The 1963 World Figure Skating Championships

The Stadio del Ghiacco

After a failed bid from Innsbruck, the host city for the 1964 Winter Olympic Games, the 1963 World Figure Skating Championships were awarded by the International Skating Union to Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.


The event was held in the open-air Stadio del Ghiacco, the venue of the 1956 Winter Olympic Games, from February 28- March 3, 1963. As Cortina d'Ampezzo's altitude was approximately twelve hundred meters above sea level (being in the Dolomite Mountains) many skaters arrived early to acclimatize themselves to the thinner air. The men's and women's school figures commenced before nine in the morning each day. Skaters and judges alike wore sunglasses to lessen the sun's glare. In contrast, many of the free skating and ice dancing events were held late in the evenings, when temperatures dipped between minus fifteen and twenty degrees Celsius. Not only did the skaters, judges and spectators freeze their buns off, but the ice became hard and brittle in the bone-chilling cold. There were many complaints that skaters who drew earlier starting orders had a considerable advantage over those who performed later. Let's take a look back at the stories and skaters that made this event so memorable!

THE PAIRS COMPETITION

The first title decided in Cortina d'Ampezzo was the pairs event. As the reigning World Champions Maria and Otto Jelinek of Canada had turned professional, the event was wide open. Debbi Wilkes and Guy Revell, who had finished fourth the year before in Prague, were among the medal favourites. They were forced to withdraw prior to the event after a mishap in a photography shoot on an outdoor rink near their hotel. Guy lost his balance on the slushy ice and dropped Debbi from mid-air. She suffered a skull fracture and later recalled in her book "Ice Time", "My memory is still shaky about what happened next, but I am told the ISU representatives insisted that we compete despite the injury. Paralysis in half my face put an end to that idea. Then they insisted that we at least skate in the tour. The Canadian government intervened and quickly got me on connecting flights back to a hospital in Toronto. Doctors there decided there was no concussion because I wasn't getting dizzy. It took them a few days to realize that skaters don't get dizzy. The constant rotation and spinning develops a finely tuned inner balance."

Marika Kilius and Hans-Jürgen Bäumler posing for photographers in Cortina d'Ampezzo

Though a dual program system had been tried by the International Skating Union at the European Championships in Budapest, pairs skated only one program in Cortina d'Ampezzo. The audience for the pairs competition was very much pro-German. Swedish skating historian Gunnar Bang estimated that "80% of the audience consisted just of [Marika] Kilius and [Hans-Jürgen] Bäumler's countrymen." Kilius and Bäumler skated third of the twelve couples, an hour before Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov. They didn't have any major mistakes but they clearly fought through their program and didn't skate with the same ease as they had in Budapest. Writing in "Skating" magazine, historian Dennis Bird recalled, "Their dramatic cartwheel lifts and triple Axel lift aroused some controversy, for on strict interpretation of the ISU regulations they appear to be of a doubtful legality. The judges did not, however, let this deter them from giving the Germans the best marks, and I for one have no quarrel with the result."


Another American writing for "Skating" magazine, Mary Meredith, remarked, "The crowd was the most enthusiastic I've ever known, and many of them knew their skating... Much cheering - booing of judges - but all cheerful. It was bitter cold that night and while, waiting for the results (quite a wait, and none left), everyone was too cold for comfort. One end of the arena began singing a twist song and soon the whole seething mass of muffled and bundled people did the twist. It was a humorous sight and gay. Soon other sections took it up and nearly the whole downstairs, where the standees were, twisted and twisted. They love the twist over here and were so thrilled when some skaters put in the free dance or in an exhibition. I've never known such a lively appreciative crowd."


After the marks were tallied and everyone was done twisting again like they did last summer, Kilius and Bäumler were unanimously first. Heinz Maegerlein recalled, "There was much applause for Marika Kilius and Hans-Jürgen Bäumler when the victory was established. Some of the spectators knew how hard the road had been for them... so the applause was the recognition of many great achievements the couple had accomplished in the last few years. Perhaps it was quite good that they were not quite as perfect as they had done in Budapest in Cortina d'Ampezzo, because when things do not go well, the effort that comes before the completion is visible again."

Gertrude Desjardins and Maurice Lafrance. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Belousova and Protopopov were second on all but the Canadian and Italian judges scorecards. Those two judges preferred Canadians Gertrude Desjardins and Maurice Lafrance, who disappointingly lost out on the bronze medal to Soviets Tatyana Zhuk and Alexander Gavrilov by half an ordinal placing. Canada's only other entry after Wilkes and Revell's withdrawal, Linda Ann Ward and Neil Carpenter, placed eleventh.

THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION

Sjoukje Dijkstra performing school figures in Cortina d'Ampezzo. Photo courtesy Dutch National Archives.

