Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine
From January 18 to 21, 1967, the best amateur figure skaters in the United States converged upon the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum in Omaha, Nebraska for the 1967 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. The event marked the first time that the U.S. Championships were held in the Cornhusker State. At the time, the USFSA had a rule that the club that sponsored the U.S. Championships had to guarantee at least five thousand dollars to cover expenses. The Figure Skating Club Of Omaha exceeded all expectations. All of the finals were sold out, with all six thousand, one hundred seats sold. In fact, the fire marshall even allowed two thousand standing room tickets to be sold! The event was taped for ABC's Wide World Of Sports and featured a who's who of figure skating. Let's take a look back at the skaters, stories and spectacular moments that made this competition noteworthy.
Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine
THE NOVICE AND JUNIOR EVENTS
A pint-sized Starbuck and Shelley in 1967
Novice pairs and ice dance competitions were not held in 1967, but nine talented young men vied for the novice men's title. John Baldwin, a sixteen year old bellhop from Colorado Springs, emerged victorious over Philadelphia's Kenneth Class, San Pedro's Mark Rehfield and Los Angeles' Alexander Rubio. It was extremely close between third and fourth; Rubio had fewer ordinal places but Rehfield had more points. Wen-An-Sun, the thirteen year old daughter of a Chinese born eye doctor living in Ames, Iowa defeated Mary Lynn Gelderman - future coach of Elaine Zayak - by five ordinal places and 1.06 points to claim the novice women's title. Louise Vacca of North Linderhurst, New Jersey took the bronze. Sun also competed in the junior pairs event with her fifteen year old brother Torrey. That event was won by fifteen year old Downey, California high school sophomores Alicia 'Jojo' Starbuck and Ken Shelley. These stars of tomorrow were the unanimous choices of the entire judging panel. Julie Lynn Holmes of South Pasadena won the junior women's school figures and narrowly defeated Denver's Patty Grazier to claim that title. The result of the junior women's event was so close that it was decided on the vote of one judge, who placed Holmes third and Grazier fourth. In junior (Silver) dance, Debbie Gerken and Keith Galgot and Susan and Bill Roberts claimed the gold and silver medals. Both teams hailed from New Jersey. Caren Cody and Warren Danner of Indianapolis edged Suzanne Gillespie of Pittsburgh and John Bickel of Rochester for the bronze. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves recalled,
"Eastern skaters won four of the first five places in Silver Dance. Their strength made judging difficult, such that one couple received both a first and last place mark in the initial round."
Roger Bass. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.
The junior men's event was won by 1965 Novice Champion Roger Bass, a five foot eleven high school student from Lakewood, California. He was only fourth in free skating, but won the school figures with first place ordinals from four of the five judges. Thirteen year old Gordon McKellen, Jr. of Reading, Pennsylvania, the son of ice show star Tuffy McKellen, bumped Torrey Sun out of second place and claimed the silver medal.
THE PAIRS AND ICE DANCE COMPETITIONS
Judy Schwomeyer and Jim Sladky. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.
As had been the case the previous year at the U.S. Championships in Berkeley, California, siblings Cynthia and Ronald Kauffman and Susie Berens and Roy Wagelein finished one-two in the senior pairs event. Ranked third and eleventh in the world respectively, there was a great deal of point separation between the top two pairs. The bronze medal went to Betty Lewis of Framingham, Massachusetts and Richard Gilbert of Natick, Massachusetts. Twenty old year old Lorna Dyer and twenty year old John Carrell, both University Of Washington students, took unanimous first place ordinals from every judge in the compulsory dances. They dressed in burgundy for their three and a half minute free dance, with a jazzy section to "Deep Purple". In contrast, Alma Davenport and Roger Berry of Burbank's free dance consisted of Hawaiian rhythms and music by Al Hirt and Pete Fountain. Lynn Copley-Graves recalled, "Most couples skated real free dances rather than mini-pair programs. It was time for Dyer/Carrell to outshine all the others and win the title that eluded them for four years, despite winning North Americans in 1965 and placing well in Worlds." Outshine them they did, winning the gold medal. Davenport and Berry finished second ahead of Judy Schwomeyer of Indianapolis and Jim Sladky of Syracuse and Dolly Rodenbaugh of Pittsburgh and Tom Leschinski of Homestead, Pennsylvania. In the March 1967 issue of "Skating", Lynn Thomas reported that Schwomeyer and Sladky "gained amazing lean and extension for their small stature." In an incredible placement shift considering the usual lack of movement in ice dance standings at the time, Vicky Camper and Eugene Heffron jumped from ninth to sixth overall with their peppy free dance. This jump in the ranks was even more remarkable considering that Vicky had badly injured her knee at Midwesterns and was skating through considerable pain.
