my opinions. I do hope you enjoy the Grand Prix "coverage"!

But WAIT... there's more! If you call within the next thirty minutes, we'll throw in this link to the blog's Facebook page, which has news, features and videos that aren't on the blog for the low, low price of free. That's right... I don't do this for donations or profit of any sort. I write this blog because I believe in great skating - artistic skating - and want to share stories about the sport's history, its amazing skaters and areas of the sport you may not know enough about with as big of an audience as I can. All you have to do is "LIKE" it: http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard. If you get 10 friends to like, I'll throw in a big hug. And if you get one hundred friends to like, let's just as I'm "that kind of girl". You can also follow all of the fun along on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ohh_N!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Then And Now: Figure Skating, The Internet And Television

It's hard to imagine a world without the internet. In this day and age of smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers and WiFi, anything we could possibly want to know and access to instant communication with people all over the world is literally at our fingertips. This wealth of information and the popularity of social media as a means to share it is really heaven for any figure skating fan. If we want to know what is going on in skating, a quick Google or YouTube search or a scroll through your Facebook or Twitter feeds can usually answer anything. For everything else, there's Mastercard... I mean Wikipedia. It wasn't always this way though.

The internet has grown and evolved exponentially since the early to mid nineties. I remember going online when I was a junior high and high school student in a computer lab that was opened I think one or two evenings a week. The place was packed! Home computers with internet connections weren't something everybody had like they do now, and if you did have one, chances were you were using a dial up or painfully slow connection... not that the computers in this lab were any better. Many websites would crash and freeze and a blue screen of death could set you back a good ten minutes in your efforts to surf "the World Wide Web". You didn't take advantage of the free Wifi at Starbucks. You paid through the nose at internet cafes.

As the internet itself grew in popularity, quite a thriving figure skating community cropped up. Devoted skating fans from around the world shared reviews of competitions they attended and discussed both amateur and professional competition on Usenet newsgroups such as one called rec.sport.skating.ice.figure. There were several and they were basically email newsgroups consisting of one giant back and forth conversation about skating. Sandra Loosemore's Skateweb: The Figure Skating Page was THE trusted and respected go to for all things figure skating. If you wanted the latest news about everything from competitive rosters and results to partner changes and an inside scoop as to the lives of many skaters, Blades On Ice magazine's website was the place to go. Katja Rupp's EUROSKATING and Tino Eberl's The Figure Skating Corner (the latter being still active and a HOST of wonderful information and archival results) offered a distinctly European perspective on the skating world. Fan pages were a dime a dozen, many thorough, excellent and full of every detail of a skater's story you could imagine. Some were simply free Angelfire, Tripod and Geocities pages full of wonky dancing baby type images and scanned photos that often would give you nasty inline ads or pop-ups you did NOT need to deal with. I even briefly maintained a much earlier short lived incarnation of what I am trying to do here on the blog called Intensity On Ice that had its own forum. I also compiled a hugely detailed collection of professional figure skating competition results and music, much of which I remember e-mailing to Paula Slater, who runs the Golden Skate site and maintains a good collection of those records there to this day.

I spoke with Rev. Joelle Colville-Hanson, who offered on her web sites a wonderful archive of information about professional competitions at the time as well as excellently researched fan pages for Scott Hamilton, Dorothy Hamill, Rosalynn Sumners and Kitty and Peter Carruthers. Joelle explained that she "was interested in both figure skating and history and saw that there were no web sites for these skaters and felt they should have fan pages. I was a particular fan of Scott Hamilton and his contribution to professional skating and thought that should be known. Back in those days, you could not just Google this stuff. I went to the library and looked up old Sports Illustrated and Skating magazines to gather all the information. After I was better known people would send me info and old skating show and competition programs. It was a hobby for me. When they took down all the websites that were so easy to use it kind of put the end to all that. I got busy doing other things. I do think it's a shame all that info wasn't saved. Although there is a group that is archiving a lot of Geocities pages and many of my pages are still there. Most of the Scott Hamilton stuff is gone and I'm not sure where I have it. It was probably saved on a floppy disk."

Joelle also talked to me about the closer sense of community (both good and bad) that came from more a tight-knit and far less anonymous group of skating fans back in the internet's Usenet days we don't always see on say, a skating forum today: "I don't know if you remember when my husband died and many people on the Skatefans Usenet made me a quilt. I do presentations on social media now and I use that as an example of how virtual community is real community. I use the example of the Skatefans newsgroup and email list as an example of early 'social media' even though we didn't call it that. I have many friends on Twitter and Facebook now that I met through those venues. The difference for me now is that those little groups were kind of closed and the skaters may have and probably to some extent did read what we said about them but it wasn't as public as it is now like on Twitter where you can tag the skater who is also on Twitter. Me, I just don't say any of the critical things I might have said about a performance or even snarky like 'Alissa Czisny is a head case' because I know for a fact she'll see it... and didn't she go off of Twitter because of that? Few people are like me and refrain from snarky. It's just all so much more public and open. We all knew each other on those groups, what skaters everyone liked, what their hobby horses were, what would set them off. It was more of a community than I think it is now. I don't know if you remember I had a stalker who followed me around on the different venues and just said awful things. On the one hand, I think it might be worse if she found me on social media now but I could block her on all those sites which you couldn't do on Usenet. I'm so much more public now I think I'd be much more worried. Sometimes I wonder if she will show up and start bothering me or if she has a life."

A big part in the challenge of really bringing people together like back in the internet's early days are the competing choices of skating coverage out there right now. There really is something available for everyone's varied tastes and many skating fans tend to be a little more cliquey now than they once were. There's also the glaring lack of television coverage to speak of. Joelle stated that "the biggest difference is that there is so little figure skating on television to talk about. My daughter competed and skated but now she is grown up (although still coaches skating) but to me I don't know the skaters anymore, I don't like the new scoring although I know the skaters really do. I'm just not that into as much, though I did go to Nationals (last year in Omaha)?  The Japan Open was our first peek at many of the world's best sporting new programs that they, like all competitive skaters do, hope will take them to the top."

Let's talk about that lack of television coverage a bit. I'm always about trying to look on the bright side, but sitting down to offer my two cents about televised figure skating coverage is not exactly a topic you can approach with a great deal of positivity. U.S. figure skating fans just got an unpleasant dose of reality when U.S. Figure Skating announced the broadcast schedule for figure skating this season. Coverage on NBC is minimal at best and thirty seven hours of the entire amount of competitive figure skating coverage being presented will be on Universal, which for many isn't a standard station people with a basic cable package would even have. ABC is offering a total of sixteen hours of additional coverage of the Disson skating/crossover shows such as the Skating and Gymnastics Spectacular and Family Skating Tribute.

Then you have icenetwork and live feeds for various feeds on the internet... don't get me wrong, I don't mind a live feed but I would much prefer to sitting on my sofa watching skating, We are fortunate as the coverage up here is generally much better and the sports stations skating coverage usually gets relegated to usually aren't ones you pay a fortune to add to your cable package. My job and life don't really necessitate me watching a lot of skating in real time anyway, so I count my lucky stars for YouTube and other platforms.

