Friday, 28 July 2017

#Unearthed: Skate Sailing Down The Skatchawattomie


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's #Unearthed comes to you from as the result of anecdote shared in Arthur R. Goodfellow's fabulous 1972 book "Wonderful world of skates; seventeen centuries of skating".
The author wrote, "Skates have been life-savers on more than one occasion. There was the 16-year old Canadian girl who skate-sailed twenty miles down the Skatchawattomie River in 20-degree below zero weather to get help for her brother who was in danger of losing his eyesight due to burns received in a cabin fire. With their parents away, there was no one to go for assistance but his sister. Using a home-made skate sail and her brother's long skates, she started the journey as dusk was falling without thought of danger to herself. But ten miles down the river, a pack of howling winter-starved timber wolves gave chase and pursued her all the way to the settlement. It was only by skillfull use of the sail and constant tacking in the moonlight that the heroic girl eluded the gray mass of terror and skated to the safety of barking dogs, running men and the lighted, open doorways of the hamlet - and help for her brother." This harrowing anecdote was certainly reminiscent of the story "Cornelius And The Wolves", which we've already covered on the blog. But was it fact or fiction?

I reached out to Deidre at the University Of Saskatoon who put me through to a retired (and very kind) ninety one year old limnologist. Neither had ever heard of the Skatchawattomie River, but pointed out that it was probably either a name given by the local First Nations people or a river that has long since dried up. I was, however, through some digging able to find out that the source of this story was the January 10, 1910 issue of "The Victoria Daily Colonist". The paper was one of the first daily newspapers on Canada's West Coast and often printed fictionalized accounts of real life stories, so while it's pretty safe to say that this likely did happen, some poetic license was most likely taken to 'make a good story', so do take it with a grain of salt. Now in the public domain but crudely digitized, I was able to largely correct the digitization errors in editing to reveal the original story "Skate Sailing For Life" in its entirety.

"SKATE SAILING FOR LIFE" (C.H. CLAUDY)



"Put on an extra pair of socks, please Fanny. It will be bitter cold tonight. Jack, get me the brown blanket for Jim. He needs it for when I stop at Harrige's."

Mr. Billings spoke quietly, but his heart was in a tumult. It was not easy for him to leave his sixteen-year old daughter and eighteen-year-old son in a trapper's house in middle Canada at the height of an unusual snap of cold. But his partner, in camp forty miles away had been hurt by a falling tree, and had sent word by a neighbour assisting for him, and Mr. Billings had to go.

"And, Jack," he called, as his son came with the horse-blanket. "Take care of Fanny. You're the man here now. And keep off the river. I saw wolf track's this morning."

"Why, father, are you sure?" cried Jack. "It must have been a dog. We have never heard of a wolf this far south since we've been here."

"They were wolf tracks, son," was the answer. "I know a wolf track when I see one... You stay away until I get back. I'll be back before two or three days."

This was all there was to his leave taking. They were not emotional people, these Billings. That father had to go forty miles with the thermometer twenty-five below zero, that they two were to keep house alone, In a place where loneliness stalks bare-faced always, [there] were things to think of, to regret, to sorrow over, if need be, but not to make a fuss about. Frances and John Billings were both children of the wilderness, and something of the stoicism of the men and the women and even of the beasts and the trees that live alone, far from their kind, and weather the rigors of seven months winter was theirs, even at the age when youth and high spirits fight bravely against cold and silence and hard work.

The house was lonely. It was bad enough to have father gone, but to have him away and not to know
whether "Partner Uncle Phil" would ever come again or not, to have empty rooms and empty chairs to face, was more than uncomfortable. The two young people looked at each other gravely across the supper table.

"Don't let's mope, Jack," said Fanny. "Let's clear, up the attic. It needs it, and work is more fun than sitting still."... The girl arose, took a lamp, and went lightly upstairs. In a moment, Jack... joined his sister. Together they dressed as if for outdoors, and then went up to the big, dim, cobwebby attic. It was cold.

"Whew!" said Jack. "Let's begin.  Let's start on that pile of junk over there!'' and he stepped toward it as he spoke.

Whether he stumbled and fell or hit her arm by accident, he could not tell, but the next instant he was working madly to extinguish the flames which the oil from a broken lamp was spreading, while Fanny beat at his face and body with a blanket. Luckily they put the flames out. But when all was out save the smoke, Jack was curled up on the floor moaning, his face black and his cry all: "Oh, my eyes - my eyes! Oh, my eyes!"

Very gently, Fanny led him down the stairs, into the warmth and light of the sitting-room. As the warm air struck him, he gasped with pain. "My collar, Fanny; get it off - oh!"

Quickly the girl unbuttoned his collar and opened his shirt at the neck. He was badly burned. Deftly she bathed the tortured face and neck, bound up the burns and oiled the bandages. Then there was nothing to do but sit and watch.

Jack was a man in heart if a boy in years. Beyond his first involuntary cry, he grit his teeth and said nothing. But Fanny knew. Once when she left the room noisily and crept back, she heard him moan, "My eyes! Father, my eyes! "

It was too much for Fanny. She said to herself: "If I were hurt, Jack would never sit still and watch. He'd do something. He needs a doctor. It's only twenty miles, to town by the river. I can make it under the hour with the sail."

Even as she began to get together skates, cloak and gloves, sweater, and the fur, she stopped.

"Wolves!" Father said he saw a wolf track. And father told Jack to stay off the river. If father were only here! If I only had another horse... but I'm not afraid. At least, I'm not much afraid. And he didn't fell me to stay off."

Quietly she made her preparation. There were Jack's skates, longer and sharper than hers, but she knew she could use them., There was the fur, which fits head and neck and shoulders; there were the thin mittens and the thick fur ones to cover them, the sweater, the belt, and the fur cloak. The skate sail she meant to use was in the barn. She had already seen that the wind was pounding the river. Fanny stepped into the sitting- room.

"Jack," she said, "Jack. I'm going to town and get Dr. Perry. He'll be here in a few hours, and I'll come back with him. I can't see you suffer like this, and he may be able to do you a lot of good. No, don't say anything - I'm going."

Either Jack didn't hear, or, hearing, understood, she didn't know. He put out a hand to her, and she grasped it and kissed it an unusual demonstration for her to make and then ran from the room. The tears froze to her lashes as she stepped ouside. It was bitter cold and even in her fur, the north wind's icy knife cut true and sharp.

"This isn't the time for tears; it's the time for me to be a man," she said, half sobbing to herself, nor smiling at the words. She ran to the barn, and took from the wall her brothers' skate sail. Shaped like a big kite, it was nine feet long, five broad, with two crossed spars to hold it taut. She remembered how she and her father had laughed at Jack when he made it, after some plan he had seen in one of their rare magazines, and how he had had the laugh on them and the envy of all the countryside youth when he had carried it and outstripped the fleetest skater of them all. Then she caught her breath
with the thought, "What if I'll never skate again?", shook the dread from her, and tried to .think only of Jack as well and strong. It was with profound gratitude... that she remembered that she had a generous brother who had shared his sport with her and taught her how to use the thing, so graceful when well managed, so cumbersome to the novice."

"I'll make you a lighter one; this is yoo heavy for you," Jack had said. But she was glad she had learned to use the heavy one.

Slipping on her skating gear quickly, Fanny drew the straps tight - tight. "It'll shrink with the cold; mustn't get loose," she thought.

Then, confident, and with fears behind her, she stepped off the little wharf onto the black surface of the Skatchawattomie. She was not cold now, the excitement of adventure had gripped her. A few strokes brought her to the middle of the little river. The skate sail she held horizontal over her head, well knowing that to bring it broadside to the wind before she was ready was to be thrown or have it torn away for her. Then carefully she set her feet, the right one in front, drew in her breath, and with a sudden motion, brought the skate-sail upright along her right side. Before the wind could whip it about, her left hand had caught the horizontal spar which rested on her shoulder, her right grasped the upright, and almost as if shot from a gun, she spun away down the cracking, booming ribbon of
ice which stretched so far. so black, in front of her.

