Australia's Pioneering Pair: The Jackie Mason And Mervyn Bower Story
Australia made its debut at the Winter Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany in 1936, when Ken Kennedy, a speed skater, formed the country's team of one. He didn't even have a coach with him. It wouldn't be until the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo that Australian figure skaters would make their first appearance. It was an inauspicious debut. Adrian Swan finished in tenth place among the men and neither of the women's competitors that year managed to make the top ten. It wouldn't be until the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Australia that an Australian pairs team would first compete in the Games and the story of how those two skaters made that happen is truly an incredible one.
Born January 12, 1934 and November 27, 1936 respectively, Mervyn John Bower and his partner Jacqueline 'Jackie' Mason both hailed from Sydney, Australia. They burst on the scene in 1950, winning their first of an incredible twelve Australian national titles. As was the case with many promising Australian skaters at the time, they divided their training time between Australia (where they trained under the watchful eye of Jackie's mother) and Great Britain. While in England, the duo actually became the first Australian couple to earn the National Skating Association's gold test in pairs skating. They also twice earned medals at the British Championships, finishing third behind Jennifer and John Nicks in 1952 and Joyce Coates and Anthony Holles in 1956.
At the 1952 World Figure Skating Championships in Paris, France, Jackie and Mervyn made history once again by becoming the very first Australian pairs team ever to compete at the World Championships. They placed a disappointing ninth, but if eighth place ordinals from the Austrian, German and Swiss judges softened the blow, words of encouragement and praise from none other than Dick Button himself bolstered their resolve to continue.
Balancing their travels between England and Australia and Jackie's studies at the Kambala School in Rose Bay, New South Wales wasn't an easy task but the team stayed together through thick and thin. Jackie even began training as a judge while she was still competing. Fending off challenges year after year from other Australian teams like Gloria Aiken and Bob Watson, they kept their eye on their next goal: being the first pairs team to represent Australia at the Winter Olympic Games.
In early 1956, Jackie and Mervyn sailed from Australia to Italy aboard the S.S. Himalaya. A train ride later, they were Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy and ready to make their Olympic debut on the ice of the Stadio Olimpico Del Ghiaccio. They weren't even on the ice for five minutes when disaster struck. The January 25, 1956 issue of "The Argus" reported, "The two skaters were on the ice... for less than two minutes when Mervyn, on a back glide, crashed into the wooden rim of the rink, fracturing an ankle bone." Doctors advised Mervyn not to skate on his swollen, fractured left ankle for at least ten days and despite initial optimism, four years of hard work and steady improvement went out the window when the team was reluctantly forced to withdraw. Determined to make the most of their trip to Europe, they bravely competed in the 1956 World Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen despite Mervyn's injury. They finished eleventh and last, despite the efforts of an obviously patriotic Australian judge who placed them in a tie for sixth with Americans Lucille Ash and Sully Kothman... when no other judge had them higher than ninth.
Rather than give up on their Olympic dream, the pioneering pair from Sydney decided to stick it out for the long haul. At the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, they triumphantly made a return to international competition and earned their rightful place in the history books as the first Australian pairs skaters to compete at the Games. They finished twelfth of thirteen teams competing, right behind future two time Olympic Gold Medallists Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov and Americans Maribel Yerxa Owen and Dudley Richards and Ila Ray and Ray Hadley, who tragically perished in the Sabena Crash the following year.
The Tivoli Circuit and later opening a gift business called Baskets With Love. Jackie went on to become an international figure skating judge. Among her international assignments were the women's event at the 1979 World Championships and the pairs events at the 1980 Winter Olympics and 1981 World Championships. Both Jackie and Mervyn were among the first group of inductees to Ice Skating Australia's Hall Of Fame in 2004. Jackie's daughter, Simone Moore, was a former national level competitor in the late seventies and early eighties. She grew up to become the youngest Australian judge ever appointed to judge internationally and sadly was among those who perished in the 2007 Merinda tragedy. Mervyn passed away in 2013. In a March 29, 2007 interview in "The Australian", Jackie spoke about some of the unique challenges of being an Australian skater competing internationally in the fifties and sixties. She lamented that the long sea voyages from Australia to Europe were one of the greatest setbacks, owing to lost training time. "You can't skate on a ship," she aptly noted. Water, water all around and not a drop to skate on... isn't that how the old saying goes?
The time that this team dedicated - over a decade of their lives - to putting Australian pairs skating on the map was simply incredible. Whether they won a medal or not, they deserve our respect for sticking with it and pursuing their dreams. That's what it's all about, isn't it?
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