One of the more troubling issues as I see it is the fact that a sport who has a huge potential fan base based on the popularity of skating on television in the nineties seems to be neglecting a very loyal aging population. I am in no way saying a ninety year old can't use a computer and search for a live stream of a competition or get an icenetwork subscription, but the casual fans who MADE this sport popular definitely aren't going to watch if they have to go hunting skating down. The fan base is not going to significantly grow unless skating coverage is easily accessible to everyone. 20% of households in the U.S. do not even have internet access and many others who do might not be tech savvy enough to navigate and find what they are looking for necessarily.

Now, I've said it before and I'll say it again. The fundamental problem as to why figure skating is hurting so much and is not getting the ratings necessary to make it an attractive product for network television is that the judging system and the choreography we are seeing as a result simply is not viewer friendly. The quick fix to the problem is not bringing in a younger, more IJS savvy commentary team. There isn't a quick fix. The long overdue decision to allow skaters to use vocals in ISU competition isn't even likely to make the sport any more entertaining, if skaters, coaches and choreographers continue to use Piano Concerto No. Whatever again and again like it's some sort of good idea. There's an almost universal reluctance by many skaters to take advantage of the opportunity to make things a little more entertaining and back away from staid traditional program choices even when the option is clearly there. 

Simply put, times have changed from the internet's early days, and whether we like it or not, we're not just talking about skating on the internet anymore like back in the nineties. Now we HAVE to watch it there. I'm not even saying it's a bad thing for most existing fans. There are pluses obviously. We're not just seeing the five short programs that the television network decides to play. We can look at the skating in an unprejudiced way and develop our own narrative when we watch raw coverage online, which can at times be appealing. That said, there's something to be said for quality TV coverage and the appeal to a fan base OUTSIDE of the small percentage of viewers that are diehard fans. I just think that part of going forward is looking at what worked and trying to recreate that model... with witty commentators like Dick Button and easy to understand broadcast coverage that breaks down the IJS for casual viewers as much as possible. Times may have changed but throwing your hands up in the air, sighing and saying "figure skating is dying" is no more productive to helping rejuvenate the sport's popularity than not admitting there is a problem in the first place.

Did you enjoy this blog? Be sure to always check back for more skater interviews and writing about everything under the sun in the skating world. There is also a Facebook page connected to the blog where all blog articles and interviews are shared - as well as current skating news, photos and videos of amazing skating. Give it a "like" at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard. You can also follow me on the Twitter at http://twitter.com/ohh_N. I love talking figure skating and would love to talk about the sport with you!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Skating With Anne Boleyn's Ghost: The Royal Menagerie And The Tower Of London

Topping even the rink that was installed in the Eiffel Tower in terms of the cool factor, The Tower Of London in England plays host to one of the most dramatic ice rinks in the world: The Tower Of London Ice Rink. Literally developed where the Tower Of London's moat was situated, the ice rink offers outdoor public skating with the backdrop of the Tower's fortress battlements.

What makes this setting even more dramatic is that the Tower is considered one of the most haunted locations in the United Kingdom. Since building commenced in 1078, the property played host to well over one hundred confirmed executions including botched beheadings, hangings, firing squads and people being burned at the stake alive. The Tower Of London is synonymous with imprisonment and cruel torture. Modern excavations have revealed plague pits and mass burials near the property. It's the home of the Crown Jewels Of The United Kingdom, which Colonel Thomas Blood infamously tried unsuccessfully to steal in 1671 but more than anything, renowned for its unsurprising number of ghost sightings considering the brutality and suffering that has occurred there. The ghost of Anne Boleyn who was beheaded in 1536 for treason against Henry VII allegedly haunts both the White Tower (carrying her head under her arm) and the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula where her body is buried. Other ghost sightings at the Tower Of London include Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, King Henry VI and Lady Jane Grey, who reigned as Queen Of England for nine days before being ousted by the much feared Queen Mary I Of England, who earned the nickname "Bloody Mary". Perhaps even more famous than Anne Boleyn's ghost are the purported ghost sightings of Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, the two young brothers who mysteriously disappeared in 1843 while living in the Tower. In 1674, the skeletons of two boys were found buried ten feet under a staircase in the White Tower and an examination in 1933 confirmed the skeletons corresponded with the ages of the princes at the time of their disappearance. It is widely believed the boys were murdered and many have suggested that Richard III was responsible, even though both boys had been eliminated from the royal succession. Their ghosts have reportedly appeared as two small figures gliding down the stairs of the Bloody Tower, still in the white night shirts they would have worn when they were killed in their sleep. As early as the fifteenth century, there have also been sightings of the boys playing on battlements and around the grounds as well as of children's laughter. A look at ANOTHER famous ghost sighting at the Tower Of London takes us right back to the moat, the very site of the Tower Of London's skating rink in present day.

In January of 1816, a sentry on guard outside of the Jewel House reportedly witnessed the ghost of a bear approaching towards him and apparently died of fright a few days later according to Christina Hole's 1951 book "Haunted England: A Survey Of English Ghost-Lore". A ghost bear? Well, if you look at the history of The Tower Of London and the moat... it's certainly possible. In the early 1200's, The Royal Menagerie was founded at The Tower by King John to house exotic animals given as gifts from dignitaries around the world to England. Elephants, tigers, kangaroos, polar bears, ostriches, alligators, anacondas, baboons and lions were among the many animals who basically had free reign of the property. This went on for centuries until several attacks on visitors to the property prompted the royals to send the remaining animals to the London Zoo in Regent's Park in 1832. A 2010 Daily Mail UK article by Julia Stuart talks about some of these animal attacks: "In 1686 a lion mauled Mary Jenkinson, a Norfolk maid living with the lion keeper. It was decided to amputate her arm in order to save her life, but she died a few hours later. In the 18th century a baboon being shipped to the Tower hurled a 9lb cannon shot at a boy-sailor and killed him. A report in 1830 told how a leopard had attacked a man employed to remove bones and waste from the menagerie's exercise yard. Two under-keepers heard his horrified screams and came to his rescue. And then there was a seemingly ungrateful serpent, which wrapped itself around Alfred Cops's neck while he was feeding a bird to a boa constrictor in a bid to entertain tourists. Indeed, it may well have been two final unfortunate incidents - in which a wolf escaped from the Tower, followed shortly by a monkey biting a soldier's leg - which finally led to the closure of the Tower menagerie."

Now what does this have to do with the skating rink? In 1843, the moat where the skating rink is was drained and filled but in the 1930's, a major excavation on the site where the moat once was found remains of many exotic animals buried where the skating rink stands today - including leopards and medieval Barbary lions dating back to the 1200's. A 2008 article in The Londonist by Lindsey Clarke explained that "the menagerie was maintained as a symbol of the King’s wealth, power and influence and used to entertain courtiers and scare the pants off traitors and enemies. Unfortunately, this meant that the noble North African lions were kept in ignoble conditions, with scarce enough room to wiggle, let along swing their glorious regal manes, their equivalent of the peacock’s tail, used to get the lionesses hot. Although, no evidence of lady lions has been unearthed so no wonder they’re extinct now." Although these lions were especially prized as living symbols of Britain's coat of arms, a 2005 BBC article "Big Cats Prowled London's Tower" explained that "despite their royal status, the cats were not treated with ceremony when they died, instead being dumped - unskinned - in the Tower's moat". So with all of this now known, is it really as shocking as you'd think that a sentry guard would perhaps see an apparition of an advancing bear?

