Thursday, 29 September 2016

#Unearthed: The Gustave Lussi Edition

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. This month, we'll explore the compelling story of legendary coach Gustave Lussi as told by former Lussi student and collaborator and past Skate Guard interview subject Cecily Morrow. Included are both a biography of the late, great coach and a list detailing just some of the many champions Mr. Lussi worked with over the years. Ms. Morrow noted that quotes within this biography come from interviews collected by herself or Lois Waring McGean or from conversations during lessons. Please bear in mind that from a historical perspective some of the claims made regarding 'firsts' included in this piece have been debated or are at least 'up for discussion'. However, bottom line... terribly interesting stuff and let's give a big thank you to Ms. Morrow for her permission to share this amazing material!


Growing up in Stans, Switzerland, Gustave Lussi, in his teenage years, ski jumped in the Swiss Alps, feeling firsthand the soaring, straight-forward flight up and out of a big jump take-off. At that time, in 1915, they learned to jump with the skis together. One day, before a competition, he went off the jump a little wrong and broke his skull in two, necessitating a metal plate to be installed to keep the two halves together. He lay in hospital for almost a year during which time he had several roommates in the bed next to his, one of whom was also a ski jumper. While trapped there together for a month or so, he and the other ski jumper came up with the idea to jump with the legs apart to get more distance and flight. The fellow jumper healed, left the hospital, and introduced this new method of jumping with the legs apart; some Swiss skiers started jumping with the feet apart, then went back and forth from legs together to apart for decades. Mr. Lussi told this story to his students when he was attempting to get them to soar into a delayed Axel with the legs stretched and apart, and, eventually, other delayed jumps. In the 1970's he always ended the story with: "It took them sixty years to figure out to jump with the feet apart which they do in ski jumping today"

After his skull repaired Gus Lussi turned to figure skating with Mr. DeBergen, in Bern, Switzerland. Then, in the spring of 1919, young Lussi sailed for the United States, landing in New York City, and started training seriously about four months later with his newly emigrated Swiss teacher, DeBergen, whom he supported by washing dishes at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. After a couple of years he decided that "if I cannot be a champion, I shall make them."

By then DeBergen had left for a new position as senior instructor at the Philadelphia Skating Club, and offered young Lussi a job as junior instructor; within the first year of Gus Lussi's arrival there he entirely revised the method he had been taught by DeBergen. Mr. Lussi didn't like the way all figure skaters were skating at the time: "the men put their index finger on their head and the other hand on their hip to do a spin, one turn high up on the spikes…. Figure skaters were 'booed' by spectators who were on the ice with speed skaters…. I decided to revolutionize the sport, to make it into something respectable for men to do."

He quickly employed his athletic background from skiing, ski jumping, and fortuitous studies in anatomy with renowned University of Pennsylvania professor and physician, R. Tait McKenzie, while serving as a model for his famous sculptures - one of which is the relief entitled, Brothers of the Wind, reproduced for the entrance of the 1988 Calgary Olympic Stadium. A member of the Philadelphia Skating Club, Dr. McKenzie taught young Lussi how the body must move on a pair of skates "because the hips run side to side [twist against skates and shoulders unless controlled] and the skates run forward to back."

Through these youthful explorations, his own on-ice experimentation, and those with students, plus his own discoveries "fooling around" with physics, Mr. Lussi realized that making jump take-offs much straighter, shorter and snappier, combined with the free leg and arms passing straight through at take-off, gave any skater greater distance and height in jumps, a delaying of rotation action and, therefore, increased airtime in which to then complete rotation. " I used to come to Lake Placid and teach in the winter also, 1922, '23. I used to bust my face off from jumping Axels, experimenting on myself, skating on the tennis courts at the Lake Placid Club."

By 1924, he had his first U.S. Junior Champion, Egbert S. Carey. And, after moving to the Toronto Skating Club in 1926, brother and sister, Montgomery and Constance Wilson won their first Canadian Nationals (1927) under his tutelage and the next five consecutive North American Championships (held every two years) in singles and pairs. Early on Mr. Lussi came up with inventions in collaboration with students, the stories of which he employed to inspire later generations of pupils: "Montgomery Wilson and I were having competitions with each other to see who could do the longest loop jump.
One of us came around, stuck the toe in, and I knew then we had a different jump.… I called it the flip, and Evelyn Chandler [Mapes] came up to Toronto and saw us do it and she took it back to the States and they called it the Mapes jump."

In 1928, Mr. Lussi's student Montgomery 'Bud' Wilson landed the first double Salchow in the Canadian Men's Senior competition. That same year, Mr. Lussi took both Constance and Bud Wilson on to the Olympics where the officials "criticized Connie for closing her figures to round them out. Up to that time they left the figures open - you never came back to your start - even in 1947 they were doing this. But in 1928 Connie was marked down for closing her figures... I was the first to make a straight rocker or counter parallel with the short axis or straight across the long axis of
the figure." To encourage his students to be inventive and stand up for themselves, Mr. Lussi elaborated: "I took Dick Button to the Worlds in Stockholm in 1947. Every day the officials came to me and said: 'You are wrong. You must leave the figures open.'" Finally, Mr. Lussi replied: "This boy's champion of the United States and that's the way we're going to do them… That same year they had a meeting in Stockholm and they said the figures shall be closed, in 1947."

Constance Wilson and Gustave Lussi 

Mr. Lussi was always encouraging a student to jump straighter, farther, and higher before rotating; he'd say, "Sonja Henie's was a rotation jump. She jumped around the circle, took off and landed on the same spot…. Constance Wilson was the first female to perform the first real Axel…but she still turned a three afterwards. And, after teaching it to her awhile, I was called down to the Committee room. They told me that I couldn't teach a jump like that to a lady. It was unladylike, likely to hurt her."

Constance and Montgomery Wilson were both doing Axels but "Bud Wilson was the first to do a double Salchow in St. Moritz in 1928 and everyone was astounded that someone could turn so much in the air. Bud never checked a jump and we had many arguments about it. That's why he lost the Worlds in 1932 against Karl Schäfer in Montreal; he just spun out…. Everybody turned a three on landings; we all did. Felix Kaspar…landed backwards but had to turn a three afterwards." "No one until 1936 could make a double jump without turning a three afterwards; they couldn't ride out the
landing edge. Bill Grimditch was the first one. He came to me in Ottawa and he was the first one to flow out of an Axel because I taught him to check the landing."

Mr. Lussi even influenced a skater's attire. He designed all of Constance Wilson's dresses to be closely fitted and stop at her knees so she could jump unencumbered. "When I got to Toronto, I worked with Osborne Colson. I started him, Mary Littlejohn, Stewart Reburn, a whole bunch. And when I went to Ottawa with them, out of twelve titles, my students won eleven."

"In Toronto, I was charged with doing the shows. There were many things I did with them." Apparently, for these shows, Mr. Lussi came up with original steps and group formations, the basis of those used in many ice shows today.” Before the summer of 1932, "the most one could skate was from October to April or May…. After they covered the [1932 Rink in Lake Placid] for the Olympics, I persuaded the town to keep the rink open to let me bring my skaters down from Canada
to perform big operettas.… For inspiration I went to the history museum in New York City and studied the Egyptians for Cleopatra. I designed the sets and costumes and my father-in-law painted the ice. The shows ran every summer for several years. We were the first to paint the ice. This was the beginning of summer skating. And they were so popular that Eddie Shipstad called me from Ice Follies to direct their show."

