With decades of experience in the sport wearing every hat from eligible skater, professional skater, coach, producer, husband and father, Richard Swenning has had a remarkable life in the skating world. He's toured with Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, produced events around the world with his company Ice Maxx Productions (www.icemaxxproductions.com) and currently serves as the Vice President of ProSkaters alongside professional skating greats like Adam Blake, Frank Sweiding, Gia Guddat, Craig Heath, Brian Boitano and Kristi Yamaguchi. In this interview, Richard shares his insights from decades in the skating world and is candidly honest with his opinions on the current state of skating and the judging system. We talked as well about his professional career, Torvill and Dean, coaching and more:
Q: You retired from competitive skating in 1987 and moved on to a professional career. What were your greatest accomplishments as an eligible skater and what are your thoughts on eligible skating in general and the way it is judged today?
A: It's a difficult question as it is very different now. I quit eligible skating to enjoy show skating and make a living . It was clear early to me I couldn't compete. I beat many famous skaters in figures so I know my foundation in edge technique is very good. Figures need to come back. It would separate the good edge skaters from the freestyle skaters... Too many average skaters passing moves tests. A skater needs to be realistic in the amateur world at some point... skating is however a lifelong sport if you want it to be. I improved more as a professional skater over the course of 20 years and grew tremendously. The way skating is judged today is good and fair but the new system has completely ruined the sport. There is no individuality. Everyone is doing the same program and we have created a pool of amazing skaters but we gave all the secrets away and therefore no coach or skater is unique! In the old days, everyone was unique. We have no stars and the popularity of the sport has dropped from the public interest but the sport has progressed like the world. Is it good or bad progression? Too much, too big, too many. It's like cars. So I don't really like the new system. You have a pool of great skaters whom also find it hard to have a pro career. There aren't many variety shows or a Tom Collins tour anymore. It's very sad. The stars from the 80's and 90's are still capitalizing, which is a bit off for me. It's become more like gymnastics. I don't want to be negative but what are we promoting to these kids?
Q: You are now married and a father. Do you think that married life and fatherhood have slowed you down or inspired you to be MORE involved in what you love?
A: Being a father is my ultimate dream of being a complete person. I am blessed to have a wife and child and I thank God everyday for that! It keeps me so grounded. If I wasn't married I would be married to skating, so it has definitely slowed me down for the better and diverted me as an artist. Realistically, you can skate till your 70 ! My wife and I skated together and fell in love. It just happened. We were lucky to find each other and have a child which leads to retirement. It's tough when you do a job for so long but a child is the ultimate gift, so your choices are to settle down, to be involved in skating in another way or get a real job. I do real life work, teach, produce, perform occasionally still at 45 and best of all I'm a Dad everyday! I wouldn't want to be traveling and skating in shows all year being alone anymore. Skating is one of those sports where you can get married to your job, because many love it that much. Skating is a relationship for me that I love. Skating is also a relationship I dislike at times for many other reasons. This could go on for hours but many skaters will relate to what I'm saying!
Q: You have produced theatrical skating events for Volkswagen, Hard Rock Theme Park, Sea World Entertainment Parks, Europa Park, Disneyland Paris, The Government of Singapore, The Cities of Chiasso and Lucarno, Switzerland and choreographed countless shows and events. How challenging has marketing skating as entertainment to big business been and what has the most rewarding part?
A: Well, it's very difficult to market skating and events because the popularity has dropped. Why? It's a loaded question. I blame the new system again for a lot of this. Those governing the sport do an amazing job but we need to rethink it. If you ask 90% of professional skaters I think they would all agree. It's all money. Big ice shows are gone. Ice Capades... Holiday On Ice does a few variety shows but has no big tour dates in America for star skaters. Again why? It takes money to put it all together. As a producer I've been fortunate to team up with other producers and do events. I've produced and choreographed my own projects. The most rewarding part is seeing the quality skating. The skaters get to perform and ENJOY SKATING and this is truly the culmination of years of amateur work. I was lucky to work for 20 + years in shows. There were many opportunities for me which I am grateful for. I hope I can provide a job here and there for skaters to perform and treat them well. This means they re paid, get free accommodations and travel, see the world... This is my current goal. However, I will always promote education and real life work. Show skating is a chance to skate and enjoy skating, but is it a lifelong career? The most rewarding part is the actual skating - the performance. The real question is... have you seen any good skating shows lately?
Q: As a skater and choreographer, you have worked for Torvill and Dean’s tour, Holiday On Ice, Ice Capades and other productions as well. When it comes to professional show skating, what aspects stand out as the biggest “culture shocks” to skaters coming from the “amateur” ranks? What have been the most interesting or bizarre experiences you’ve had while touring the world and skating?