One has to wonder if Anne Boleyn, this deposed queen consort who met her untimely end at the hands of an expert swordsman brought in from France especially to execute her has any plans to take up something more lively than wandering around The White Tower carrying her head. Perhaps, just perhaps she will trade in her sorrow for Salchows and take to spending her afterlife haunting the skating rink built on the very spot that all of these animals from The Royal Menagerie were found, perhaps with a Barbary lion in tow. We already have a camel spin? Why not a Barbary lion one? If you do happen to see her spiralling down the ice should you visit, I would stay out of her way. At The Tower Of London, heads tend to roll.

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Thursday, 16 October 2014

Interview With Tim Koleto

It doesn't get any more different than going from being a singles skater in the U.S. to taking up ice dance and representing a country halfway across the world - South Korea. With his partner Yura Min, Tim Koleto has done just that. Originally from Colorado Springs, Koleto competed on the junior level at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships before teaming up with Min in April 2013. Tim was gracious enough to take the time to talk about everything from the programs that he and Yura are skating this season to working with a who's who of skating's greatest coaches and choreographers and much more in this fantastic interview you're bound to enjoy:

Q: Prior to teaming up with Yura Min and deciding to compete for Korea, your background was actually as a SINGLES skater. You competed at the U.S. Championships and placed as high as sixth in the junior ranks. What prompted you to focus on ice dancing?

A: I met Yura in 2011 in Colorado Springs. I have loved Korean music and culture for many years, so when she first came to the rink, I introduced myself and we became good friends. Over the next couple of years, we crossed paths at competitions and for the short time she trained in Colorado Springs. Every time we met, we would joke about doing ice dance together, but the timing was never quite right. My singles career was still progressing and she had a partner. In June of 2012, I dislocated my knee on a triple axel attempt and partially tore both my hamstring and LCL. Once again, in December, I twisted my ankle on a landing and tore my Tibiofibular Ligament (I know, it's a mouthful). In February, I was just starting to skate again, and was working on skating skills, still unable to jump. Surgery was on the table if I wanted to continue to jump. Yura had split up with her previous partner, and offered me a tryout if I'd like to. I moved to Michigan a couple of weeks later and never looked back.

Q: You made your international debut at last year's Four Continents Figure Skating Championships and incredibly placed in the top ten in your first attempt. What did you learn the most from this competition?

A: Four Continents was an eye opening experience. One year before (and a singles skater at the time), it would've been laughable to even dream of competing in Taipei. Though it was a hugely positive competition for us, what actually sticks in my mind is the mistake I made on the twizzles in the short dance. I am incredibly hard on myself and a perfectionist to the end, so knowing we missed the minimum for the World Championships because I didn't grab my blade was tough to stomach. "One thing at a time" is an easy thing to say, but not always easy to execute. In the aftermath, I have learned to trust myself, to stay calmer and more grounded on elements, and to not let things get away from me in pressure situations.

Q: What are your main focuses in training and your goals for this season?

A: Our main focus for the year has been to skate more and more alike; to be sensitive to each others timing and body lean, leg line and toe point. I am in no way a veteran, so finding sameness in our skating is an always-evolving process and we stress this at all times. As the season goes on and the foundation becomes more solid, we are exploring more emotional connection, more power and speed, and skating closer together. Our main goal has always been to be at the World Championships in Shanghai, but our secondary goal for the year has been to leave a lasting impression on the audience. In so many ways last year was quickly thrown together. This year we feel ready to show who we are as a team. We want to have an instantly recognizable and unique 'brand' to our skating, and we want people to experience something special when we perform.

Q: What can you share about the concept behind both your short and free dance this year? What do you feel are the strengths and differences of your material?

A: The concept and direction of our short dance is paso doble to the core. We allow ourselves some room to connect and find intimacy in our flamenco pieces, but we think it is important to adhere to the theme we are given for the year with total commitment. We didn't look for unnatural or avant-garde music choices, rather, we chose to inject the classic paso doble style with our own personality, and let the program find its individuality this way. The concept of our Free Dance is an eccentric take on swing, through a Cirque du Soleil lens. We've entitled it "A Quirky Sort Of Love". The music is from the Canadian-French children's movie "The Triplets of Belleville", and it has this really consistent European tone that we fell in love with. Where our paso doble is intense and aggressive, we wanted the Free Dance to feel soft and light and fun. It is the year after the Olympics, so we wanted to take a risk and really stretch our comfort zone and play with different styles and characters.

Q: You have worked with some very talented coaches and choreographers, Christopher Dean, Igor Shpilband and Tom Zakrajsek among them. What has each brought to your skating that will stick with you forever?

A: I have been so blessed to train under such incredible coaches. Christopher Dean left a huge impression in my mind (and yes, I'm still star struck by him). He has such an incredible vocabulary of moment and styles. He really taught us how to use each others weight and how to understand momentum in order to execute complicated elements. We actually have a huge number of tricks we learned from Chris that didn't make the 'final cut' of the free dance that we will incorporate into future programs. When I began working with Tom Zakrajsek and Becky Calvin, I was at a crossroads in my skating career. I cannot explain the gratitude I have for being taken under his wing. He taught me that even old habits can be changed if you want it bad enough, how to harness perfectionism into an unbreakable work ethic, and how to be a competitor. I take his wisdom and training habits and apply them daily, even as an ice dance. I owe my success to him. Igor Shpilband is different than any other coach I've worked with. His passion and love for skating is clear in every lesson. He is intense and honest in a way I have never experienced from a coach before. He has a deep understanding of music and how to build a program. I'd like to give an honorable mention to Tom Dickson and David Wilson as well. Tom fostered my love for skating when I was very young, and his focus on school figures and edge quality made my transition to ice dance much easier. David taught me a new way to hear music and a new way to express, and that sometimes innuendo is more valuable than the obvious.

Q: What is your favourite book, song and film?

A: "The Mists of Avalon" by Marion Zimmer Bradley, "I Am the Best" by 2NE1 and "V for Vendetta".

Q: If you could meet one famous person (living or dead) who would it be?

A: J.K. Rowling.

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: Johnny Weir, for his originality. He has such a signature skating style and personality, and the technical strength to back it up. Everything he did was so 'Johnny'. Michelle Kwan. "Lyra Angelica". Enough said. Yuna Kim. She has never finished off the podium in international competition. A true champion. She is so poised and a sincere role model. I am so lucky to have met her and to compete for her home country under her legacy of success.

Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you?

A: I am a giant nerd. I'm in the middle of writing my second sci-fi/fantasy novel, I binge watch bad TV shows on Netflix, and I read anything I can't get my hands on. I also have a huge love for Korean music and Korean dramas. And, thanks to my Mom and sister, I am admittedly addicted to Downton Abbey. So embarrassing.

Q: What makes figure skating the best sport out there?

A: I think what makes figure skating so special is the dichotomy of sport and artistry. Very few sports share this dynamic marriage of music and dance with raw power and athleticism.

