When someone literally dedicates their entire life to figure skating, I think they deserve a standing ovation even if it is a posthumous one. Born July 31, 1911 in Vienna, Austria, Fritz Dietl got his start in the sport at the relatively 'late' age of twelve, something I can definitely relate to. He didn't do it in an ice rink in Chester, Nova Scotia though but rather in one of the most majestic and historic settings of them all: the frozen Danube River, where skaters had been taking to the ice in the winters for centuries.
After getting a degree in economics at the insistence of his father and playing tennis professionally, Dietl joined the International Artists Organization, finding work throughout the thirties in ice shows in Austria, Germany, Great Britain, South Africa and Switzerland. He relocated to the United States in 1939, accepting an offer from Arthur M. Wirtz to perform in Sonja Henie's shows. He used his engineering background to design twenty four inch stilts designed specifically to work with skates and performed his novelty act in America for six years. In a 1998 interview with Dianne Powell he reminisced, "I remember when Sonja told me I had to take my camel spin out of my program. She said I made her look stupid because I did a better one on stilts than she did without. I said, 'Sonja, if you get off your high horse it'll take me 10 minutes and I'll give you a camel spin assist.' I explained it. She was a talented skater. She said, 'for that you can keep your camel spin in your program.'"
Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine
After his professional skating career ended, Dietl taught at the Skating Club Of New York for a time. In 1958, he purchased Webber's Garage in Westwood, New Jersey and converted it into a skating rink where he would act as owner, manager, skating director and even Zamboni driver. At the time, it was the only skating rink in the area. The Fritz Dietl Ice Rink still thrives today!
Dietl was a charter member of the ISI (Ice Skating Institute) and also the coach of two time U.S. Champion Scotty Allen. Allen won the silver medal in the junior men's event at the 1961 U.S. Championships and was thus included in a group of young skaters that would have the amazing learning experience of being sent by the USFSA to observe the best in the world at the 1961 World Championships.
Amazingly, it would be the Fritz Dietl Ice Rink that saved both Dietl and Allen's lives and kept them off the ill-fated Sabena flight that crashed in Brussels, Belgium that year. Patricia Shelley Bushman's book "Indelible Tracings" explained that "Scott Allen and his coach, Fritz Dietl, had tickets for the Sabena flight. The eleven-year-old would have been the third young spectator, along with eleven-year-old Jimmy Scholdan, and thirteen-year-old Dickie LeMaire... Three days before the plane took off, the compressors broke. He had to wait for parts to come in and fix the problem before he could go. Dietl was the chaperone so they both delayed their trip." The difference a day can make is quite the understatement! Under Dietl's guidance, Allen became one of America's top men's skaters in the era of rebuilding after the 1961 plane crash, winning the Olympic bronze medal in the 1964, World silver medal in 1965 and three medals at the North American Championships.
In addition to his rink and students, Dietl spent countless hours mentoring professional skaters and working with the International Professional Skaters Guild, judging skating at the regional level for the USFSA and serving on both the ISI and PSA boards. He received Lifetime Achievement Awards from both organizations. In 1991, Westwood, New Jersey even made July 29 Fritz Dietl Day.
In a 2003 article from the ISI Edge newsletter, Jim Lange reflected on Dietl: "I think his life speaks volumes in what he has done for the industry and for all the generations he taught, all the young skaters who have gone on to teach others. He had a smile that lit up a room. He was always gracious, a very good listener, always very sincere." 1984 Olympic Gold Medallist Scott Hamilton also reflected on Dietl in his book "The Great Eight": "I was in a pro competition in South Africa and was having a great time after the event was over. Fritz pulled me aside to give me a life lesson that would change my perspective forever. He said, 'Do you want a long career?' 'Of course,' I said. 'Then always be number two,' he said. 'Always put someone above you. Never put yourself first.' Now this is a man who performed with the greatest diva in the history of pro skating. Sonja Henie was a huge star and always put herself first and made a fortune doing just that. But here was a man telling me to put others first. Seeing that I was captured by his advice, he continued, 'Number ones come and go, but a number two can last forever.' It was an amazing nugget of wisdom. There is an Olympics every four years with new stars and new excitement. How am I going to survive that in a long career? I decided that he was probably right and started my long journey as a self-proclaimed 'number two.'"
Sadly, Dietl passed away on March 29, 2003 from complications of heart trauma, leaving behind his beloved wife Carola and sons Ernst and Gregory. His star pupil Scotty Allen recalled, "Fritz would often say, 'The only limitations that you have are the ones that are self-imposed. It's all in your mind, not your body. You can achieve almost any objective you set yourself to.'"
I'm going to take Dietl's advice. My objective for this blog is to create a well researched, diverse and eclectic figure skating library of skating history for people who are just as passionate about the sport as I am. Sure, I'm not spending most of my time picking apart skater's coaching choices and underrotations but I believe that what I'm doing with this blog is every bit as valuable and worthy of its own audience... and I'm done with limitations. With your help, this blog will never be on the Fritz. It's going to keep on growing.
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.