It was an exhilarating sport, this skate-sailing, almost like flying... So swift the motion, so bird-like and so effortless, the body seems without weight. Keen air whips the blood to the face with such a tingle, and the excitement of the possibility of a spill and of the motion and the necessity for alertness in guiding is so great that as a sport, it has few equals. But joyous as Fanny always found skate-sailing, it was not sport tonight. It was business. She had little time for enjoyment... [She had] to get to town and get the doctor back to that poor burned body in the house, already so far behind. Yet it was impossible to keep some feeling of exultation from her herself, even though she cursed herself for it.

Even as she exulted In the swift motion and shook with a little shiver of pleasure at her speed, her face blanched. Seeming an answer to the loud ring of the skates on the brittle ice there came through the air from behind, a soft, high keynote. She had never heard it, but she knew what it was.

"Wolves," she whispered; "wolves!" And then again, "Wolves!" She could not be mistaken.

Well she knew, from many a campfire story, told by the hunter and trapper, as well as from thrilling tales her father had told, what a pack of winter-starved wolves may mean to the unwary traveller. One wolf can be scared away, two or three need but a little vigilance, but a pack is death to one man, be 'he armed' how he may.

For a moment panic gripped her. But always she saw in her imagination the picture of a suffering, dearly loved face, a freckled hand, groping for her... The black ribbon of ice swung steadily and low beneath her feet and there was but little noise, only of the skates as they cut into the cold, cracked surface and an occasional "clang" as she struck with one foot or another a frozen bit of wood or an airhole or a crack. She was thankful for her brother's skates that saved many a tumble and for her strong ankles. With every bend in the river, she must change the position of her feet and sometimes swing the heavy sail over her head and down the other side. Cold she was not. Going with the wind, she felt none; across it, the sail protected her. Only her feet were getting numb, from vibration rather than cold.

Then again she heard it, nearer now and louder, a keen high, cry that was half a howl and half a growl and wholly terrifying. She looked back. There was nothing in sight. But "Horror!" she thought. "Horror! They are coming - coming - and soon I'll see them behind me. Give me strength!

The banks of the river were as black as the surface. Star shine only lighted the path and she prayed... Right behind her, it seemed, came the noise of the pack. In full chase now, and scenting well the flying quarry just ahead. But Fanny, her blood high and her brother's helpless cry still in her ears, forgot to be frightened as she turned and looked back.

"Small pack," she thought, as they swung into sight, eager and lank and swift, pin-points of light for merciless eyes, "but big enough for me."

Then she turned her face to the work in front. She had to change sail several times to make a difficult turn, and she felt she was losing ground. But a flow in the wind took her, just then and instead of easing off as she had been doing to relieve the strain on her ankle and leg, she held it up against the wind. Then the flow fell and her speed dropped. Behind her, closer and closer, she heard the occasional cry of the pack.

"But it isn't far now," she thought. "It can't be far now. It's just around that bend. Hopefully." Fanny did not know the river as Jack did, and the night and the excitement and the wolves had confused her
as to just where she was.

Now she swung Into a long and narrow stretch with the wind dead across it, and she had to tack or lose speed. And as she tacked, looking round, her she could see the black mass of terror sweeping straight down the ice. "It's now or never," she thought, as she reached the bend the river. But it was to be "now".

"There! There it is! There it is!" Fanny's thought was a cry aloud. The lights of the little town were in sight and with the wolf-pack trailing twenty yards behind her, she flung herself at the low wharf, pitched the sail to the pack and while they worried with it, flew - skates at all - into the little store, and gasped out her story to an astounded crowd of men, and then faded quietly into a land where there were neither wolves nor ice nor burned brother Jack.

In the long days of convalescence, when no one knew whether he would ever see again or not, Frances had to talk and to read much to keep from thinking too often of those hours of horror; for Jack, when, blinded and panic-racked, he waited helplessly for the aid which seemed so long in coming; for her when, coupled with the thought of being torn to pieces, was the other terror that, should she fail, her brother might suffer for days before relief, or - the end.

But the terror of these memories grew less with each passing hour, and vanished on the day when Dr. Perry took the bandage from Jack's eyes and he saw again.

"It was that, and a girl's pluck, that saved your eyes, young man,'' he said pointing to the torn sail standing in the corner of the room. But Jack only raised his eyes and took his sister's smiling face between his thin, scarred hands.

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

Thursday, 27 July 2017

A Wonder From Winnipeg: The Rupert Whitehead Story


The son of Edward and Julia (Davis) Whitehead, Rupert Whitehead was born on April 16, 1910 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Rupert and his four siblings, Eleanor, Katherine, John, and Virginia, were largely raised by a British nurse. The Whitehead children attended elementary school in Winnipeg but their mother pulled them all out of school for a time when the family suffered through a year of whooping cough, chicken pox and the mumps. The family relocated briefly to Prince Rupert and Victoria, British Columbia before returning to Winnipeg.

Rupert received his first pair of skates at Christmas when he was in grade five. "It was a mild winter," he recalled in his memoir "Unstoppable Energy, Unshakable Faith", the primary source material for much of this blog. "Our front walk was covered with ice. So I went to the front steps and laced them on. My father was behind me urging me, 'Don't do it. Don't do it, Rupert. You have to learn to skate.' But I wasn't listening. I got them laced on and started off. I skated all the way to the boulevard, turned around and skated back. I can still see the white marks from the blades. That is how I learned to skate."

Rupert took to skating in the flooded backyard of a family friend's home on Kingsway and on the flooded courts of the Winnipeg Lawn Tennis Club. Encouraged by the 'fancy skaters' who practiced on the frozen tennis courts, he joined the Winnipeg Skating Club and took lessons at rinks on Smith Street and Portage Avenue. He recalled, "It was great. We would skate for two hours, have food and milk and then walk home under the stars. Because there were few street lights we learned about Orion, the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. Those were happy times."

Rupert entered several of the Winnipeg Skating Club's competitions, winning the championship for boys under fourteen in 1924 and later, the club's intermediate and junior competitions. In one event, he narrowly defeated a young man named Elswood Bole who later played an important role in Winnipeg's city administration. He also performed in the club's first carnival in the early twenties. He recalled, "One act took the form of a three-ring circus. For reasons unknown I was the last skater to leave the ice. I realized there would be no skating action while the rings were removed so I stepped into a ring and began to practice my sit spin. Each time I tried, I ended up sitting on the ice. Then I managed about a half a revolution and then two and then I was spinning and managed to stand up instead of sitting down. Suddenly there was deafening applause. For a second I was frightened. Mr. Dick Bingham, the carnival producer, stopped me. 'That was great, Rupert, do it again tomorrow night.'

Aidrie Main and Rupert Whitehead

After graduating high school at the age of sixteen, Rupert tried his hand at banking. A series of bad investments and failed business ventures left him in serious debt at a very young age. It was during this period that the Winnipeg Skating Club became the Winnipeg Winter Club, and while the financial industry struggled through The Great Depression, he borrowed from Peter to pay Paul. He took solace in ice dancing with a group of eight friends at the club. He recalled, "One day we found ourselves welcoming a new member. Her name was Aidrie Main and [she] hailed from Montreal. She and I became good friends. Her energy seemed to watch mine... Aidrie suggested we both try to pass the '2nd test' as it was known in those days. We practiced diligently for several weeks and succeeded. At the end of the skating season, she returned to Montreal."

In 1930, Rupert's father fell ill and passed away. Shortly thereafter, his uncle - a millionaire from California - passed away leaving Rupert and a cousin in England the bulk of his fortune. As 'the new man of the house', Rupert settled into his role with reluctance. Though his substantial windfall could have solved his money woes, through failed business venture after failed business venture, the money was lost and young Rupert developed what would be an almost lifelong, very public drinking problem.


