Thursday, 17 July 2014

The 1981 Canadian Figure Skating Championships


Although the Canadian Figure Skating Championships have been held since 1905, sadly in that time Nova Scotia has only played host to the Nationals a total of three times: in 1981, 1995 and 2007. Although Halifax was shortlisted as a possible location for the 2015 Nationals, it unfortunately didn't happen. I was all jazzed! At any rate, I'll more than likely be making the trek to Kingston, Ontario in January regardless this year. I was fortunate enough to attend the 2007 Nationals, where I got to meet Brian Orser (which was very cool!) and although I didn't make it to the 1995 Nationals, I remember watching them on television well as that was not long after I became incredibly interested in figure skating and started skating myself.

The 1981 National Championships were unfortunately held at the Halifax Metro Centre the year before I was born, so I simply couldn't swing making those ones. You know how it is! At any rate, I got to thinking... you know what would be really cool? To take a closer look at those Nationals which would have happened just down the street from me before I was born. After reaching a complete dead end online, I headed to the Halifax Regional Library where the wonderful reference librarian there hooked me up with a February 9, 1981 MacLean's Magazine, a couple newspaper articles and two rolls of microfilm. For starters, I learned that the chairperson of the competition was the late Helen Pate of Truro, who was a skating judge and president of the Nova Scotia division of the Canadian Figure Skating Association. Sadly, she passed away in 2012. I also quickly learned of the depth of that particular year's competition. It really was a spectacular one with so many significant skaters in Canadian skating history participating.

The novice and junior ranks both featured skaters whose names would be remembered for years to come. Sixteen year old Neil Paterson of North Vancouver, who won the junior title that year in Halifax would go on to win three medals on the senior level in the years to come and represent Canada at the Calgary Olympics in 1988. The runner up in the junior men's event Shaun McGill of Missisauga would go on to perform with the Next Ice Age and sadly lose his life to AIDS in his early thirties. Junior pairs champions Melinda Kunhegyi and Lyndon Johnston would go on to win the silver medals at the 1985 and 1986 Nationals on the senior level before Johnston teamed up with Denise Benning-Reid and later, Cindy Landry. Impressively, Johnston would medal on the senior level in pairs at seven consecutive Nationals with three different partners. The junior ice dance champions that year were 1989 Canadian Champions Karyn and Rod Garossino of the Calalta Figure Skating Club. Michael Farrington won the bronze in novice dance that year... and I got to spend summers training at Melinda Kunhegyi and Lyndon Johnston's APIDA Summer Skating School here in Halifax when I was a teenager, sharing the ice with my sister, a very young Joey Russell, Australia's Cameron Medhurst and a ton of other really talented skaters.



The biggest story from my own perspective really pertained to the senior ice dance competition at those Nationals. It couldn't have been more fitting that the first and only Nova Scotians to win National titles to this day did it right in front of a hometown crowd. The late eight time Canadian Champion Rob McCall (then twenty two) and his then nineteen year old partner Marie McNeil, representing the Halifax Skating Club improved on two bronze medals and a silver in the years preceeding the event to take top honors in the ice dance competition ahead of Kelly Johnson and Kris Barber and Joanne French and John Thomas. McCall would of course go on to achieve such success with Tracy Wilson in winning the 1988 Olympic bronze medal and medals at both the "amateur" and professional World Championships and starring in Boitano and Witt's Skating tour and Stars On Ice before his death in November 1991. Even more incredibly, not only did Marie and Rob win, the team who would finish fourth - Gina Aucoin (now Gina Doleman) and Hans Peter Ponikau - were Nova Scotians as well. Two senior ice dance teams from Nova Scotia in the top four let alone ten? That's really quite incredible. What's even more incredible is that both were on the podium the year before. That just doesn't happen now. On their way to the title, Marie and Rob won all four (yes, four) of the compulsory dances (which were the Paso Doble, Rhumba, Cha Cha and Westminster Waltz). Rob commented: "We are really pleased. We have a lead from every judge, so we'll take it. We've never been in a first place position before, so we really didn't know how the judges would score. When you have Canadian champions skating, they tend to mark them higher. But none of us are champions, so I think they were a little more cautious with the marks". Despite two falls in the original set pattern dance, Marie and Rob maintained their lead through to the free dance, where they "established an unofficial event record for flowers received," according to the Mail-Star's Steve MacLeod. "Following their senior dance win, bouquets streamed to the ice as the city couple received the first of two standing ovations that night. Skating a superb interpretation of their all-Gershwin score, McNeil and McCall became the first Maritime entry to win a Canadian senior title. The two received marks ranging from 5.5 to 5.8 for technical merit and 5.6 to 5.9 for artistic impression." With regard to their winning free dance, McNeil said, "we are really pleased. We've never had marks so high in our lives" and Rob said, "when I went home at four o'clock this afternoon, I had all these visions of things happening in every possible spot in the dance because of what happened in the Cha Cha yesterday. But thank God, when we skated tonight, none of the things came true." It was a bittersweet victory for the team, who had finished second the year before. Marie McNeil-Bowness turned to the worlds of both coaching and judging after her skating career ended and spoke of her career with McCall in a 2006 Chronicle Herald article "Bowness part of figure skating judging's overhaul": "Rob and I skated together for eight years. Winning the Canadian title was certainly the highlight of our career, but our biggest disappointment was the year before when we didn't get to go to the Lake Placid Olympics. For some reason, just a couple of weeks before the event, they chose to send only one team. And we were never told why. It really was a huge disappointment." She had the wonderfully positive opportunity of being of the first two technical specialists from Canada when the "new judging system" was introduced. Rob and Marie's 1981 win not only remains historically significant as the first and only senior figure skating win in Canada for a Nova Scotian skater or team, but also in that the duo had a little competition: the sixth place team in that year's competition would be none other than a then unknown brother/sister team from Quebec named Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay. It's a small world, after all.




