Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Short Program Revisited: Bonus Material From Sonia Bianchetti Garbato


I want to start by saying a big thank you to all of you who have taken the time to share the latest blog on the origins of the short program. Prior to publishing the blog, I had actually reached out to Sonia Bianchetti Garbato regarding the topic at hand but we were unfortunately unable to touch base until after the blog was published yesterday. She provided me with another wonderful perspective and some further clarification regarding the institution of the pairs short program and some corrections to Mr. Vosátka's 1994 memoir "Idea Born From Rage" that I think all of you would find as tremendously interesting as I did. I'm reproducing her commentary below with permission:

"In 1963, the President of the ISU was Dr. James [Koch], from Switzerland, and not Mr. Labin. Mr. Labin was only a council member. Mr. Jacques Favart, from France, was the Vice President, who chaired the meeting on figure skating technical matters in Helsinki in 1963 when the introduction of the short program for pairs was discussed and decided by the Congress. The Technical Committee was composed of: Chairman Josef Dědič of Czechoslovakia [and members were] Karl Enderlin of Switzerland, Alexander Gordon of Great Britain [with] substitute member Rudolf Marx of West Germany. I never heard of Mr. Labin being involved with the content of the compulsory program, but I may be wrong of course. Second, in 1963 the pairs executed two free programs not only one. In the pairs events of the European Championships of 1962 and 1963, there were trials of new formats. Since their start in ISU Championships in 1908 the pairs competition only included one free skating performance. Considering the rapid increase in the technical level of pair skating there had been an increasing feeling that the pairs event should consist of more than one part. The first trial of a new format at the European Championships 1962 at Geneva (but not in the Worlds) was to skate the free program twice on consecutive days, with the first performance being marked closed - that is with no marks displayed. The result was calculated but not announced. The draw of the starting order for the second performance was based upon the result of the first, with the better pairs placed skating in the last group. The second performance was marked open in the usual manner, but the final result was based upon the combined marks for both performances.

The second trial was also at the 1963 European Championships at Budapest. [It] again consisted of two performances on different days but this time with performances being marked using the open system and with the result of the first performance being announced. The draws were carried out and the results calculated in the same manner as the first trial. The trial proved not to be so satisfactory, with more or less the same results in the two performances with a negative effect on the competitors having to perform the same program twice and generally, with a lower level of performance the second time.

So at the ISU Congress in 1963, in Helsinki, the principal matter considered was the format of pair skating. The double performance of free skating, tried out in 1962 and 1963 was definitely rejected, and a 'connected compulsory program', of two and one-half minutes of duration, with a value of one third of the total score, was adopted. The new program was approved for inclusion in ISU Championships in 1964 and 1965 but not for the 1964 Winter Olympic Games in Innsbruck. As I say in my book, the program consisted of six basic elements such as lifts, solo jumps, pair spins and solo spins, death spirals and step sequences.

The format of this compulsory program changed in the following years, but it remained as the basis for the 'short program with compulsory moves' which would be adopted in 1971 for single skating as well. The short program was judged on essentially the same basis and with the same marks as for free skating.

It was in October 1974, during Skate Canada in Kitchener (I was at the time the Chairman of the ISU Figure Skating Technical Committee) that I had a new idea. Because of the time difference, I woke up in the middle of the night and could not get asleep again. Thinking about the short program and how to better achieve the purpose of improving the quality of the required elements, I wondered how useful it would be to adopt specific grades of deductions for failures or omissions in the required elements. This would be made in the first mark only. During the night, I worked out the entire proposal, with a complete list of deductions to be applied to the different elements reflecting the gravity of the failures.

During breakfast, the same day, I met John Shoemaker, who was the Vice President for figure skating, and I told him what I had brought forth during the night and showed it to him. He found the idea great and the proposal was discussed with the Technical Committee and submitted to the Congress in 1975 and it was approved. The system remained into force till 2004 when the New Judging System was introduced after the scandal in the pairs event at the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City."

I want to offer a huge thanks to Ms. Bianchetti Garbato for these clarifications and such a wonderfully in-depth 'behind the scenes' explanation of the whole process of the institution of Mr. Vosátka's proposal... and of course, her role in the short program's early development. A point of notice: Ms. Bianchetti Garbato is absolutely correct regarding the fact that Labin was not ISU President at the time of the submission of the proposal. He did, however, serve as ISU President in 1967, but died suddenly in Vienna during his term that year.

As I've explained to a few people on social media and on the figure skating forums, this is a topic that we will revisit in a future blog devoted entirely to Janet Lynn. The Janet Lynn blog will be actually be the final blog of 2015 in late December! You're also going to love some of the really unique topics from figure skating history coming your way rapid fire every few days during the months of October and November so stay tuned!

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

How The Short Program Was Invented


Inspiration can come from the most unexpected places. When Marian Scott called me up to talk Canadian figure skating history for a September article in the Montreal Gazette, she introduced me to the untold story of her son's former skating coach which led me on an almost Indiana Jones like path  to uncover a completely untold part of figure skating history. Enter eighty six year old Karel Vosátka, a Montreal skating coach who - with partner Blažena Knittlová - won the silver medal at the European Figure Skating Championships back in 1948 in his home country of Czechoslovakia.

At Marian's suggestion, I called Mr. Vosátka. He affirmed what she told me was true... that it was indeed he who invented the short program. He was gracious enough to mail me three precious documents that reveal the story in great detail - the ISU's Communication No. 350, a photocopy of his original ISU proposal and a written memoir from July 5, 1994 called "Idea, Born From Rage" where he shared the entire story. Let's rev up the time machine and learn how the short program was developed from the inventor himself:

IDEA, BORN FROM RAGE

"Till 1963 presented all figure skating pairs only one single, 5 minutes long, free programme to judges. Not even the slightest mistake, but essentially the starting order with number '1' signified word for word - disaster.

I felt personally this 'pleasure' and starting number '1' was over fifteen years my predestined companion. Ladies, men or dance competitions was another story: after prescribed figures or dances, the free style represented the second entry on the ice, second introduction to judges, shortly: the second chance. Thereby not only the performance, but more favourable starting order helped often to better result!

Chatting, by a lucky hit, with Ernest Labin (at that time the president of the ISU) in Bucharest, where he passed on business, I opened my heart to this likeable Austrian explaining him, what a disadvantage have pairs face to soloists and dancers. 'Well, you put something reasonable together and I try to push it through!' was his laconic answer.

Two weeks later I posted to Vienna an elaboration of two and half minutes 'SHORT FREE' (how I called it myself, using the half time of 5 minutes pair free) with obligatory elements, connected in free order, following the music chosen by pair. This programme included all typical pair skating elements: lifts, pair spins, death spirals as well as solo elements: jumps, spins and footworks. Results of 'Short free' will help to draw starting order for presentation of 'Long free' - in brief: the same principle as after obligatory figures in solo skating.

Shortly after meeting of technical committee ISU came Ernest to Bucharest again. He glowed: 'Grossartige Idee, Karl, fabulous, unanimously accepted! We'll try it next season at Europeans!'

