Saturday, 17 December 2016

The 1965 North American Figure Skating Championships


From February 19 to 21, 1965, the top skaters from Canada and the United States convened in Rochester, New York for the 1965 North American Figure Skating Championships. Sponsored by the Genesee Figure Skating Club and the Rochester Jaycees, the biennal battle royale between two North American nations was recorded for a later, edited television broadcast, with commentary by none other than two time Olympic Gold Medallist Dick Button himself. School figures were contested at the Rochester Institute of Technology's Ritter-Clark Rink, with the compulsory short program for pairs, compulsory dances, free dance and finals in men's, women's and pairs skating held at the War Memorial Auditorium.

Lorna Dyer, Vivian Joseph and Kristin Fortune check in at their Rochester hotel

Capacity crowds of almost eight thousand turned up in chilly, below zero temperatures. Among those who came to watch the competition unfold were 1956 Olympic Gold Medallist Kurt Oppelt, 1960 Olympic Gold Medallist Bob Paul, 1956 Olympic Silver Medallists Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden and 1960 Olympic Bronze Medallists Nancy and Ron Ludington. Two years previously at the 1963 North American Championships in Vancouver, Canadian skaters had swept all four disciplines. As American figure skaters struggled to reestablish themselves following the Sabena Crash only four years earlier, this event marked an important turning point in that resurgence. Let's take a look at how things played out in Rochester that year!

Left to right: John Carrell, Lorna Dyer, Petra Burka, Gary Visconti, Vivian Joseph and Ronald Joseph

THE PAIRS COMPETITION


Vivian and Ronald Joseph with their mother

Sibling pairs ruled the roost in Rochester in 1965. Compulsory short program winners, Vivian and Ronald Joseph of Highland Park, Illinois expanded their early lead with a difficult free skate and became the first American pair since Karol and Peter Kennedy in 1951 to claim the North American pairs title. Sixteen year old Cynthia Kauffman and her eighteen year old big brother Ronald claimed the silver. Two more sibling pairs, Susan and Paul Huehnergard and Alexis and Chris Shields - both from the Upper Canada Figure Skating Club - followed in third and fourth.

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

The only pairs who reversed their placements between the compulsory short program and free skate were the bottom two teams. Americans Joanne Heckart and Gary Clark edged Vancouver's Faye Strutt and Jim Watters for fifth place. Looking towards the upcoming World Championships, a pumped up Ronald Joseph, speaking on behalf of the entire U.S. team, told an Associated Press reporter, "We're going to Colorado Springs hoping to win some titles."

THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION


Lorna Dyer and John Carrell

In the compulsory dances, nineteen year old Lorna Dyer and eighteen year old John Carrell of Seattle took the lead with first place ordinals from all five judges. Twenty two year old Carole Forrest and twenty three old Kevin Lethbridge, the reigning Canadian Champions, stood a solid second. At the U.S. Championships in Lake Placid, Dyer and Carrell had controversially placed second behind a new teenage Californian pair, Kristin Fortune and Dennis Sveum, who had zero international experience. Both Dyer and Carrell and Fortune and Sveum shared a coach: World Champion Jean Westwood. In Rochester, Sveum slipped in the Fourteenstep and fell in the American Waltz. Had it not been for strong performances in the Kilian and Argentine Tango, they wouldn't have even been third in the compulsories. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves explained that in the free dance Dyer and Carrell "cemented their lead over the U.S. Champions with speed; security; difficult twizzles, including John's solo twizzle; and an intricate bracket sequence." Fortune and Sveum moved up to second, ahead of Forrest and Lethbridge. In the April 1965 issue of "Skating World", British author Muriel Kay remarked, "The Canadians were all very disappointing in the free, and it was surely the weakest Canadian team for several years. Choreographically and musically the programmes were poor, with too much second rate show style skating - and once again we were treated (!) to a variety of shoot-the-duck type movements, and much that makes a sad misnomer of the term 'artistic impression.' There seems to be a current fad for ending the programmes with the skaters virtually leaning against each other, as though the three and a half minutes had proved too exhausting for them for them to finish standing on their own two feet! Judging from some of the 'busy' efforts, this might have been the case!" Muriel, Muriel, Muriel... Ouch!  Buffalo's Susan and Stanley Urban finished fourth, ahead of Canadian Silver Medallists Lynn Matthews and Byron Topping of the Cricket Club and 1964 Canadian Junior Champions Gail Snyder and Wayne Palmer of the Granite Club.

THE MEN'S COMPETITION


Scotty Allen, Donald Knight and Gary Visconti

Throughout the course of the men's school figures, the top three skaters changed positions more than one of Donald Trump's campaign speeches. After the six figures were completed and the patches were vacated, Gary Visconti, a nineteen year old freshman at the Macomb Community College in Detroit, squeaked out a tiny lead ahead of seventeen year old Sheldon Galbraith student Donald Knight of Dundas and sixteen year old Scott Ethan Allen of Smoke Rise, New Jersey.