Did you enjoy this interview with Tim Koleto? What comes next? MORE interviews, MORE skating history, MORE interesting articles for you to read, that's what! Stay tuned to the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard and my Twitter feed at http://www.twitter.com/ohh_N and thanks as always for your support and most importantly... spreading the word!

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Fairfield's Edwards Pond: Witchcraft Trials And Ice Skating

I have had an insatiable interest in The Salem Witch Trials for as long as I can remember. After first being intrigued by Laurie Cabot as a teenager watching an episode of A&E's "In Search Of", I read her book "The Power Of The Witch" and have since read a number of books and watched documentaries about the events that unfolded in Salem, Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. Those trials saw the execution of twenty people and it wouldn't be until well over a decade later that I'd learn of a very personal connection to those events.

In 1630, my ancestor Anna Maria Conrad wrote a letter while pregnant, imprisoned and tortured in a  Frankfurt, Germany jail, accused of witchcraft. In the translation of the letter (which was a plea for her freedom) she wrote "If you cannot allow me to live in Kleinheubach or elsewhere in Erbach, then, release me and allow me to enter the Mainz region... I ask for the rest of my life that I do not remain guilty and forgotten in Erbach." She survived being burned at the stake and escaped from her imprisonment to Grosheubach, Germany. It is believed that her husband bribed the guards to obtain her freedom. She is known historically as the 'last witch of Kleinheubach'. I'm fortunate enough to (through a distant relative) even have a copy of Anna Maria's original letter in German as well as a full translation.

Having that fascination with my own ancestor's story and the stories of those who endured similar trials in Salem, my interest skyrocketed when I read an article that talked about a skating connection to witch trials. I'm telling you... you can't even make this stuff up! During the height of the Salem Witch Trials, a very similar series of events unfolded in Fairfield, Connecticut. Decades after settlers had sentenced Goodwife Bassett to hanging in 1651 and Goodwife Mary Knapp to the same fate in 1653 for having "witch marks", Puritan society again reared its ugly head and accused another Fairfield woman named Mercy Disbrowe of "witchery". According to Devan Boniface and Erin Gleason's 2000 article "The Fairfield Witch Project", "Disbrowe was searched for witch marks by a committee of six housewives. After finding a peice of skin about an inch long that resembled a 'flattened finger of a glove,' Mercy was placed in jail where she awaited for the start what was to be a drawn-out trial." As part of Disbrowe's "trial" (I use quotations because a witch hunt is not a trial), Disbrowe was put to the almost folkloric "witch dunking" test where she was held down in a pond to see if she would float. If she were to drown, she was believed innocent and if she were to survive, she'd be determined a witch. I don't even have to tell you how ridiculous and sadistic that kind of test is, but hey, there's still racism and discrimination in this world, so there are clearly a lot of people NOW that like then, have completely illogical thought processes going on. At any rate, Disbrowe survived the "witch dunking" and was sent to be executed. Unlike in the cases of Bassett and Knapp, outside authorities stepped in and saved Disbrowe after seeing the hysteria that was going on in Salem around the same time.

Of course, as in any story like this, urban legend has prevailed. The pond in which Disbrowe endured her "witch dunking" (which urban legend says she didn't actually survive) was Edwards Pond, which on the grounds of Fairfield Academy. Naturally, the pond was believed to be haunted. Elizabeth Rose, the Library Director at Fairfield, Connecticut's Museum And History Center, confirmed that students at the Academy used the pond (which is now located on Fairfield's Town Green) for ice skating! Evidence that the "haunted pond" was used for skating can be found in "recollections in the 1904 Centennial Of The Fairfield Academy, page eleven (recollections of Arthur Osborne) and page twenty two (recollections of Mary Ann Sloan). It's an interesting connection between witchcraft trials and ice skating!" stated Rose.

Rose was kind enough to provide me with scans of the original 1904 document and I'm happy to be able to share both Osborne and Sloan's accounts of skating on the "haunted pond". Osborne wrote: "The Academy pond, now filled up, was a great feature in the school life, affording skating and sliding in the winter, and wading, rafting and sailing in summer. Often after recess in winter, we returned to the school room, wet from running on the cakes of ice, sometimes up to the middle." Sloan wrote: "Of our sports and pastimes, my most distinct recollection is of the pond next the Academy. It has long ago been filled in, but in my childhood was a considerable body of water. In the winter, when the ice formed, the boys on their skates would draw the girls back and forth as they held their wooden tippets. Sometimes we forgot that ice would break and that there was water beneath. I had many wettings. David Durand was once at least sent to bed for the rest of the day for this reason. After one of these episodes, wet from head to foot, I was hastening home when I discovered that to get there I must pass the procession of good people on their way to the Preparatory Service. Never was a little girl more ashamed of herself. But these mishaps were soon forgotten, and occurred again and again."

Although Edwards Pond, the site of a Disbrowe's "witch dunking" in the late 1600's and schoolyard ice skating at the turn of the twentieth century, is now filled in and grown over, one has to wonder if the site that was long considered haunted in local folklore really was. Did the ice that Mary Ann Sloan, Arthur Osborne and David Durand skated on break of its own volition or did Disbrowe really drown... and was she up for company? Although the answer is more than likely the first of the two, it sure makes for a great ghost story, doesn't it? As I write this, I like to think that my own ancestor, Anna Maria Conrad, is looking down and smiling.

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Monday, 13 October 2014

Interview With Harry Mattick

If you're not familiar with British skater Harry Mattick's story, get ready to be inspired. When he survived a car accident where his father was killed, Mattick suffered a major head injury that left doctors advising he'd never walk again let alone skate. He defied all odds by not only walking but skating his way to an incredible four British junior titles and making trips to the Junior World and European Championships. After recently losing his coach Igor Novodran in a plane crash, Mattick shows more resolve than ever to live out his dreams on the ice. It was my absolute pleasure to talk to him about his achievements, goals, overcoming adversity and much more in this fantastic interview:

Q: You've got a lot to be proud of about your figure skating career so far. After winning the British novice title, you won the UK's junior title for four years straight before joining the senior ranks and winning the silver medal during the 2012/2013 season. You've represented Great Britain on the Junior Grand Prix circuit and at the Junior World and European Championships as well as a whole array of international events as well. Looking back on everything so far, what are your proudest moments or most special memories?

A: There are, indeed, many moments in which I can look back and get a sense of achievement. My first international gold medal from the Warsaw Cup in 2013 is a special memory and representing the country at the European Championships was another. At the top of the list, however, is landing a new jump for the first time! I love competing, performing and, especially, winning medals but the sense of accomplishment you get from landing a new jump tops all else!

Q: You're currently ranked third in Great Britain and obviously are shooting for gold this year, especially with both Matt Parr and David Richardson having announced their retirements. What can you share about your goals for this season and how you are working to achieve them?

A: My goals for this season are (as they always are) to skate the best I can possibly skate, achieve everything I can possibly achieve and represent my country, myself and my God in a way that will make everyone sit up and take notice. Specifically, I'm hoping that a gold medal at Nationals and a place at the European Championships are included within that this season, however no matter what I achieve I absolutely love what I do and wouldn't change it for the world!

Q: You've trained both in England and in the U.S. What do you miss about training in North America and what did you miss most about the UK when you were in the U.S.?

