The 1986 Canadian Figure Skating Championships

Photo courtesy Archives of Ontario

Back in 1964, the small Northern Ontario mining city of North Bay played host to the Canadian Figure Skating Championships for the first time. It was the first time Petra Burka stood atop the Canadian senior women's podium; the last time that Debbi Wilkes and Guy Revell claimed the Canadian senior pairs title.

A lot changed in the figure skating world in the following twenty two years, but when Canada's two hundred and twenty five of Canada's best figure skaters returned to the Nipissing District for the 1986 Canadian Figure Skating Championships, the people of North Bay returned to the rinks in hopes of seeing history be made again.



Held from February 2 through 9, 1986, the competition was held in midst of a period of change in the CFSA. A new logo had been adopted by Canada's governing body of figure skating that year and increased emphasis was being placed on grooming young skaters from an early age as elite competitors, under the watchful eye of David Dore. From increased international assignments at invitational competitions overseas to a national elite pairs training centre (the Preston Figure Skating Club) the CFSA was really starting to take the development of champions more seriously.

Two rinks in North Bay were used for the 1986 Canadian Championships. At the Doublerinks Arena (which was used for all of the school figures) the ice was painted black to allow judges to more easily dissect the skater's tracings. All of the free skating and ice dancing events were held at the North Bay Memorial Gardens, a then thirty one year old rink that played host to the North Bay Centennials hockey team. Let's take a look back at the stories and skaters that made this event one of a kind!

THE NOVICE AND JUNIOR COMPETITIONS

Of the fourteen teams who vied for the novice pairs title, the victors were twelve year old Sarah Fry and her much taller sixteen year old partner Kris Wirtz. Coached by Kris' older brother Paul, the young team hailed from the tiny industrial town of Marathon, Ontario. Representing the Chatham Figure Skating Club, Joelle Batten won the novice women's title, defeating Kristie Hehr of the Glencoe Club and Chantal Gagnon of Lames d'Argent. Improving on the bronze medal he'd won the year prior, Darran Leaker of Coquitlam won the novice men's title, defeating a young Marcus Christensen and Elvis Stojko. Fifteen year old Kellie Lynn Bradshaw and her eighteen year old Venezuelan partner Juan Carlos Noria took the lead in the compulsory dances and won the novice ice dance title over Chantal Loyer and Rock LeMay and Calgary twins Rhonda and Ron Machan with a bluesy variation dance, dressed in cream coloured outfits. Taking an early lead in the figures, Pamela
Giangualano defeated the previous year's novice champion Shannon Allison and Angie Folk to win the junior women's title. Michael Slipchuk of the Royal Glenora Club took the junior men's title ahead of Darren Kemp and Martin Marceau. Seven of the nine teams in the junior pairs event were coached by Kerry Leitch, including champions Melanie Gaylor and Lee Barkell. Fourteen teams vied for the junior ice dance title, which provided the biggest upset in the novice and junior events. Both Melanie Cole and Martin Smith and Catherine Pal and Donald Godfrey of the Upper Canada Skating Club had been given byes through the Central Ontario Sectionals as they were competing at World Junior Championships at the time in Sarajevo. Both teams had impressed with top ten finishes at that event, so it was quite the surprise to many when Nathalie Lessard and Darcy Pleckham placed second between Cole and Smith and Pal and Godfrey.

THE PAIRS AND FOURS COMPETITIONS


Denise Benning, Isabelle Kourie, Lyndon Johnston and Guy Trudeau, a unique quartet consisting of a pair from Ontario and a pair from Quebec, won the fours competition, which proved a clean sweep for skaters who trained at the Preston Figure Skating Club under Kerry Leitch. The second and third place teams were Cynthia Coull, Christine Hough, Mark Rowsom and Doug Ladret and Barbara Martin, Karen Westby, John Penticost and Lloyd Eisler.