THE MEN'S COMPETITION
Tim Wood signing autographs in 1967. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.
Nine men vied for the senior men's title in Omaha. In the figures, seventeen year old Scotty Allen of Smoke Rise, New Jersey took a five and one-hundredth point lead over nineteen year old Gary Visconti of Detroit. Three judges placed Allen first, one apiece voted for Visconti and eighteen year old Tim Wood, the son of a chest surgeon. Visconti rebounded in the free skate to reclaim the U.S. title he'd held in 1965, ahead of Allen, Wood and John Misha Petkevich. I spoke with Visconti about this event in September 2016. He recalled, "That was the first event I skated when I was in the navy. That was during Vietnam years. Long story short, I was in college full time and your college had to send your paperwork to your draft board so you got a classification of 'not eligible' because you're a full-time student. Our university for some reason missed the date for filing those papers so I got a draft notice to be drafted into the army. Well, at that time, you could not buck it. It was really tough. So I quickly enlisted in the U.S. navy in the reserve program, which is called a 2 X 6 - two years active and four years inactive. When I went to Omaha, I had a buzz haircut. I had no hair! It was hysterical. Everyone was like 'why's your hair so short?' Nowadays it's cool, but in the sixties you didn't have really short hair... That was the only Championship that I remember thinking I was actually winning while I was skating. Everyone skated ahead of me and had done one or two triples but they'd messed them up: they'd fallen, stumbled or popped or whatever you want to call it. In those days, you didn't have required moves and I always had about eighteen to twenty five tricks in my program counting jumps, flying spins... The other guys usually had about twelve or thirteen, so I had four or five more at least. My coach Don Stewart said, 'Gary, everyone's kind of messed up. You're already in first. Let's take out the triple toe-loop and triple Sal and just do doubles and skate a clean program and you'll walk away with it.' I said, 'Really? Okay, Don, whatever you say!' As I was skating I said, 'Oh my God, I'm winning because I'm skating really good.' And I won and when they announced the result Dick Button said, 'Well, not always the best skater wins. Just the one who makes the least mistakes.' So I said in my book 'Falling For The Win', 'Okay, Dick, I realize you weren't in my camp but isn't that what it's all about? Not making mistakes?'"
THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION
Eleven women vied for the 1967 U.S. women's title and three time and defending champion Peggy Fleming of Pasadena was of course the absolute favourite. As predicted, she took a hefty lead in the school figures, earning first place ordinals from all five judges. Eighteen year old Tina Noyes of Arlington, Pennsylvania was second, Jennie Walsh third, Taffy Pergament fourth and Sondra Lynn Holmes fifth. Fleming wore a gold dress with a gold band around her jet black hair for her free skate, and did a fine job but didn't give an absolutely flawless performance. Noyes, too, was good but wasn't perfect. She tripped on a toe pick and slightly flubbed the landings of two jumps. The Associated Press reported, "The big crowd pleaser proved to be the third finisher Jennie Walsh, Pacific Coast Champion from Torrance, Calif., whose fast thrilling series of loops, jumps and spins was received with such acclaim that Jennie returned to the rink for an almost unprecedented encore in a national meet."
Also making quite an impression was thirteen year old Slavka Kohout student Janet Lynn, who vaulted in the standings to fourth overall with an equally outstanding free skate. Pergament dropped to fifth, ahead of Troy, Ohio's Ardith Paul, Sondra Lynn Holmes, Detroit's Maud-Frances Dubos, New York City's Honey Kerr, Hershey's Wendy Jones and Walnut Creek's Charlene McLaren.
In a January 20, 2013 interview with Eric Golden for the "Omaha World-Herald", Fleming recalled, "It was trying to keep that momentum going and aiming toward the Olympics... To see how you could handle the pressure, being consistent."
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