A: America was a great experience! I loved the fact that the culture is so much different to ours in subtle ways that you wouldn't expect. When I was there I missed being close to family. I only got to see my family once or twice a year and that was hard. Training in the states was a great opportunity that helped my skating in many ways and there are many things I miss but I much prefer training in the UK for now at least.

Q: Tell me about your programs this season and what you love about skating them!

A: I love the character I play in my long program. I skate to "The Nightmare Before Christmas" as 'The Prince of Hallowe'en'. In the program, he discovers another world (namely Christmas Land) before returning to Hallowe'en Land. In my short program, I skate to "Amazing Grace" and play a man set free of bondage. My short program is much slower than last season's Latin music. I'm really looking forward to performing it.

Q: Your former coach Igor Novodran was tragically killed in a plane crash this March and you also lost your father in a car accident when you were younger. I'm so sorry for your losses but I'm also inspired by your determination to press on in the face of it. Where do you find strength?

A: My career has certainly not been an easy ride! I find that taking a step back to remember why I skate always renews my determination and drive. I started skating because of the accident that killed my Dad. I was sat in the back seat and suffered physical injuries as well as a major head injury. I started skating as part of my recovery and rehabilitation. Doctors told my Mum that I would probably never walk and that I definitely would never function normally as an adult. I guess they were only half right! I remember only being able to concentrate for two minutes at a time so I had a two minute skating lesson at the end of my sister's fifteen minutes. No matter what anyone tells you and no matter how qualified they are... you CAN achieve your goals!

Q: On a happier note, FOOD! If you were only allowed to eat one food every day for every meal for the rest of your life, what would be putting in your mouth?

A: (laughing) It's a good thing I train so hard as I quite simply love all food! I have a particular liking for fish, specifically salmon and smoked mackerel. One of my favourite treat foods, though, has to be chocolate digestives with peanut butter (something I discovered in the States)! This has to be the hardest question yet, though! I don't think I could live off just one food without going insane!

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: When I was nine years old, I recorded the 2004 World Championships. This was back in the day of video tapes! I watched the last six skaters of the men's long, without fail, every day (sometimes two or three times) until the following years World Championships! It was during that year I decided I wanted to be up there with them. Among those six skaters were Brian Joubert and Stephane Lambiel. I had the pleasure several years ago of doing a spin master class with Lambiel in a training camp and it was one of the highlights of my career so far!

Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you?

A: I'm a cyclist! I bike everywhere and as a result I average around forty miles a week. Its green, free and I find its a nice addition to my training, especially as a pre-warm up first thing in the morning.

Q: What is the most important lesson figure skating has taught you?

A: Figure skating has taught me many things but the main lesson has to perform under pressure. It's a lesson that's still ongoing but looking back I've found its crossed over into life off the ice and has turned me into a very laid back person.

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Saturday, 11 October 2014

Enigma's "Beyond The Invisible" And Rahkamo And Kokko

In 1996, new age musical project Enigma joined forces with British director Julien Temple and 1995 World Silver Medallists Susanna Rahkamo And Petri Kokko to present a first: a popular music video featuring figure skating as the storytelling medium.

"Beyond The Invisible" is a haunting piece of music by the group that features not only the vocals of Sandra and Michael Cretu but samples of Latvian folk piece "Sajāja Bramaņi'" ("Nobleman Rode Together") as performed by the folk ensemble Rasa and a Gregorian chant (Isaiah 64:9-11) from "Gregoriani Cantus" by Pierre Kaelin. The video depicts the avant garde Finnish team skating in a forest: Savernake Forest in Wiltshire to be exact. An ice rink was designed in the forest especially for the video and took over a week to freeze. 

The compelling imagery in the video is unforgettable and the abstract imagery and vocals have been interpreted in completely different ways. Some believe the song speaks of afterlife and reincarnation, of reaching a Home beyond Earth as we know it; that the lyrics propose the conflict between light and dark. "Close your eyes, just feel and realize it is real and not a dream, I'm in you and you're in me. It is time to break the chains of life, if you follow you will see, what's beyond reality," have been interpreted by others to talk about quantum psychology, buddhism and oneness and how many of us struggle within the laws, rules and constrictions of religion to find some connection to the universe and nature we live in. Yet others focus on the message of the importance to create your own dreams, have conviction in your fantasies and to not do what everyone else is doing ("to break the chains of life"). This final description certainly seems fitting for the skating interpretation of music and even the choice of skaters. Rahkamo and Kokko were always well known and applauded during their competitive and professional careers for being risk takers - from batty bride and groom to Nino Rota to vikings and street dancers, the Finns were always daring, different and completely fearless. Breaking those "chains of life" can also be interpreted as breaking out of your daily routine and meditating or thinking quietly about what you really long for and acting on those desires.

Beyond the spiritual and personal messages of the English lyrics, there is a much more bold message to the song if you look at the translations of the Latvian and Grigorian lyrics. "Sajaja bramani totari ta, raitata raitata, radu ridu raitata, rota" translates to "this is a dream your pants are still on" where "Ne irascaris Domine, ne ultra memineris iniquitatis: ecce civitas. Sancti facta est deserta: Sion deserta facta est: Ierusalem desolata est: domus sanctificationis tuae et gloriae tuae" translates to "Is this God? If so we need a revolution, like the civilizations in the desert, God has been corrupted, Sion is corrupt, Jerusalem is the devil... I despise the church...do not be angry Lord". If you look at those translated lyrics in context with the rest of them you see a bigger message about structured religion .vs. belief: a debate I won't even get into. What a lot of you, as readers of my writing, may NOT know is that I study spirituality as much as I can. I devour books on everything to Christian and Gnostic religions to reincarnation to every religion and "new age" belief imaginable like a big girl with a box of Smarties. I find it tremendously interesting that Enigma, who really is such a fascinating musical group in itself, chose to interpret and convey this message through skating. I can't imagine anything more spiritual than carving out edges on a frozen rink in the middle of a mysterious, ancient forest dating back in oral tradition to 934 AD. 

No matter how you interpret Enigma's "Beyond The Invisible" or the accompanying music video featuring Rahkamo and Kokko, one thing's for sure. It takes you to a different time and a different place and serves as evidence that skating and art aren't separated by a few degrees. They exist together.

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Thursday, 9 October 2014

Interview With Stephanee Grosscup

The story of Stephanee Grosscup's skating career - which has spanned over four decades - is full of some of the most fascinating moments that you could possibly could find. A combination of natural talent, hard work and dedication created a thriving professional career for Grosscup that began at a very young age and saw her tour with Disney On Ice, Ice Follies and Holiday On Ice and perform for over two decades as a soloist in the Sun Valley summer ice shows. Her work has a choreographer has seen her work with Olympic Gold Medallists and fan favourites and she was part of the choreographic team at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. She choreographed Stephanie Rosenthal's much loved "Rockit" program, skated in the Emmy winning production Carmen On Ice and even appeared on The David Letterman Show but that's really the tip of the iceberg. Over a glass of wine with Douglas Webster (the Artistic Director of The Ice Theatre Of New York), I was told I NEEDED to interview Stephanee. I told him to make it happen! Without fail, they both came through and it was my absolute pleasure to speak with Stephanee at length about her incredible career as a skater, coach, choreographer and lover of the sport:

Q: I don't even know where to start with you! Let's see... you've been on The David Letterman Show, won the U.S. Open Challenge Cup in 1990, worked alongside Sarah Kawahara and other greats on the 2002 Olympic and Closing Ceremonies choreography team, toured with Disney On Ice, Ice Follies and Holiday On Ice, The Nutracker On Ice and countless other professional shows and events. Looking back on your performing career, which moments or memories stand out as your absolute favourite - or shining - ones?