Mr. Lussi's renown as a director and choreographer of shows was so widespread that in the early 1940's "I was called at three in the morning by Mr. Vincent Astor, the owner of the St. Regis Hotel in New York City, where I had started washing dishes twenty years prior. He asked me to produce their show. They had a little rink in the dance floor..."

In the meantime, for competition in the early days the music was not recorded. "It was always orchestras of about 10 members. The orchestra would start playing and the skater would just float out and start skating. They had stop watches and would blow a whistle." There were not exact movements set to the music. In 1935 a program choreographed to a set piece of recorded music was skated by Lussi's student: "Jane Vaughn's interpretive program to recorded music, not a band, was the first, and it took the judges a long time to mark it… first time a record was used."

"The whole time I was working with my students I felt we had to have something new every year. We tried all kinds of things like double Salchow into a toe spin. The first double loop was Bill Grimditch in 1941-42 in Boston. He did not throw the leg at that time. He had the first jump sit as well."

"Then came the flying sit. One night I was talking in my sleep and rolling all over in bed. My wife woke me up and I sat straight up in bed and said, 'I've just invented the flying sit spin.' So I went in the next day and taught it to Buddy Vaughn [1942]. It wasn't as open then. With Hayes [Jenkins in the 1950's] we really started to open it up. He would really fly. But the greatest flying sit I had was Misha Petkevich… he came down the rink full speed and let go like anything…. Everyone had to scatter to get out of his way."

Of the flying camel, Mr. Lussi tells the story: "I was working on the back spin [camel] position in Dick's camel-jump-camel and I had him repeat the forward camel every time before jumping onto the back position. One time he got tired of doing the forward camel, just stepped and jumped over to the back camel right away. We worked on it to really make it something but kept it secret so no one else would pick it up until after the competition [1945 U.S. Junior Championships]. We called it the Button camel at first."

"And Dick had a double flip in 1946 already, and the double Lutz." In order to complete these new double jumps, Mr. Lussi devised jumping up and out then rotating with the legs crossed. Prior to Mr. Lussi inventing this crossed-leg rotation position, skaters jumped and spun with their legs side-by-side. Mr. Lussi started and trained the spins in the crossed-leg position for the rotation segment of the jumps. Soon almost everyone jumped this way and still does today.

"The delayed Axel came about when I had Barbara Jones, in 1946. She had a terrific split jump with both legs stretched right out in the air. One day I said to her, 'Why don't you kick your leg out like that in an Axel?' She tried it and made it. That was the birth of a delayed Axel."

"McLaughlin was a student from Syracuse and the father had a foundry. I asked the father to make a blade of my design and he did but the steel did not hold up well. And, finally, at St. Moritz people came up to me and asking about the blade with the top tooth. Later, Mrs. Ellen Burka gave it to a factory in England and that was how the Pattern 99 came to be. That top spike is mine…. In 1947, in Stockholm, Jacques and Arnold Gerschwiler could not believe Dick's jumps. They went onto the ice to examine Dick's toe jumps to determine what propelled this young American to such heights wearing a McLaughlin blade. You wouldn't even hear the toe going into the ice because you place the top toe. You do not break the ice. On Dick's double flip, you could hear nothing, absolutely nothing."

"The next year we started the double Axel and Dick kept setting on his seat. I couldn't figure out what was wrong. So I took a walk out on my property by the stream on a Sunday and it came to me all of a sudden... lift into a double loop forward. I went back on the Monday, taught it to Dick and by Wednesday we had a double Axel. And Dick did it in St. Moritz in 1948."

"At the time, in Stockholm and St. Moritz they had a great big gong and they went bang and that was the end of your program. I'll never forget, Dick had a flying sit at the end of his program. It was the main event. He started to take it and the gong banged and the judges had to drop their heads... It ruined the whole effect of the program. And finally there was a meeting called in Copenhagen that spring... I wanted two things, to close the centers, and to allow 10 seconds on either side of the prescribed program time... by which they changed the time of the program for ten seconds either way."

"I felt it was necessary with my champions to have something new to work towards... With Dick Button we started the triple loop. We trained in Garmisch before the Olympic Games in 1952... So, he finally accomplished the triple loop, but his left leg gave out, the foot which he wrapped in hurt him terribly, from pulling in on that leg. I did not know then to pass the foot first to roll in afterwards, which I did with Misha Petkevich in the double and triple loop... It's so much easier that way. The flow is so much greater. Because all of us start the double loop… to make a fair curve to turn in on and the fast curve is no good. The line will be perfectly straight the other way. You throw distance, tremendous distance that way... The flying double loop is then a delayed jump."

In Lussi jumps, there was always a delay, a delaying of rotation action, a lift… and then a rotation, but as the decades progressed, this delay became more pronounced so that, among later generations of Lussi students, the term 'delayed' more and more came to stand for the fully outstretched delayed-rotation position seen in his pupils' delayed Axels, the position which he eventually wanted employed in every jump, single through quadruple. "Donnie Jackson [in the 1960's] came to me and I taught him the delayed Axel, delayed double Salchow, and delayed double loop. In the double loop, I had him pass the free leg back parallel to the straight lift-off on the flat edge. He was the first one of my students to do it that way."

Mr. Lussi was profoundly interested in stimulating other people to think: "I met a man on
the train to Philadelphia. He was an aviator from NASA and I asked, 'Why do the astronauts get
so sick when they go up there?' I told him that it was a matter of training…. I have a boy
[Ronnie Robertson] right now who can make 5 or 6 turns per second. Why don't you get a hold
of him and see what he does and how he does it. So, Ronnie was called up by NASA and they
tested him [6-1/2 revolutions per second]. They tossed and turned him all around and he never
got dizzy."

"I named it the piston roll because when done well it runs down the ice with the legs in, out, 1, 2, 1, 2. Ronnie did the piston roll in 1956 and I put it in the middle of his program for the music. The audience went wild, standing ovation which cut the rest of the program down…. It was a mistake but the piston roll was a big success. And in 1956 Ronnie did a triple Axel, a double Lutz with a triple Axel right after, in the Worlds, in Garmisch, and landed it perfectly."

The 1970's saw Dorothy Hamill studying for years with Mr. Lussi when he was already in his late sixties. Yet, he was still working on new ideas. He asked Dorothy to try something in her flying camel. She tried what he described to her and it became her signature move, the Hamill Camel.

In the early 1980's Mr. Lussi began a collaboration with his former student, Cecily Morrow, which resulted in: first, the cover story for the February 1984 GQ Magazine; second, in 1984 and 1985, the Lake Placid Summer Freestyle Invitational's Compulsory Free Style Elements Competition; third, a new jump, the Lussi lift-off, a formal explanation of this jump which developed out of his work on the ordinary loop jump; fourth, in 1990, a PBS documentary profile on Mr. Lussi's life, Gustave Lussi: The Man who Changed Skating, and fifth, in 1992, a series of instructional video tapes, SYSTEMATIC FIGURE SKATING: The Spin and Jump Techniques of Gustave Lussi, documenting Mr. Lussi's teaching methodology.