Congress 1965 incorporated definitively the SHORT PROGRAMME FOR PAIRS to figure skating rules. New era of pair skating has shown later the way to soloists. Tireless defender of freestyle and my good friend since 1940 Dr. Dědič (alias Pepik) crowned this effort in 1971 in Venice: The SHORT PROGRAMME was finally accepted along for figure skating of ladies and men.

Obligatory figures are gone, short programme became current part of figure skating. Gone are also both good friends Ernest Labin and Josef Dědič...

There is no mention of the origin of SHORT PROGRAMME in Dědič's book 'WORLD SPINS'. Just short notice... 'on elaboration of this revolutionary change took part Czech coach...' For me remained as satisfaction the sincere excuse of my friend... in 1979 in Springfield, USA: 'Sorry Karel, no way to mention your name. My book couldn't so came out...!' It was time of Communist censorship and I emigrated in 1969 to West. Using the expression of former TV-commentator, I was 'ungrateful dissenter'. But all that is a long time ago..."

HOW THE SHORT PROGRAM CAME TO BE

After meeting with Labin and submitting his six page proposal, entitled "Vorschlag des 'Paarläufer - Pflichtprogrammes'" in German, for consideration, Mr. Vosátka waited in anticipation while ISU delegates met at the Hotel Marxi in Helsinki, Finland in early June 1963. Sonia Bianchetti Garbato was one of those present. In her book, "Cracked Ice: Figure Skating's Inner World" (recently reviewed on Claire Cloutier's excellent blog A Divine Sport), Bianchetti Garbato explained "In 1963 [at the ISU Congress], only 20 Members [i.e., member nations] were present and 5 were represented by proxy. The number of delegates did not exceed 50 in total. I remember that during the separate meetings for figure or speed skating, we all sat around the same table... The principal matter being considered was the format for pair skating and the duration of the free programs. For a couple of years, the double performance of the free program for pairs had been tried out at the European Championships but did not prove to be satisfactory. However, there was a strong feeling that the performance of only one program was not good either. Pair skating was the only branch of the sport without a compulsory component ....and it was in the interest of the skaters to give them the opportunity to perform more than once in front of the judges to show their true abilities. So, after a very interesting and passionate debate, it was decided to adopt a 'compulsory program' of two and one-half minutes duration, initially counting for one-third of the total score. The program consisted of six basic elements such as lifts, solo jumps, pair spins and solo spins, death spirals and step sequences. I actively participated in the discussion and gave a strong push for its acceptance. The first use of the new short program was in the 1964 ISU championships, but it was not used in the Olympic Winter Games that year. It is interesting to note that the format of this compulsory program changed in the following years, but it remained as the basis for the 'short program with compulsory moves' which would be adopted in 1971 for single skating as well, and which represented a very important step in the modernization of the sport."

Mr. Vosátka's approved proposal, listing the six required element options and perhaps, most importantly, the short program's role in determining starting order for the free skate appeared in ISU Communication No. 350. I'm including section six, "Pair Skating: New compulsory program" in its entirety below:


As the original six prescribed elements are included in this communication, I will not include the original proposal in German here on the blog but it's archived in my extensive personal collection if anyone's interested! I have to offer up huge thanks to Marian Scott for pointing me in Mr. Vosátka's direction and to Claire Cloutier for enlightening me as to Sonia Bianchetti Garbato's role in the legislation of this project. However, I have to offer my sincerest thanks to Mr. Vosátka himself for his permission to finally share his untold story. Along the way, so many people make important contributions to figure skating history and many of those people's contributions lie undocumented; lost in time. That's a big part of why I write this blog and focus my energy and attention on uncovering those stories. While so many others devote hours to expounding upon the sea of math that skating has evolved into, there's a whole world of figure skating that we only have to look in our rear view mirror to discover. These stories are in my opinion every bit as, if not more, important.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Ullr The Norse Skate God


Perhaps this blog should be alternatively titled "Skate GOD" instead of "Skate Guard". Go ahead, groan. You have my permission. In Saxo Grammaticus' twelfth century work "Gesta Danorum", the Scandinavian deity Ollerus (Ullr) is described as a wizard with a rather clever way of getting from point A to point B: "The story goes that he was such a cunning wizard that he used a certain bone, which he had marked with awful spells, wherewith to cross the seas, instead of a vessel; and that by this bone he passed over the waters that barred his way as quickly as by rowing." Ullr was often depicted in either skis or skates and he was known as a god of the winter, certainly fitting in the unforgiving Scandinavian climate. His cultural significance and worship in Norse culture predates the Iron Age and Ullr even crossed cultural boundaries when he was included in the children's story "The Ice King And His Wonderful Grandchild" in the 1918 book "Dutch Fairy Tales For Young Folks".

Northern Tradition Paganism offers an article by Geordie Ingerson with a pagan ritual/prayer to Ullr designed to bless your skates. How cool is that? Ingerson explains "to bless skates before taking them onto ice - which is especially important if you are skating on a body of water rather than a skating rink - break a branch of evergreen and tie it with snow-white yarn to the blades of the skates. Touch them with cold water, and Bone say:

'Bone-Skater, bless my blades and bear me
Safe and swift across the glass,
Keep the winter water from me,
Let no crack come looking for me,
Give me grace and forgive my falls.
Hail Ullr, may you hear my call.'

Hang them up outside for a night and a day, then untie the evergreen branch and tie it over your door. Skate in good health, and be safe." That actually really makes me smile!

The website also offers some insight into Ullr's story and background: "Ullr was said to be the son of Sif and the stepson of Thor. Some claim that he was the son of Egill/Aurvandil, the great archer who was Thor's hunting companion and the father of Svipdag as well. Some see him as Aesir because of his mother and stepfather; some as Vanir because of his food-procuring hunter's nature. He lived in Ydalir, the Yew-grove, referring to the fact that yew wood was the favourite for making bows even thousands of years ago. In Saxo Grammaticus's works, where the Gods are recast as human heroes, Odin is temporarily exiled for rape and Ullr is chosen to lead in his place until Odin's return, which is an echo of his former importance to the people of the North. In Lilla Ullevi, Sweden, an actual shrine to Ullr was unearthed. In the earth around it were found 65 rings; old references to swearing on Ullr's ring indicate that he was one of the Gods who watched over a vow. The rings were apparently used for swearing oaths and then buried at his shrine." Celebration of Ullr continues to this day. The site of Ullr's shrine which is north of Stockholm was excavated in 2007 and consistently plays host to worshippers and curious travellers alike.

Lilla Ullevi
Skaters and skating fans often half seriously "pray to the Skate Gods" for a good, clean skate. I always say it's good to put a name with a face so to speak, so the next time you or some skater you love is praying to land that triple toe-loop combination, don't just say a little prayer to Lidwina, The Patron Saint Of Ice Skating but be sure to give a shout out to Ullr as well. As far as 'real life Skate Gods' go, he's the perhaps the closest thing we've really got!