Cynthia Coull and Mark Rowsom. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

The senior pairs competition in North Bay was really quite fascinating. Similarly to the junior pairs event, eight out of the ten teams all trained at the Preston Figure Skating Club and were coached by Kerry Leitch. At the previous year's Nationals in Moncton, Cynthia Coull and Mark Rowsom had won the title but at the World Championships in Tokyo, they were the lowest ranked of the three Canadian pairs who participated. Lloyd Eisler, who won the bronze medal at those World Championships, had since broken up with partner Katherina Matousek and teamed up with Peterborough's Karen Westby, a singles skater with no pairs experience whose best result was a fifth place in the junior women's event at the Moncton Nationals in 1985. Melinda Kunhegyi and Lyndon Johnston, fifth at the Tokyo Worlds, had also broken up. Twenty four year old Johnston had teamed up with eighteen year old Denise Benning only five months before the North Bay Nationals. On paper, Coull and Rowsom appeared the favourites based on their longevity as a pair and the fact they were the reigning Canadian Champions, but Rowsom had lost twelve weeks of valuable training time heading into the event due to a groin injury and Coull arrived in North Bay with a nasty cold.

Cynthia Coull and Mark Rowsom

In the short program, Benning and Johnston delivered a clean performance to take the lead ahead of Westby and Eisler. A two-footed side-by-side double flip from Rowsom kept the defending Canadian Champions in third, but still within striking distance of gold if they skated a strong free skate. That's exactly what they did. Rebounding with a spirited, technically demanding performance, Coull and Rowsom vaulted from third to first and earned a standing ovation from the packed audience at the Memorial Gardens.


With more than half a dozen errors, Benning and Johnston dropped to second, just slightly ahead of Westby and Eisler. Quoted in the February 8, 1986 issue of "The Montreal Gazette", twenty six year old Rowsom remarked, "To come from behind like this is a real breakthrough for us. To move up two places was something I was wondering if we could do. I knew that we had more experience than the other two pairs and I knew we certainly weren't stale from being over-trained. So we were really looking forward to a strong performance." In an interview in the February 11, 1986 "Ottawa Citizen", Eisler mused, "You can't compare 12 years of experience to six months. Unfortunately, a lot of people compared Kathy and me to Karen and me. I told [Karen] the past is done. Deep inside, the pressure must have been great for her. We talked and I told her not to worry about filling Kathy's shoes." Ultimately, the top two teams were sent to the World Championships in Geneva and Westby and Eisler stayed home to ponder their futures in the sport.

THE MEN'S COMPETITION



The lead-up to the North Bay Nationals in 1986 was quite interesting. Brian Orser and Neil Paterson, medallists at the 1985 Nationals in Moncton, both had byes but many of the other contenders for the men's podium had to earn their spots by qualifying at Sectional and Divisional competitions. At Eastern Divisionals, Kevin Parker and Jaimee Eggleton earned the top two spots and Nepean's Mark MacVean, who had narrowly missed a trip to the Canadian Championships with a fifth place finish a year earlier, earned a trip back to Nationals with the bronze. Making his senior debut, Alberta's Kurt Browning won the Western Divisionals ahead of two British Columbians, Brad MacLean and Scott Rachuk. However, the real buzz before the competition even started concerned rumours that Brian Orser would attempt a quad in his free skating performance after Jozef Sabovčík had attempted one in his free skate at the European Championships only a week prior in Copenhagen. Responding to the chatter in the February 6, 1986 "Ottawa Citizen", Orser said, "I'm playing with the quad in practice. It has crossed my mind. But now is not the time to change the program. I do it in practice for show. I'm not mentally ready to put it in the program. I do it in practice on an average of three out of 10 times. To put it in, it has to be nine out of 10."

Kevin Parker. Photo courtesy "Canadian Skater" magazine.