A: The biggest culture shocks to amateurs coming to the show life are learning to skate on smaller ice, performing every day as opposed to once or twice a year, learning they don't know it all and this is a new journey. There is an order in show life and you really have to learn it... skating in a cast where you are not the only skater, you are one of 30 or 40... or 10... but you have to work together and be courteous. It's not all about YOU anymore... it's about your cast. I also think they are actually shocked at how much fun skating is. I've seen great skaters learn how to great performers and people as well. This is an art, so in a sense they really learn to perform in shows and be humble. Really, the most bizarre experiences are living in that show bubble. It's like a circus! I've seen stagehands fall out of the set and almost die and accidents on the ice. Bad things can happen while on tour. You really need to be aware of your surroundings and be safe. We used to travel in caravans in Holiday on Ice and it could happen that someone would roll their home over on a travel day on icy roads... so lots of crazy things. Life on the road is also a lot of fun, and I've seen skaters driving golf carts or cleaning machines in the buildings. We once had a bonfire in a hotel parking lot which got out of control and as it got bigger and bigger with these tumble weeds, the police came and you see a cast of skaters scatter like rats in New York back to their rooms... So definitely some funny stories. Honestly, seeing the different cities like Amsterdam and Paris or Hamburg, you see a lot of bizarre stuff just traveling in general.
Q: Speaking of Torvill and Dean’s tours, I have to say just how amazing and before their time shows like theirs were. What did you enjoy most about those shows and what are Jayne and Chris like to work with?
A: Jayne and Chris... well I have to say, I love these two people. I am honored to have skated with them in my lifeteime. I love this on my resume too! They hired me and I was definetly a high point in my career. Their work ethic then and always was amazing. Chris at 40 then was and now still is incredibly fit... and their skating was still amazing. They did a tango number in Ice Adventure that is one of my favorite numbers of all time. It was in the opening segment of our show. I don't think many have seen this number but it was great! They used amazing lighting to tell the story... and raw skating in their performances which I think works in arena environments. They were incredibly flexible with us and worked with us on our unique abilities. We were treated very well. I'll never forget that. I also saw what great business people they were. I learned a lot from them. I can't say enough.
Q: In 2004, you won the artistic program at the Major League Figure Skating Championships, a professional event that is no longer held. I recently wrote some in depth features on the Jaca World Pro event, the U.S. Open… and the American Open, which you participated in as well. Do you think opportunities for exposure and artistic expression outside of show skating are in short supply for pro skaters now that events like these are no longer occurring? How can that change?
A: We need more. This is also an avenue that has been closed. We are trying with ProSkaters to have a pro skating competition soon. Why are there not more of these events? Dick Button was a huge endorser of these kind of events back in the day... somewhere where an Allen Schramm could compete against a Robin Cousins. I would like to see a Scott Hamilton or other Olympic names create events for pro athletes again as they have this kind of pull. I really feel we need to give back at this point...and the leaders of the past need to be on board. Where do all these great skaters skate and show their stuff nowadays?
Q: Speaking of change, what is one thing that you think we’ll see change dramatically in figure skating in the next 10 years?
A: I don't think much will change as we are accepting the new system... If anything there could be a rebellion back to the 6.0 system with modifications. This would be awesome. The public doesn't understand the new system. It's complicated. If we simplify it, it may bring popularity back. We need champions whom are the best to stay on top for at least a few years. Now, if a skater makes one mistake they are done so the public cant relate to anyone anymore. They relate to a football player who plays for the same team for many years.. We need to see a revival in skating. I hope so. Skates and blades are better, but we won't see quintuple jumps. It's gone as far jumping wise as it will. We may see a phenom who could do all quads in a program... I'm not really sure.
Q: What’s one thing about you most people don’t know?
A: Probably that I invented the hitch kick-butterfly with Jeri Campbell back in the 90's. We are the inventors and I am the first to do that trick, So I will officially name it THE RICH KICK SWENNING BUTTERFLY now. It's a skating move combining a hitch kick and a arabian butterfly. You can see it on YouTube in one of my videos. Also, I've taught in Europe and the USA. I took a three year break from skating altogether and worked at a private golf club which was great! Also, I consider my family a famous skating family... one with deep roots and Olympic member Robert Swenning. I thank my Mom and Dad for a lot of great memories and respect their knowledge.
Q: What has been your motivation to stay involved in the sport so long and what advice would you offer to people thinking about getting into coaching, choreography or professional skating?
A: I'm motivated by show skating and performance. I like coaching and working with kids but I'm realistic. It has to be fun, you have to be talented and work hard... and its sad but I think skating is turning into a rich person's sport in most cases - it wasn't so much 30 years ago.so you do need money...My advice is that if you really love it, skate. Do it a lot, on public sessions if your not loaded, find a way to work your butt off... but do not ever disregard school and education. Stay grounded. It's a dog eat dog business. So... coaching... make sure you find the right facility! Be prepared if your qualified - that doesn't mean anything because ANYONE CAN TEACH skating unfortunately. The PSA and U.S. Figure Skating don't monitor who is actually teaching our sport. They just want membership and also many skaters are allowed to teach outside of their discipline. So there are issues out there... You have to be an entrepreneur to teach. You have to work it. It's not for everyone. I struggle with these issues and try and look at the postives as well. Teaching can be rewarding, but it is very difficult and competitive. When it comes to choreography, just do it, have fun and get started. Every piece of music is new and there are endless possibilities. As for pro skating in shows... improve, enjoy, travel, work hard, be on time, do your stuff! It's a great life and easy job! Fight for a good contract! Remember to keep it real and look at other career possibilities inside and outside of skating... Do it while you can but don't do it too long unless you really want to make it your life legacy.
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