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Interview With Sébastien Britten


I'm starting to feel a little like the boy who cried wolf. Back in late June, I announced that I no longer intended to include standalone interviews on the blog. The last two that I planned to feature were with Olympic medallists Robin Cousins and Petr Barna but due to schedules and logistics, in late July I released another fabulous interview - this time with World Champion Todd Eldredge. Well, true to life and things not always going as planned, I've got ONE more fantastic encore to share with you, this one planned some time ago. Although we weren't able to finally coordinate an interview until recently, the chance to speak with Canadian and World Professional Champion Sébastien Britten was something I just couldn't pass up as his story is one that is absolutely an important part of the fabric of Canadian history. A true artist in the midst of the quad race, Sébastien's breakthroughs were to be admired and his beautiful skating, in my opinion, speaks for itself.  We spoke at length about the highlights of his career, influences, work as a choreographer and much more in this chat I think you're going to just love:

Q: I don't think it could be any more fitting with Nationals returning to Halifax in a few short months to start by talking about your experience winning the Canadian Championships here in this city back in 1995. What can you share about your experience?

A: Well, Nationals - or Canadians as we used to call it in those days - back in 1995 was a very special event for the Britten family as my father's side of the family is from Nova Scotia. Just skating for my grandmother Agi (and a whole section full of family members) was a unique highlight! I was really nervous and wanting to skate my very best for all of them. When the chance of winning presented itself, the pressure I put on my shoulders was huge! What I will always remember the most (and I still have a photo of this moment on a wall in my house today) is the moment, at the boards on the ice, right after the free program, when I got to hug my grandmother... a moment I will keep alive in my heart and mind forever since she's gone now.


Q: How would you describe the experience of competing in the 1994 Olympics, especially with all of the media buzz surrounding all of the skaters making comebacks and "the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal"?

A: Another major highlight in my life! The Lillehammer experience was like spending three weeks on another planet! It was awesome. I loved everything about it. Actually the few months after finishing third at Canadians and making it to the Olympic team was a dream come true, especially since I never went to the World Championships before. Talk about a way to enter a higher sphere of our sport! The Harding/Kerrigan drama/scandal was a big thing in Lillehammer, yes. The excitement of the journalists became a bit of a joke for us athletes. It was also a year when they allowed professionals to come back to eligible competition. Personally, I was more impressed to meet and share the moment with Katarina Witt, Brian Boitano, Torvill and Dean and Gordeeva and Grinkov and all the athletes from other sports than the American drama of you know who!

Q: You were known in your competitive days as an extremely elegant and musical skater. Who was your choreographer and did you do a lot of ballet, dance or off ice training?

A: Well, I did my own choreography, music choices and edits (which I did all my career for all my programs) until my second year as a senior. David Wilson became my choreographer in March 1991 and I was his first international client! Very proud of that. We became friends and creators. I also had the privilege of working on different opportunities with great choreographers like Sarah Kawahara, Sandra Bezic, Michael Seibert and Majoly. I started taking ballet class at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal only when I was twenty two. Eventually, I kept training ballet with master Maurice Lemay for six more years. My dream would have been to be a professional dancer.


Q: You won the 1998 World Professional Figure Skating Championships in Jaca, Spain with two outstanding performances against a very deep field that included skaters like Petr Barna, Eric Millot, Alexandr Fadeev and Doug Mattis. How did the experience of competing as a professional differ from your days of ISU eligible competition?

A: Since the invitation to Jaca World Pro came at a very difficult moment (when the transition from eligible to pro was rough and empty) and it came during the ice storm of 1998, I took it very seriously. For me, trying new creative avenues and directions for this event was very important; a necessity. The short program we did, David Wilson and I, was called "Nightmare" and was a more electro-techno piece based on darker moments we all go through in life. For the long, I was fortunate to work with the incomparable Majoly, a dancer, singer, musician and composer. When we met, she asked me what was my vision for music. A few weeks later we met at a dance studio where she worked. She sat me down, asked me to close my eyes, open my heart and played this piece she composed, played and sang for me. "Saraswatti" was the  name of the piece and it brought a multitude of emotions immediately to my senses. Right then and there, I fell in love with it! Majoly had created an original piece for me and what a blessing! The choreography was created as a modern dance in a dance studio and what a blast it was the work on. Majoly pushed me in directions I never explored before. She taught me how to move for real, from the bottom of my soul. The dance was put to the ice by myself with directions from Majoly, since she couldn't skate. It became a trendsetting and unique piece and brought new wind to my skating life... and tens across the boards in Jaca! I loved the freedom I felt in those years I skated as a pro.


Q: Who are your favourite skaters competing today?

A: I really loved Yuna Kim and Patrick Chan and many couples in the dance events but now, I don't really feel much. Hopefully next the Olympics will bring new great vibrations?

Q: How has competitive skating changed for the better (and worse) since you were competing?

A: That's a difficult question. Unfortunately, I think the scandals previous to the changes injured the beautiful sides our sport had to offer and like always, the athletes suffered from those scandals... the loss of credibility, sponsors, TV rights, popularity of the sport. I don't think it has changed for the better. It's another game with less artistry and a much more closed circle with more politics and less humanity. But that's only my opinion.

Q: What kind of music would we find on your iTunes playlist?

A: I listen to a lot of music by Ben Howard, James Vincent McMorrow and the latest Joss Stone CD.
I just love music. There's always music playing at home or in my car... and I love all types of music.

Q: What makes a good skating coach?

A: Knowledge of pure skating techniques and knowledge of history. Someone generous, who truly listens. Honesty, connection, curiousity, confidence and loyalty. Someone who is open to others, open to delegation and to exploration.


Q: What can you share about your involvement in the sport today and looking forward to the future?

A: For the last nine years, I have been working as a freelance choreographer for many skaters and coaches. I'm based mostly in Québec but I work with a few skaters in other parts of Canada, the U.S.A. and Japan. This year, I created and worked with upcoming young talents in pre-novice, novice and junior and few seniors. Last year, I had two girls in the top four at nationals in senior, Véronik Mallet and Roxanne Rheault (whom I still work with for the long program). I love everyone I share creativity with. I work with all levels - even adults - and not just stars. My goal is to share my knowledge and ideas with as many people as possible...

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Eyvind Skaldaspiller And The Precious: Skating In Iceland


George Frederick's 1878 book "Swimming, skating, rinking, and sleighing : their theory and practice" referenced sixteenth century Scandinavian writer, exiled Catholic ecclesiastic and traveler Olaus Magnus as a source on Iceland's skating history so of course, I decided to do a little digging. His book "History Of The Nations Of The West" indeed does tell us that skates in Iceland were "made of polished iron, or of the shank bone of a deer or sheep, about a foot long, filed down on one side, and greased with hog's lard to repel the wet."