Brian Orser placed first in all three school figures, ahead of Paterson and MacVean. It was the first time he managed to win all three figures at the Canadian Championships and only the second time he'd won that phase of the event at Nationals overall. Though his tracings were strong enough to win, Orser conceded that MacVean should have won the third figure. Quoted in February 6, 1986 "Ottawa Citizen", he said, "I was nervous and my figures were about average. I'm preparing my figures to be in top form for the worlds...  For some reason, I was a little extra nervous. Three weeks ago, I started to focus on it. Other years, I'd coast through it."


If he was nervous in the figures, Orser appeared anything but in his "Hungarian Dance" short program. Skating brilliantly before a crowd of three thousand, he earned a 6.0 for artistic impression, his first ever perfect mark for artistic impression in a short program. Jaimee Eggleton was second best in the short program, but was seventh in the figures and his result only moved him up to fifth behind Paterson, MacVean and Parker. Quoted in the February 7, 1986 issue of "The Montreal Gazette", Orser remarked, "At the beginning of the season I was criticized for my short program, told that it was not artistic enough and that I should can it. I've felt very strongly about the program and knew that it was going in the right direction. This was all happening in September and I stuck with it. I'm glad I did."


On the road to his sixth consecutive Canadian title, Orser earned eleven 5.9's for his free skate to "Ladyhawke". Though he landed five of his seven planned triples, it wasn't a perfect performance. After landing his opening triple Lutz, he tripped on the boards and stumbled and fell to his knee. Though his first triple Axel/double toe combination was clean as a whistle, his second triple Axel was landed on two feet and he put both hands down. Many were so used to seeing Orser skate clean that a couple of errors provided the typical fodder for reporters to overdramatize his mistakes. In reality, his performance was quite strong, especially in comparison to his rivals. Paterson, who claimed the silver, landed a triple Axel early in his program but fell or doubled most of the rest of his jumps. Bronze medallist Eggleton tried a triple Axel but landed on his stomach. Kurt Browning placed an impressive fifth behind Kevin Parker in his senior debut despite a back injury that was treated by acupuncture. A disappointing free skate from Mark MacVean dropped him out of the top five entirely.

THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION


Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall

Nine teams vied for the senior ice dance title in North Bay and four of them, including the reigning Canadian Champions Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall, who trained in a dimly lit Richmond Hill rink with World Champion Bernard Ford. Acute tendinitis had sidelined Wilson for a month and cost the team a trip to NHK Trophy. In fact, they hadn't competed since the 1985 World Championships in Tokyo and many were quite curious to see what they had up their sleeves. Quoted in February 6, 1986 issue of "The Montreal Gazette", Wilson remarked, "We do a lot of toe steps, a lot of running on the toes. Our whole free dance is based on footwork. It was putting a lot of stress on my tendons. I didn't realize it at the time. I was wearing skates seven hours a day and I thought it was just a callus. Then I noticed it was swelling up so I had it checked. I thought it would be only a matter of a few days off skates but it was a whole month. But it was better to take the time off then to have it bothering me at the Canadians and the Worlds."

Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall

In the compulsory dances, Wilson and McCall were outstanding, easily taking a commanding lead over their training mates Karyn and Rod Garossino and Roy Bradshaw's students Jo-Anne Borlase and Scott Chalmers. In the Spring 1986 issue of "Tracings", World Champion Jean Westwood praised Borlase and Chalmers, who she felt were somewhat undermarked: "Bradshaw's handling of the subtleties of the compulsory dances turned out a masterly job of choreography. He not only flattered the couple, but actually devised movements which hid the awkward parts of the actual dances."

As was so often the case in ice dance in the eighties, the results from the compulsories remained exactly the same in the OSP. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves recalled, "A proliferation of peasant costumes made the polka OSP seem more like a carnival group number than an individual set pattern event. In general, technical complexity overshadowed the spirit of the event. Tracy and Rob outdid all the other OSP's with 'Shall We Dance?' from 'The King And I'. Their 1-minute 20-second OSP captured the sense of speed and recreated the atmosphere of the play as they raced around the ice."