Twenty one year old defending World Champion Sjoukje Dijkstra amassed an almost Trixi Schuba-like lead in the figures. Nearly sixty points ahead of Austria's Regine Heitzer and over one hundred ahead of France's Nicole Hassler, Dijkstra certainly had some leeway in the free skate. Rather than phone the performance in, she added the double Lutz to her program for the first time and skated marvellously, even if her program was somewhat front-loaded. Regine Heitzer delivered what was perhaps the finest free skate of her career, but received low marks. Nicole Hassler performed two double Axels in her free skate to finish second in that phase of the event and Miwa Fukuhara of Japan, only ninth in figures, included a triple Salchow in her program. Sixteen year old Petra Burka and eighteen year old Wendy Griner of Canada, both skated less than their best and were unable to make up ground. Equally disappointingly, Great Britain's Diana Clifton-Peach struggled in the free skate after delivering some of the finest figures of her career and fifteen year old Christine Haigler of the United States fell on the closing note of her excellent performance to Spanish music. Gunnar Bang complained that so many of the women skated to Vivaldi music that one "wondered how often the gramophone was changed."

Left: Sjoukje Dijkstra being interviewed by Dick Button for ABC's Wide World Of Sports. Right: Women's medallists. Photos courtesy Dutch National Archives.

When the marks were tallied, Dijkstra had 2318.8 points and was unanimously first overall, though the Soviet judge tied her with Heitzer and the Canadian and French judges had her behind Hassler in the free skate. Heinz Maegerlein remarked, "Sjoukje skated well... and was justly justified in receiving the highest praise." Wendy Griner, who placed fourth behind Dijkstra, Heitzer and Hassler later recalled, "It was not an equal playing ground. Sjoukje skated when the sun was out, and I was second to last in the program, and had to skate when it was dark and bloody cold. Being on the ice at midnight changed the whole texture of the ice - it became brittle and shattered. It just wasn't fair." Petra Burka finished fifth, and Canada's third entry, Shirra Kenworthy, placed twentieth.

Wendy Griner and Donald McPherson

THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION

It was anticipated that Czechoslovakian brother/sister team of Eva Romanová and Pavel Roman would have no trouble defending their World title in Cortina d'Ampezzo, as both the second and third place teams from the 1962 World Championships in Prague were not returning. When Linda Shearman and Michael Phillips - only fourth the year prior at Worlds - upset the siblings at the European Championships in Budapest, it became clear that Eva and Pavel would have a fight on their hands.

After eighteen teams from ten countries weaved their way through the compulsory dances, six judges had Shearman and Phillips first. Eva and Pavel received first place ordinals from the Austrian and Czech judges, while Paulette Doan and Kenneth Ormsby were first on the scorecard of Canadian judge Sandy McKechnie. Adding insult to injury, the French judge had Eva and Pavel fourth.

Two of the most interesting stories from the free dance related to teams who placed well outside of the top five. Hungarians Györgyi Korda and Pál Vásárhelyi pushed the envelope by skating to national folk music, which was in those days considered rather 'outside the box'. The judges didn't know quite what to do with them. The French judge had them third, while the Italian judge had them sixteenth. Americans Yvonne (Littlefield) and Peter Betts, who had eloped just prior to heading to Italy, had their stop their program about two minutes in after the heel screws came out of his boot. After Peter secured his boot to his blade with ye olde trusty screwdriver, the referee allowed the team a reskate . The exact same thing happened about a half a minute in. The judges marked only the small part of the program they were able to complete and doled out marks ranging from 3.0 to 3.8. They dropped all the way from ninth to seventeenth overall. Betts later said, "Two judges told us they would have placed us third in the free dance if we had continued."

Eva Romanová and Pavel Roman with their trophy. 

The top three teams all skated well despite less than ideal ice conditions and freezing temperatures. The judging panel was a four/four split between the Czechoslovakians and the Britons, with the Canadian judge again voting for Doan and Ormsby. When the marks were tabulated, Eva and Roman came out on top by one ordinal placing, with Shearman and Phillips taking the silver and Doan and Ormsby the bronze. The other two Canadian couples, Donna Lee Mitchell and John Mitchell and Carole Forrest and Kevin Lethbridge, placed fifth and tenth. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves recalled, "The Canadian judge was blamed for Linda and Michael's loss. They might legitimately have won for technical efficiency and immaculate style, but Eva and Pavel sparkled to prove that their home-town win in 1962 was not a fluke."

THE MEN'S COMPETITION


Left: Scotty Allen of the United States. Right: Malcolm Cannon of Great Britain.