Magnus' account of skating in Iceland isn't the only archaic one... nor the oldest. Originally written in old Norse in approximately 1225 A.D. by poet and historian Snorri Sturlason, "Heimskringla Or The Chronicle Of The Kings Of Norway" includes a verse about Eyvind Skaldaspiller, an enemy of King Harald: "King Harald forced Eyvind to submit himself to his clemency. Eyvind had a great gold ring, which was called Molde, that had been dug up out of the earth long since. This ring the King said he must have as the mulet for the offence; and there was no help for it. Then Eyvind sang:-- 'I go across the ocean-foam, Swift skating to my Iceland home. Upon the ocean-skates, fast driven By gales by Thurse's witch fire given. For from the falcon-bearing hand Harald has plucked the gold snake band
My father wore--by lawless might Has taken what is mine by right.' Eyvind went home; but it is not told that he ever came near the king again." Chuckling, all I could think of reading this tale of Skaldaspiller skating away after the King stole his ring was...



God love that Smeagol one, always wanting its precious. ANYWAY... The Icelandic Sports Federation (Íþróttasamband Íslands) was founded in 1912 and the country's Olympic Committee nine years later, but elite competitive figure skating in the country never really caught on in the country until recently despite the rich skating history in other Nordic countries. That's not to say people weren't skating. "A Pocket Guide To Iceland", a 1983 publication aimed at military personnel from the U.S. stationed in Iceland, names ice skating as a popular winter pastime in the country. In present day. the ice skating rink in Laugardalur plays host to the figure skating events in the Reykjavik International Games. The country is indeed an ISU member and has recently started entering skaters in international competition.

   

Vala Run Magnusdottir, the country's 2014 junior ladies champion, has competed internationally in Junior Grand Prix events and other competitions in Europe. With events like the Junior Grand Prix, Nordic Games and ISU Development Trophy competitions offering skaters from 'developing skating nations' like Iceland opportunitiies to hone their craft, it may only be a matter of time before an Icelandic skater gets to turn back the hands of time and do what Eyvind Skaldaspiller couldn't... skate away with the gold.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Norman A. Falkner: The World's Best One-Legged Skater





Born on May 29, 1894 to C.T. and Judy Falkner, Norman A. Falkner would go on to become one of the most famous skaters to ever come out of Saskatchewan and not even losing his leg in World War I would phase him on his journey.

Falkner learned to skate as a young boy in turn of the century Saskatoon and actually began his adventures on the ice as a member of his church's hockey team. He gave up hockey when his father died in 1908 of typhus and he was forced to take on a job as a messenger delivering freight notices to help support the family. In the afternoons, he'd spend his little free time skating on a recently finished covered rink. He quickly found success on the ice, winning both the boys and mens speed skating races held in 1909 and 1910 in Saskatoon. In 1910, he turned his attention to figure skating. Ruth Millar's book "Saskatchewan Heroes And Rogues" explains "he delighted in figure skating, but it 'almost made an outcast of me', he wrote. His take on it was not that figure skating was sissy, but that others thought the sport was 'for aristocrats and... a boy who had to work instead of attending school, was no aristocrat. But Falkner stuck with it. He taught himself figure skating by reading books on the subject and became quite expert at it." Falkner self taught himself both school figures and free skating as well as barrel jumping and took up pairs skating as well with partner Edith Findley. Both skated singles and pairs programs in carnivals in neighboring towns and villages but fitting with his feeling of being treated as an outcast, he was never invited to exhibit his skating at his own home rink.

He was enlisted in the army in 1916 and joined the 96th Battalion, later transferring to the 21st Battalion. Millar states in her biography of Falkner that "he took his skates to England with him and left them with his grandmother at Watford just outside London, where they remained when he was sent to Europe." After six months of serving in France, Falkner was wounded on the front lines in Vimy and complications necessitated the amputation of his right leg at mid-thigh. Military records from the 21st Battalion state that the wound was caused by shrapnel and the amputation was required after infection set into the Lens area. An October 24, 1980 article by Pat McNealy in the Toronto Star that included an interview with Falkner stated that the shrapnel was from an exploding shell and it had cut through major arteries.

He was invalided back to England where a final operation was performed on his leg and his grandmother arranged for him to convalesce in Selby Hall, a private estate that was opened for injured soldiers. There was a small lake on the property that froze in the winter and determined not to be phased by the recent amputation of his leg, he sent for his skates and took to the ice. In the diaries of Falkner quoted in Millar's book, he wrote: "consider a man with only one leg, who finds himself with a good skate on, with nothing to take hold of for many yards in all directions. There is no reason why he should fall forwards or backwards, because he has the support the length of his foot or skate, and can adjust the weight over the toe or heel by the slightest ankle control... The greater part of this will be to overcome gravity, but the smaller part, in direct proportion to the amount his centre of gravity has moved away from the perpendicular and towards the horizontal, will be used for travel in the direction he started to fall. At that point he must turn the skate more or less into that direction. The skate will glide on the ice easily and likely travel in the falling motion and the skate may not yet be on a traveling balance. By repeating the action, however, it can be achieved, and he will be skating... A thrust with the skate on the ice, followed by a glide on the skate will accomplish this... The would-be skater persists and modifies the straightening of the knee and the amount he turns the skate in the initial effort and in successive ones, he will travel where he wants to..." You see that for Falkner great thought was put into how he would achieve his goal of skating again and with mind over matter, he most certainly succeeded. It wasn't without falling repeatedly or being discouraged by his nurses, but Falkner was fiercely determined.


Falkner left Selby Hall and was fitted with a temporary peg leg before receiving an artificial leg in Whitby, Ontario. He actually barely escaped death again on the way back - the hospital ship he returned on (HMHS Llandovery Castle) sunk on its return trip to England after being torpedoed by a German U-Boat. Only twenty four people in one lifeboat who survived the shipwreck and subsequent machine gunning of survivors by the Axis survived. Ironically, the ship he had travelled TO Europe from right here in Halifax on (the SS Laconia) was also torpedoed and sank.

Upon returning to Canada and being fitted with an artificial limb, he took to the ice on a hockey rink in Calgary (minus his artificial limb) to skate and was invited to perform between intermissions at the rink's New Year's Day hockey game by the rink manager. Millar's book explains that "at intermission the manager announced that Falkner would skate one-legged. He had been skating for a full minute without a sound from the audience. Suddenly he fell and did a complete somersault, but recovered and leap back up in seconds. The audience applauded wildly. His brother later reported that the audience had been speculating on what gimmick he was using. Norman's fall removed any doubts as to the authenticity of his performance. He received fifteen dollars as payment, thus launching his professional career."


He was discharged from the military in 1919 and returned to Saskatoon to live with his brother. He found a hard time finding a 'day job' but was able to find twenty five bookings to perform his skating act professionally in carnivals throughout the Prairies that winter. Despite continuing to have issues finding and keeping steady jobs, skating continued to pay his keep. He returned to Ontario (where he had visited to be fitted for an artificial leg when he first returned to Canada) and skated three shows a week in the winter of 1920 there. From there, Falkner took his skating act on the road and did two full tours - one of the Maritimes and one to Vancouver - as well as shows in Minneapolis, Duluth, Cleveland, New York City, Boston, Providence, New Haven, Montreal, Saint John, Edmonton and hundreds of other communities in the U.S. and Canada. The January 28, 1920 edition of The Daily Times states of Falkner: "he is now living at Toronto and has amazed crowds at a rink there by his wonderful feats on the ice. He seems to get leverage by bending his knee and throwing the weight of his body from side to side. He can go forwards or backwards at great speed and can cut out more fancy figures than the average two-legged skater."