Through it all, he got up at six or seven in the mornings and practiced at the Winnipeg Winter Club in hopes of passing his gold figure test. During this period, he competed thrice at the Canadian Championships, winning the bronze medal in the junior men's event in 1931, the Canadian junior men's title in 1932 and the bronze medal in the senior men's competitions in both 1933 and 1934 behind Bud Wilson and Guy Owen. He recalled that at one event, "The present holder, Montgomery (Bud) Wilson said he would not come to Winnipeg unless there was competition. So, you know who became the competitor! I volunteered and skated against him. Of course, he got very high marks and I got very low marks. But I got marks for being a good sport. Also, it gave me a chance to try for the gold [figure test] because there would be enough judges in Winnipeg. By George, if I didn't win my gold medal in figures, very difficult figures, and a very difficult long free skating program!"

Rupert also tried his hand at fours skating for a time. He recalled, "Skating fours were very popular, usually two men and two women. Ours consisted of Betty and Peggy Holden, sisters, Philip Lee and myself. Of course, I was in charge, planned the program and was even going to design the costumes... [My mother] made us two sets of terrific costumes: a Russian four and another in black and white. The front was white, the back, all black. The division down the sides was absolutely perfect." By 1936, he'd put together a new four with Burton Kennedy, Mary Arckle and Evelyn Rogers. They achieved some popularity and were invited to carnivals as far away as Minneapolis. He was coached by Leopold Maier-Labergo during this period.

In 1937, Royalite, an oil company Rupert had bought stocks in, struck Texas Tea and he made a pretty penny. He was also invited to be a guest skater in the Royal Glenora Skating Club's carnival in Edmonton. He recalled, "I was standing at the middle of the ice waiting for my music to start. The spots came on. The music began. From then on, I cannot remember a thing! What I do remember is that there was an awful lot of applause... When the show was over people actually leapt over the fence onto the ice to shake my hand." Rupert's good impression led to an invitation from the club to be their head professional. He accepted, and worked long, cold days, teaching figures and ice dance and organizing competitions amongst his students with wrapped gifts as prizes.

When his contract ended, Rupert married his wife Yvonne and returned to Winnipeg to work as a professional at the Winnipeg Winter Club. His position was short lived. In the autumn of 1941, he arrived at the club to prepare for the upcoming season only to find the doors locked. He later learned that the club had been sold to the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve. Again having made another series of bad investments, his oil money was gone and he was flat broke.


Unphased, Rupert decided to start his own skating club, which he first called The Figure Skaters Of Greater Winnipeg, later the Winnipeg Ice Club. He plastered the city with posters that said 'Rupert Whitehead, Gold Medallist, Dance, Silver Medallist, Former Junior Canadian Men's Champion will teach figure skating' and started giving lessons at the Sherburn outdoor rink. His club was an instant hit and soon he was presenting carnivals at the Amphitheatre. As director of these shows, Rupert brought in some big names, including Barbara Ann Scott and Belita Jepson-Turner. He performed as well, waltzing with his wife and skating solo exhibitions. One of his favourite programs was set to "Giannina Mia" from Rudolf Friml's opera "The Firefly". He recalled the program thusly: "My number was just graceful dance movements, one jump, what is called a half a revolution or waltz jump, one spin, and then a flip jump at the very end." He closed the number by having the lights blacked out, skating out the curtain, running up to the other side of the rink and emerging when the lights came on. The audience ate it up. Rupert's shows added a touch of colour to the grey Prairies throughout much of World War II.

During the War, Rupert and Yvonne welcomed three sons, Bill, Michael and Tim. For a period, Rupert stepped away from skating to undergo training with the army reserve, but in no time he was back on the ice, putting his students through the paces with the same iron fist as his military trainers.
However, by 1950, Rupert was struggling with the lows of his alcoholism and quit skating and coaching altogether, giving his position and even his skates to 1934 Canadian Junior Champion and former fours partner Philip Lee. Unfortunately, under Lee's direction, the Winnipeg Ice Club absolved within a year. Penniless and with few prospects, Rupert turned his life around as the Executive Director of the Greater Winnipeg and Manitoba Safety Councils. He played a major role in devising and implementing defensive driving programs in the province and even for a time dabbled in real estate.

Three decades later, Rupert had somewhat of a personal epiphany. He sold his real estate holdings, cancelled all of his subscriptions to business magazines and newspapers and turned towards religion. He considered a visit to a Franciscan monastery a life-changing event. A book lended to him by one Father Oswald called "The Sermon On The Mount" greatly changed his perspective on life. In retirement, he devoted his time to curling, playing bridge, attending church and writing. He even penned four novels: "The Gold Caper", "The Top Of Water", "The Note Skater" and "The World, A Fresh Start". Unfortunately, none of these books were ever accepted by a publisher.

In April 1996, a group of Rupert's former students organized a touching reunion full of speeches where they described the impact that he had made in their lives. Soon, Rupert and his former students were on the ice every week at the River Heights Community Club and he was welcomed back to the skating world with open arms. After attending the 2000 Canadian Figure Skating Championships in Calgary, he was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall Of Fame in 2004. On April 16, 2010, accompanied by three of his former students, he skated two laps around the ice at the Winnipeg Winter Club to celebrate his one hundredth birthday. He passed away on October 30 of that year, having left an indelible impression on Manitoba's skating community.

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

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The 1982 Skate Canada International Competition

The Canadian contingent at 1982 Skate Canada International. Photo courtesy "Canadian Skater" magazine. Used with permission.

The Skate Canada International competition held from October 28 to 30, 1982 might have taken place just days before Hallowe'en, but the competition itself was far from scary. Held at the Kitchener Auditorium in Kitchener, Ontario, the international competition boasted forty seven competitors from thirteen countries. The event was broadcast on CTV and received major sponsorship from NOVA Corp, an Alberta based energy company. Although a pairs competition had not yet been added to the Skate Canada roster, Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini were on hand to perform nightly exhibitions to music from "Cats", Vangelis and John Denver. World ice dance champions Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean also appeared to give special exhibitions at the event, although they did not compete. Let's take a brief look back at how things played out in each discipline in Kitchener back in 1982!

THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION

Rosalynn Sumners
The CFSA was left scrambling at the eleventh hour when - a week before the competition - Canadian Champion Kay Thomson withdrew due to injury. Also out was Elizabeth Manley, who had recently switched coaches and moved to Lake Placid to train with Emmerich Danzer. Seventeen year old Diane Ogibowski of Minnedosa, Manitoba was the third woman they had initially named to the Skate Canada team but there wasn't really a contingency plan in place to decide who would join her in Thomson and Manley's absence. A five competitor 'skate-off' was held and fifteen year old Monica Lipson of Toronto and sixteen year old Barbara Butler of Oakville were chosen.

The school figures were won by Finland's Kristina Wegelius with West Germany's Manuela Ruben second and Seattle, Washington's Rosalynn Sumners third. In the short program, only four of the eleven women competing skated cleanly. One of them was Ruben, who moved up to take the lead. Another was Vikki de Vries of the Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado Springs, who finished second in the short program but remained in fourth place overall. Sumners fell on her combination jump but remained in second overall. The Canadians fared much worse. Lipson fell twice and sat in second, Obigowski was tied for ninth with Susan Jackson of Great Britain and Butler finished last.


Skating to a medley of tunes that included a steppy disco version of the "Gone With The Wind" theme, de Vries landed a nice triple toe-loop and triple Salchow early in her program but things got a little wonky as she went on. She managed to overtake a conservative Wegelius and a fumbling Sumners for the gold. Anna Kondrashova of the Soviet Union, who was second in the free skate, placed fourth and Manuela Ruben, the short program winner, fell apart and finished fifth. Ogibowski was eighth, Lipson ninth and Butler eleventh.

THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION

Annenko and Sretenski at 1982 Skate Canada International.  Photo courtesy "Canadian Skater" magazine. Used with permission.

Americans Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert withdrew due to illness, leaving eleven ice dance teams from eight countries to tango to the top. Canadians Tracy Wilson and Rob missed their opening cue in the second compulsory dance (the Argentine Tango) and restarted without penalty. They finished a strong second behind Americans Elisa Spitz and Scott Gregory, setting the stage for the exciting Rock N' Roll OSP.

