Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Outstanding Ogilvie's

A. Raclare Kanal photos; Courtesy Jaya Kanal's It Figures! blog

Joan Astley Thompson was born in British Ceylon, a colony which no longer exists.The daughter of a British investment banker, she travelled a great deal in her youth and attended schools in Colombo and Calcutta before moving with her family to Great Britain. It was at the Queen's Ice Skating Club in London that Robert Ogilvie, a talented student of eminent Swiss coach Jacques Gerschwiler, met Joan. As was the case with so many at the time, World War II put a wrench in their skating development.

According to an article in the November/December 2012 edition of the Professional Skaters Association's magazine, "on September 6, 1940, Bob reported for training as an X-ray technician at the Royal Army Medical College in London. The college was about a half a mile down the Thames River from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and about one hundred yards from the 'Ice Club'. On the second night of his stay, the Germans started the 'blitz' by dropping a bomb on the Ice Club, destroying the building, which was never rebuilt. After a period of intense attacks, bombing continued spasmodically during his stay. Fortunately, the Queen's Ice Club near Hyde Park was below ground and continued to function throughout the War both as a rink and air raid shelter. Regrettably, one of the Queens Ice Club professionals, Walter Gregory, the inventor of the Rhumba, joined the Royal Air Force and was killed while fighting a German attack. Mr. Ogilvie spent about eighteen months working in a large army hospital before being sent out to Singapore, Malaya, which fell to the Japanese a few months later. Thus, Bob spent the remaining three and a half years of the war as a POW. Detention was very difficult on Mr. Ogilvie as the Japanese did not give the prisoners their Red Cross parcels and restricted daily rations to the volume of dry rice that would fit in the palm of your hand. 'At one point,' said Nigel Ogilvie, Bob's son, 'the medical officers concluded that eating food with maggots was okay because they added some protein value.' In a camp where almost 100% of the POW's had malaria and nearly 30% died, Bob credited his guardian angels for protecting him although in the end he did come down with beriberi (vitamin deficiency)." Meanwhile in England, Joan worked as an operating room nurse at St. Mary's Hospital and as an ambulance driver during The Blitz. The carefree days of figure skating must have seemed so far away for the war torn lovers but when Robert was liberated from the POW Camp in October 1945, the couple reunited determined to pursue their passion for the sport together. Both passed their Gold tests and Robert became certified as a judge.

Two years later, the on and off ice couple made their debut as a pairs team on the international stage at the European Championships in Prague. They finished an impressive fourth ahead of the sibling team of Jennifer and John Nicks. However, after marching in the opening ceremonies of the 1948 Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, they were cut from the British team in favour of the Nicks' and another sibling team (Winnie and Dennis Silverthorne) due to an excess of entries. Instead, they were sent to the 1948 World Figure Skating Championships in Davos where they finished a disappointing twelfth place of the fourteen teams competing.

They married the same year and went on to an impressive professional career that saw them join touring productions in Belgium, Germany, Spain, Northern Africa and France before coming to America and skating at the Conrad Hilton Hotel. They then embarked on a coaching career in California, working first at Frank Zamboni's rink and then with the St. Paul Figure Skating Club in Minnesota. In 1957, they were hired as choreographers by the St. Paul Summer Pops Concert Committee to help revive the city's failing Summer Pops concert series by adding figure skating presentations to the mix. According to the September 23, 1957 edition of The Billboard, the Ogilvie's story was featured extensively in local media at the time in an attempt to draw skating fans to the events: "Feature stories included experiences of the Ogilvie's with the 1948 British Olympic skating team, traveling the international ice skating show circuit starting in 1949, and their work with 'wet' ice in Spain contrasted with the first-class ice sheet in the St. Paul auditorium."

The Ogilvie's moved from Minnesota to Maryland in 1959, where they established themselves as top coaches with the Skating Club Of Baltimore. A May 3, 2006 article in The Baltimore Messenger noted that in the Maryland city, "the Ogilvie's organized a popular, competitive, family-oriented ice club and trained students to achieve skating's gold level, the 'black-belt' equivalent for the sport." Robert Ogilvie patented the Ogilvie Blade Gauge and penned several books on figure skating including the USFSA's 1968 Basic Skills Program book, "Competitive Figure Skating: A Parent's Guide" in 1985 and "Handbook Of New Era Figures" for the Professional Skaters Guild Of America. In talking about school figures in his 1968 book, I think you'll find this expert coach's musings on scribes particularly on point:


For their outstanding contributions as coaches in America, both Robert and Joan Ogilvie were bestowed honorary lifetime memberships with the Professional Skaters Association. Joan retired from coaching in 1998 and enjoyed growing roses and breeding Siamese cats until suffering a fall in her Rodgers Forge, Maryland home in May 2003 and passing away in St. Joseph Medical Center at the age of eighty two. Robert passed away on November 18, 2013 at the age of ninety seven. In a January 23, 2014 article in The Baltimore Sun, former student Brienne Teske noted that "'He was very strict and he really ran a tight ship. He expected complete respect... We were scared of him because when he got angry, he scared you. You were a little girl, and there was this gentleman with a strong, deep voice and a British accent. But you respected him and you did what you were told. As you got older, you knew that his bark was certainly much louder than his bite, that he was a wonderful person and there was really nothing to be afraid of.' Robert Ogilvie once videotaped one of Fiske's struggling skaters, went home, studied the tape, typed up a report and presented it to Fiske, the student and the student's parents. The student soon landed that problematic jump. 'He loved it,' Fiske remembered. 'That was what he loved to do: analyze.'"

From their World War II experiences to Olympic disappointment, The Ogilvie's certainly endured their fair share of heartbreaking moments. Yet, the couple persevered and drew from their experiences in teaching many future coaches the same kind of life lessons they drew from themselves. Skating owes them a great debt.

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