Falkner married his wife Helen and applied to the ISU for reinstatement, which finally happened in 1951 with the stipulation "he wasn't to enter any competitions". Falkner became a certified figure skating judge and was also a founding member of the Weston Curling Club. After his wife's death in 1973, he penned a brief memoir which was presented to Toronto's University Skating Club along with his unused right skate. The Pat McNealy article "No hospital room for vet" sadly speaks of the poor care that Falkner received later in life at Sunnybrook Medical Centre, when he was told at age eighty six to return in three weeks due to a hospital strike after suffering a series of dizzy spells resulting in falls. Falkner passed away in 1985 in British Columbia, living a full and active life well into his nineties.

To me, his story is nothing short of inspiring. It's one thing to get back up after a fall but to return to the ice after losing one of your legs in the front lines of one of history's most gruesome wars... that's determination. I think back to my interview with Paul Binnebose and am reminded by HIS story and his words about getting back onto the ice in the face of literally life changing obstacles: "I never had any fear about going back to the ice. I have been a skater longer than I can remember. I was thrilled to go home." And so Falkner returned as well to the place that was home for him... and though we we may well have not seen him perform, we still owe him a standing ovation.

This piece originally appeared as part of a six-part podcast series called Axels In The Attic. You can listen to Allison Manley of The Manleywoman SkateCast and Ryan Stevens of Skate Guard's audio version on Podbean or iTunes.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

The Great Zamboni Fire Of 1973


To say 1961 wasn't a good year for all things figure skating related in the U.S. was the understatement of the century. As we know, the horrific Sabena Flight 548 tragedy on the way to the World Championships in Prague claimed the lives of a whole generation of America's skating community including nine time U.S. Champion Maribel Vinson Owen and her two daughters, judge Harold Hartshorne and his wife and skating partner Louise, judge Edward LeMaire and his thirteen year old son Dickie and twenty seven other coaches, judges, skaters and family members. However, that same year a ball would be set in motion that would almost claim the life of another huge part of American skating: the fourth Zamboni in existence.

Living its first life as an ice resurfacing machine for the Ice Capades, the Zamboni returned home to the Iceland Skating Arena in Albuquerque, New Mexico until 1961, when the rink's owner Bill Snelson offered the then-newfangled contraption to the Los Alamos Skating Association. Transported over the Jemez Mountains on a trailer in a caravan of skaters and their families to Los Alamos safely, the Zamboni served the old rink (built in 1936) well for over ten years until a fire in February of 1973 almost claimed its life too.

According to Eric Dregni's fantastic book "Zamboni: The Coolest Machines On Ice", "the garage at the rink caught fire at the Los Alamos Fire Department was going to let old No. 4 go up in flames with it. But Zamboni driver Ted Dunn would not hear of it. He doused himself with water from a fireman's hose and barged into the burning building. Amid scorching flames, he threw a wet blanket over the machine and quickly tightened the battery terminals. He hopped in the saddle and revved the engine. At 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) per hour, he burst through the burning doors to safety. No. 4 was saved! The firemen gathered around to admire the rescued Zamboni and the hockey team was pleasantly surprised to find that their sticks and gear had been stored in the snow tank and thus mostly survived the blaze." According to the Zamboni website, "in June of 1973, the Zamboni Company received a phone call from Ted Dunn of the Los Alamos Skating Association in New Mexico telling them that their Zamboni machine was involved in a fire at their rink and they required assistance in rebuilding it for the coming skating season. When it was determined that their resurfacer was the fourth machine that Frank had built, and up until the fire, was to the Company’s knowledge the oldest unit in regular operation, it was decided that the Company would obtain it, re-build it and reconstruct the story of its much-traveled history."

Today, the fourth Zamboni ever made still survives. Fully restored, it is on display at the U.S. Hockey Hall Of Fame Museum in Eveleth, Minnesota and we owe a debt of thanks to Ted Dunn for literally risking his life to preserve an important part of skating history.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Henry Graham Sharp: From World Champion To Army Captain


Sometimes small projects quickly turn into bigger ones. For instance, go to throw out those tomatoes that are past their prime and all of a sudden you are cleaning the entire fridge. That's kind of how this particular blog about Henry Graham Sharp came about. I was researching this particular skater for a completely different blog altogether and turned to one of my most trusted sources, NISA historian Elaine Hooper for archival information. As always, Elaine proved to be an absolute treasure trove and provided me so much that I said to myself that this particular skater deserves their very own feature... and here we are!

Great photo of Graham Sharp donated to NISA from the private collection of the UK's first ice dancing champion Daphne Walker

Born December 19, 1917, the skater who would go on to win the 1939 World title would actually start
his career as an ice dancer. With Vita Supple, he won Great Britain's first Inter Rink Ice Dance Competition in 1933 not long after he started skating. He then turned to (or focused on) singles skating. When Graham Sharp finished second at the 1936 British Championships, he had only been skating for a relatively short time. Until this point, unless a skater had trained abroad in Switzerland it was unheard of for them to be successful in competition, even at home. Sharp quickly found success internationally as well, winning the silver medal at both the European and World Championships in 1936, 1937 and 1938. Much of his success was owed to his exceptional competence in the compulsory figures. In 1938, author T.D. Richardson wrote of the 1939 World Champion: "Graham Sharp is by far the best male School Skater of the day. He has an ease and accuracy that is a joy to those with real knowledge and appreciation of the fine points of the School Figures."

Protocols from the 1937 British Championships, which Sharp won
Elaine Hooper explained that "the (Sharp) family came from Bournemouth, a wealthy area of the country, which is about thirty miles from where I was brought up in Southampton. His father, Major Sharp, owned a motor car showroom called Westover Motors and he had [an] ice rink built over the showroom in order that Graham and his sister - I think her name was Hazel but am not sure - could learn to skate. The rink remained open until the late 1980's but Westover Motors still exists as a business. I believe Major Sharp engaged the Canadian Phil Taylor (father of Megan Taylor) to teach them." While Graham Sharp was skating, he also worked at Westover Motors with his father. When the Westover Ice Rink his father had built proved quite popular, Sharp opted to travel to Southampton every morning from September to December of 1938 so that he could practice his free skating program in an empty rink in preparation for the 1939 European and World Championships. Lucrative offers to turn professional also presented themselves to Sharp in 1938. He was offered a seven year contract in Hollywood as well as two thousand pounds (which at the time would have bought four houses, so it was a LOT of money) to join ice shows. He turned down these offers as his main goal at the time was to become the World Champion.