A: Absolutely, one of my most favourites would be the twenty two summers as a soloist in Sun Valley. You were skating under the stars - sometimes the full moon - once a week with an incredible cast and an environment that is so beautiful. To be able to have that honor is no doubt one of my favourites. The most outrageous was in 2002 when I was on the choreographic team at the Salt Lake City Olympics. They let the choreographers skate at the end of the first segment. I was in this huge icicle costume so I took the liberty to skate backwards and watch the entire stadium light up with these beautiful lights. It was incredible to be able to skate in that! I was asked by Brian Orser to skate in a show called Skate The Dream for the Rob McCall Foundation in memory of Rob McCall. Everyone who was in that show was some kind of champion and then there was me. I was super nervous skating alongside Toller Cranston, Brian Orser, Judy Blumberg and her partner at the time and all of these greats. I lost myself and skated this performance where I felt like something else had come through and possessed me.

Q: I want to talk a bit about your "amateur" career. So you competed on the regional and sectional level in the 1970's... so you were competing in the era of ladies skating that included skaters like Janet Lynn, Dorothy Hamill and Linda Fratianne. What can you share about your skating days before you turned professional?

A: I trained from age eleven to fifteen in California and did a lot of correspondence school - six hours a day, ballet class and off ice. I think I did figures four hours a day and I loved patching. It was such an incredible discipline and was worth sixty percent of our score back then. I would say a huge part of my amateur career was spent doing figures. I did okay competitively but at around seventeen with the split of my Mom and stepdad, there wasn't a lot of financial support to keep me in skating. By the age of sixteen, I had made my way to Sun Valley and was working as a rental skate girl and in 1975-1976, I actually started skating in the show there. I was a junior lady at the time and I pretty much gave up competing because I knew that (performing in shows) was what I wanted to do. I started teaching skating at nineteen and at twenty I was in a professional show and never looked back. As soon as I came to understand that there was a venue for me, - an avenue where I could express myself outside of the competitive box - I went that way.

Q: As a professional, not only did you do a lot of the "usual touring" but you also got to do a lot of great performance work such as skating with the Ice Theatre Of New York and performing with Carmen On Ice... as well as doing professional competitions also. A big criticism of the skating "climate" today is that there really aren't a lot of opportunities for skaters (especially those who are lesser known) to get out there and bare their soul on the ice. What are your thoughts on competitive skating and bringing in professional competition again as an alternative? 

A: I think that question has a lot to do with the changing of the judging system. I feel like there is so much confusion perhaps about why someone wins and why someone hasn't won. Our viewing audience is looking at competitive skating with confusion. So then, if you take that confusion and take it to a pro competition where it's scored out of one to ten, there's a huge disconnect between an overall opinion and the opinion of many. We've lost a huge viewing audience because of the way it changes every year and the fact we don't have "skating heroes" anymore. We don't have a Michelle Kwan who wins the national championships nine times in a row. The spectators love to have their idols. The judging system is confusing and diluted. If you really want quantify something, just have a jumping competition. Make it measurable like figures but use a radar gun to measure jumps or something just like in track and field if that's the direction it is going. There's just a lack of support from sponsorship and audience. People lose a sense of interest in what's going on. I feel like if they were going to mark skating in pro competitions, the categories would need to be very clear cut. It's all over the board and still so highly subjective but in my opinion; competitive skating has gotten more diluted than when someone can say six, six, six.

Q: You coach and choreograph alongside so many fabulously talented skaters it's unreal - Sonya Dunfield, Anita Hartshorn and Frank Sweiding, Linda Fratianne, Ryan Bradley, Kim Navarro and Brent Bommentre, Judy Blumberg, Lisa-Marie Allen, Craig Heath - I mean, seriously... If you need a fabulous coach, apparently Sun Valley's the place to go! When it comes to your coaching and choreography, you know that I have to ask about the amazing "Rockit" program you put together for Stephanie Rosenthal back in 2006. It was probably one of the most unique and cleverly choreographed pieces I've seen. How can you describe the creative process of working with Stephanie?

A: Well, that season I did the short and Stewart Sturgeon did the free skate. Always for me even if its with younger kids, I like to sit down with the kid and say "what are we gonna be this year? What character can we portray?" I look at it like they are married to that program. She had been in school taking dance and started doing hip hop so I first created this for her as a junior lady. I instantly thought of Herbie Hancock and brought the music to her and Stew (her primary coach at time). That year, she did well at Regionals but didn't skate well and didn't make it out out of Sectionals. I said that if we were going to do hip hop, let's go robotic because the judges wouldn't go crazy for harder hip hop. She moved into seniors and maybe in her second or third of seniors, she just came to me and said that she had a feeling she'd make it to Nationals that year and she had to do "I Robot" in a stadium. I said, "yes you do, Steph!" We followed the same map and structure but her hip hop moves had become so much better so we brought in new movements she'd perfected that particular year and spliced them in. Basically, my last piece of advice before she left for Nationals that year was "Steph, when you start the program start as the robot. When you end, end as the robot. Make it one goal that when you get to that footwork sequence, get that audience on their feet and dance, dance, dance with joy. This is your last Nationals!" It was the same process with Nathan Chen. Nathan will always inevitably come up with something he's very interested in being as a character. It's wonderful working with kids like that. I like them to know their voice counts with me. It's my piece but it's not. Once it's on them, I turn it over to them. I've been to Burning Man three times and that's what they do, make these incredible works and blow them up. My favourite thing is when the skaters themselves take ownership and find themselves in the choreography. I feel so humbled by that energy, to be able to give it to other people.

Stephanie Rosenthal's "Rockit" short program choreographed by Stephanee

Q: You've also choreographed for many professional skaters like Anita and Frank, Steven Cousins, Oksana Grischuk and Evgeny Platov and Elena Leonova and Andrei Khvalko. What pieces are you proudest of?

A: I did this piece for Liz Manley to "Uninvited". I love that piece SO MUCH! That was one of my favourites. Another total favourite was Steven Cousins. He came up to Sun Valley for several summers and asked me to do a piece for him so I got him "Great Balls Of Fire". I knew there was this sense of humor... something inside him that was dying to come out. He took that piece and he rocked it! It was so great to see him to do that. It was fabulous to do "Foxey Lady" with the Russian Olympic Champions Grishuk and Platov. That number was great.

Q: You recently won the first live professional figure skating competition in North America in over a decade - the ProSkaters Live Open event in Sun Valley this summer with a group piece you choreographed called "Transience". The piece was a tribute to the seemingly lost art of edges and figures and was so well received. What can you share about this piece? 