At the St. Ivel competition in England the month before Skate Canada, Wilson and McCall had debuted their new OSP. It wasn't well received by the international judges so they scrambled to replace it on short notice, even enlisting the help of a radio station to get clearance rights to skate to "Stray Cat Strut".  With Rob sporting a greased back ducktail and Tracy in fishnets and a ponytail, they skated brilliantly. Three judges had them ahead of Spitz and Gregory; two had the duos tied. They got a huge standing O from the Kitchener crowd - Wilson's first ever - but the Soviet judge gave them a 4.8 and had them dead last of the eleven teams competing.


Contrasting their crowd-pleasing OSP with a dramatic free dance to music from the French film "Les Uns Et Les Autres", Wilson and McCall finished second overall behind the spunky Spitz and Gregory. Canadian commentators criticized the American's free dance as being too similar to pairs skating. Soviets Natalia Annenko and Genrikh Sretenski edged an injured Wendy Sessions and Stephen Williams for the bronze. Americans Renee Roca and Donald Adair, also recovering from injury, were seventh.

THE MEN'S COMPETITION

Brian Orser.  Photo courtesy "Canadian Skater" magazine. Used with permission.

One of the earliest precursors of the 'Battle Of The Brian's' in Calgary in 1988, the men's event at Skate Canada in 1982, was billed as the 'Battle Of The Triple Axels'. In his book "Orser: A Skater's Life", Brian Orser mused, "An American TV station did a split-screen comparison - 'Who had the better triple Axel?' - and showed Brian [Boitano] and me side-by-side going through our Axels."

Eleven men from nine countries competed in the school figures, where Axels meant little and loops everything. Boitano, the nineteen year old Linda Leaver student from California, came out on tops ahead of West Germany's Heiko Fischer, Poland's Gzregorz Filipowski and France's Philippe Paulet. Brian Orser finished a disappointing fifth, all but assuring an anti-climactic end to this 'battle' before it even began.




In an almost identical scenario to the one that would play out two years later at the Sarajevo Olympics, Brian Orser found himself ahead of an American in both the short program and free skate... but second overall. And just as would be the case four years after that at the Calgary Olympics, Boitano took the gold in Kitchener and Orser the silver. If it was any consolation, it was Orser who landed the triple Axel in his free skate and Boitano who two footed his. Fischer ended the event in third ahead of Filipowski, the Soviet Union's Boris Uspensky and American Bobby Beauchamp. Canada's Kevin Parker was seventh when he started the competition and seventh when he finished.

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

Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Smaller Toller: The Dennis Coi Story


"I try to excite them. I try to perform, to make myself different, to make them cheer . . . I'll do anything to make them pull for me." - Dennis Coi

The son of Pietro and Marilyn Coi, Dennis John Coi was born August 11, 1961 in North Vancouver, British Columbia. He started skating at the age of ten under coach Edi Rada at the North Shore Winter Club alongside Olympic Silver Medallist and World Champion Karen Magnussen. His earliest success actually came in pairs skating, when he won the bronze medal in novice pairs with Julie Mutchen at the 1974 Canadian Championships in Moncton, New Brunswick. However, the young skater showed immense promise as a singles skater, passing his Gold tests in figure and free skating at the age of fifteen.

Although certainly a talented jumper, Dennis' style on the ice was in many ways like a cross between an early Toller Cranston and Ron Shaver. He wasn't your typical men's skater of the era by any means. He interpreted the music beautifully, took risks choreographically and had a killer layback spin. Leaving Rada after passing his gold tests to "explore new ideas in skating", Dennis worked with Brian Power, Ellen Burka and Linda Brauckmann. Under Mrs. Burka's tutelage, obvious comparisons were made between the young artistic skater and Cranston. Dennis dismissed them, saying, "I suppose it is inevitable. After all, both of us have skated with Mrs. Burka, but the way I skate is the way I want to. I am not copying anybody else."

Despite a ninth place finish in the junior men's event at the 1977 Canadian Championships, it didn't take Dennis long to make his mark. At sixteen, he returned to the Canadian Championships in 1978 and bounded back from a fourth place finish in the figures to win the free skate and junior men's title ahead of Daniel Beland, Brian Orser and Kevin Parker. In the February 3, 1978 issue of "The Globe And Mail", he confidently remarked, "It may be a surprise to the people, but not to me." His win earned him a spot to the 1978 Junior World Championships in Megève, France. Beating Vladimir Kotin of the Soviet Union (the leader after the compulsory figures) in both the short program and free skate, Coi became World Junior Champion and defeated not only Vladimir Kotin but a pair of young Brian's - Boitano and Orser - in doing so. The same year, he won the bronze medal at the Ennia Challenge Cup in Holland behind American Scott Cramer and Frenchman Jean-Christophe Simond.

Jean-Christophe Simond, Scott Cramer and Dennis Coi on the podium at the 1978 Ennia Challenge Cup

Although he was named British Columbia's junior athlete of the year in 1979, when Dennis moved up to the senior ranks he was unable to keep up with the likes of Brian Pockar, Vern Taylor, Gary Beacom and Gordon Forbes. He finished seventh in figures and remained there at the 1979 Canadian Championships. In The Hague that fall at the Ennia Challenge Cup, he narrowly lost the bronze medal to Robert Wagenhoffer in a five/four split. He wasn't happy, saying, "I landed five faultless triples. I showed a variety of styles and spins. Wagenhoffer landed a triple on two feet, fell once, and almost fell a second time. I strongly feel that I deserved to be higher. I should have been third or second." Progress took time. At the 1981 Canadian Championships he was seventh, at both Grand Prix St. Gervais and the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, West Germany that fall he was fourth. However, his tides began to turn in the fall of 1982 with a strong performance - and a win - at the Western Divisionals in Saskatoon despite a bone fracture suffered when practicing the triple Lutz.


At age twenty, Dennis entered the 1982 Canadian Championships in Brandon, Manitoba injured but with a renewed confidence. After finishing fifth in figures behind Pockar, Beacom, Orser and Forbes, he rebounded with one of only two clean skates of the night in the short program that year. His only near mistake was almost running into the boards after landing a required double Salchow. With an equally impressive free skate, he earned the bronze medal. In the February 1, 1982 issue of "The Globe And Mail", he declared, "I feel great. I'm going to celebrate and take some time off. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the CFSA sent me to some international competitions. I started feeling like a part of skating, and I did well over there. My confidence started to build up."


Unfortunately, that autumn Dennis spiked his foot with his blade while again attempting a triple Lutz in practice. The injury came just three weeks before he was to compete at Skate America. Doctors first told him nothing was broken. In a September 30, 1982 interview in "The Globe And Mail", he explained, "I took two weeks off to let it heal. Then when I started skating again last week, it really hurt, so I went back for X-rays and they found I had fractured a bone in my foot. I think the reason they may not have seen anything at first was because the fracture was right at the joint of the bone leading to the middle toe. When I started skating again, the bone moved over... I'm trying to stay in shape by riding a stationary bicycle. But it's boring as hell... I had an incredible summer. I spent two weeks [skating in Washington] and seven weeks in Los Angeles. It was just a great atmosphere. I was skating with top U.S. competitors [Tiffany Chin, Mark Cockerell and Bobby Beauchamp] and top professionals [Fumio Igarashi and Linda Fratianne]. I really had improved a lot, then this all happened. There was no way that I was going to get back to the point I was at the end of the summer." He withdrew and took the fall off to recoup.

At the 1983 Canadian Championships, a seventh place finish in figures left him in the familiar position of having to move up in the short program but a popped double loop kept him there. He finished fifth overall, well back of medallists Brian Orser, Gary Beacom and Gordon Forbes. "Sometimes I think it's a crazy sport," Coi said. "But it is a way of expressing myself that is not possible any other way."



Given the chance to redeem himself in international competition that fall, Dennis finished a disappointing tenth out of eleven competitors at Skate Canada. At Moscow Skate, Dennis and Gary Beacom fell asleep at the hotel and almost missed the figures. Perhaps still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, he finished in sixth at the end of the day, well back of winner Vladimir Kotin, a skater who he'd previously defeated when he won his World Junior title. The artistically inclined skater endearingly known as "the smaller Toller" in skating circles had one last chance for redemption and at the 1984 Canadian Championships in Regina, Saskatchewan, but he let it pass him by. Although he did beat a young Lloyd Eisler, he finished just off the podium in fourth behind Orser, Beacom and Forbes and missed his last chance to make an Olympic or World team. His amateur career may have ended without fanfare... but he was a skater that other skaters watched.