More than four thousand spectators turned up at the Memorial Gardens to watch the free dances. Wilson and McCall earned eleven 5.9's and three 5.8's for their difficult samba, waltz, quickstep and jive free dance choreographed by Bernard Ford, where they portrayed competitors in a ballroom dance competition. In "Skating" magazine, Frank Loeser claimed that they were like an "odd couple who look, at turns, both bewildered and enchanted by their attraction to each other." The Garossino's more sombre free dance to "Romeo And Juliet" failed to capture the judge's attention in the same way as their training mates. They settled for the silver, ahead of Borlase and Chalmers, Michelle McDonald and Michael Farrington, Penny Mann and Richard Perkins, Kim Hanford and Julien Lalonde and Erica Davenport and Mark Mitchell.

THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION


After winning the 1981 Canadian title in Halifax, the road had been rocky for Tracey Wainman. In an attempted comeback the year prior in Moncton, she'd just missed a spot on the podium. At the Eastern Divisionals in Whitby, she managed a win despite missing the only triple jump in her free skate. Heading into the North Bay Nationals, Elizabeth Manley and Cynthia Coull, ranked first and second at the previous year's Nationals in Moncton, were still considered the favourites.

In the school figures, Manley won the first figure but Wainman won the second two. Although many weren't surprised by Wainman's win in this phase of the event due to her history as a whiz in compulsories, few expected her to be able to retain her lead through the short program and free skate. The real shocker in the compulsories was Cynthia Coull. Sick with a cold and burdened with the daunting task of participating in the women's, pairs and fours events, she placed a shocking twelfth out of fourteen skaters and took herself out of the medal equation entirely.


In the short program, Manley skated brilliantly, wisely choosing to change a planned triple Lutz/double loop combination to a triple Salchow/double loop. However, Wainman more than held her own, working the audience into a frenzy with her sassy, upbeat program to an instrumental version of "Relax" by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. A less difficult double Axel/double loop combination kept her behind Manley in that phase of the event, but she maintained her overall lead on the strength of her figures result, ahead of Manley, Patricia Schmidt and Charlene Wong.


Both Manley and Wainman skated quite well in the free skate, but several shaky landings on triple jumps kept Manley behind Wainman in a four-three split of the judge's panel, who rewarded Wainman's exuberant and clean but less technically demanding performance with a gold medal. Quoted in the February 10, 1986 issue of the "Ottawa Citizen", Wainman said, "I tried to please the audience. I want to be considered an entertainer as well as an athlete. I only can do what I can do. I know what I had in my program and I tried to perform it the best I could." Recalling the loss in her 1991 book "Thumbs Up!", Manley remarked, "Sonya and Peter [Dunfield] were upset, not because I hadn't skated well - they thought I had done extremely well - but because they felt I should have won the title. They felt that my position had been affected by the excitement over Tracey's return. The press dismissed my performance and I read some very discouraging things about myself in the papers."

The 1986 Canadian World Team. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

Not everything in the papers about Elizabeth Manley in 1986 was discouraging though. In his March 5, 1986 column in the "Ottawa Citizen", Dave Brown shared a delightful story about how one fan helped ease the pain of the loss of her national title: "Manley was back in Ottawa at her East Lane Road home only a few days and still adjusting to the loss when a letter from a stranger arrived. It made the loss bearable. 'When I was a young girl in my twenties,' the woman wrote, 'I had a major disappointment in my life. I was in tears and my father was watching me. He quietly said to me: You must remember that life is like a streetcar. You have just missed one. Another will be along soon and you will be right there to catch it. Pressing money into my hand, he said: 'Go out an buy a new hat.' In the 40 years since that time, many hats have been bought. 'So now I say to you Elizabeth, go out and buy a nice hat and I enclose a small cheque so you may do so. 'That streetcar will be there for you, and you will catch it.' It wasn't a great deal of money, but it was enough for a spirit-lifting hat. Manley was deeply touched, bought a hat and is preparing for the next streetcar; in her case another skating competition." As we all know, she certainly caught that streetcar!

Photo courtesy "Skate" magazine

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