Morrow remembers: "We shared students. I would work with some of his in the winter and he would work with some of mine in the summer in Lake Placid. After his lessons, Mr. Lussi would meet me those days in the cafeteria of the 1980 Olympic Arena and we would discuss technique and the future of figure skating. I would interview him and many a time he'd say: "How many judges have ever examined the print of any jumper? So many land their triples on the inner edge. I'd like the judges to go out on the ice and examine the take-offs and the landings." These discussions led me to design, in 1984, a Juvenile through Novice spin and jump event based on Mr. Lussi's teaching skaters spins and jumps in his small patch of ice. Mr. Lussi and I collaborated with Fred LeFevre, the Chief Referee, and then Director of Figure Skating at the Olympic Arena, Carol Vaughn, to hold this event in the Lussi Rink so that skaters learned to take their jump or spin quickly and efficiently and judges could go onto the ice and look at their prints, comparing things like distance and height of one skater to another.

Over a lifetime of producing champion after champion, Mr. Lussi continued to make jump
approaches, take-offs, and landings straighter, jump flight more spectacular. Eventually, by the
early 1990's, he had been talking about how to apply his delayed rotation to quads. Mr. Lussi's
intention was for skaters to continue his direction in jumping for all triples and quads because,
while change occurs, physics and the human body do not change. An efficient way to do a big
triple Axel in 1992 is still an efficient way to do a big triple Axel in 2016 if performed by a human
body on a pair of skates on a sheet of ice.


Olympic Champions that Mr. Lussi coached or taught for significant periods of time:

Barbara Ann Scott
Dick Button (2 time)
Tenley Albright
Hayes Alan Jenkins
David Jenkins
Wolfgang Schwarz (when he coached Austrian team in '63 and '67 for '64 and '68 Olympics)
Beatrix Schuba (when he coached Austrian team in '63 and '67 for '64 and '68 Olympics)
John Curry
Dorothy Hamill
Scott Hamilton (taught him delayed Axel, double Axel, scratch and sit spins says Craig and would come anytime he wasn't landing his double Axel)

World Champions that Mr. Lussi coached or taught for significant periods of time:

Barbara Ann Scott (2 time)
Dick Button (5 time)
Francis Dafoe and Norris Bowden (2 time in pairs, but taught each separately thinks Craig)
Tenley Albright (2 time)
Hayes Jenkins (4 time)
David Jenkins (3 time)
Ája Vrzáňová (2 time)
Don McPherson
Otto and Maria Jelinek
Donald Jackson (mostly after his World championship)
Emmerich Danzer (3 time)
Beatrix Schuba (2 time)
John Curry 
Dorothy Hamill
Scott Hamilton (4 time)

U.S. National Champions that Mr. Lussi coached or taught for significant periods of time:

Carol Ann Peters and Danny Ryan (in dance, but both took free skating lessons)
Lois Waring and Michael McGean (2 time, in dance, but both took free skating lessons)
Lois Waring and Red Bainbridge  (3 time, in dance, but both took free skating lessons)
Ron Ludington and Nancy Ludington (4 time, in pairs)
Yvonne Sherman and Robert Swenning
Joan Tozzer and Bernard Fox (3 time, in pairs)
Dorothyann Nelson and Pieter Kollen
Nicole Bobek
Dorothy Hamill (3 time)
Lorraine Hanlon
Laurence Owen
Tenley Albright (5 time)
Yvonne Sherman (2 time)
Gretchen Merrill (6 time)
Jane Vaughn (2 time)
Joan Tozzer (3 time)
Suzanne Davis (?)
Scott Hamilton (4 time)
Gordon McKellen (3 time)
John Misha Petkevich 
Monty Hoyt
David Jenkins (4 time)
Hayes Jenkins (4 time)
Dick Button (7 time)
Arthur Vaughn

Other Champions:

Sonia Bianchetti Garbato
Egbert Carey
Constance Wilson
Montgomery Wilson
Osborne Colson
Bill Grimditch
Polly Blodgett
Louise Weigel
Don Cruikshank
Guy Owen
Nancy Davidson
Dorothyann Nelson
Mabel McPherson 
Barbara Jones
Noel Ladeen
Dorothy Goos
Peter Jonas
Jo Barnum
Eileen Seigh
Suzanne Morrow
Ronnie Robertson
Evy Scotvold
Carlo Fassi
Muriel Reich
Carol Wanek
Cecilia Lushack
Maude Hammer
Brenda Farmer
Mary Batdorf
Anne Batdorf
Margaret Anne Graham and Hugh Graham (in pairs, but both took free skating lessons)
Snooki Keyes
Carol Keyes
Lynn Finnegan  
Ron Shaver
Linda Carbonetto
Toller Cranston
Patrick Pera
Utaka Higushi
Robin Wagner
Lynn Freeman
Lorilee Pritchard

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Monday, 26 September 2016

The First Queen Of Canadian Pairs Skating: The Frances Dafoe Story

"The nicest thing about figure skating is the wonderful people you meet. I have friends in many countries that I probably never would have met if it hadn't been for figure skating." - Frances Dafoe, January 23, 1956, "The Montreal Gazette"

Born December 17, 1929 in Toronto, Ontario, Frances Helen Dafoe Bogin was the daughter of Helen Parker Gibson and Dr. William Allan Dafoe, a prominent surgeon who had lettered in four sports at the University Of Toronto. Her uncle, Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, was known for delivering and caring for the famous Dionne Quintuplets. An energetic and athletic youngster who excelled in synchronised swimming and diving, Frances started skating at the age of eight. Her parents originally put her on the ice so that she could burn off some steam with no designs of her ever being a competitive skater, but she was soon identified as one of the Toronto Skating Club's most promising young talents. Sidelined early on for two years after breaking both ankles, it was the club's lavish carnivals that drew her back to the ice.

Interestingly, Frances' first big victory in the skating world wasn't even on the ice. When the Canadian Figure Skating Association decided to hold a contest to select a new design for medals for the Canadian Championships in 1950, the high school student entered and won. "There had been an open competition for the design of this medal and when I won I was awarded the princely sum of $100.00," she recalled in a memoir written in the late nineties. "I don't know who was more surprised - my teachers, at Central Technical School, one of whom was the great artist Doris McCarthy, or me. I was so pleased that one of the judges was photographer Yousuf Karsh. The old medal was based on a sculpture of a great Canadian skater, judge and official - Norman Mackie Scott, one of Canada's skating pioneers. The new medal was a winged blade resting on a branch of laurel, the Greek symbol of victory. A branch of laurel is also used today, on the ISU's World Figure Skating Championship medals." Frances' design remained in use by the CFSA until 1987.

Frances, Norris and a really adorable furry fan

Frances teamed up with Norris Bowden in 1950 shortly after their engagement. Prior to their pairing, she had been a singles skater, but her injury forced her to focus on ice dancing. Winning the Waltz title at the 1950 Canadian Championships at the Winter Club of St. Catharines, the duo became the first recipients of the very medals that Frances had designed. Coach Sheldon Galbraith convinced the duo to give pairs skating a try. They were an unusual pairing - he an engineering student; her a designer... left brain meets right. Their on again, off again off-ice romance and 'artistic differences' often led to stormy on-ice disagreements, soothed by Galbraith's firm but compassionate guidance. Frances and Norrie trained six hours a day at Toronto Skating Club rink, the Varsity Arena and at Schumacher in the summers.