A: It was based on the depth of figures. Nine skaters from the Sun Valley Ice Show volunteered to join me. I was dressed as a harlequin clown and I started off doing figures to Pink Floyd's "Great Gig In The Sky". It was like I woke up in this dream where figures were being skated again. It was really powerful. I ended up winning out of nineteen entries. "Transience" was very much based on the idea that things are very transient with what we do in skating. We will have a student that's with us for years and then they go. Figures lasted forever and then they were gone. We meet people we love in skating and form these intense bonds and then off they go. It was based on the deeper meaning of people coming and going and things coming and going.

Q: What is your favourite book?

A: "Love In The Time Of Cholera" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There's just so much happening.

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: Peggy Fleming - she was an Olympic Champion around the time I started skating. She was so graceful, so beautiful. There was a simplicity to her skating. I remember thinking "that's what I wanna do". Kurt Browning - absolutely. His ability to pay attention to detail, character, incredible sense of musicality, the ease with which he skates... it's incredible. An amazing person. Janet Lynn - she just had an ability to move through space. She was incredible. I could go on and on... John Curry, Brian Boitano, Brian Orser, Robin Cousins, Yuka Sato... There are so many!

Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you?

A: People may just see this wild and crazy side but I also have an intensely solitary and introspective side. On that flip side, you have to recharge. I go for long walks by myself. I introspect and am a very thought filled and extremely spiritual person. I have a deep connection to nature. I can't live without it.

Q: Who are you thankful for?

A: If it wasn't for people in my life such as Herman Maricich who was the Director Of Skating here or Sarah Kawahara who choreographed my first solo in a pro show, people like Robert Paul, Karen Kresge, Douglas Webster, I don't know where I'd be. Those people and many others... I learned so much from them. They fueled a fire that was already burning inside of me. I think the incredible web of people who give to younger people and pass the torch... that's so important. That's the only thing I can do, to give to people - to younger people - because I have no idea that would have become of me if it wasn't for those people who were like "you got something girl"! I am just so grateful.

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Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Ghost, The Skater And The Shotgun

In her 2012 book "Ghosts Of Colorado Springs And Pikes Peak", author Stephanie Waters explores many stories that don't exactly have you clamoring to go for a late night walk in Colorado without your flashlight at night. One particular story she highlights couldn't be more perfect for my dear friend and fellow blogger Allison Scott if it tried. It's got everything a Colorado Springs resident could want: a luxurious hotel, a figure skating connection... and a ghost. Before we get into this chilling story's figure skating connection, let's turn to the July 31, 1907 edition of the Reading, Pennsylvania newspaper The Reading Eagle, shall we? In the article "Sensation In Death Of A Beautiful Girl", we learn about the inquest into the death of an award winning actress named Laura Mathews who was staying Colorado Springs' Acacia Hotel at the time of her untimely and suspicious death. Matthews was found on a mountain slope with a bullet through her brain and there was quite a debate as to whether the actress had taken her own life or was a victim of foul play. The inquest couldn't have been any more dramatic.

Let's start with the biggie. An Amos R. Rumbaugh was about to testify when he shot himself IN THE COURTROOM! He was rushed to hospital by deputies where he died the next day and after his death, it was learned that he had been infatuated with Laura for about two weeks. The 1907 article states that "rumours are persistent here that Mr. Rumbaugh was an agent sent here by Eastern men to induce the girl to commit suicide, or otherwise to cause her to disappear." A fellow guest at the Acacia Hotel said Mathews feared Rumbaugh was infatuated with her and that she was afraid to go back late at night to her hotel. Rumbaugh wasn't the only man who was connected to the young actress. She'd entertained a lengthy relationship with millionaire Chas Coey. Coey had told her he wanted to marry and start a family... but he was already engaged to a woman named Victoria. Mathews was enraged and showed up at his door, caused quite a scene begging for him to end his engagement to Victoria and stormed off saying she'd rather die than ever see his face again. She took off in a huff and checked in with her nurse Tillie Green at the Acacia Hotel. In the meantime, Rumbaugh was kind of around skulking in the shadows and professing his interest in Mathews to anyone who would listen. Green said that "Rumbaugh was desperately in love with Laura. He had previously told me that he was engaged to marry her; that they would go East on their honeymoon, etc. He did not know Coey. When I told Rumbaugh that Laura had committed suicide, he seemed like one possessed. He swore he would go to Chicago and kill Coey, and his entire motive from that time until his suicide seemed to be that of revenge on Coey. He killed himself through love of the girl." So here we have this woman who some still seem to think had killed herself (we'll get to why in a bit) and we have a lover who's engaged named Chas and this (married) man named Rumbaugh who's infatuated with her. I can already see a few scenarios brewing at this point, can you? Let's look at the suicide theory and how that came about. Why, her nurse Tillie Green could explain that one to you.
The 1907 article states that "another startling feature is the discovery that Miss Green, the dead girl's nurse, had prepared and sent out letters announcing the suicide of Miss Mathews before the latter was dead - almost a day before, in fact. She explains this peculiar action by the statement that she knew Miss Mathews would kill herself". Mathews' sister Mrs. Marshall gave an interview to press in Kansas City where she said that "my sister was to return to Chicago next week and intended us to visit us en route. She wrote in a happy mood and only a few hours before her death sent a pair of moccasins to my daughter. I am sure it is not a case of suicide." Was Mathews' nurse somehow connected to her death? If she was, she was shifting the blame. Tillie Green suggested that the coroner was "keeping the lid" on the case to protect rich Chicago men who she had intimidated. Green said that "Coey and Miss Mathews were intimate friends for two years" and that "Miss Mathews expected Coey to marry her and the date was set several times, but always postponed by Coey". Whatever the case may be and however much suspicion might have fallen upon Coey, Rumbaugh and even Green, on August 1, 1908 (over a year later from when the courtroom drama first began) the foreman of the jury announced: "We, the jury find that Laura Mathews came to her death by the shot of a pistol; that said pistol wound was self inflicted with suicide intent".

Waters' book states that "mysteriously, at the very moment the suicide verdict was announced, a haunting high-pitched scream reverberated throughout the building. Janitors thought the boiler had exploded until it was discovered that the timing cable on courthouse clock had suddenly snapped. Time stood still on the courthouse clock tower for many years until money was saved to replace the expensive copper cable. The clock still acts as if possessed by unseen forces now and then, and paranormal investigators have become convinced that it is a message from the grave of Laura Mathews."

So as usual, you're probably all wondering what this crazy blogger from up in Nova Scotia is going on about and how it could possibly connect to figure skating... and as usual, my job is to do a little 360 and bring things full circle a little bit. Today, the Acacia Hotel rents rooms for senior housing and also hosts a beauty parlour, barbershop and until just a few years ago, a little hole in the wall Cheers type pub called Jinx Place. The bar was owned by a woman named Jeanne A "Jinx" Clark, who according to Waters' book was "a tough-as-nails ranchers daughter". She was also a champion figure skater who performed at The Broadmoor, toured with the Holiday On Ice show for fifteen years and travelled all over the world during the forties and fifties before buying the bar in 1960. Clark passed away in March 2007 and interestingly enough as it relates to this piece was a history buff herself - she was the curator at the Lamar Big Timbers Museum. Clark was evidently quite proud of her history as a figure skater and proudly displayed her lucky skates above the cash register at Jinx Place along with a sprig of plastic mistletoe. She had won a figure skating competition on Christmas Eve of 1946.