In the pairs event in 1981, Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini would handily win their third of five consecutive national titles ahead of a young Lloyd Eisler and his then partner Lorrie Baier and Becky Gough and Mark Rowsom, but they would not be perfect. They did win the short program however suffered a fall early in their five minute free skate. The fall didn't take the wind out of then seventeen year old Barbara Underhill's sails: "I guess I was excited. I flew off the back of my blade, but from then on, I thought we skated well." Her twenty year old was also pleased with the team's winning free skate: "On the whole, I think the program went quite well. There were a couple of slipups, but overall we're quite pleased. With a little more work, we'll be in good shape for Hartford."

Tracey Wainman's winning free skate at 1981 Nationals - with commentary from Johnny Esaw, Debbi Wilkes and Otto Jelinek!

The ladies competition in Halifax was won by a plucky thirteen year old four foot ten inch firecracker you just MIGHT have heard of named Tracey Wainman of the Toronto Curling, Skating and Cricket Club. Wainman, who had finished third at the 1980 Canadian Nationals, was (as you may remember) named to the 1980 World team instead of 1980 Champion Heather Kemkaran and silver medallist Janet Morrissey. This decision from the CFSA created a stir among some and according to Rimas Miecus' MacLean's article "Not wasted on the young", was "largely responsible for Kemkaran's decision to retire". So as you can imagine, there were expectations on the young skater. In order to claim her first of two national titles, Wainman defeated the skater who would win the next three Canadian ladies titles (Kay Thomson), the skater would win the national title in 1985, 1987 and 1988 - and of course, the silver medal and free skate at the 1988 Calgary Olympics (Liz Manley) and future five time Canadian medallist Charlene Wong. Wainman's win in 1981 really ushered in a new era of Canadian ladies skating, of which Wainman, Thomson and Manley would all play starring roles. In the three compulsory figures skated, Wainman earned the highest scores of the ten senior ladies competing, with Thomson second and Calgary's Kathryn Osterberg third. In the end, Wainman would skate to victory, ahead of Thomson (who had a rough fall on a triple LUTZ attempt - keep in mind this was 1981!), Manley, Wong, Osterberg, Kerry Smith and others. Wainman's program, as you can see, was performed with breakneck speed. Her spins were really very good and even if she looked a little rough around the edges in some ways, she did perform two triple salchows, two double axels, two double lutzes, a double flip, double toe-loop, double loop/double loop combination and two single axels to take the title, her only real mistake a fall late in her program coming out of her sequence of two double lutzes where it looks like she either clipped the boards or caught an edge. Wainman said of the fall, "I don't know how I fell. I guess I got a little excited near the end". With a performance like that, who cares really?! Donald Jackson spoke of Wainman at the time: "She already has the quality, dynamic personality, that makes her skating look easy".


After winning the 1981 Canadian title, Brian Orser went on to skate a brilliant free skate at Worlds that year, landing a beauty of a triple axel!

1981 Nationals would also prove very significant for nineteen year old Brian Orser. After winning the novice title at Nationals in 1977 and the junior title in 1979, Orser would win his first of a whopping eight consecutive Canadian titles right here on Nova Scotia soil. In doing so, he unseated the reigning Canadian men's champion Brian Pockar (an outstanding in his own right), six time Canadian medallist Gordon Forbes of the Minto Skating Club as well as Gary Beacom, who was third after the short program but made several errors in his free skate (finishing fifth in that segment) unfortunately keeping him off the podium that year.  Defending champion Pockar had revised his free skate after finishing second that fall at Skate Canada. "The idea is to emphasize the elegant side of skating," he explained. To win the title, Orser would vault up from a second place result after the short program to upset Pockar (who made a couple of costly errors) and perform a free skate with six triple jumps and the only triple axel performed at the 1981 Canadian Championships. Orser talked of his winning performance (which earned him a standing ovation and five scores of 5.9 for technical merit) in the Monday, February 2 edition of the Mail-Star: "The audience helped me quite a bit tonight. They were really cheering me on, and that helps me a lot. I felt like I could have gone on for another minute or two." Pockar handled the loss of his title with grace: "Brian was fantastic. No one has ever done a triple axel and a triple lutz and combinations with triples coming out all over the place. It was great. In this competition, the new system went against me. I don't want to sound like I'm bitter against Brian, because I'm not. He was fantastic. But I am upset because I lost my title. I think I was ahead of Brian more in figures and he was ahead of me in the long program. But the new system doesn't give credit when a skater is better in one department - except in free skating."


Not only was it so cool to have chance to research and learn all about a significant and historic skating competition that happened literally right in my own backyard the year before I was born, I'm fortunate enough to say I came across SEVERAL more skating history gems while I was at the Halifax Public Library that day. What's next? As Brittany Murphy's character said in the movie "Don't Say A Word"... "I'll never tell!" I can only promise one thing... you'll find out soon enough! 

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