Photo courtesy Elaine Hooper, the National Ice Skating Association Archives

Throughout her competitive career, Frances balanced her on-ice training with Norris with her studies at Branksome Hall. She also designed wedding dresses for Eaton's Department Store - who in turn made her skating costumes in their workroom from her designs - as well as costumes and program covers for Toronto Skating Club carnivals, pins for tests and the crest for the CFSA's international team. Frances' passion for fashion made her and Norris stand out on the ice at a time when many of her competitors were costumed in black and white. "During our time we did take a daring step," she recalled. "For our exhibitions, Norrie and I were dressed alike in bright colours - blue, bright yellow, and white outfits trimmed with cerise. Norrie wore matching boot covers, which at this time was very different."

Up, up and away - Frances and Norris in action!

Frances and Norris were true pioneers in pairs skating. They introduced the twist lift, throw jump, catch lift, pressure lift, overhead lasso lift, hip Axel lift, the Axel into a partner's arms, the leap of faith and many other elements to the skating vocabulary. Frances credited the ballroom dance team of Blanche and Alan Lund for assisting her and Norrie with their lifting technique. Norris was some eight inches taller than Frances, making a lot of these movements - termed "too athletic" by the skating establishment - possible. "We were always criticized for being too athletic," recalled Frances. "We also introduced changes of musical speed and interpreted different types of music. Sheldon Galbraith, our coach, remembers with great amusement, one of our club members coming up to him and saying, 'mood spelled backward is doom'... We were major contributors to the 'illegal lift' section in our present day ISU and CFSA rulebooks but at least we broke the old fashioned pair rigidity."

In 1952, Frances and Norris won the Canadian pairs, ice dance, Waltz and Tenstep titles in Oshawa at the Canadian Championships and skated to top five finishes at both the Winter Olympic Games and World Championships. Over the next four years, they amassed another five Canadian titles in pairs, Waltz and Tenstep, two North American pairs titles and four medals at the World Championships - two of them gold - and the 1956 Olympic silver medal. The team's loss at those Winter Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo was a crushing blow. They earned more points than the Austrian team of Sissy Schwarz and Kurt Oppelt and tied them in first place votes, but the Austrians earned more second place votes than the Canadians... and the gold medal. Norris recalled, "The most disappointing moment is when you know you have done the best you could possibly ever do, and it hasn't been recognized. We wanted that gold medal so badly." The result was highly controversial at the time. More than once, there were loud whispers about funny business when it came to the judging of the competitions the Canadians entered overseas in Europe.

Frances and Norris - better known to friends as Frannie and Norrie

On top of dealing with behind the scenes judging intrigue, the first Canadian pair to win a World title accomplished this with next to zero financial or moral support from the CFSA, who placed very little faith in the talented Toronto twosome. "It was trying time for Canadian skaters," Frances recalled. "We were all blazing new trails, whether it was altitude training (Sheldon along with Barbara Ann Scott, and my father Dr. William A. Dafoe were the only people who thoroughly understood this problem), equipment difficulties, ice conditions, blade sharpening (to handle different kinds of ice conditions which changed daily); availability of knowledgeable coach/trainers; experienced judges; the necessity of massage after outdoor training to keep the muscles pliant, suitable costumes, lack of funds (The CFSA gave us our airfare after we won the World Championship and the Toronto Skating Club gave us $150.00. Sheldon gave up his income for two weeks each year to accompany us and my father paid for his transportation and living expenses); and last but not least a skating association with little or no understanding of the European climate - political or otherwise."

Frances and Norris called it a day at twenty six and twenty nine following the 1956 World Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany and ended up remaining very close friends despite calling off their engagement. After overcoming a very messy, public spat with the CFSA in 1958 that saw both her and Norris suspended as members for a time, Frances divided her time between costume design and judging. She took commercial art and fashion courses at the Central Technical School and draping and fabric courses at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Turning down an offer to work for Arnold Scaasi, she designed costumes for the CBC for close to forty years. She was responsible for the imaginative costumes worn in Toller Cranston's television specials and her work for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Charlottetown Festival, the folk dance troupe Les Feux-Follets and the 1981 film "Movie Magic" with magician Doug Henning was highly acclaimed. In 1988, she was responsible for creating over six hundred costumes for the Closing Ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Alberta. She also created costumes for Kurt Browning, Brian Orser, Scott Hamilton, Liz Manley, Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, Katarina Witt and countless others. Balancing a hectic work schedule with marriage and motherhood, she always found time for her family. Most of her design work was done away from the chaos of the television studio, late at night in her home studio.

Of all of Frances' incredible work in costuming, many will remember Toller Cranston's television special "Strawberry Ice" best. World Professional Champion John S. Rait recalled, "I first met Frances as a skater working on 'Strawberry Ice'. Her attention to detail and creative flare was evident in everything she did." On the beloved production, Frances remarked, "I felt very strongly that I was the right costume designer for this project as I fully understood what they were trying to accomplish and wanted to be part of the creative process... It was the challenge of a lifetime. It was a joy to be part of such a free thinking team where everyone respected each others uniqueness and talent.... The Strawberry Queen's costume was great fun to make. The skirt was made of layers of quilted petals, each dyed by hand starting with pale pink and increasing in tone to dark red. These petals resembled strawberries with small mirrors, rim set to look like small seeds. The bodice was boned to a period shape and made of lightweight pink spandex with a silk collar trimmed with ruching. This whole creation was put over a spring steel hoop with a long silk georgette ruffle around the bottom. As Sarah Kawahara (the Queen) moved, in her long dress it slowly disappeared leaving a saucy leotard of hot pink sequins with a skirt of silk green ribbons and hand made miniature strawberries of red, orange and hot pink."

Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

Delaying the start of her international judging career to allow Norris to move up the ladder as they were not permitted to be on the same panel, she eventually judged countless national, international and professional competitions, including the pair events at the 1984 World Championships and 1994 Winter Olympic Games. She retired from judging in the mid-nineties. In a March 2, 1990 interview with Laurie Nealin for "The Globe And Mail", she admitted, "When I was a competitor I thought, 'those lucky judges, all they have to do is go to a World Championship and hold up marks. Now that I'm a judge, [I realize] it was really easier when I was competing. You sit up up there thinking, 'those kids have spent so many years getting here. Please, dear God, give me the wisdom to judge well'." A year and a month after that interview, she said goodbye to Norris, her former partner who had been as much of a support during her judging career as when the duo was skating together.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Frances was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall Of Fame in 1955, the Canadian Olympic Hall Of Fame in 1958, the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in 1984, the Order Of Ontario in 1990 and the Order Of Canada in 1991. In 1992, she earned the Confederation Medal and in 1993, she was inducted into the CFSA (Skate Canada) Hall Of Fame. In 2002, she earned the Golden Jubilee Medal. She was nominated for several Gemini awards for costume design and won Golden Gate and Prix Anik awards for her work on "Strawberry Ice". In 2010, she was honoured by Branksome Hall with the Allison Roach Alumna Award.

