Since winning a bronze medal behind a pair of Olympic Gold Medallists at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1950, Richard Dwyer has been delighting audiences around the world as Mr. Debonair, a role he played in Ice Follies and Ice Capades for DECADES! Inducted as a member of the U.S. Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in 1993, Dwyer continues to skate at age seventy nine and is still an active (and wonderful) performer. No words for my respect and admiration for this man and a big thank you to Karen Cover at U.S. Figure Skating and Allison Scott for connecting us. We spoke at length about everything from his amateur career to touring life, his passion for skating today and what he hopes he legacy in the sport will be. What an honor and a privilege it is to share this interview with one of figure skating's living legends:
Q: You started skating after watching the Ice Follies back in 1943 and within five years were the U.S. novice champion. The next year you won the U.S. junior men's title and the year after THAT won the bronze medal at the U.S. Championships behind Dick Button and Hayes Alan Jenkins, actually beating Hayes in the free skate. Is the "what if" of continuing in the amateur ranks something that you think much about?
A: You're right, I started skating in 1943. Our whole family went to Ice Follies at the old Pan Pacific that year. My father had skated in Nebraska as a kid. I competed from 1945 to 1950 and I won novice in 1948, junior in '49 and ended up third in senior in 1950. You know, I am at peace with what happened. I made the World team when I won junior Nationals and then I qualified again in 1950 but in that era you had to pay your own way to Worlds and my Dad just couldn't afford to send me. I was fourteen and a half and I got to skate in Ice Chips with Dick and Jacqueline du Bief instead and that was an incredible opportunity in itself.
Q: When Roy Shipstad retired, you took on the role of "Young Debonair" in Ice Follies and now, without a doubt in the world, you are MR. DEBONAIR. How did that all come about?
A: We came home by train after the Washington, D.C. 1950 Nationals. I had grown up with Eddie Shipstad's kids and when we were on the train, my father said Eddie Shipstad had called and that "you have an offer". I didn't want to go at the time. I was fired up by amateur skating so we went home. I was a freshman at Loyola High and was staying with my aunt at the time so my mother could have a rest because she was driving me to the rink early in the mornings and everything. Roy Shipstad and Oscar Johnson kept bugging my dad so we sat down with the school and arranged to do it. To be offered the role of Debonair at fourteen was such a phenomenal opportunity and I am so fortunate it happened. If I hadn't have gone pro, I'm sure some other wonderful, fabulous guy would have taken the offer to be Mr. Debonair and God knows where I'd be. Life has gone by so fast and it's been a ball. I've had a great time working some greats. It's been good.
Q: What are your thoughts on skating today?
A: I'm a big fan of the sport and I almost feel like a groupie following the amateur competitions and the shows. It's just great to see how fantastic they are and how skating is going.
Q: You're still doing axels and double salchows out there and are an inspiration to skaters of ALL ages. Look at the Protopopov's as well, still out there and still fabulous. When was the last time you were out on the ice?
A: I went today! I landed five axels and four double sals. I screwed up one. I try double loops once and a while but I didn't today. I'm seventy nine and I figure, God, if I can just keep up the pace... It's kind of a challenge and a discipline with me. I don't golf so this is my one athletic exercise. I skate Monday to Friday for forty five minutes each time. It works for me. It's also my social moment.
Q: Yet, we live in a world where you've got people in the skating community pretty much goading skaters into retirement in their twenties because they are 'past their prime'. What are your thoughts on ageism in figure skating?
A: I don't get it at all. I left Ice Follies at forty four years of age and I was still doing axels, double loops, overhead lifts, split double twists and I felt REALLY GOOD! I skated with Ice Capades until 1993. I think that nobody should ever give up because they think there's a cut off point. If you love skating you should keep skating and have fun with it. You still have that wonderful thrill of challenging yourself.
Q: Tell me about teaching in Dubai!
A: It was from about 1982 to 1988 and I'd go for a few weeks each time but I was there for one whole summer during that time. Ted Wilson had been with Ice Capades and I went over a number of times to do two week shows at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. It was one hundred and twenty degrees outside but nice and cool inside and the kids were phenomenal. I think I went about seven times.
Q: Not that I think anyone could fill your shoes but if they had to, who would you do you think could be or would you love to see be the NEXT Mr. Debonair?
A: There are so many who are qualified and have that style and grace. When it came to the role for me, I loved to perform and saw that audience and felt a friendship with them. When I went to Nationals, I was sitting with Paul George and said to him about a few of the skaters "that guy just pulls you into it!" That's what I love. I wouldn't want to pick someone, I think they're all great.
Q: You skated with Barbara Wagner for a time. What was that experience like?
A: Barbara came in when I was skating with Susie Berens. She had made the World team in 1967 and we skated pairs in the show but she had to have surgery on her knee and dropped out before Christmas that year. Barbara came in and worked for me for three months. We played in Toronto and Maple Leaf Gardens. They just went crazy when they announced her name! Her death spiral! You didn't even have to do anything! She really felt really good about our shows. I am still a good friend of Barbara's. Our lives has crossed over the year and to me, her and Bob Paul... they were fabulous. I've got to become friends with her and it's just wonderful.
Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.
A: You can't do that to me! Over the span of so many years, there's been so many greats. Brian Boitano... he was fantastic. Dick Button was a big hero of mine because he was the image to follow. Scott Hamilton I love. Don Jackson, there's nobody better than him as a technician. When it comes to Canadians... Elvis Stojko was great and Kurt Browning... he's phenomenal! So you know, there have just been so many. I'm also really fond of Ryan Bradley and Jeremy Abbott. I was at Nationals in Greensboro and I just love Jeremy's skating. He's beautiful to watch and I love edges. The guys who do the edges make me proud. I grew up with Tenley Albright as well and we're still good friends. I got to work with so many other talented ladies over the years as well... Peggy, Dorothy and all my partners were great. When your life is graced with these superstars, it's got to rub off and inspire you to love skating even more.
Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you?
A: I worry a lot. I try to keep ahead of things but even when I was touring, I was always getting teased because I'd get nervous before I went on. People think it's easy for me and a lot of times it really isn't.
Q: At the end of the day, what do you want your legacy in life to be?
A: Mainly that I've shared some of the wonderful things that have happened with me in skating with many young people. I've had the chance to explain to many of them how wonderful I thinks skating is and what a great life it can be if they choose that path for THEIR life. I hope to help to set up something for skaters down the line if there's anything left in my pocket as well. Above everything though, the friendships I've made have made over the years have been tremendous to me. From Tom Collins to Ája Vrzáňová and so many others... those friendships will never die.
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