In the two years preceding the men's event in Cortina d'Ampezzo, the entire U.S. figure skating team had been killed in the Sabena Crash and Canada's Donald Jackson had managed to upset Karol Divín in Czechoslovakia to win the 1962 World title, landing the first triple Lutz in international competition in the process. Since his win, Jackson had turned professional, leaving the World title up for grabs. The favourites were Divín, European Champion Alain Calmat of France, West Germany's Manfred Schnelldorfer and seventeen year old Donald McPherson of Canada, whose father had to cash in an insurance policy to finance the trip. Schnelldorfer left for the event eight days prior, driving from West Germany to Italy with his father in the family 'Strolchi', which was weighed down with luggage. American Tommy Litz, who had finished second to McPherson at the North American Championships in Vancouver, made the trip to Italy but did not compete. After North Americans, he'd twisted his ankle on a double flip while skating at an outdoor rink in Pennsylvania.

Tensions were high as the men took the ice to perform their school figure. Schnelldorfer won the first figure, Divín the second, Schnelldorfer the third, Divín the fourth. The next morning, fourteen year old Scotty Allen of Smoke Rise, New Jersey - the bronze medallist at the North American Championships - came out of nowhere to win the back loop change loop. Allen's win pushed Schnelldorfer back into the overall lead. Calmat won the final figure, the paragraph double three. When the marks of the school figures were tallied, five judges had Schnelldorfer first, the Czechoslovakian and French judges voted for Divín and the American judge stood alone in voting for Calmat. Schnelldorfer stood first, followed by Divín, Calmat and McPherson. In a show of good sportsmanship, Divín applauded Schnelldorfer.

Temperatures dipped as low as minus twenty Celsius during the men's free skate. The second group started after eleven o'clock; the third shortly before midnight. Tommy Litz recalled, "These poor guys were out there in twenty below weather and I thought, 'I'm glad I'm not out there.' It was horrifying." As a consequence of the freezing temperatures and the cold, brittle ice, few skaters performed up to their usual standard. Emmerich Danzer, the bronze medallist at the European Championships in Austria, landed a triple Salchow in one of the earlier groups and Scotty Allen managed a more or less clean performance, but the top four skaters after the figures were all far from their best. Divín skated cautiously. Calmat fell on a triple loop attempt, as did McPherson. However, the Canadian did manage to land two double Axels and a triple Salchow and earn marks from 5.7 to 5.9 for artistic impression.

Donald McPherson practicing in Cortina d'Ampezzo

Manfred Schnelldorfer's mother recalled the event thusly: "Divín looked like a phenomenon from a generation of earlier years... Calmat fell once, the first part of his program was unclean, but he caught up again only to get a much lower score than in Budapest... Sepp Schönmetzler had fallen, was completely exhausted, could not keep his mouth from the effort and cold, and cursed at the entrance over the devastating ice. He was as dissatisfied with himself as I had never seen him. A group of Italians was very loud as Manfred set out to start. The music was much too soft and Manfred was too late for the first jump. The pace was too fast, he could not adjust it and I saw the disaster coming... He fell so badly backwards that he lost a lot of time to get up again. In those seconds he wondered whether to give up. He did not want it anymore and had to leave some difficulties out. He jumped only simple jumps, no more doubles and dragged to the end. It was cruel. McPherson, a good head smaller, entered the arena. He fell as he attempted to jump the triple Rittberger, but he got everything else and he owed it, as he later confessed, to the midnight training that Dick Button had done with him in Cortina. He was used to the splinter-hard ice. In the cloakroom, nobody could figure out who would take the first, second and third places. My husband and I were being pursued by many curious eyes. I laughed, I consoled Manfred that he would be better off without the additional burden of a World Championship. He had just failed, he was not used to it, he was otherwise reliable, and the tremendous sense of duty had, of course, raised too many hopes, even among our own people. I was annoyed that my husband could not understand that these young athletes are flesh and blood and not machines. Then came the announcement: 'World Champion 1963, Donald McPherson, Canada. Second Alain Calmat, France. Third Manfred Schnelldorfer, Germany.'... There were a few contemptuous looks, there were some articles in magazines which were vaguely imaginative, which brought Manfred's third place in connection with a 'love' in his beloved sport. But could not he ever fall in love? About 20 hours after his unfortunate performance he skated in the same ice... His double Axel was big, everything else elegant... not a single fault - only 20 hours too late."


Incidently, the marks took more than half an hour to compute. McPherson, a student of Dennis Silverthorne, was first on all but the American judge's scorecard in the free skate, but overall, he had only two first place ordinals but five second places. His point total combined with his majority of second places narrowly gave him the win over Calmat and Schnelldorfer, who had three firsts and Divín, who had one. McPherson became the youngest man in history to win the World title, while his Canadian teammates Donald Knight and Bill Neale finished eighth and fifteenth. He later remarked, "To be a champion, you have to have the desire to prove that you can be the best, even if it means giving up everything else. It's a marvellous feeling when you finally achieve your goal, but the work along the way means so much more."

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