A long-time believer in the importance of figure skating history, Frances penned the gorgeous 2011 book "Figure Skating And The Arts", hands down one of the most thorough and well-researched books detailing figure skating's history in recent years. Later in life, she split her time between residences in Toronto and Jupiter, Florida. Predeceased by her second husband in April, Frances passed away at the age of eighty six on September 23, 2016 in Toronto. If you looked up the words "someone who left the figure skating world better than they found it", Frances Dafoe's picture should be right there.

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 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

Saturday, 24 September 2016

A Virtuoso From Vienna: The Edi Rada Story

"From Mr. Rada I learned about discipline and what hard work was all about." - Karen Magnussen, "Karen: The Karen Magnussen Story", 1973

Born September 13, 1922 in Vienna, Austria, Edi Rada first took to the ice at the Engelmann ice rink. By the age of nine, he had caught the eye of Rudolf Kutzer, a prominent Viennese coach who had also discovered a young Karl Schäfer at the age of eleven. Under Kutzer's tutelage, Edi won the juvenile championship of Vienna at the age of eleven, the Hilde Holovsky Memorial Championship at twelve and the Austrian junior men's title at thirteen. By the age of fifteen, he was the runner-up in the Austrian senior men's championship behind World Champion Felix Kaspar and finished seventh at both the 1938 European Championships in St. Moritz and the 1938 World Championships in Berlin.

Left: Hannea Nierenberger und Edi Rada; Right: Martha Musilek, Edi Rada, Emmy Puzinger and Hertha Wächtler

When Felix Kaspar retired, Edi succeeded him as Austrian Champion and placed a strong fourth at both the 1939 European and World Championships behind Henry Graham Sharp, Freddie Tomlins and Horst Faber. With the annexation of Austria into Germany by the Nazis during World War II, Rada reigned as the 'Ostmark' champion through the early war years and even earned a medal for roller skating. During this period, he also won domestic skating competitions in Poland and Switzerland.

Edi was well known for his excellence in school figures and showed great attack in his free skating performances. In his book "Dick Button On Skates", his rival Dick Button recalled, "His style was wild and frequently forceful in the typically European manner of free skating." During the War, Edi's father made ends by working as a hairdresser. His parents later invested in the laundry business. Edi focused on skating... and it paid off.

Edi Rada, Emmy Puzinger and Ilse and Erich Pausin

When major international figure skating resumed in 1948, twenty five year old Edi won the bronze medal at both the European Championships and Winter Olympic Games behind Dick Button and Hans Gerschwiler. At the World Championships that followed in Davos, he had ordinals in the school figures that ranged from second to sixth but withdrew after performing one Axel in free skate due to skate problems.

Hans Gerschwiler, Dick Button and Edi Rada on the podium. Photo courtesy Marcel Rada.

Eva Pawlik and Edi Rada. Photo courtesy Dr. Roman Seeliger.

Determined to take one last stab at defeating Dick Button in 1949 following Gerschwiler's retirement, Edi entered the European Championships in Milan, Italy. In the school figures, he defeated Hungary's Ede Király in a three-two split. In free skating, the Hungarian and Austrian judges tied the two skaters, the Norwegian judge gave first place to Király and the Czechoslovakian and Italian judges opted for Rada. The gold medal was his! Unfortunately, at the World Championships that followed in Paris, he narrowly lost the silver medal to Király by one placement point.

Still from Norm Pelkey video of Vancouver Skating Club's 1953 "Stars On Ice" carnival. Courtesy City of Vancouver Archives.

Edi called it a day and turned professional. He toured North America for a year with the Ice Capades but found that "show business" wasn't for him. In 1952, he accepted a job coaching at the Hamilton Skating Club in Ontario. After two winters, he was offered a position at the Cricket Club in Toronto but turned it down, instead choosing to head west and accept a position at the Vancouver Skating Club, where he worked from 1953 in 1959. In 1957, he married his lovely wife Beverly, whom I had the pleasure of speaking with in August. "My husband was a very, very good teacher and very dedicated to teaching and very dedicated to putting Vancouver on the map. He loved Vancouver very much," Mrs. Rada explained.

In September 1960, Edi was hired as the first club professional at the newly built North Shore Winter Club in North Vancouver. His students included a who's who of British Columbian greats: Jay Humphry, Betty and John McKilligan, Cathy Lee Irwin, Linda Villella, Gary and Neil Paterson and Karen Magnussen. Quoted in the book "Karen: The Karen Magnussen Story", Edi recalled working with a young Karen thusly: "She had already passed her first test, and was working on her second when she came to me. She was a chubby girl compared to her friend Cathy Lee Irwin, who was sort of skinny. They were both cute youngsters. Both had talent, sure - but at eight years of age, who can tell? Karen was, I suppose, better than anyone else we had at North Shore, except of course, Cathy Lee, Cynthia Titcombe - who was a bit older - and one or two others. But Karen developed very well in the next four years, and at the end of that time there was no question about her potential." At times, Edi - a notoriously tough coach who got results - and Karen's mother butted heads. When he returned to Austria for a holiday in the spring of 1964, Mrs. Magnussen hired Linda Brauckmann to coach her daughter.

Mrs. Rada acknowledged her husband's reputation. "He was tough," she explained. "He wasn't an easy person to work with. Everything you had to give, he demanded it because he was willing to give it himself. You give and you give back and that's the way it was. Even if at times he was most miserable, I think his students would all agree it didn't matter because they knew he was for them. He was for all of them." In fact, he was even 'for' skaters who weren't his own. One of the skaters he greatly admired was Toller Cranston. Mrs. Rada explained, "Toller Cranston didn't skate with Edi but we were good friends with Toller because he skated with Hellmut May over in Kerrisdale. He was always with Mrs. Burka but when you came to competitions you always had to have a crew and Mrs. Burka wasn't always here and so Dr. May stepped in for her. Toller was just wonderful."

And so was Edi. He was an honorary member of Austrian Figure Skating Association and was declared Sportsman of the Year by the Austrian Marathon Committee. Zdenka Nererová, who requested I do a piece on Edi and so graciously put me in touch with his son Marcel recalled, "I visited him and his family and in Vancouver... He came to see our performance which we gave there in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. We were on a three very long tours in U.S.A. and Canada with the famous and best ensemble from my country. I was soloist-dancer and dance teacher and assistant of the chief choreographer in it. The name is Lúcnica - Slovak National Folklore Ballet. Mr. Rada was [a] very nice man. Full of life and friendship. I knew very good his mother too. She lived in Vienna. She came very often to see my parents and me to Bratislava. Very nice time. She was a very nice person too." Off the ice, Edi enjoyed all athletics, especially tennis, and took great interest in his student's lives after their competitive days ended. Many of them went on to become elite level coaches themselves.

In his late sixties, Edi retired from coaching. "He was very ill," recalled Mrs. Rada. "He wasn't in good health even though he was athletic; a sportsman. I think he was tired. After a while, I think the body wears down... even for an athlete. He had heart problems and then a stroke and then he died." Many years have passed since Edi Rada left this world on July 13, 1997 but Mrs. Rada summarized it best when she said, "Skating was his life. It was his world."

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 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

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Cold War On Ice: Peggy Fleming Visits The Soviet Union

"We didn't have a single appointment. We had the names of people we should see and the structure of the organization from our research. They knew of Peggy, and their interest in sports is great. They seemed to be interested in the show from the moment we first started talking," said Dick Foster, the producer of "Peggy Fleming Visits The Soviet Union", a revolutionary 1973 Bell System Family Theatre production that united for the first time skaters from the Soviet Union and the United States... in the middle of The Cold War.

