The 1985 U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Kemper Ice Arena, photo courtesy Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library

A lot has certainly changed in the thirty two years since Kansas City, Missouri first played host to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Back in January of 1985, Ronald Reagan was President, Madonna's "Like A Virgin" topped the Billboard music charts and single event tickets to see America's best skaters in action only put you out twelve dollars at most. Held from January 29 to February 2 of that year, the 1985 U.S. Figure Skating Championships marked a changing of the guard in the American figure skating world. Scott Hamilton, Rosalynn Sumners and Elaine Zayak, who had all won World titles and represented the U.S. at the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo, had turned professional. The top four pairs teams from the 1984 U.S. Championships had all switched partners or turned professional as well. On paper, it was anyone's game.

Behind the scenes, things weren't all rosy. A key sponsor pulled out at the last minute, leaving organizers to pull off a small miracle. Then there was the matter of the ice. Although the King Louie Ice Chateau and Fox Hill Ice Arena were ready to go for practices and school figure competitions, the main venue - the Kemper Arena - had been scheduled for a basketball game the night before the very first practices 'on the big rink' were to be held. Rink employees worked overtime through the night to ensure the ice was ready.

The people of Kansas City went all out to ensure the event was a success. Over one hundred skaters from the Kansas City, Carriage and Silver Blades Figure Skating Club's participated in the opening ceremonies, handed out awards, retrieved flowers and acted as runners for results and messages. Other organizations that contributed volunteers were the Kansas City Ski Club, University Of Missouri-Kansas City and Sports Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy Associates, Inc. More than three hundred volunteers from Kansas City Young Matrons manned several hospitality suites and a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales benefited the Crittenton Center For Disturbed Youths. For the first time ever, the Christmas lights at the Alameda Plaza Hotel were turned on at a time other than the holiday season in a special ceremony in celebration of the event.

In the end, over two hundred competitors flocked to Kansas City ready to prove their mettle. In promoting the event for ABC's "Wide World Of Sports", Dick Button raved, "What viewers will see is the bare bones outline of who is good and who is going to be good. It's like picking out from a bunch of young colts who has the talent, stamina and strength, artistry and personality. You see all those elements that end up being the basis for someone's style." With a huge thanks to Joanna Marsh, Special Collections Librarian at the Kansas City Public Library, join me in the time machine and take a look back at what made this event so special!


The novice and junior results from the 1985 U.S. Championships read like a who's who of American figure skating in the nineties. For starters, the event was Kristi Yamaguchi's very first appearance at the U.S. Championships. Placing fifth in junior pairs with Rudy Galindo and barely missing a medal in the junior women's event, the young Californian was only just beginning her journey to greatness. Jerod Swallow of the Detroit Skating Club did double duty, winning the junior ice dance event with Jodie Balogh and competing in junior pairs with Shelly Propson. In the junior women's event, Tracey Seliga of the Colonial Figure Skating Club lead after figures and Dedie Richards of the Dallas Figure Skating Club took the lead after the short program. However, Jill Trenary of the Broadmoor Skating Club vaulted to first ahead of Tracey Damigella of the Skating Club Of Lake Placid in the final standings. Representing the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society, the fabulous Doug Mattis took top honours in the junior men's event, besting Erik Larson and Rudy Galindo. However, the event that garnered the most attention from Kansas City audiences was without a doubt the novice men's competition. Though he finished second to thirteen year old Todd Eldredge, sixteen year old Aren Nielsen of Grandview made history as the first skater from the Kansas City area to win a medal at the U.S. Championships... in front of a hometown audience in the first Nationals held in Kansas City. As one might imagine, the crowd went a little berserk. Coached by Randy Brilliantine, Nielsen was only fifth after figures but won the free skate with an outstanding performance that featured a triple Salchow and double Axel/double toe combination. His medal win was particularly impressive in that he had only been fifth at the Midwestern Championships the year prior. Quoted in the January 31, 1985 issue of the "Kansas City Star", Nielsen remarked, "It was like it wasn't even me. I can't believe it, I really can't believe it. I mean, I felt like I was almost like a fighter out there - even during warm-ups. I was pumping myself up. I just kept on saying, 'You've got to make yourself do it. You've got to make yourself do it.' And that's how it went."


An unlucky thirteen teams vied for top honours in the senior pairs event, which seemed doomed from the get-go. Margo Shoup and Patrick Page of the Broadmoor Skating Club withdrew after she crashed into the boards during a warm-up; Karen Courtland was taken to a local hospital after skating her program with partner Patrick Daw and treated for an upper respiratory infection. Many of the other teams suffered mishaps on key elements in their programs and judges were tasked with deciding which pair had made the fewest mistakes. Ultimately, that team was twenty one year old Jill Watson of Indiana and twenty five year Peter Oppegard of Tennessee. Only skating together for a few months, they trained in Ontario under Louis Stong. Winning both the short program and the free skate, Watson and Oppegard went for the gusto, attempting both the throw triple Salchow and throw double Axel in their winning free skate and earning marks ranging from 5.2 to 5.7 for technical merit and 5.2 to 5.8 for artistic impression. Coached by Ron Ludington, the brother/sister pair Natalie and Wayne Seybold settled for silver, ahead of Gillian Wachsman and Todd Waggoner and Susan and Jason Dungjen. Quoted in the February 4, 1985 issue of "The Globe And Mail", Watson remarked, "It's like a dream come true. I still can't believe it."