Visconti and Knight each had two first place votes, two seconds and a third from the judging panel. However, Visconti had 711.6 points to Knight's 701.3. Allen wasn't far behind, with one first place vote, one second and three thirds and 696.1 points. Occupying fourth through sixth places were twenty seven year old Dr. Charles Snelling (the oldest competitor in the event), Tim Wood and Jay Humphry.

Gary Visconti

Upping the ante with a more difficult free skate than he'd presented at the 1965 U.S. Championships in Lake Placid, Visconti put a hand down on a triple toe-loop attempt but earned 1273.6 points, just enough to edge his competitors for the gold medal. I spoke with Visconti in September 2016 about his memories of the event. "It's like it was ten years ago, but it's like it was two hundred years ago," he laughed. "I drew second to last or last to skate and it was a big arena. I did my warm-up and put my guards on and it wasn't security - not like it is now. So the boys ahead of me were skating and I didn't want to listen to their applause or whatever so I walked into the lobby, under the bleachers. They had a hot dog stand there. Oh my God, I was starving! So I went up, stood in line with my skates on, all ready to compete but I had three boys ahead of me. There were seven judges, fourteen marks and in those days, the programs were five minutes so it went on and on, about eight minutes a person. So I'm standing in line and I finally got up there and I said, 'I'd like a hot dog. I'm really hungry' and then they said 'Now ladies and gentleman, from the Detroit Skating Club, Gary Visconti!' I went 'oh damn! I've gotta compete!' So this AP (Associated Press) guy was behind me and he said 'Gary, they're calling your name' and I said 'I know!' He said, 'If you win, I'll buy you a hot dog.' So I walked up to the ice, which was very close, took my guards off and went out there. The whole time I was skating I was thinking 'God, I really want to get that hot dog!' It was the first time I put my triple toe-loop in and I put my hand down and I thought 'Oh God, I blew it' and then I said, 'It's okay, I've got a whole four minutes and fifty seconds to go. It's fine.'"

Knight and Allen flip-flopped their result from the figures with the Canadian Champion losing the coin toss. Snelling, the oldest competitor in the event, finished fourth but earned a prolonged ovation from the crowd for his polished performance. Detroit's Wood placed fifth with 1171.8 points and twenty four ordinals, ahead of sixteen year Humphry of Vancouver, who earned 1122.4 points and thirty ordinals. The sweep of the pairs, ice dance and men's titles in Rochester was incredibly significant in these marked the first international titles any American skaters had won since the Sabena Crash in 1961.

THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION


Petra Burka

Valerie Jones and Peggy Fleming

Two time U.S. Medallist Christine Haigler (Krall) of Colorado Springs withdrew prior to the women's event due to a tailbone injury. The reigning Olympic and World Bronze Medallist and two time Canadian Champion, eighteen year old Petra Burka of Toronto, Ontario, was considered a heavy favourite in the women's competition in Rochester. You can imagine the look on everyone's faces when they posted the scores for the school figures... and she was third! The winner, with nine ordinal placements and 691.9 points was two time U.S. Champion Peggy Fleming, a sixteen year old from Pasadena, California. Second place went to Burka's Canadian teammate, sixteen year old Valerie Jones, who earned twelve ordinals and 691.8 points to edge Burka with thirteen ordinals and 688.6 points. The competition couldn't have been closer, really. Two of the five judges placed Fleming first, while one apiece gave first place ordinals to Jones, Burka and seventeen year old Carol Noir of East Orange, New Jersey. After figures, East Orange, New Jersey's Tina Noyes sat fourth, followed by Noir, Toronto's Roberta Laurent and Gloria Ann Tatton and Myrna Bodeck of Oak Park, Michigan.

Gloria Ann Tatten and Gary Visconti

Despite her loss in the initial stage of the competition and the fact that figures counted for sixty percent of the overall result, many still considered Burka a heavy favourite to take the title. She not only met but exceeded their expectations, delivering one of the finest performances of her career: a clean program featuring three double Axels and two double Lutzes. Gone was the triple Salchow that had wowed audiences at the 1963 Canadian Championships at Toronto's Varsity Arena. "We needed something to startle them. They all took notice when she landed it. Then we removed it from the program," explained her mother and coach Mrs. Ellen Burka in an interview with Pam Rimstead in "Weekend" magazine. In contrast, Fleming struggled, making three errors in her free skate including a fall on a double loop jump. Devastated with her performance, she was in tears afterwards when she told reporter Paul Pinckney, "I wanted to get up and do it over. But I just couldn't fit it into my program... If only I could have done it over... I just didn't skate well enough." Petra's performance was enough to drop a Fleming and Jones down to second and third. Laurent moved up to fourth and Tatton remained in seventh. Despite putting a wrench in the American winning streak in Rochester, Burka's free skate was simply that outstanding no one could argue with the result. In an interview in the "Democrat and Chronicle", she said, "I only hope I skate as well in the World Championships as I did in the North American. It is true that I did not call upon anything as spectacular as a triple jump. I did not plan it in my program. If I had, who knows? Maybe I would not have done as well. The girls I skated against, Peggy and the rest, were all wonderful. You never can be sure in such competition as this. I am very happy that I finished first, of course, but one slip... and who knows?"

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