Sadly, like Shaun McGill and Paul McGrath whose stories previously explored on the blog, Dennis Coi died in September 1987 at twenty six years of age, of complications of HIV/AIDS. His story was featured in "The Calgary Herald" on December 13, 1992: "Coi was [a] humorous man, a flamboyant skater... [whose] pranks are legendary in skating. When his national teammates did poorly in a competition in Europe, he carved medals out of bread and hung them around their necks. Coi refused to change his clown's outlook when death faced him... When told he had AIDS, Coi dressed up in a fluorescent spandex outfit and rode around Vancouver on a red motor scooter... Coi died in his mother's arms while doing one of his favourite things - playing bingo. 'He missed a bingo by one number and said 'Oh [shit].' Those were two of the last words he spoke before he went into an epileptic seizure.'"

The circumstances of Dennis' death helped reshape his mother's perspective. Marilyn Coi said, "I had no idea Dennis was gay until he told me he had AIDS. I was angry for a while, about who he got [the virus] from, but now I don't want to know. It could have been anybody. I've learned to accept gays as human beings." The condolences poured in from a who's who of the Canadian skating world. Mrs. Burka recalled Dennis' final television interview, taped while he was in the hospital. "He was still performing to the end, with his hair dyed red," she said. Osborne Colson remarked, "'He was a ray of sunshine. He would smile all through his program."

The Dennis Coi Award. Courtesy Michelle McDonald Wheeler.

After his death, the CFSA created the Dennis Coi Award, which was annually given at the Canadian Championships for a time to a skater who "keeps skating and life in perspective". Lloyd Eisler and Osborne Colson were both recipients. I think it goes without saying that the world has become increasingly more liberal in its thinking over the years. You don't hear as many coming out horror stories of parents disowning their GLBTQ+ children and with vast advances in medicine and science, HIV isn't the death sentence it once was. That's what makes stories like Dennis' even harder to swallow. "The smaller Toller" could still be out there and sadly, his story remains but a footnote in skating history.

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

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The 1942 Canadian Figure Skating Championships

Mary Rose Thacker

While World War II raged overseas, Canadian figure skaters that weren't serving or engaged in war work gathered in Winnipeg, Manitoba on January 30 and 31, 1942 to compete in the 1942 Canadian Figure Skating Championships. The Winnipeg Winter Club played host to the national competition on outdoor ice... and the event almost didn't happen. Warmer than usual temperatures in the Prairies that year left the ice a soupy mess. Concerns over a reduced number of entries due to the war and the difficulty of Eastern skaters making the lengthy trek to the Manitoba capital had organizers on edge pre-event. However, a drop in temperatures just in time for the events allowed the ice to freeze sufficiently to let the show go on in glorious fashion.

Four teams competed in the junior pairs event that year, which was won by Flaurine Ducharme and Wally Diestelmeyer of the Kitchener-Waterloo Skating Club. In the junior Waltz, Margaret McInnes and Charles Lockwood of Regina, Saskatchewan were victorious but in the junior Tenstep, the temporary partnership of Doreen Dutton of the Glencoe Club and Will Thomas of the Toronto Skating Club edged their way to victory. Thomas also won the junior men's competition, defeating no less than three future Canadian senior men's champions - Diestelmeyer, Norrie Bowden and Nigel Stephens. In a field of ten, the Montreal Winter Club's Cynthia Power won the junior women's title. 

Clipping from "The Winnipeg Evening Tribune"

To the delight of the small hometown audience, Evelyn Rogers and George McCollough of Winnipeg won the Tenstep. Six teams competed in the Waltz event, won by Eleanor O'Meara and Sandy McKechnie of Toronto. Back in those days the dances were contested individually with no free dance or overall ice dance title yet conceived on the national level in Canada. Eleanor O'Meara, Virginia Wilson, Donald Gilchrist and Michael Kirby gave a five minute performance and earned the fours title by default. Eleanor O'Meara and Sandy McKechnie were the only senior pairs team entered at the start of the competition, but junior champions Flaurine Ducharme and Wally Diestelmeyer were given the go ahead to 'skate up'. They were, however, unable to translate their junior win to a senior one.

Nova Scotian born Michael Kirby's win in the senior men's event must have been sweet. The sixteen year old St. Michael's College student had moved from Winnipeg to Toronto three years previously. He returned to Winnipeg as the reigning Canadian junior men's champion, competing in the senior ranks for the first time. Kirby outskated his fours teammate Donald Gilchrist to claim his only Canadian senior men's title before turning professional and skating with Sonja Henie.

The senior ladies event in 1942 was won by eighteen year old Mary Rose Thacker, a hometown favourite. In winning her third senior women's title, Thacker outranked a thirteen year old Barbara Ann Scott of Ottawa (who had just lost her father months earlier), her Winnipeg training mate Elizabeth Ann McKellar and Toronto's Billee (Virginia) Wilson. The February 2, 1942 edition of "The Montreal Gazette" noted that "polish and composure, attained by rigorous training and experience, provided Miss Thacker's margin over her youthful opponents. She defended her championship before a packed gallery and appeared as completely at ease as when she was skating seven and eight hours a day at Ottawa, training under the Czech instructor, Otto Gold." Gold, who also worked with Barbara Ann Scott, conceded in "The Ottawa Citizen" on March 6, 1947 that "in this competition, [Scott] skated a magnificent free skating program, which did not seem to get the deserved credit by the judges."

The excitement of Canada's best skaters of the early forties descending on Winnipeg was short-lived. By that October, the Winter Club where the 1942 Canadian Championships was held was purchased by the Royal Canadian Army and the facilities converted into training facilities for soldiers. The 1943 Canadian Championships were cancelled altogether due to the War. For a brief time in Canada, competitive figure skating would have to wait.

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

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Peter Firstbrook: A Forgotten Canadian Champion

Photo courtesy Lambton County Archives

The son of Newman and Winnifred (Sprott) Firstbrook, Peter Sprott Firstbrook was born May 11, 1933 in Toronto, Ontario. He came from a family of manufacturers and his grandfather held patents for a Sealing Device for Hasp Fasteners and a Crosscut Table Saw. While his father and grandfather were busy at the drawing board, young Peter was showing an inventive spirit on his own on the ice at the Toronto Skating Club. At the age of fourteen, he made his first trip to the Canadian Figure Skating Championships. In the junior pairs competition with partner Mary Kenner, he finished third.


William Ashall Firstbrook's Victorian era inventions

In 1949, Peter finished second in the junior men's competition behind Donald Tobin of the Minto Skating Club and second in the fours competition with Kenner, Vera Smith and Peter Dunfield. Firstbrook's four went on to finish second that year at the North American Championships in Philadelphia. His strengths in both school figures and free skating forced him to abandon pairs and fours skating to focus solely on singles. It paid off. By the following year he won the junior men's title at the Canadian Championships in St. Catharine's, Ontario. It was clear by this point that he was a skater that was going places. A reporter for the "Georgetown Herald" noted on April 19, 1950 that attendees at the Georgetown Skating Club's Ice Revue "were loud in their praise [for] the effortless grace of Peter Firstbrook, who is in the opinion of experts the coming world champion (he is only 17 years old now)."



At six feet tall with black hair and green eyes, Peter was a commanding presence on the ice even as a teenager. A student of legendary coach Sheldon Galbraith, he made the smooth transition from the junior to senior ranks, winning the 1951 Canadian senior men's title in Vancouver in a convincing fashion. He unseated Roger Wickson, the defending champion, in Wickson's home city as well as another Vancouver skater, Billy Lewis. It's safe to say he probably wasn't a popular winner in British Columbia that year. At his first international competition as a singles skater, that year's North American Championships at the Glencoe Club in Calgary, he finished just off the podium behind a trio of extremely talented American skaters: Dick Button, Jimmy Grogan and Hayes Alan Jenkins. The February 16, 1951 issue of the "Canadian Observer" described his performance at that year's Sarnia Figure Skating Club annual carnival as "sheer lyricism."