Cartoon of Graham Sharp from the February 1938 issue of The Skating Times
1939 proved to be an eventful year for Sharp. After winning the European Championships in Davos, Switzerland, Sharp travelled to Budapest, Hungary in February of that year for the World Championships. His main competition came from his teammate Freddie Tomlins, who had finished second to Sharp at both the British and European Championships. Sharp would finally achieve his goal of becoming World Champion, outskating Tomlins, Germany's Horst Faber and nine others.

T.D. Richardson and Graham Sharp

Ironically, it wasn't so much his skating as what we wore that gained media attention at the time. Sharp (by many considered quite a good looking man) wore a red silk shirt, a brightly coloured tie and loosely fitting trousers. He drew criticism from a regular columnist in The Skating Times: "The introduction of fancy dress in championship skating has little to recommend it and might, in the long run prove harmful". Sharp fought back and issued a reply to the columnist in the next month's issue of the newsletter: "I don't in the least bit mind criticism but I should like to say that I wore the same modern skating outfit in the Berlin Worlds last year because I felt better in it. I asked the ISU and NSA officials first and now several of the Continental skaters have copied me."



When war was declared in September of 1939 and in October Sharp received 'the call. In November, he married his long time girlfriend Hazel Mason of Bournemouth. By April 1940, he was a second lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps serving in France. Sharp wasn't the only British men's skater of the time to serve in the war. British medallist Geoff Yates served as a Major in the marines and was in the D-Day landings. Yates survived the war and went on to become an international level judge and referee. Freddie Tomlins (who was also a successful speed skater) was a rear gunner in the air force and was tragically killed in a battle against a Nazi submarine over the English Channel on June 20, 1943 at age twenty three. Sharp was fortunate enough to survive his service in World War II and was later demobbed as Captain.

Graham Sharp competing at the 1946 British Championships at Wembley

Captain Sharp returned to skating after the war and handily won his seventh and eighth British titles in 1946 and 1948 before turning to judging the sport alongside his former competitor Geoffrey Yates. He also served on the council of Britain's National Skating Association. He lived abroad for a time before returning to settle in England and passed away on December 2, 1995.


 Left to right: Geoff Yates, Graham Sharp and Freddie Tomlins. Photo courtesy Elaine Hooper, the National Skating Association Archives. 
An interesting part of the legacy of Captain Sharp's story comes from the rink that his father Major Sharp built in his motor car showroom. Elaine Hooper relayed that "Bournemouth was and is a holiday destination and Graham's father Major Sharp took full advantage of this by having an annual summer ice revue to attract the holiday makers. This was followed by an annual grand reopening of the rink. Ice shows became very popular in Britain and The Skating Times of January 1938 stated that 'full credit should go to Major F.G. Sharp of Bournemouth who originated professional ice revues here'. Many years later when the Cousins family from Bristol holidayed in Bournemouth with their two sons, the younger one, nine year old Robin asked if he could have a go at skating in the ice rink. The rest is history." History it is!

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Ipswich Woman

One of the things I love most about blogging about figure skating history is piecing together the stories of skaters from decades past... many of whom aren't here to share their stories. That's what made writing today's blog ultimately frustrating. This isn't a story that really CAN be pieced together with any certainty because it's not one from decades ago... more like centuries!

I was at the Killam Library at Dalhousie University recently, which boasts an impressive collection of books about sports history and happened to glance down at a lower shelf. One book in particular caught my eye. It was called "The English At Play In The Middle Ages" and turns out to have been written by Teresa McLean in 1981. I humoured my curiosity to check the index for any references to skating. Lo and behold, I wasn't disappointed. After referring to the well-documented references of skating by the Canterbury monk Fitzstephen, McLean noted that "the excavations at College Street, Ipswich, in 1899 unearthed the sad little find of a woman skater's skeleton, complete with skates, in the mud of the former river course."

Anyone with a periphery knowledge of archaeology has no doubt heard of The Ipswich Man, the skeleton of a man of North African descent who would have lived in approximately the year 1190 and was found buried in England. He's long been a riddle to archaeologists and historians alike and has been the subject of numerous scholarly essays, documentaries and books. But what of this female skater? Was her story any less of a riddle?


Pioneering female archaeologist and historian Nina Frances Layard's 1899 report "Recent Discoveries On The Site Of The Carmelite Convent Of Ipswich, And The Old River Quay" offers wonderful insight into the story of the skeleton that McLean referred to in her 1981 book. Layard explains that there was a dig site on College Street in St. Peter's where some older houses had been removed to make way for newer ones. When the foundations were dug, an old river bed from a quarry was exposed. She wrote that "here the workman came upon the skull and other bones of a female skeleton, and lying among them I noticed two bones of very different appearance, which showed signs of having been roughly shaped, though for what purpose it was hard to conjecture. By the kind help of Dr. Laver and Mr. Spalding, Curator of Colchester Museum, I have since been able to identify them as bone skates. Such primitive implements were in use in England in Henry II's time, and even considerably later and an interesting account of them is given by Fitz Stephen in his 'History of London.' They are also found in Holland, Scandinavia and Sweden and are still in use in Iceland. Specimens have been dredged up from the bottom of the Thames, and are, I believe, to be seen in the Guildhall Museum... The sites from which these interesting relics of the past were obtained are now both built over. A high red brick structure already covers that part of the convent area which for too brief a space was laid open to the eye of the antiquary, and above the bed of the old river quay, where some unfortunate ancient skater dropped his skates, large business premises have arisen, shutting out forever that temporary glimpse of old Ipswich."

Layard's first hand account of the excavation seems to infer that the bones found with the female skeleton might have been dropped by another skater in the river, which certainly contrasts with the image McLean poses of an unlucky female skater perhaps falling through the ice. Old maps of the area reference a convent of The Carmelite nuns in the area. Who was the woman in the river? We simply do not and will not know. What we DO know is that she will be forever linked with skating history.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html

Friday, 11 September 2015

Retracing History: The Fall And Rise Of Compulsory Figures

2015 World Figure Championship. The photo exposes different types and layers of the beautiful figure tracings on the riveting black ice. Photo courtesy Deborah Hickey Photography. Used with permission.
As figure skating audiences grew in the sixties and seventies with the rise of television, the tenuous relationship between compulsory figures and free skating became more and more evident. Commentators struggled to find sufficient words to explain why brilliant free skaters like Janet Lynn, Toller Cranston and Denise Biellmann weren't winning Olympic titles and skaters, coaches and judges alike became more vocal about their concern about the role figures were taking in making and breaking careers. In the March 17, 1980 issue of The Globe And Mail, ISU President Jacques Favart proclaimed that "the compulsory figures must die. They are a waste of time and prevent skaters from being still more creative." Although Favart passed away only months later, he got his wish.

