From October 29 to November 1, 1987, many of the world's best skaters convened at the four year old, one hundred million dollar Calgary Saddledome for the 1987 Skate Canada International. The venue was set play host to the figure skating events at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games and the competition proved to be an important test event for many skaters who were set to participate. Quoted in the October 28, 1987 issue of "The Vancouver Sun", Ted Barton, technical director for B.C. section of the CFSA said, "A good result here has the skater leaving a good impression internationally, and coming in to the Olympics that is important, as is the confidence to be gained. I think any athlete going into any international competition at this stage knows just how important it is to do well now."
Norris Bowden, Sheldon Galbraith and Barbara Ann Scott reminiscing in 1987. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.
Seven of the skaters who medalled at this important autumn international event ultimately went on to snatch medals at the 1988 Games, and the stories of how things played out are nothing short of fascinating. On today's blog, we will take a trip down memory lane and look at just what transpired.
THE PAIRS COMPETITION
In contrast to the singles and ice dance events in Calgary, the pairs competition did not include any of the top Olympic medal contenders. The short program was rather unremarkable. Winners Elena Kvitchenko and Rashid Kadrykaev of the Soviet Union led the pack, followed by Americana Katy Keeley and Joseph Mero and Canadians Christine Hough and Doug Ladret, but both the Soviets and Canadians both had errors on their side-by-side jumping passes.
In the free skate, Hough and Ladret rebounded with one of the best performances of their amateur career to defeat the Soviets and Americans. Their "Slaughter On Tenth Avenue" program went over to well with the crowd of over ten thousand that they received a standing ovation that lasted over five minutes. A second Canadian team, siblings Katherine and Robert Kates finished fifth among the field of seven teams. In last place was future World Champion René Novotný of Czechoslovakia with his then partner Lenka Knapova.
THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION
The favourite in the women's event was 1986 World Champion Debi Thomas and it was at this event that she debuted her "Carmen" free skate that she would later use to compete against Katarina Witt at the Olympic Games in The Battle Of The Carmen's. Prior to the competition, Thomas told Associated Press reporters, "There's so much depth in ladies figure skating. The top five are very close. It can really go either way." That not so Freudian slip - either way - presumably meant to one Carmen or the other. Yet, as would prove to be the case at the Olympics, Thomas faced stiff competition from Canada's Elizabeth Manley. In the October 27, 1987 issue of "The Montreal Gazette", she boasted, "I have a jam-packed program. I don't even have time to breathe. But I'm known for my jam-packed programs. And it's a pretty comical program. When I go out and fool around and have fun, I skate my best." Manley won all three phases of the school figures over Thomas and Great Britain's Joanne Conway. When Thomas received marks of 3.2 to 3.6 for her third figure, the loop, she reportedly stormed off and slammed the door to the ice.
The short program was a different story. Thomas skated her steppy Frankie Goes To Hollywood program brilliantly and was genuinely surprised by how hearty of a reception she received from the Canadian crowd. Her marks ranged from 5.1 to 5.7 for technical merit and from 5.4 to 5.7 for artistic impression. Manley fell on her triple Salchow/double loop combination and became disoriented coming out of a spin and skated the remainder of her program backwards. She blamed the rink, which had no discernible points of reference to distinguish between the corners. Interviewed in the October 31, 1987 edition of The Montreal Gazette, she quipped, "I decided I was going to focus on a fluorescent sign up above where the restaurant is to get my direction. I looked up and saw a fluorescent sign, so there must be another one on the other side of the rink. I don't know how the Calgary Flames play here. Don't they always shoot into the wrong net?" She ended up in second with marks ranging from 4.8 to 5.2 for technical merit and 5.4 to 5.8 for artistic impression. Conway remained in third and Canada's second entry, Patricia Schmidt, held on to sixth place.
The debut of Thomas' "Carmen" received mixed reviews, but she held on to take the gold medal ahead of Manley and Conway. Patricia Schmidt dropped to ninth. Neither Manley or Thomas was at their absolute best. Manley's coach Peter Dunfield was quick to take a potshot at Thomas in the November 2, 1987 edition of "The Montreal Gazette". He remarked, "One of these days someone is going to see through her. Elizabeth skates 60 miles an hour. You saw another skater [Thomas] who beat her with difficult moves, but the name of the game is skating. And half of her program if you put it on video was going less than 10 miles per hour. That's easy. That's walking. That's not skating."
Manley took her loss in stride. In her 1991 book "Thumbs Up!", she remembered, "I won the silver medal at Skate Canada, but I didn't really feel I deserved it. I hadn't been at my best and I knew it. I'd felt rattled and overexcited. After a while, I came to a painful conclusion. I realized that Sonya [Dunfield] was throwing me off. I adored Sonya, and at home her infectious enthusiasm was inspiring. I thrived on it. But to be around her during competitions had the opposite effect. It was overstimulating and I couldn't settle down. I asked her if she would stay away until after I'd skated my programs in future, and only join me when the marks were being announced. I hoped she would understand why I had to make such a request. The upcoming Olympics were too important for us to take any chances. I had to do everything right this time." However superstitious Liz's request might have seemed at the time, it worked.