Foster was referring to an initial meeting between himself, executive Bob Banner and members of the State Committee of The USSR Council Of Ministers For Television And Radio in November 1972. The production would mark the very first time an American film crew ever worked in the Soviet Union. The next spring, Banner, Foster and Fleming returned to Moscow and within a week got all the permission they needed. They were ready to film... and film they did. With Fleming, who was treated like a movie star, they shot sixty thousand feet of tape in twenty seven hours, contending with an extreme language barrier. Much of the communication was done in German, as crew members on both sides didn't know each other's language and had to find common ground. Another challenge were the extreme temperatures in the many skating scenes filmed outdoors. The average temperature was thirteen below, with one scene on The Bay Of Finland filmed in seventeen below weather with harsh winds. The July 13, 1973 issue of the "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette" noted that during filming, "Miss Fleming dropped her heavy overcoat, rose up on the toes of her skates and suddenly let out a piercing scream as the bitter cold closed in on her. A second or two later, however, she was gliding, twirling and leaping across the smile, smiling a bright defiance to the elements."

The August 30, 1974 edition of "The Dispatch" noted the historical significance of this production and its countless 'firsts':

- the first co-production of an entertainment special by an American company and the USSR.
- the first filming of an American star performing in the Moscow Circus and with the Moscow Ice Ballet
- the first filming of the Kirov Ballet for United States television.
- the first time American and Soviet cameramen worked jointly on an entertainment production.
- the first filming for the United States TV of the Moscow Puppet Theatre.
- the first filming in a USSR recording studio.
- the first United States TV production ever scored in the USSR under the direction of an American conductor and using the Soviet Television and Radio Symphony Orchestra.
- the first such TV special to be telecast simultaneously in both the United States and the USSR (same day and local time.)
- the first TV filming within the Palace of Catherine the Great.
- the first filming of a musical production number on the frozen Bay of Finland.
- the first filming of the original Andreev Balalaika Orchestra for Western television.
- The first time Soviets have scheduled special performances for the exclusive purpose of filming portions of this special.

The production opened with a solo number by Fleming called "Midnight in Moscow" skated at the Yublani Stadium in Leningrad. She was next seen skating on a frozen reflecting pond adjacent the Palace of Catherine the Great, performing the "Festive Overture" with members of the Moscow State Ballet On Ice. Following her solos, Fleming visited Soviet soprano Lyudmila Senchina inside the Palace as she rehearsed a performance to "New Rochelle" from the Soviet version of "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying" at the Leningrad Musical Theatre. Ludmila then sang Cher's "The Way Of Love" in Russian accompanied by the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra while Peggy skated another solo. A fourth solo set to "Two Guitars" on a lake adjacent to the Bogoroditse-Smolensky Monastery in Moscow followed. Peggy then played guest to Sergey Obraztsov's Puppet Theatre in Moscow where she was entertained by "Victoria Vibrato" and an all-puppet rock n' roll band called "Pop Art". The final two acts were an interpretation of "Swan Lake" with the Kirov Corps joining Vladimir Luzin of the Moscow Ice Ballet and Fleming on the icy Bay Of Finland near Leningrad and a duet to "Sweet Caroline" at the Moscow Circus where Fleming was paired by clown Andrei Nikolaev.

The production was simultaneously colorcast in the Soviet Union, United States and Canada on October 28, 1973. The title in North America was of course "Peggy Fleming Visits The Soviet Union" but according to Moscow television editor Irina Yevgrafova, the working title in the USSR was (translated) "Peggy Fleming: I Like It In Your Country". Recalling the production in the September 27, 1973 issue of the "Sarasota Herald-Tribune", Fleming said, "The American crew was very relaxed. They took their work seriously, but they had fun. The Russians were very businesslike, very tight. But after they started working together they relaxed and got to be real people. It was a wonderful thing to see." Americans and Russians getting along swimmingly in the height of The Cold War? It seems only fitting that the universal language of figure skating was what brought them together.

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 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

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Skating On The Moorfields: London's Peerless Pool

The city of London, England wasn't exactly a clean place centuries ago. With nothing that even resembled sanitation, the streets were muddied with sewage. At best, bathing was a 'luxury' that was afforded to residents once or twice a year. When they did bathe, it was often in the Thames, the same place many dumped human waste and the remains of animals from butcher shops. They didn't even have soap. Ian D. Rotherham's book "Roman Baths in Britain" explains that on top of it all "water, and especially deep, cold water with undercurrents, was a potentially lethal hazard. The consequences of this risk and the increasing interest in summer swimming are noted in the annual Bills of Mortality. Here there are 104 'melancholy accidents' (ie. drownings) recorded for one year in the 1700s. By the mid-1700s there were purpose-built swimming pools available in London: the Bagnio in Lemon Street, and the Peerless Pool in Finsbury. The latter offered both hot and cold baths and was developed from a natural pool popular with swimmers in the 1600s, but regarded then as a dangerous place to bathe or swim. As it grew, the new facility offered swimming lessons, model boating, fishing, and in winter, ice skating."

Although many Londoners seeming aversion to both bathing and swimming probably kept many away from Peerless Pool, it was certainly a popular spot with many and I found a really interesting account of skating at Peerless Pool that I think you'll find fascinating! George Walter Thonbury and Edward Valford's "Old and new London: a narrative of its history, it's people and its places..." explains that in 1415, a part of the city wall "betwixt Bishopsgate and the postern called Cripplesgate, to Finsbury, and to Holywell" was broken down by the orders of then mayor Thomas Falconer and the area called Moorgate became accessible for citizens to walk upon causeways to Iseldon and Hoxton. When the wall came down, Moorgate and Peerless Pool became accessible to London residents for not only swimming and bathing... but also skating when Dutch engineers were employed to drain the fens and brought their skates in tow.

Thornbury and Valford's book gives the account of Fitzstephen the monk who "describes Moorfields as the general place of amusement for London youth. Especially, he says, was the Fen frequented for sliding in winter-time, when it was frozen. He then mentions a primitive substitute for skates. 'Others there are,' he says, 'still more expert in these amusements; they place certain bones - the leg-bones of animals - under the soles of their feet, by tying them round their ankles, and then taking a pole shod with iron into their hands, they push themselves forward by striking it against the ice, and are carried on with a velocity equal to the flight of a bird, or a bolt discharged from a cross-bow." The monk describes the area that people skated as "the great Fen or Moor which watereth the walls of the City on the north side." The third edition of the "London Encyclopaedia" notes how Peerless Pond got its name, which asserts the areas reputation as dangerous: "It had originally been known as 'Perillous Pond because divers youths by swimming therein have been drowned.'"

Where's Peerless Pond today? Simply put, gone. In 1805, Joseph Watts had the fishing pond on the Peerless Pond site drained and built Baldwin Street. The swimming, bathing and skating pond area was closed in 1850 and built over. If you go to London today, Peerless Street marks the northern boundary of the pond and Bath Street the western one. London's first outdoor public swimming pool - and consequently one of its first outdoor skating rinks - may be no more, but that's not to say there aren't some pretty cool places to skate in the city. The Tower Of London, anyone?