Clipping courtesy Dana Thorne, Lambton County Archives

Repeating as Canadian Champion in 1952, Peter earned a spot on the Oslo Olympic team, where he finished an incredible fifth ahead of Italy's Carlo Fassi and France's Alain Giletti. Although fourth in both phases of the competition, movement in the standings in the free skate kept him down a peg in the overall standings. Still, who finishes fourth at the Olympics in their second international competition as a singles skater these days? Pretty impressive if you ask me! At the World Championships that followed in Paris, he dropped a few spots in the standings down to seventh.

Peter Firstbrook and Barbara Gratton, 1953 Canadian Figure Skating Champions

The following year, Peter won both the school figures and free skate at the Canadian Championships in Ottawa to retain his senior men's title for the third consecutive year ahead of Charles Snelling and Peter Dunfield. After finishing second at the 1953 North American Championships in Cleveland behind Hayes Alan Jenkins and seventh at the 1953 World Championships in Davos, he turned professional at the age of twenty.

Photos courtesy Dana Thorne, Lambton County Archives

Peter joined Arthur Wirtz' Hollywood Ice Revue in December 1953, performing alongside Barbara Ann Scott as a replacement for fellow Canadian Champion Michael Kirby. In addition to solo performances, he played Prince Charming to Scott's Goldilocks. By December 1954, he had left the troupe, replaced by his former competitor Jimmy Grogan. He later joined the cast of Holiday On Ice, touring in Europe and South America. After suffering an injury while skating in the "Winter Wonderland" show at Wembley, he returned to Canada to attend Upper Canada College and then St. Lawrence College in Canton, New York so that he could be near Lake Placid. He later taught skating in Northern Ontario and Banff, Alberta, retiring in the late sixties because (according to his mother) "he was sick of being cold."

Photos courtesy Diana Flynn. Circa 1968/69. Peter Firstbrook is in the front right of both.

Abandoning the sport entirely, Peter moved to an artists community in Estado Libre y Soberano de Guanajuato, Mexico. Echoes of another Canadian Champion anyone? While there, he wrote children's books. He passed away at the age of fifty one of pneumonia on February 22, 1985, leaving behind his mother, brother, sister and a whole lot of Canadians who thought the world of his skating... and yet today, sadly few people even remember his name.

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

Saturday, 15 July 2017

The 1989 Jeep Main Event Of Skating


Largely forgotten as it was held only once, the 1989 Jeep Main Event Of Skating (also billed as the North American Men's Professional Championships) was a made-for-TV professional figure skating competition held at the Montreal Forum on April 7, 1989. Offering a total purse of sixty five thousand dollars in prize money to the four men who competed (Brian Orser, Scott Hamilton, Toller Cranston and Gary Beacom) the event nearly sold out and marked two important firsts in figure skating history. It was Brian Orser's first professional competition in Canada as well as Katarina Witt's North American debut at a professional competition.


Katarina Witt agreed to skate a series of exhibitions at the Montreal event under the provision that Brian Orser skated an exhibition in East Germany the following month. When a reporter from "La Presse" interviewed her prior to the competition and asked about her "revealing" costumes at the Calgary Olympics, she responded, "I was shocked that the media had described me as a sex symbol. I never wanted to charm the judges with my costumes. I am a beautiful girl, thanks to my parents, but it stops there. When I interpreted 'Carmen', I had to wear a costume that suited my character. It was not to influence the judgement of the officials."


The Jeep Main Event Of Skating was televised on CBC on April 15 and 22, 1989, with Toller Cranston playing double duty as competitor and commentator. The inimitable Cranston even commentated his own performances. The four men who competed each skated a technical and artistic program, with Orser ultimately winning a professional competition for the first time in his home country. He'd only participated in two previously - the 1988 Challenge Of Champions and World Professional Championships in Landover - and had both times failed to reach the top "of the podium". Quebec skater Jaimee Eggleton made his professional debut in the exhibition gala that followed the event. Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall, Lea-Ann Miller and Bill Fauver and Rosalynn Sumners also joined Witt and Eggleton in the exhibition gala.

Though The Jeep Main Event Of Skating wasn't one of the professional competitions that ultimately survived, its success was proof that Canadian audiences were willing to come out in droves to take in the excitement of a professional figure skating competition.

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

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Dames Of The Dominion


In the late nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century, a small circle of talented women paved the way as Canada's first great female figure skaters. Some entered the scene in the days of 'fancy' skating when intricately carved patterns and showmanship reigned supreme, while others arrived at a time of change, when the focus of the sport's development in Canada was veering away from complex figures and such novel ideas as free skating to music, pairs and fours skating and ice dancing were rising to prominence. Today, we'll learn about the lives of seven pioneering women who carved out the path for the champions that followed.

MAGGIE ELWOOD

In 1869, the short-lived American Skating Congress teamed up with Scottish Canadian brothers Robert and Arthur Hervey. The Hervey's were not only responsible for building covered ice rinks in Boston, Chicago, Halifax, Montreal and Pittsburgh, but also for organizing some of the first competitions for female skaters in North America. Their prize pony was a child prodigy named Maggie Elwood... and though she never achieved quite the level of fame as Mabel Davidson and
Carrie Augusta Moore, she certainly made quite a splash.

Margaret 'Maggie' Helen Elwood hailed from Brockville, Ontario and was the daughter of Irish immigrants James and Mary Jane Elwood. Her father, the local jailer, may have been but the subject of disdain by many local ne'er do wells but at that point in time, skaters from Brockville were regarded highly and were often asked to give exhibitions in neighbouring towns and cities... and young Maggie was one of Brockville's best. First appearing in New York in 1866 when she was but eleven years old, Maggie, her sister Cassie and her brother Thomas were both fine skaters who each performed both solo acts and duets together as well as quartets with other Brockville skaters.


Maggie always made greatest impressions with her audiences. One of her exhibitions was reviewed in "The Republican" on January 22, 1867 thusly: "Maggie, only eleven years old, executes all of the beautiful and graceful evolutions on outside and inside 'edge,' and the hundreds of seeming impossible steps, with the utmost ease, and is, without doubt, the most accomplished lady skater in America. Her efforts on this occasion were crowned with the utmost success, and she received the plaudits of all present. The other persons named are also excellent skaters, but it is not disparagement to their pretensions to say that they are not equal to Maggie. The exhibition has given a new impetus to the efforts of our own lady skaters, and we shall to expect to see science displayed by many even before the close of the winter."

At age fourteen, Elwood was lauded in the "Ogdensburg Daily Journal" when she appeared in the state of New York for an exhibition: "In the multifarious figures of fancy skating her movements are gracefully executed, and her performances so beautiful that the most difficult feats appear easy. The attendance was large and the audience showed its appreciation by frequent applause." On January 22, 1869, Elwood won a competition for female skaters organized by the Hervey brothers in Buffalo, New York, defeating Nellie Dean of Chicago, Illinois. Now with a title to her credit, she seemed ready to take on the world... Or so one would think.

The circuit of competitions and shows organized collectively by the Hervey brothers and the American Skating Congress suffered exactly the same fate that professional skating would suffer over a century later: oversatuation. Rnthusiasm dwindled in the 1870's when many of the biggest stars of that era including Jackson Haines, Callie Curtis and Mabel Davidson went on to Europe. Elwood, who had been paraded around from city to city in her early teens like a child star, faded into obscurity.

In skating as in show business, fame is fleeting and as the old adage goes, everyone has their fifteen minutes of it. The historical record offers few clues as to what happened later in the life of this childhood skating star aside from the fact that she married one Frank Malcolm McCrady in December of 1884 in Brockville. Did she continue skating for the love of it? I like to think that yes, she did... because as Maribel Vinson Owen said, "once a skater, always a skater." However the life of Maggie Elwood turned out, she must have had some some cherished memories of her day in the sun.

SARAH VICTORIA WHITCHER


Born May 24, 1853 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Sarah Victoria Whitcher was the daughter of Charles and Harriet Whitcher and the youngest of five siblings, four of them sisters. Her grandfather was the very first sheriff of Sherbrooke and her father Charles was the area's deputy sheriff until his death in 1895. 