With Rosalynn Sumners and Elaine Zayak out of the picture, many expected that seventeen year old Tiffany Chin of Toluca Lake, California would be a shoe-in for gold in Kansas City. In reality, she would end up facing some very legitimate competition in her quest for the national title in 1985. Although she took a strong lead in the school figures ahead of seventeen year old Debi Thomas, Jill Frost, Jana Marie Sjodin and Caryn Kadavy, Chin struggled in the short program, botching the triple toe in her competition and losing her balance on the change foot sit spin. Bolstered by her early lead, Chin managed to hold on to the top spot entering the free skate despite her miscues despite very strong performances by both Thomas and Kadavy. In the months leading up to the competition, Jill Frost endured a stress fracture, tonsilitis, strep throat, mono and the flu. She struggled in the free skate, dropping behind Kathryn Adams overall. 

In her first U.S. Championships, Caryn Kadavy delivered a flawless free skate thar featured a triple loop, triple toe and three double Axels. Her marks ranged from 5.5 for 5.8 to technical merit and from 5.6 to 5.8 for artistic impression. It was enough for the bronze, behind Thomas, who landed a double Axel/triple toe, triple toe and double Axel/double toe in her free skate but stepped out of a triple Salchow and double Axel and put her hand down on a triple loop. In winning the silver medal, Thomas became the first African American in history to win a medal in the senior women's competition at the U.S. Championships. 

Rebounding with a clean but conservative program that featured two triple toe's and three double Axel's, Tiffany Chin showed verve and confidence in clinching the gold medal. Quoted in the February 3, 1985 issue of "The Sunday Observer-Dispatch", she remarked, "Last night I wasn't happy at all with my skating. Today, I decided I would be on my own. My coach told me I had to be more independent. I felt pretty aggressive going into it. I decided if I land a jump I'm really going to land it and if I fall, I'm going to do it aggressively." Coach Mr. John Nicks added, "The great thing wasn't the way she skated, but the way she came back after skating poorly Friday." 


The only winners from the 1984 U.S. Championships in Salt Lake City who returned to defend their national titles were twenty five year old Judy Blumberg and twenty seven year old Michael Seibert. Judy and Michael arrived in Kansas City extremely prepared. They had worked on their compulsories with Bobby Thompson and had a brand new free dance set to music called "Fire On Ice" especially composed for them by Joel Silberman. They took a strong lead early in the event, but two judges placed them second in the Quickstep OSP because they believed their music didn't fit the rhythm. Fourth after compulsories, Renee Roca and Donald Adair brought the house down and earned a standing ovation for their "42nd Street" OSP, put together only two weeks before the competition after judges at the NHK Trophy criticized the program the OSP they had previously used. Suzanne Semanick and Scott Gregory's "Cabaret" OSP was equally well received by the enthusiastic Kansas City crowd. 

In the free dance, Blumberg and Seibert wowed with their unorthodox and athletic performance, yet many were taken with Semanick and Gregory's themed free dance to "Sabre Dance", "Adagio" and "Kalinka", which centered around the concept of escape.

Despite their best efforts, Semanick and Gregory dropped from second after compulsories to take the bronze behind Blumberg and Seibert and Roca and Adair. Lois Luciani and Russ Witherby placed fourth, Susie Wynne and Joseph Druar fifth and Susan Jorgensen and Robert Yokabaskas sixth. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves recalled,
"[Yokabaskas], at 6,4½" tall, was one of the tallest ice dancers in the world. He had lost his 5'10" partner Hae Sue Park to an injury. He found 5'11" Susan Jorgensen, who had quit for three years because she could not find a partner when a growth spurt at 12 years old knocked her out of singles and pairs. 'They said a team as tall as ours could never make it to Nationals,' Yogi explained in a press conference. He and Sue skated with class in their sensual free to 'Slaughter on 10th Avenue', using their height to advantage and placing sixth. Their partnership ended in marriage." The top three teams all advanced to the World Championships in Tokyo, where Blumberg and Seibert hoped to succeed Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean as winners. Quoted in the February 4, 1985 issue of "The Globe And Mail", a confident Blumberg remarked, "We believe we are as good as anybody competing in the event. We didn't stay in it to finish fourth or third or second."


With Scott Hamilton out of the picture, the competition in Kansas City was really between the previous year's silver and bronze medallists, twenty one year old Brian Boitano of Sunnyvale, California and twenty three year old Mark Cockerell of Burbank, California. Taking an early lead over Cockerell in figures, Boitano skated brilliantly as James Bond in his short program to music from the soundtrack of "The Spy Who Loved Me". Miming a gunshot in his choreography, Boitano joked to reporters that his intended victim was coach Linda Leaver. She laughed, "I was glad to be shot. It was great!" Cockerell's short program was set to the "Lone Ranger" theme. After his program, a girl came down to the railing and plopped a black cowboy hat with a silver star badge on his head. Seven of the nine judges preferred Boitano's program, expanding his figures lead to fifty percent. 

In the free skate, Cockerell landed a triple Lutz, triple toe/triple toe, triple Salchow, triple toe and two double Axels but stepped out of a doubled triple loop attempt. His gutsy performance was rewarded with marks ranging from 5.6 to 5.8 for technical merit and 5.6 to 5.9 for artistic impression. Boitano did one better, killing it with a quintessential eighties fast/slow/fast medley that included the theme from "On Golden Pond". Nailing a triple Axel, double flip/triple toe/triple toe, triple Lutz, triple flip/double toe, triple Salchow, his only error was a step out on his triple loop. His marks ranged from 5.6 to 5.9 for technical merit and 5.6 to 5.9 for artistic impression, and were indeed enough to earn him his first U.S. title. 

Eighteen year old Scott Williams of Redondo Beach, California was outstanding in his bronze medal winning performance, as was Christopher Bowman, who moved up from eighth after figures to finish fourth, just ahead of Paul Wylie. Quoted in the February 4, 1985 issue of "The Globe And Mail", a relieved and happy Boitano said, "The frustration is finally over. It's like I've made it over the mountain."

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":

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