In a June 1988 ISU meeting, after two hours of intense debate, delegates voted twenty seven to four to phase out figures from international competition starting July 1, 1990. Representatives from Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and the United States voted against their abolition and less than a year later, delegates even tried to revisit the decision at an urgent meeting at the 1989 World Figure Skating Championships in Paris to put the kibosh on them even sooner. Figures were last contested at the Canadian Championships in Sudbury, Ontario in 1990. Norm Proft and Margot Bion were the winners, beating brilliant free skaters like Kurt Browning, Elvis Stojko and Josée Chouinard. When all was said and done, neither Proft or Bion stood on the medal podium at the end of the day. The same could be said for Richard Zander of West Germany, who won the figures at the 1990 World Championships and ended the event in seventh. If officials wanted statistics to support their argument to oust the school figures, they had them.


The final figures skated at the World Championships were performed just across the harbour from me at the Dartmouth Sportsplex; an ice surface I've won competitions on myself. Twenty four year old David Liu, representing Chinese Taipei, was the final men's skater to perform a figure at Worlds. A crowd of one thousand applauded the introduction and marks of each and every skater for the final three figures and after Liu performed his paragraph loop, ISU referee Sonia Bianchetti-Garbato shook his hand, patted him on the back and the judging panel celebrated with two bottles of champagne. Liu's words? "For someone who dislikes figures so much, I'm excited by it." On March 6, 1990, Yugoslavia's Zeljka Cizmesija became the final person to skate a figure at a World Championships. She left her her patch with a smile on her face and flowers were placed on the paragraph loop. Cizmesija received a bouquet of roses, a box of chocolates and perhaps the only standing ovation of her career.

At the time, skaters had mixed feelings about their demise. In the March 8, 1990 issue of The Vancouver Sun, Kurt Browning said, "Wouldn't you know it, they're killing the figures just when I'm getting good at them." In the February 9, 1990 Chicago Tribune, Christopher Bowman quipped "for me, it makes no difference they're gone. I've done everything you can do with the figures except make an omelette out of them."

In the June 9, 1988 edition of The New York Times, Dr. Hugh Graham, president of the USFSA at the time, noted that abolishing figures would reduce skaters expenses by fifty percent, cutting coaching and ice time and allowing skaters to focus their attention on setting a new standard in free skating. However, prophetically the same article noted that "opponents of the move argued that compulsory figures were needed to teach skaters basic skills. They warned that abolishing them would turn skating into jumping contests and might cause more injuries." The ever eloquent Olympic Silver Medallist Debbi Wilkes argued in a November 1996 editorial (around the time figures were replaced with 'Skills' in the CFSA) that "the real traditionalists have hung on to figures with the idea that they were important training tools even for jumping, much like the scales are crucial for learning the piano. So why are jumpers so poor at figures? The two skills seem to be in competition with one another, figures on the one hand needing quiet, controlled movement, and jumps on the other, demanding sudden bursts of energy. For anyone who needs the instant excitement of free skating, figures are definitely not the way to go! You have to be mathematical to love figures. You have to like doing housework and making things neat and tidy. You have to love seeing how close you can bring one tracing to another. You have to love drawing that picture. Now if any of that tickles one of your spots, you get the idea about what it takes to make a great figure. If not, forget it! We'll never understand one another. It seems figures have just outlived their usefulness. Even though they weren't artistic in nature, subjective judging often made their results suspect .... and they sure didn't make for great television... To me the 'Skills' are an exciting addition to the fun of learning good edges and strong control, but unless I'm missing the point, there's a huge hole. What's going to make a skater learn how to jump and LAND? If old fashioned figures couldn't get the job done, I just don't see how the 'Skills' are going to do it either." Here's the thing. As someone who was skating at the exact time this transition was being made, I can tell you that Debbi Wilkes was right on the money in her last statement.

To anyone who hasn't joined the party in the last ten or so years, it's pretty apparent that what a generation or two might have been able to take from an early education in figures has been missing in the overall skating quality of today. I'm not saying everyone, so simmer down sweetie. Look at skaters like Patrick Chan, Jeffrey Buttle, Stéphane Lambiel and Jeremy Abbott; there are absolutely skaters out there with droolworthy edge, flow and ebb on the ice and we'd be ignorant to think otherwise... but they are the exception and not the rule. Part of it is the product of the IJS system, but I hardly think it's any huge coincidence that compulsory figures are enjoying a huge resurgence in popularity now. The timing is a little bit too coincidental. Enter my favourite idea in years: the 2015 World Figure Championship and Figure Festival in Lake Placid, the brainchild of Peak Edge Performance, skating goddess Janet Lynn and a team of incredibly passionately people determined to rewrite history.

I spoke with two time U.S. medallist and Olympian Karen Courtland Kelly of Peak Edge Performance at length about the demise of figures in ISU competition and their revival in Lake Placid. Courtland Kelly expressed that "in a sense, the sport was not managed correctly. There was such a great bias if a judge was looking at a person's country, where they're from, their name, their weight, their waistline, their hairline... every kind of bias a person can have. That was never addressed. The other thing was that when television came in, the sport was misunderstood and mismanaged. It was not made understandable to the general public. Figures were interpreted by the public as this backroom, wheeling and dealing thing but the real problem - the judging bias - was never addressed. This lead to this sense of misunderstanding from the public being quite accurate. If you think about skating around the time of the first satellite broadcasts, television was already making a larger audience question the legitimacy of the sport. If you fast forward to 1988, the ISU had an agenda and didn't feel they needed figures anymore. The skating world at the time at that time didn't know how to fix that bias and make the discipline beautiful for television. Originally, when people grew up skating on ponds, you could see the tracings your skate made. There was originally an entertainment or fascination aspect to that. When they brought in television and the NHL, they had to have the audience be able to see the hockey puck. They had to paint the ice white so you could see the black hockey puck. In most town and city rinks, the ice was not white before that but they painted the ice white mainly because of hockey. This had a huge effect on figures. For the audience at the World Figure Championship to be able to sit there and actually see the difference between tracings because the ice is showing the difference, the bias is taken out. The judges don't know who the skaters are, their names or what they look like and can just look at the tracings on the ice and judge with a clear head."

In the nineties, when patch was aggressively phased out in North America, the USFSA and CFSA's substitutes for figures were well promoted and largely questioned. Revisiting the points touched on earlier in this blog, Courtland Kelly explained that "when they brought in the Moves (or Skills as you call them in Canada), skaters didn't learn the entire circle any longer. They only skated part of the circle and never got to see the beautiful symmetry of the patterns they were tracing. It is like never writing your mathematical equations down. Now you might have the odd genius who doesn't have to write it down and can do it all in their head, but even a genius will take a pen and a paper and write down in a book because it helps them see the bigger picture. Figures IS mathematical; you are skating a diagram on the ice. Those Skills are all fine and dandy, but skaters are missing the bigger picture and that's where there is a large disconnect." When I interviewed Olympic Gold Medallist Robin Cousins, he perhaps summed up the bigger disconnect best when he said, "I hate when you ask a skater to do a left inside counter and they look blankly until you show them and they say 'oh, I know that step!' Obviously you don't! They do things because they can and not because they know how. Teach them HOW and more importantly... WHY!" Coming back to the argument made by then USFSA President Dr. Hugh Graham in 1988 about the wondrous money saving measures that ditching figures would have for the sport, Courtland Kelly pointed out that "if you look at the argument that taking out figures was from financial end, right now it's been proven otherwise. People are taking more lessons and not necessarily getting more done. Cutting costs might have done something in the short term but in hindsight, I don't think it's helped skater's alignment and overall quality of skating."