"Legend has it" that Jinx Clark's bar was haunted by Laura Mathews and local artist Gail Anne Bailey even painted a ghostly painting of the young actress who met a suspicious and tragic end. According to Waters' book, one night a group of costumed actors from a local community theatre group when to Jinx Place after a show. An actor named Robert Rais saw a costumed entertainer in period clothing who wasn't part of their group and asked her if she was an entertainer as well. She apparently looked just like the woman in Bailey's painting of Mathews. The costumed actress disappeared before Rais' eyes and he left screaming. Waters' book purports that Jinx grabbed a gun from behind the counter and exclaimed "if that damn ghost scares away any more good paying customers, I'll shoot her" and then (accidentally?) shot a hole through the ceiling. Apparently after the dust settled, a shell shocked old barfly responded to Jinx with "if that was last call, all you had to do was say so." Ghost or not, you don't MESS with a figure skater apparently!

The space occupied by Jinx Place in the Acacia Hotel building is now (or at least was recently) occupied by a print centre and is located right in heart of downtown Colorado Springs at 104 East Platte Avenue. One has to wonder if Laura's ghost still remains earthbound and connected to the last place she took up residence before her untimely death? You can go get some photocopies made and find out. I'll just stay here with my wine until you get back and tell me ALL about it.

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Sunday, 5 October 2014

Interview With Blake Skjellerup

If your blog's speed skating virginity is going to be taken away, I can't think of a nicer guy or someone easier on the eyes - I mean ice - to be responsible for that happening. I had honestly never even thought about interviewing a speed skater until I learned a bit about New Zealand's Blake Skjellerup. The twenty nine year old who was born in Christchurch represented his country at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and he even has a Canadian connection - he lived and trained in Calgary for a time. Now living in the States, he is not only one of an elite few out and proud gay athletes but he is also very active in anti-bullying initiatives. Skjellerup also recently acted as an ambassador to the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland, Ohio. Being pretty passionate about advocacy for gay athletes and anti-bullying initiatives myself, that's definitely something that we discussed but we also got to dive into some other interesting questions such as talking about the ISU and Speedy Cinquanta from a speed skater's perspective. I even had chance to talk to Blake about his favourite FIGURE skaters. Grab yourself a bevvy and get ready for something completely different:

Q: First of all, congratulations on taking the blog's speed skating virginity! Being a figure skating blog, I've touched on speed skating in a few different historical articles but never actually interviewed a speed skater. After learning about your story, I was like you know, this is a person I need to talk to! I wanted to start by talking a bit about your accomplishments as a skater. You've won five national titles in New Zealand and represented your country at the 2010 Winter Olympics here in Canada where you have lived and trained. How did you get your start in the sport and what are your proudest moments or accomplishments as an athlete? 

A: I got started in speed skating through my brother. I was initially playing rugby in my hometown of Christchurch, but I had broken my arm rollerblading with some friends. Since rugby was out of the question for two months with a broken arm, my brother thought that speed skating would be something that I could do with a broken arm. Turns out it was, and I haven't stopped skating since then. My proudest moment would be Vancouver 2010. I had put so much work, sacrifice and effort into training and qualifying for Vancouver. I was proud of what I achieved and I was proud to give back to everyone that believed in me and knew that I could make the Olympics.

Q: As far as sports go, speed and figure skating are really night and day in some respects. The judging of figure skating has that subjectivity element whereas speed skating is very cut and dry - simply put, the fastest wins. Speaking of judging, a lot of people within the skating community (myself included) have been very critical of Ottavio Cinquanta, the President of the International Skating Union that governs both speed and figure skating. Being a former speed skater himself, many people feel the ISU (and Cinquanta)'s interests seem to favor speed skating. I'm curious to hear from a speed skater's perspective how people view the ISU from that angle and the way speed skating is judged and officiated?

A: Gosh, what a loaded question! Where to begin? I think that speed skating is slowly morphing into a sport of the twenty first century. The old and out of date regulations and rules are being replaced by ones that better suit the sport and its future. I believe the ISU has a long long way to go to build all of the sports it officiates over. Speed skating and figure skating are amazing sports and it is sad to see that the following of both has been declining. I can count on one hand the amount of times I competed in a sold out arena. It is disheartening for the athletes and the organizers to hold World Cup and World Championship events that do not fill the stands or even fill the stands half way. The ISU needs some rejuvenation among its ranks to bring its sports on par with what else is out there. 

Q: You were named as an Ambassador for this year's Gay Games, which I think is just fabulous. Having decided to loudly and proudly come out while still competing and support worthy advocacy causes is a surprisingly VERY uncommon choice for many amateur athletes - figure skating very much included. What are the root causes or reasons, in your opinion, that most athletes don't make that decision and why is it important they do? 

A: Fear I think is the biggest reason. In saying that, I know of some who believe it is no one's business to announce their sexuality (and that may be true) however when you are at the level of representing your country, you are there representing those people who live in it: gay, straight, Christian, African American... Why I believe it is important to come out publicly is to be that role model and that strong competitor who knows the importance of being supported. It may be no one's business but to those at home who are feeling alone and isolated for whatever reason, being that role model and strong representation allow those people to not feel so alone and isolated. 

Q: Here's a question I ask everyone and I'd love to get a speed skater's perspective. Who are your three favourite FIGURE SKATERS of all time and why? 

A: Do we count a pair as one or two? Meryl Davis and Charlie White are not only amazing skaters but great people. I also love the skating style and swag of Yuzuru Hanyu.

Q: One of the things I really wanted to talk to you about is your work with Safe Schools Iowa and GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian And Straight Education Network). I wrote an article during the Sochi Olympics called "Getting Up And Saying No" that quite bluntly addressed the bullying of figure skaters in social media by "fans" and those claiming or playing a journalistic role. To be honest with you, it is an issue I am very passionate about myself. What are your thoughts on social media and bullying and what are some things athletes can do to address this issue? 

A: I think avoiding social media during competition time is very important. It is a distraction whether the messages are positive or not. You need to stay focused on competing and having a phone in your hand detracts from that. The sad reality is that there are always going to be those people who feel it necessary to be hateful and nasty. I have a pretty thick skin as I was bullied early on for my participation in speed skating and my perceived sexuality. Nothing gets to me anymore after years of names and negative words thrown my way during high school. Blocking and reporting those who find it necessary to be hateful is step one. Don't give fuel to their fire by replying. I encourage people to be confident in who they are and athletes need to strive to be that in the competition arena. If you know who you are and you are confident in your abilities, nothing else matters.

Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you? 

A: I make a mean lasagna.

Q: What do you love the most about being on the ice? 

A: The glide and speed. There is just something about moving at thirty five miles per hour on razor sharp blades that make me feel free and in control.

If you enjoyed this conversation with Blake, be sure to always check back for more skater interviews and writing about everything under the sun in the skating world. There is also a Facebook page connected to the blog where all blog articles and interviews are shared - as well as current skating news, photos and videos of amazing skating. Give it a "like" at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard. You can also follow me on the Twitter at http://twitter.com/ohh_N. I love talking figure skating and would love to talk about the sport with you!