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 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

Sunday, 18 September 2016

The Henie Heists

They say that sometimes wealth can be a curse and no one knew that better than three time Olympic Gold Medallist and ten time World Champion Sonja Henie. As savvy a businessperson as she was a sensational skater, Sonja lived a life of luxury after turning professional in 1936. Dressed to the nines both on and off the ice, she had champagne taste and the budget to back it up. Unfortunately, when you're dolled up in furs and dripping in diamonds, you put a bit of a target on your back and what many don't know is that the well-to-do skating queen was a persistent target of thieves.

On Boxing Day, 1944, Sonja's summer beach home in the Hamptons was broken into. The Norwegian ice queen wasn't home at the time but a number of her personal effects were stolen. The break and enter and theft was investigated by Trooper Roche of the New York State Police and cooperating with Henry Resling and Kenneth Hoffman of New York State Police and the U.S. Coast Guard's Intelligence Service, the two culprits were apprehended only two days later. They both turned out to be members of the U.S. Coast Guard. Their names were never released to the media by police and they were dealt with by the Coast Guard. This would be prove to be only the first in a string of increasingly unnerving robberies that Sonja would face.

At around one thirty in the morning on January 28, 1949, Sonja was at Madison Square Garden in New York City, winding down after a standing room only show. Meanwhile at her apartment suite at the Hotel Pierre, her mother awoke to discover that Sonja's adjoining suite had been burglarized. She contacted local police and the case was turned over to Detective John Conlan at East 51st Street police station. Upon her return to the hotel, Sonja reported that two fur coats valued at thirty eight thousand dollars were stolen. She estimated the value of her platina mink at twenty eight thousand dollars and her wild ranch mink at ten thousand. Curiously, the thieves didn't touch her jewelry. The January 28, 1949 issue of the "Long Island-Star-Journal" reported, "Police said they had not determined how the burglars had entered the hotel suite. There was no evidence of forced entry. They expressed surprise that two fur coats could be carried through the corridor and lobby of the swank hotel without arousing suspicion." Society page columnist Alice Hughes hypothesized that it was an inside job. Walter Winchell snarked in his February 7, 1949 gossip column that Sonja was seen dining at Howie's "in last year's Ermine." How uncivilized, right?

Less than six months later on June 6, 1949, Sonja got robbed again. A truck en route from her midtown hotel suite to an air freight terminal was filled with luggage she was having shipped to California. When the truck stopped at a traffic light, it was held up and broken into. The thieves made off with three suitcases, which reportedly contained a few sables, a scarf, a stole and several gowns. 

Fed up of being targeted at this point, Sonja decided to start fighting back. In his May 23, 1952 "Earl Wilson's Broadway" column, Harvey Earl Wilson wrote, "Once in Hollywood, Sonja knew in advance that she was to be robbed at a given hour. She (and police with shotguns) waited for the robbers, who didn't arrive. Sonja had stayed home from a party just to be robbed, and was pretty disgusted with the robbers for not coming. 'Next time I hope the robbers will be more dependable people,' she said. Her movie makeup man, who was picking her up the morning after the robbery that wasn't, almost got killed by the police whom Sonja'd forgotten to tell about him." 

If that story wasn't dramatic enough for you, wait until you hear about the final time the thieves went after her! On June 6, 1953, Sonja awoke in her Eaton Square apartment in London, England around 4:30 AM to find a young man staring at her from the foot of her bed. She screamed bloody murder, hopped up and threw on a black robe - and with a Henie "heeeeell, no" one presumes - proceeded to chase him down the road in her bare feet. Her cook joined her in her pursuit all the way to the square, but the two women lost their assailants, ran back to Sonja's apartment, locked the doors and called the bobbies. Quoted in the June 6, 1953 issue of the "Spokane Daily Chronicle", Sonja admitted, "It happened so fast I didn't know what I was doing. I was so stunned." The thieves got her good this time, too. The most valuable item taken was an Aleutian mink coat worth sixteen thousand, eight hundred dollars. They also walked away with a seven thousand dollar ermine coat, a three and a half thousand dollar mink jacket, two gold compacts and some three hundred pounds. London's finest 
visited a house in Westminster, where they recovered two of her coats on the grounds. The police believed the thief threw the items over the railings of this house into a basement area when they were fleeing on foot. As an aside, I know it's not nice to make fun of a burglary victim but the idea of Sonja Henie chasing a thief down the road, barefoot in a bath robe is a pretty comical mental picture. I wouldn't have screwed with her, that's for sure!

After this final robbery, the insurance companies had enough of her bad luck and seeming inability to safely stow away valuables in hotel safes. They raised her rates through the roof. In her column in the June 17, 1955 issue of "The Chicago Tribune", Hedda Hopper wrote, "Movie stars don't carry their own packages, so Sonja Henie just walked off the plane leaving her jewel case behind. She came near losing it and not a stone was insured." One has to wonder if Sonja really just wasn't meant to have nice things.

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 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

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The 1931 Australian Figure Skating Championships

The Sydney Glaciarium. Photo courtesy the State Library of New South Wales.

In order to understand the significance of the 1931 Australian Figure Skating Championships, let's start with a quick Australian figure skating history lesson! Early in the history of the country's development of the sport, each city 'down under' played by their own rules. There were rivalling Glaciariums (ice rinks) in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, each with their own skaters, coaches, judges and competitions. Skaters from Victoria and New South Wales even had completely different systems for their bronze, silver and gold tests.

The National Ice Skating Association of Australia had been established in 1911 by Claude Langley and Barney Allen. Melbourne embraced it; Sydney opposed it vehemently and continued to do things their own way for a good twenty years. A year before Australia became a member of the ISU, Langley set to work revamping the NISAA's structure and radio pioneer and skating instructor Charles Maclurcan, a former champion at the original NISAA's national competition in 1914, took on the role of the newly united organization's presidency. Maclurcan played a major role in bringing together the rivalling factions and skating clubs from Victoria and New South Wales and organizing the first official Australian Figure Skating Championships, held at the Sydney Glaciarium in late August 1931.

Judges and officials at the 1931 Australian Championships. Standing (left to right): R.E. Jefferies, Jack Gordon, Frank Mercovich, Robert Croll; Seated (left to right): Ramsay Salmon, Charles Maclurcan, Fannie Salmon, Cyril MacGillicuddy

I found a delightfully detailed account of this long forgotten moment in Australian figure skating history in the Wednesday, September 2, 1931 of "The Referee": "The opening event of the meeting was the waltzing championship, and in this Miss P. Turner and Mr. R.E. Jackson (Victoria) gave a splendid exhibition to earn the judge's decision. Another Victorian pair, Miss W. Thackeray and Dr. C.F. MacGillicuddy, were second, while the third place was shared by Miss E. Salmonow and Mr. J.G. Gordon (Victoria) and Miss K. Kennedy and Mr. H. Moore (N.S.W.). Victoria was again in the fore in the pair championship. The winners, Miss A. Maxwell and Mr. R.E. Jackson were brilliant, their exhibition being the finest ever seen on the Sydney rink. N.S.W. was well represented in this event by Miss M. Greenland and Mr. S. Croll, who gained second place. Their performance was very good. Miss Thackeray and Dr. MacGillicuddy filled third place for Victoria. The men's championship devolved into a tussle between the two Victoria entrants, Mr. J.G. Gordon and Mr. J.F. Mercovich, the former winning by a narrow margin. The event was conducted in two sections - figures and free skating. Mercovich led on the figures, which were taken first, but Gordon took the honors with the free skating, at the same time securing a winning points margin. Had Mercovich's free skating been of a reasonably good standard, he would have won well. Third place was filled by S. Croll (N.S.W.). The remaining event on the programme devolved into a figure-skating competition for ladies, N.S.W. scoring its only success, per medium of Miss M. Reid. Miss Thackeray (Victoria) was second, and Mrs. J. Benn (N.S.W.) third."