You could say that Sarah Victoria was destined to become a skater from birth, as she was named after another skating enthusiast, Queen Victoria. Skate she did. Whitcher was so popular a skater in her heyday that she was in retrospect referred to as "Canada's Barbara Ann Scott Of The Gay Nineties" by newspaper reporters. 



Sarah Victoria would work on costumes for months in preparation for the lavish skating carnivals at Rideau Hall where she would skate 'in the circle' for her hosts Earl and Lady Dufferin. Her nephew, Wilfred Whitcher, recalled, "It was wonderful to see the way she would weave one foot ahead of the other along the ice under her long skirts". In a May 23, 1953 article in "The Ottawa Citizen", she admitted that her skating days were "a long time ago. It was Lady Dufferin who asked me. I loved to skate when I was a girl." 

If you were paying attention to the publication year of that last article, it won't come to any shock to you when I tell you that Sarah Victoria lived to be one hundred and three! Can you even imagine?! In her hundred plus years, this skating centenarian not only lived through Confederation and two World Wars, but also worked in the head office of the old Quebec Central Railway, was an active worker in the Women's Missionary Society, packed bales to be sent to the Prairies and was a devout member of St. John's Anglican Church, avid reader and seamstress.

Sarah Victoria lived out her golden years in the three-story Elizabeth Residence For Elderly Women in Ottawa. On her hundredth birthday, she received a cablegram from Queen Elizabeth II, flowers and best wishes from Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and one hundred oranges from Mayor Charlotte Whitton. She celebrated her one hundred and third (and last) birthday at a tea party with Canada's then Governor-General Vincent Massey.

How incredible it must have been for Sarah Victoria to see how figure skating progressed over the course of a century! Not many people have that luxury in life. One thing that was clear in learning a little about this woman after combing through a handful of old clippings was the fact that her memories and passion for the sport never faded even slightly.

"Lady On Skates", a nineteenth century watercolor by Frances Anne Hopkins

ANNIE EWAN


Trading card of a skater from Montreal. Courtesy the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

The youngest Alexander and Katherine (Kate) Ewan's four children, Annie Louise Ewan grew up in the St. Antoine Ward of Montreal during the late nineteenth century in a well-to-do Scottish Presbyterian household. Her father was a selling agent for the prestigious Merchants Manufacturing Co. of Montreal, which manufactured cotton shirts, muslin, cheesecloths and window shades. He was also one of the founders of The Almonte Knitting Company. By the time she was twenty, Annie, her brother and his wife were all regulars at the Victoria Skating Club on Drummond Street, which was the home base of Louis Rubenstein and the one of the biggest hubs of Canadian figure skating during that era. When the Earl Grey Skating Club was founded in 1908 after the dissolution of the Victoria Skating Club, Annie became a respected member.

The Victoria Skating Rink on Drummond. Photo courtesy the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec

Her biggest (and only) claim to fame as a figure skater came in 1905, when she defeated four other women to win the Minto Challenge Cup, later recognized by Skate Canada as the first official Canadian women's figure skating championship in history. The March 14, 1905 issue of "The Ottawa Journal" noted, "The first annual competition for the Minto Challenge Cups took place last evening... There was a large attendance, including the Governor-General and a party from Government House... The first and tedious part of the programme was over until after 11 o'clock, after which some very pretty exhibitions were given in the 'free skating'. The band of the Ottawa Engineers was in attendance." No account of Annie's winning effort was provided.

We don't really know a lot about Annie's life aside from the fact that she and her sister lived out their days as "spinsters" in the family home with their widowed mother. Perhaps they occasionally told stories over dinner of that time that Annie won the Canadian women's figure skating title. We'll never know!

ELEANOR KINGSFORD

Born on May 31, 1886 in Toronto, Ontario, Eleanor Agnes Letitia Kingsford was the eighth child of Rupert and Alice [Kingston] Kingsford. Her father was a lawyer; her grandfather a noted Canadian historian and engineer. When Eleanor was six, she moved to Ottawa to live with her grandparents. Inspired by Lady Minto, the wife of the Governor-General, Eleanor joined the Minto Skating Club in its early years. She learned her first figures from a German coach Lady Minto had brought to Canada to teach at the club. In 1905, she was among the five competitors who competed for the very first Canadian women's title at the Minto Skating Club. Teaming up first with Philip Chrysler, she won the silver medal in the pairs event at the 1911 Canadian Championships. The following year with Douglas Nelles, she became a Canadian Champion in pairs skating. She also took home the women's titles in 1912 and 1913 and as part of the Minto Four won the Connaught Cup in 1914.

Ormonde Haycock, Lady Evelyn Grey, Eleanor Kingsford and Philip Chrysler

Competing for the Ellis Memorial Trophy in Boston in February 1914, she rejected the invitation of Adolf Hitler's future confidant Jaochim von Ribbentrop. Quoted in Janet Uren's book "Minto: Skating Through Time, 1904-2004", Eleanor recalled, "The most interesting memory of that trip was the snubbing of Von Ribbentrop, who being in Ottawa on some mysterious business at that time had joined our party. Even then I disliked him, and it must have been quite a shock to one of the 'master race' to have someone who dared to skip his waltz."

Her competitive skating career effectively ended by the start of World War I, Eleanor married Captain John Crawford Law and moved to Toronto. In just two years, she became a mother and a war widow. After returning to Ottawa for a time, to make ends meet she moved to Europe with her daughter Margaret and spent several years teaching and giving exhibitions in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France and the skating resorts of Switzerland. She returned to Canada on the S.S. Excalibur in March 1940, narrowly avoiding the German Occupation of France. She lived out the rest of her years quietly in Ottawa, passing away on December 11, 1975 at the age of eighty nine. Her gravestone in Beechwood Cemetery bears the epitaph "Champion Skater Of Canada".h

MURIEL GALT GEMMEL

Born in 1892, Muriel Julynn Maunsell was the daughter of Brigadier General George Maunsell and Henrietta Lucretia Maunsell (Austin) of Ottawa. Not only was her father a senior ranking officer in the Canadian military, her Irish grandfather was as well. Maunsell grew up in Rockcliffe Park, the most affluent of Ottawa neighbourhoods with her parents, brothers Harbert and Terrance and a British maid named Jannie Landsdown. From a young age, Muriel wanted for very little but wanted desperately to be a successful ice skater.

Joining the Minto Skating Club as a teenager, she quickly rose to prominence as one of the club's most accomplished skaters and by 1913, at the age of twenty one, she was already making people take notice. The January 22, 1913 edition of "The Ottawa Citizen" noted that a "skating party given by the president of the Minto Skating Club, Major-General Mackenzie, was a most enjoyable affair and was largely attended by the members of the Minto Club and their friends. The ice was in excellent condition, despite the mild weather, and during the course of the evening a wonderful exhibition of skating was given by Mr. Arthur Heid. Miss Muriel Maunsell, who is one of the most graceful skaters of the club, also gave a short exhibition, which was greatly admired. Supper was served in the club rooms at 11 o'clock, the tables being prettily arranged with red carnations and red shaded candelabra."

The following year, the well-to-do twenty two year old became the first officially recognized Canadian women's champion (according to the Skate Canada's records), beating Montreal's Jeanne Chevalier and taking home the Rubenstein Cup with her fancy figures and flashy footwork. That same year, Muriel was also part of the fours team (along with Eleanor Kingsford, Ormonde B. Haycock and Philip Chrysler) that took home the Connaught Cup. The March 25, 1914 "Montreal Daily Mail" also noted that Maunsell was in attendance at the Minto Club for a fancy costume ball later that winter with waltzing, chariot races, a shovel race and a supper in the tea room. Sadly, the cancellation of the Canadian Championships and international competitions in the following years due to World War I effectively put an end to Muriel's competitive skating career. She would never compete again.