THE MEN'S COMPETITION
Brian Boitano and Brian Orser
Poland's Grzegorz Filipowski withdrew prior to the men's event, sending CFSA a Telex advising the organization he was suffering from contusions. Eleven men ultimately competed but the only two the media were really interested were the Brian's: Boitano and Orser. While the American media praised the great strides that Boitano had made artistically, the Canadian media hypothesized as to whether or not Orser would include a quad in his program. He had been practicing the jump but conceded he wouldn't attempt it just to go for a higher technical score. As was the case at the Calgary Olympics, the media had a field day highly embellishing upon the rivalry between the two skaters. Orser won all three school figures, with Boitano a firm second and the Soviet Union's Viktor Petrenko third. Canadians Neil Paterson and Kurt Browning finished fifth and seventh. In the October 30, 1987 issue of "The Montreal Gazette", Orser remarked, "That's the first time I've beaten Boitano in the compulsories since 1985. I don't know what it is. Maybe I've just been concentrating on the compulsories more than he has."
In the short program, Orser missed the triple Axel in his triple Axel/double loop combination but the judges held the defending World Champion up over a clean Boitano with a string of 5.9's for artistic impression. Both men skated very well in the free skate, but Orser remained on top as he had in the figures and short program with 2.0 placement points to Boitano's 4.0, winning first place marks from five of the seven judges. Eighteen year old Petrenko fell twice but remained third overall. He was beaten in the free skate by Kurt Browning. It was the first time Kurt tried the quad in competition. He fell his quad attempt but landed seven triples and was pleased as punch with the fact he'd beaten Petrenko, then ranked sixth in the World compared to his fifteenth. He ended up fourth overall, just ahead of Neil Paterson and Japan's Makoto Kano. In the November 1, 1987 issue of "The Toronto Star", both Orser and Boitano reflected on their experiences. Orser stated, "I did about 75 per cent of what I'm capable of doing with the program. It was very hot in the building, so hot, in fact, that I was a little dizzy and had to go outside for some fresh air before I skated, and I became a little tired and a little bit cautious towards the end. This was my first event as the defending world champion and I had a good amount of the jitters about this competition. That's why I was really pleased that Brian chose to compete here because made it just a dandy test. I didn't want to give everything I had to the program the first time because that would take away the drive to improve between now and February. I can work on making it more powerful and full from now until then." Boitano said, "With the exception of a triple Axel in the slow part of my program, I would be happy if I skated that well in the Olympics. Considering the time of year, I felt great and was able to skate with a large amount of confidence and strength." As we know, the next Battle Of The Brian's went a little differently.
THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION
Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall
Four teams pulled out of the ice dance competition in Calgary before it even started. Siblings Antonia and Ferdinand Becherer of West Germany withdrew due to injury; Hungarians Klara Engi and Attila Toth due to 'technical difficulties'. Czechoslovakians Viera Řeháková and Ivan Havránek withdrew due to illness, as did the Soviet team of Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, who were heavy favourites to challenge Canadians Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall. In the October 30, 1987 issue of "The Vancouver Sun", Wilson said, "It's a bit of a disappointment that they didn't come. I always feel it more challenging to skate against couples who are ahead of us in the world rankings." With little competition, Wilson and McCall breezed through the Viennese Waltz, Paso Doble and Tango compulsory dances and their "Tanguera" OSP was a huge hit with the Alberta crowd. Americans Susie Wynne and Joseph Druar, who had won Skate America a week earlier with their self-choreographed free dance, got dinged on the second mark in the free dance. Canadians Karyn and Rod Garossino took a tumble. Britons Sharon Jones and Paul Askham's waltz and foxtrot free dance and Italians Lia Trovati and Roberto Pelizzola's Latin inspired program failed to deliver the same marks as Austrians Kathrin and Christoff Beck, whose "Band Wagon" free dance was a hit with the judges, if not as much with the Calgary crowd. Wilson and McCall's free dance received the only 6.0 of the whole competition and a standing ovation that lasted longer than Brian Orser's in the men's event. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves recalled, "Five years earlier, they had first seen the comedic ragtime ballet 'Elite Syncopations', where a shorter man struggles with a tall woman. Because of Tracy's height relative to Rob, they now put it to ice with arm movements choreographed by Vanessa Harwood from the floor ballet. Tracy played the jock, Rob the artiste. Before Skate Canada, they continued to stumble through the difficult steps, trying too hard. Marijane Stong and John Briscoe told them to 'just skate'. With no real competition, Tracy and Rob skipped over the ice, further defining their special style with a lightning-fast sequence from one side of the risk to the other."
The Canadians took the gold ahead of the Austrians, Italians and Brits. The Garossino's ended up fifth ahead of Wynne and Druar, Jo-Anne Borlase and Martin Smith, France's Doriane Bontemps and Amaury Dalongeville and Australians Monica MacDonald and Rodney Clarke. Assessing how the event had gone in the November 5, 1987 issue of "The Vancouver Sun", Wilson said, "Skate Canada was very much an Olympic learning situation. We learned we have to focus on not getting caught up in the Olympic hype... Our first two practices were a disaster." Whatever Wilson and McCall did worked, because only months later they were standing on the podium after performing one of the most memorable free dances in ice dance history.