Interview With Tanya Street-Burgess

Photograph of U.S. Novice Figure Skating Champion Tanya Street Burgess

In 1991, Tanya Street-Burgess won the U.S. Novice title in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Three years later she found herself withdrawing from the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships after falling very ill, but not before being very directly impacted by the infamous "Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal" that rocked the figure skating world that year. The following year, she found herself at Nationals, competing against the likes of Michelle Kwan and Nicole Bobek. A former student of Carlo and Christa Fassi who has since long retired from competition, Tanya is a mother and figure skating coach. I had the chance to catch up with her and talk about her skating career, coaching, how the 1994 scandal affected her personally, her favourite things to eat and listen to, and much more: 

Q: In 1991, you won the U.S. national novice title in Minneapolis. What did winning a title at the national level mean to you at the time and looking back, what does it mean to you today?

A: Truthfully, I was shocked. I had taken a lot of time off that year for financial reasons and had barely made it out of Sectionals. There were so many skaters at Nationals with good triples and my triple toe was only landed on a good day. I went to Minneapolis with low expectations and was just hoping to place in the middle of the pack. When the day came, I drew first to skate so I wanted to set the bar for my competitors. I had planned a pretty tough SP with two double axels. It was skated flawlessly. It was how I had planned to skate it! The rest of the group wasn’t so lucky. Watched some of my scariest competitors fall multiple times. When the results came out, I was in 2nd place and skating in the last warm-up! Then, for the free skate we threw in the triple. Really had nothing to lose and still it was a dream to earn the gold. I landed my triple toe and it was the best it had ever been! After placing 4th in the free skate, mathematically and surprisingly I ended up 1st place! Looking back, I was not the best skater that year but it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was able to find a sponsor for my skating and was able to stay on the ice that following year. That helped boost my skating career landing the rest of my triples that following year and placing me in a league with skaters I had looked up to for years.

Q: You won four Sectional and five Regional champions during your skating career and were on the U.S. international team from 1993-1996. What was the experience of competing internationally like and how did it differ from skating within your own country? What was the most interesting aspect of it?

A: Competing internationally was like achieving a childhood dream of mine. I had never flown out of the country before and yet I was being flown out to represent our country. I had no idea who my competitors were so it was neat to see the other countries young elite skaters. It was like any other competition with a few good skaters and a few others that maybe weren’t given the same opportunities we had growing up. I was able to compare my skills with these skaters around the world. Representing the U.S. was an amazing experience and was glad I was given the opportunity to go.

Q:  Having competed against skaters like Michelle Kwan, Nicole Bobek, Tonia Kwiatkowski and Kyoko Ina at the national level during the era of the dramatic Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding story, was this distracting to your skating at the time or was the popularity that the sport enjoyed after the tragedy something that drove your passion for what you were doing?

A: It was a good distraction for us. Again, a "no pressure situation". I had some great practices and enjoyed talking to Tonya, Nicole and others in the locker rooms. I was supposed to be on Nancy’s practice when the incident happened but I became ill and skipped going. I went to the hotel gym and walked the treadmill that day and remember seeing Nancy, her coach and another person walking around the pool area like it was any other day. I noticed that on the TV in the gym was a breaking news story and Nancy was on it! There was no volume so I still had no clue what was happening. I left to go to the room and had all kinds of people calling from the press asking “What did you see?” and (since my name is Tanya) “Why did you do it?”. A friend of mine was even taken to the police station for questioning since he had been in a restricted area looking for me when I didn’t show up for my practice. Unfortunately, I became very ill that evening and was taken to the hospital. I wanted to compete so badly. I was the underdog and so was Michelle. She was young and it was her time.

Q: Who are your favourite skaters competing today - and of all time?

A: There are a few! Right now, a few of my favourite skaters are Charlie White and Meryl Davis. I saw them at Nationals this year and they are amazing! Ground breaking for U.S. ice dancing. In the ladies division, Gracie Gold reminds me a lot of myself back in the day. I watch her jump and wish I could do it all again one more time. For skaters in the past, Scott Hamilton! I got to skate with him in Sun Valley and he was very supportive to the skaters on the practice. He’d skate up to me after I landed a jump and would say “Great job!”. Kristi Yamaguchi also. They were so nice and that was probably one of my most memorable practices ever. Also, Caryn Kadavy. Before I made it big, I used to live in Rockford, Illinois. There was a stretch of time that I’d see Caryn practicing on the same public sessions that I would be on. I knew who she was but was very shy so I kept to myself. One day I was working on a jump and was falling on it over and over again. She skated up to me and gave me some advice, asked what my name was very supportive telling me to keep at it. I couldn’t believe she was talking to me!

Q: Who are three singers you absolutely love?

A: Jimmy Buffett - I am originally from Florida and a southern gal. Grew up listening to Jimmy. Elton John - I could listen to him all day! Freddy Mercury - what a voic and a musician! He’s the reason I started listen to rock. My kids grew up listening to Freddy. My son even named his turtle “Freddy Mercury”.

Q: If you had to eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?

A: OK, this is a tough one. I love sushi and I can always fall back on a good pizza. But I would vote my one time meal to be fajitas. Especially if I can get the margarita on the side!

Q: Do you think skating has progressed or regressed in recent years and what are the new challenges of teaching the sport under the new judging system?

A: A little of both. As a coach, I love seeing the protocol at the end of an event. The skaters (and coaches) then see their strengths vs. weaknesses. On the other hand, the new judging system takes away from the artistic creativity of a program. It’s like seeing a camel spin and watching a good skater perform one holding a nice position for 10 or 15 revolutions. Instead, it’s the cookie cutter camel that wins with all of the same variations that everyone else in the group is trying.

Q: What is the best and worst thing to ever happen to figure skating?

A: The best thing I can think of would be Hollywood. They single handedly grew figure skating and made Sonja Henie a household name. Through that growth, ice show tours were born and girls and boys all over the world wanted to skate. So many opportunities were born! Other than the 1961 plane crash and the French judge that loved to take bribes, the worst thing that happened to figure skating is the dropping economy. For the competitive skater, it’s very expensive. I had a team of skaters 10 years ago going out to Sun Valley for a week or two and they were paying my way to go! Now I can barely get one to commit to a camp in the next town over. Team sports are less expensive and more and more kids seem to be going that route.

Q: What do you do for a living today and is your passion for figure skating still as strong as it was when you were competing?

A: I am still involved in figure skating and play many roles! I am first and foremost a skating coach and love helping kids in our area learn to skate. I raised three national competitors and two junior national competitors out of a small city in Iowa. Thirteen years ago, this city didn’t have a rink. And now we have national competitors! Also, I am a technical specialist for the new judging system so I get to see the callers point of view and have learned quite a bit. And finally, I am a skating mom. My daughter, Carly, is at the Pre-Pre level and is by far the hardest student to teach! Very talented but very strong minded and doesn’t like taking Mom's advice.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":