Women's competitors at the 1931 Australian Championships

I can't say I appreciated the description of the competition 'devolving' into a figure skating competition for women, but it was 1931 and as we know, pervasive attitudes about women skating alone without a man at her side to rescue her still existed in certain parts of the world. It is interesting to note that many of the participants also acted as judges and officials in disciplines they were not participating in, a testament to the small, close-knit skating community in Australia at the time. It was a wonderful surprise to stumble upon this little nugget of coverage of this rare milestone of figure skating down under and I look forward to sharing more Aussie skating history in the months to come!

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 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

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Mrs. Ellen Burka: Candor From A Canadian Figure Skating Legend

"She makes you want to skate, she takes skating for what it is, dishes out discipline when it's needed and makes you enjoy the whole idea of skating." - Dennis Coi, "Canadian Skater" magazine, Fall 1979

Coach, choreographer, mother, Dutch figure skating champion and Holocaust survivor Mrs. Ellen Burka passed away September 12, 2016 at the age of ninety five. She coached her daughter Petra to the 1964 Olympic bronze medal and 1965 World title, dear friend Toller Cranston to Olympic, World, North American and Canadian podiums and revolutionized the sport with her passion for artistry, proper skating technique and pushing the boundaries. During her incredible career, she guided a who's who of figure skating to the top. In 1966, she was the proud coach of both the Canadian men's and women's champion. Dorothy Hamill, Jay Humphry, Linda (Carbonetto) Villella, Heather Kemkaran, Tracey Wainman, Elvis Stojko, Karen Preston, Janet Morrissey, Dennis Coi, Christopher Bowman, Sandra and Val Bezic, Lucinda Ruh, Patrick Chan, Jacqueline Petr and Mark Janoschak, Jamie Lynn Kitching-Santee and countless, countless others all benefited from her expertise at one point or another.

Sheldon Galbraith and Mrs. Ellen Burka

In 1992, Mrs. Burka was inducted into the CFSA (Skate Canada) Hall Of Fame; four years later the Canadian Sports Hall Of Fame. Incredibly, somehow she has never been inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame. If you haven't made the time yet to watch her daughter Astra's wonderful documentary "Skate To Survive", you need to. If you haven't listened to Paul Dore's fantastic two-part interview with her on Open Kwong Dore, now is the time. It can't be overstated what an impact this phenomenal woman made on the sport and no one could possibly do her story justice as she did in her own words in these interviews. For that reason, instead of trying to tackle her story, I decided to cull together a fascinating collection of quotes from Mrs. Burka that offer a window into her thoughts on skating, her students and her life.


"Sure it's boring, but it has a certain charm once you do it well. It's an intriguing thing to try to get perfect figures." - "The Ottawa Citizen", January 4, 1974

"There are other ways to teach skating basics, other ways to learn edges and turns without spending four hours every day doing figures on a small patch of ice... Four hours on ice with their necks hanging down and their arms held stiffly at their sides leaves skaters cripples. They're too stiff and that hurts their free-skating training." - "The Globe And Mail", March 2, 1990


"I think the first two year's of any kid's life should spent learning to skate before they even touch a stick." - "The Montreal Gazette", April 2, 1975

Toller Cranston and Mrs. Ellen Burka. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.


"I saw my parents standing in the cattle car. I waved to them. My mother went inside. My father stayed there. And then I left. I went back and dug peat moss... You lived with it. It was either your turn or not. It wasn't my turn." - "National Post", October 15, 2013


"He was a very nice young man. But the more and more he got up and up and up, he became very involved in his own self-ness, how adored he was. It changed him. When he became too big about himself, he became difficult." - "The Ottawa Citizen", October 2, 2001


"I really had to keep an eye on her. The day before the competition, Tracey said to me, 'I'm tired, I'm tired,' so I said, 'Go to bed early tonight and have a good sleep.' At midnight, I went past her room to check up, and I heard voices. So I knocked on the door, and finally Tracey opens it. There were bottles everywhere, so I said, 'Where is he?' I found him behind the shower curtain." - "Toronto Life", April 2006

"She's one person who will be able to look back on her career one day and say she truly enjoyed it." - "The Toronto Star", February 5, 1986


"As far as I can tell, those are my vials, and I haven't seen them yet... Now, if I want to see them, I am told that I have to pay for a ticket to get into the travelling exhibition, which is in Manchester right now... If there is any kind of legal action, it won't be resolved while I'm alive. It would be nice to smell them one more time. I remember my uncle's perfumes. My mother used to wear them, and they would leave stains on her clothes because they were made naturally, with the flower oils... I love good perfumes. I am totally addicted to perfume." - "National Post", November 13, 2004


"I don't think anyone has been that good in school figures in the past 20 years. She has this fantastic ability to block everything out when she's skating - many top skaters can't do that, they get very nervous in front of the crowd." - "The Montreal Gazette", February 2, 1973


"Christopher has several personalities. One is very likeable. Another is very irresponsible... His behaviour has been very erratic and out of control." - "The Toledo Blade", February 14, 1992

"He's a charmer, he's a genius, but his attention span is worse than my dog, Monty. He got into trouble here, and he's been in trouble since he was 14, growing up in Hollywood." - "The New York Times", April 1, 1993


"They should coach while they're working at the sport. At the moment they go home they should be a parent. The coach should not be taken into the house." - "The Vancouver Sun", November 14, 1987


"This was her dream, since she was a little girl, to skate at the Olympics and she's had to fight hard to make it come true. That's why I agreed when she asked if I'd take her on and continue through 1992. I saw her as a scrapper, a person who won't accept defeat. I thought I was finished with coaching but for me, Karen Preston represented something I needed, to get the old fires burning again. It woke me up, sort of. She's been good for me... Any coach would love Karen Preston. The girl really persevered to get where she wanted to go. I'm happy for her because she earned it. And I'm happy for myself because I'm able to be part of it at a time when I thought I was history - ancient history." - "The Toronto Star", January 28, 1992

Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.


"Learn the triples. It's of the utmost importance. The artistry you can learn later." - "The Edmonton Journal", February 11, 1994


"It has to be a really cold day before her feet go numb but I've found a way to get the circulation back. All we have to do is stick them in a pail of hot water before she has to skate and she gets the feeling right back in her legs." - "The Montreal Gazette", February 3, 1966

"My relationship to my daughter was very good. Petra was very low key and very talented. She was the easiest student I ever had. It was a very unusual situation. When I look back, I don't know how we did it." - "The Vancouver Sun", November 14, 1987

Rest in peace, Mrs. Burka. You have left figure skating much, much better than you found it.

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