In January 1918, Muriel married George Frederick Galt, a prominent merchant of the tea importing firm G. F. and J. Galt, and moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba. Galt was definitely a man of considerable means. He was president, vice-president or director of Blue Ribbon Limited, the Northern Trusts Company Limited, Great-West Life Assurance Company, the Canadian Fire Assurance Company, the Canadian Bank of Commerce, the Advisory Committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Northern Mortgage Company, the Manitoba Bridge and Iron Works. During the First World War and a member of the Canadian Government War Purchasing Commission. At sixty three years old at the time of her marriage, Galt was almost forty years Muriel's senior. If Muriel Maunsell, "one of Ottawa's leading society ladies" as described in the January 11, 1918 edition of "The Montreal Gazette", was looking for a distinguished older chap with buckets of money, she most definitely found him. Galt was a widow, having had five children with his first wife, Margaret, who passed away in 1915, and with Muriel, he fathered two more: a daughter named Patricia and a son named Thomas. Thomas, like his grandfather and great grandfather, too went on to serve in the military as well as acting as director of Sun Life, Bank Of Montreal, Canadian Pacific, Sun Life UK and Textron Canada. You get the picture.

What makes Muriel's story so interesting is that with her wealth and social standing, she could have easily walked away from figure skating and never looked back. However Muriel, according to the 1947 edition of "The Ottawa Journal", was the founder of the Winnipeg Skating Club in the twenties, predecessor to the Winter Club of Winnipeg. That said, a 1909 edition of "The Bellman" (Volume 7) evidences the fact that the Winnipeg Skating Club was in existence long before Maunsell even won her national title, let alone moved out west. Jim Blanchard's book "Winnipeg 1912" explained that in 1912, the Horse Show Amphitheatre was flooded in winter and a skating club was formed. Blanchard noted, "If a competent instructor was secured, Mrs. Robert Rogers and Mrs. Morton Morse had promised to donate prizes for waltzing and simpler figures." He also noted outdoor skating was common on the Assiniboine River near Osborne Bridge, so perhaps Muriel's contribution to the history of skating in Winnipeg came in the form of being a pioneering coach at the club. Sources don't seem to tell us one way or the other but we do know that she played an important role in the history of skating in Winnipeg.

In April 1928, Muriel's husband George died. She remained in Winnipeg and remarried, this time to Robert Morley Gemmel, former manager of the head office of the Bank Of Nova Scotia who had spent some time managing the bank's Winnipeg branch. The July 1, 1931 edition of "The Winnipeg Tribune" described their marriage thusly: "Given in marriage by 'her father, the bride was attractive in a pale delphinium blue chiffon frock and she wore a large transparent black straw hat trimmed with a flat blue flower on the trim. A corsage of pansies and forget-me-nots was worn." Following a honeymoon at a fishing camp in the Laurentians, Muriel (who now went by Muriel Galt Gemmel) and her second husband took up residence in Ottawa. Her second husband passed away of a heart attack at the age of fifty six on October 1, 1937 and Muriel lived out the rest of her days in the city where she was raised, passing away at her Ottawa home on February 26, 1967.

RUTH WHITMORE


Born November 24, 1911 in the town of Haileyburg (now Temiskaming Shores), Ontario, Ruth Constance (Forrest) Whitmore was the daughter of Scottish bank accountant William Melville Forrest and Ruth Helene (May) Forrest. Ruth and her brother Douglas were raised in New York, then moved to Jarvis Street in Toronto. Ruth first attended Brown Junior Public School before switching to the Bishop Strachan School, which had a class schedule which allowed more flexibility for her to pursue her passion... figure skating.

A member of Toronto's Granite Club, Ruth became fast friends with Cecil Smith and was a regular in the club's carnivals in the twenties. In June 1929, her father passed away with heart failure, leaving her future in the sport uncertain. Despite the financial strain on her family, Ruth attended the 1930 Canadian Figure Skating Championships, where she placed second in the junior women's competition behind Mary Littlejohn. She returned the following year and became Canada's junior women's champion, defeating Veronica Clarke of the Toronto Skating Club and Frances Fletcher of the Winnipeg Winter Club. Following her victory, she focused her attention on carnival skating, forming a trio with Cecil and Maude Smith and making her rounds skating in club shows in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. The March 22, 1933 issue of "The Ottawa Citizen" raved, "Those who saw these three young ladies in the carnival at Montreal pronounce their act as the most beautiful they have ever seen offered on ice."
Retiring from the sport in the mid thirties, Ruth married Norman Whitemore in 1946 and moved to Regina, Saskatchewan. There, she founded the Travelling Art program at the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery and volunteered at St. Paul's Anglican Church. After her husband passed away in 1984, she travelled around the world with her best friend. Ruth passed away on October 23, 2014, just one month before her one hundred and third birthday, making her arguably the longest living Canadian junior women's champion in history. Her obituary in the Regina Leader-Post read, "Just before her 100th birthday, she moved to Heritage House in Wintergreene Estates... Although her mind remained sharp until her death, her health failed over the past year. She faced her inevitable end calmly, reassuring her children she was at peace. She was a woman of grace and style who met every challenge with good humour and determination. She was well read and very open minded, welcoming generations of friends to her home."

MARGOT BARCLAY WILKINS

Photo from the collections of the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. Used for educational purposes. 

Born in 1905, Margot Barclay Wilkins was the granddaughter of prominent Presbyterian minister Reverend Dr. James Barclay. Raised in downtown Montreal, Quebec, she took to the ice at the Montreal Winter Club with her sister Louise. In the twenties, she was one of the club's most successful female skaters. Although her biggest claim to fame was the 1928 Canadian senior women's title, she actually excelled in four disciplines.

With partners Aidrie Main and Marjorie Annable, Margot Barclay Wilkins was a repeat winner of the similar 'ladies pairs' title at the Winter Club's competition and as an ice dancer, she finished in the top three countless times at the club's weekly waltzing competitions. Among her ice dance partners were Reginald Wilson and fellow Canadian Champion Norman Gregory. In addition to singles, similar pairs and ice dance, she was also part of the Montreal Winter Club's fours team in 1931, which consisted of two sets and siblings: Margot and sister Louise and Richard and Hamilton, the Bolton Brothers. She was judged by Canadian skating pioneer Louis Rubenstein himself. She also took on an active role producing the Montreal Winter Club's annual carnivals while she was still competing. Retiring from the sport in the early thirties, she married, became a mother and later moved to Maine. where she sadly passed away on September 11, 1996 at the age of ninety one.

Considering the height of Margot's skating career was in the twenties, the fact that her story interweaves with two of the biggest names in women's skating in the nineties is nothing short of fascinating. When Josée Chouinard won the first of her three Canadian senior women's titles in 1991 in Saskatoon, television commentators erroneously announced that she was the first Canadian women's champion from the province of Quebec. Her daughter Diana Wilkins-Bell called the Montreal Gazette to correct the grievous mistake. In a February 11, 1991 article, Wilkins-Bell explained, "My mother is a very modest woman. She wasn't that upset. She just wondered how they could make such a mistake... How often do you get to be the champion of your country, after all? I don't care if it's in basket-weaving; it's an accomplishment that shouldn't be forgotten." I can't agree with Ms. Wilkins-Bell more! However, the first woman from Quebec to win the national women's title was actually Annie Ewan.

In addition to the Josée Chouinard connection, Margot Barclay Wilkins also knew Nancy Kerrigan quite well. In March 1931, Margot skated a solo as the "Lampmaker's Daughter" in a fantasy based around "Aladdin" in the Montreal Winter Club's annual show. She also skated fours with her sister and Bolton's in a "Static Of The North Land" act in the second act. Also in the second act was "The Snowflake Chorus", which consisted of, according to the Montreal Gazette, "Miss Audrey Joyce, Miss P. Bate, Miss Nancy Kerrigan, Miss Margaret Main, Miss K. McConnell, Miss N. Baillie - directed by Miss Phyllis Daniels and Miss Doris Gales." You read that right! Thirty eight years before Olympic Silver Medallist and U.S. Champion Nancy Kerrigan was born in Woburn, Massachusetts, Canadian Champion Margot Barclay Wilkins skated in the same show as (a) Nancy Kerrigan in Montreal, Quebec.

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