We talked next about the motivating factors for creating this event and the logistics of getting it off the ground. Courtland Kelly explained that "back in 2005, we did a documentary called 'Figure Eights: The Life Force Of Figure Skating' in Lake Placid. Every figure was skated in the school figure catalogue from the preliminary to eighth test to really document and save the knowledge ever since figures were abolished and eliminated. It didn't come out right away because it took us about four years to edit the piece and develop individual diagrams of the figures. We really did it for the love of it. My husband and I both wanted to be part of the solution to save something that was really becoming extinct. Let's face it. Life is short. We will leave this world and once that happens with certain people, that knowledge is all going to be forever gone and we can't get it back. Over the last ten years, Peak Edge Performance, the company who created the World Figure Championship, has been diligently working on how we could take the information in that documentary and find out what the ultimate solution to putting figures back in the limelight would be. Between Jojo Starbuck and Janet [Lynn] and so many amazing people, a lot of people have shared this vision. In this same period, Janet wrote that beautiful book and we ended up exchanging them and started a discussion about the championship, talkng about the location, the dynamics, the logistics of the black ice and the rules of the championship itself; how this could even be possible. This all came into place by a lot of people's grace and work. The goals were to impress and promote knowledge about the discipline and to do it in the most beautiful, visionary way to help people understand the enjoyment of this discipline. We tried to address those biases and problems the discipline has faced in the past in this most beautiful way with this black ice canvas and a different system of judging. We wanted to show how fascinating and riveting figures really are and we believe we did. The public could see one tracing next to another and whether the symmetry of the circles was there and how correct the shape was with their own eyes from all the way up in the stands! The motivation was to show this tremendous beauty in a light it had never been seen in."

But of course there were politics, right?! That'd make it things nice and juicy and give us all a reason gleefully bask in the scandal of it all! If 'drama' is what you're after, I'm afraid you're fresh out of luck, there sweetie. When Jacques Favart stated that "compulsory figures must die", you must remember that he indeed DID get his wish. The ISU's General Regulations, Section B. Eligibility (ISU Rule 102, Section 2) state that "skating or officiating without the prior express authorization of the respective Member, in any capacity in a Skating competition, exhibition or tour in any of the sport disciplines of the ISU" would constitute a skater under the auspices of the ISU losing their eligibility. Furthermore, ISU Rule 300 (Disciplines and content of Single & Pair Skating and Ice Dance) offers no mention of school figures. Therefore, according to the ISU's own rules, eligible skaters are free to play hockey, take part in a curling bonspiel, a game of baseball on ice or a compulsory figure event without any prejudice. There hasn't been any back and forth, no scratching, hair pulling or name calling. Courtland Kelly explained that "there has been no communication from the ISU to Peak Edge Performance. The ISU abolished the discipline twenty five years ago. There's no justification to make someone ineligible for a discipline you don't recognize. A very interesting bit of information is on page 88 of the US Figure Skating rulebook under 'Inactive and Retired': 'The U. S. Figure Skating Museum is the custodian for a large number of lovely and valuable trophies, many of which have been retired or become inactive for various reasons. Some of those reasons being: the elimination of figure events; elimination of specific events(s) from the designated competition; a rule requiring that trophies be awarded only for results of the actual judging of an event... It was felt that it would be a fitting tribute to the donors, clubs and winners of these trophies to once again list them in this publication: U.S. Championship Ladies Figure Champion: The Owen Memorial Trophy donated by F. Ritter Shumway and the Skating Club of Boston in memory of Mrs. Maribel V. Owen, Maribel Y. And Laurence R. Owen. Presented in 1991.' U.S. Figure Skating's own museum explains that U.S. Figure Skating eliminated figures and the championship trophy has been retired due to that elimination."

We talked about the overwhelming success of the first ever World Figure Championship and Festival, held on August 28 and 29, 2015 in Lake Placid, New York at the 1932 Olympic Arena: "We tried to make the competition as beautiful and joyful as we could for everyone, because that's really what it's about. Janet's skating and everyone's skating is really about the love to skate, the love to be on the ice. The judging panel was just so special and the fact that they were able to be all together. I mean, Trixi Schuba, Janet Lynn... the talent and knowledge of EVERYONE on that panel was just incredible. The fact that they could come together and be such a big part of the inaugural World Figure Championship we hope was very special. Dick Button came and wrote a beautiful piece that went into the souvenir program. Doug Wilson was also a big part of the championship with his Memorable Moments Of Greatness presentation and left everyone with the understanding of how television changed figure skating forever. Everyone loved the artistic connections brought in with Tommy Litz's art show (which was a huge success) and the Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov's video presentation as well.  The discipline of figures has not been practiced at a world championship level in twenty five years. The fact that these beautiful skaters were so gifted that they could focus and train and skate these championship figures was amazing. To compete and be inducted into the Hall Of Fame, you had to perform SIXTEEN different figures of incredible difficulty over the two days and that's no small feat. What was incredibly special to us was that everyone was just so appreciated; their talent, everyone's gifts and graces were recognized."

Distinguished panelists ranking the 2015 World Figure Championships Figure tracings (left to right): Linda Carbonetto Villella, Julie Lynn Holmes-Newman, Slavka Kohout Button (sitting - behind chair safety and assistant referee Lisa Warner), Janet Lynn, Tommy Litz, Trixi Schuba, Jojo Starbuck. Photo courtesy Deborah Hickey Photography. Used with permission.

Having talked about the past and present of figures, Karen Courtland Kelly and I pondered the future of the discipline. She explained that at "the World Figure Championship, a new Hall Of Fame was inducted called the World Figure Hall Of Fame. We also made the announcement of the formation of the World Figure Sport Organization. This organization is going to organize, develop and promote Figures, with the pinnacle being the World Figure Championship, which will go on every year, hopefully long after we are all here for years to come. We want people to fall in love with the beautiful tracings and patterns they can skate on the ice and get to experience the thrill of skating figures on the canvas they were meant to be skated on." Other future goal of the World Figure Sport Organization include reintroducing Special Figures and making scribes and figure appropriate blades more widely available.

As you can imagine, I have a soft spot in my heart for anyone who 'gets' the importance of skating history and I don't know about you, but I love this all to death and pieces. Who doesn't love a fabulous comeback? I think what's so exciting about the formal revival of figures with this competition is that the organizers got it right and absolutely understood and ADDRESSED the fundamental problems that led to the extinction of compulsory figures in the first place. The organizers, participants and judges of this event breathed new life into rockers and paragraph loops and revived the past and guess what? They did it with a positive attitude and vision that we don't see nearly enough of. These are the kinds of events that need our support and I hope you consider attending and showing your support at the 2016 competition. I sure am!

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