The 1986 U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Americans were mourning the loss of seven astronauts in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and crowding around television sets to watch "Cheers", "Family Ties" and "Who's The Boss?" Acid wash jeans, friendship bracelets and hanging earrings were all the rage and record players blared Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin's hit duet "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves". Apple had nothing on Aqua Net.

The year was 1986 and from February 4 to 9, a who's who of American figure skater gathered in Uniondale on Long Island, New York for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Figures were skated at the chilly, dimly lit Newbridge Road Park rink in Hempstead; free skating events at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. In addition to the one hundred and thirty eight entries, many former skating champions were in attendance including Dick Button, Peggy Fleming, Hayes and Carol Heiss Jenkins, Scott Hamilton, Lisa-Marie Allen, Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert, Elaine Zayak and Doreen Denny.

The Long Island Nationals weren't entirely a success story, to say the least. The organizers had a hard time getting sponsors and coaches were pretty annoyed that the Marriott Hotel adjacent to the Nassau Coliseum could only house a small number of guests. Skaters, judges and coaches were scattered in hotels throughout the area making transportation to and from practice rinks and scheduling a challenge. One of the practice rinks, home to the Nassau High School hockey team, had paint and plaster falling from the ceiling. Todd Waggoner recalled, "We couldn't lift because the ice was so cut up. Sometimes the paint would fall from the ceiling during session. By the time it was over, it was all over the ice." 

Attendance was poor - with less than twenty nine thousand tickets sold over nine sessions. Peter Alfano, a reporter who covered the event for "The New York Times" cited "suburban apathy and the drawbacks of an arena that is accessible primarily by automobile." A snowstorm on the Friday night of the competition didn't help matters, nor did the fact that the evening sessions started at quarter after seven. Those travelling from New York City and Westchester County had to make their way to Long Island in rush-hour traffic. To top things off, the Ice Capades were playing across town at Madison Square Garden. European Medallist and British Champion Peter Dalby, who coached Renée Roca and Donald Adair, feared that the glitzy ice show's run may have accounted for the miserable attendance of three thousand, two hundred people for the free dance. "I thought it was a pity," he said. "I've been here nine years, and at every Nationals I've been to, free dance fills the place."

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Though the event itself may not have been a roaring success, the skating in Uniondale was quite exciting. There were comebacks, upsets, surprises and close contests - and with special thanks to the good folks at the Uniondale Public Library, we'll be looking back at them all!


Cameron Birky

Fifteen year old Cameron Birky of Danville, California rose from third after figures to win the novice men's title over Montana's Scott Davis, landing two triple toe-loop's in his free skate. Twelve year old Damon Allen, the winner of the figures, placed a disappointing fifth overall but earned the prize for the gutsiest young skater. She skated with his arm in a plastic casing after breaking it during a competition that December.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Thirteen year old Liane Moscato of Peabody, Massachusetts won the novice women's title. She'd amassed a very strong lead in the figures but elected to try a triple Salchow in the free skate anyway. Though she fell, she was praised for taking a risk she certainly didn't need to. She told reporters that she "wouldn't have felt right not trying it."

Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudy Galindo. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Fourteen year old Kristi Yamaguchi and sixteen year old Rudy Galindo took top honours in junior pairs in a five-four split over Ashley Stevenson and Scott Wendland, while twenty year old Colette Huber and twenty two year old Ron Kravette struck gold in junior dance. Kravette had returned to skating two years prior after a five year hiatus. At the time, there weren't age restrictions in junior dance. Teenagers Elizabeth Punsalan and David Shirk, who placed sixth, were the highest ranking team that were age-eligible for Junior Worlds.

Todd Eldredge

The junior men's event was chock full of future champions. Seventeen year Mark Mitchell placed only fourth in figures but won the short and long to take the gold. Second was seventeen year old Erik Larson, a former World Junior Champion. Rudy Galindo, who won the figures, took the bronze. Fifth was fourteen year old future World Champion Todd Eldredge, who had also placed fifth at the World Junior Championships in Sarajevo in December.

Rory Flack. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Kristi Yamaguchi was second in the junior women's short program and third in the long, but just missed out on a medal because of a disappointing eleventh place finish in the figures. Fourteen year old Cindy Bortz of Los Angeles, who was fifth in figures, won the gold ahead of Julie Wasserman and Rory Flack, the talented niece of famed singer Roberta Flack. Fifth and seventh were Tonia Kwiatkowski and Jeri Campbell.


Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert, who had been U.S. Champions since 1981, had turned professional leaving the dance crown up for grabs. Wilmington's Suzanne Semanick and Scott Gregory and Michigan's Renée Roca and Donald Adair, the number two and three teams the year prior, both had momentum entering the competition. Semanick and Gregory had defeated Roca and Adair at the U.S. National Sports Festival the summer prior, and had won the International Morzine Trophy the prior spring. Roca and Adair had bested strong Russian teams to win gold at both Skate America and Skate Canada.

Suzanne Semanick and Scott Gregory

Suzanne Semanick and Scott Gregory won the first compulsory dance, the Kilian, but Gregory got cut in a rut and fell in the Starlight Waltz. With wins in the Starlight and Tango Romantica, Roca and Adair won the compulsories with first place marks from all but one judge. Semanick and Gregory won the Polka OSP by one judge and one tenth of a point, setting the stage for a dramatic showdown in the free dance.

Hoping for an edge with the judges, Roca and Adair had reworked their "Valentino" program just before Nationals, adding brief Charleston and Tango sections to liven up a program that had been critiqued as overly dramatic. Semanick and Gregory took theatre and mask classes to up the expression in their lively Russian inspired program, set to music specially composed for them by the
seventy piece Delaware Symphony Orchestra.

In a five-four split of the judging panel, Roca and Adair took the gold. The bronze went to Lois Luciani and Russ Witherby, crowd favourites who used "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" as the slow part of their free dance. Fourth were Susie Wynne and Joseph Druar. Wynne and Witherby would compete against each other for years and later, of course, form a delightful partnership of their own. Fifth were Kristan Lowery and Chip Rossbach, an innovative team who ditched their controversial Hallowe'en inspired "Night On Bald Mountain" free dance (dressed in black and orange and performed against Ron Ludington's advice) after finishing ninth at both Skate America and Skate Canada in favour of more traditional, dancey program. In the gala following the competition, Scott Gregory performed an exhibition with Sandy Lamb's daughter Shannon, an ice dancer in the Special Olympics.


Gillian Wachsman and Todd Waggoner. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Defending U.S. Champions Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard had suffered a serious setback just two weeks before the U.S. Championships. While training in Detroit with coach Johnny Johns, Oppegard slashed Watson in the face on a side-by-side camel spin. She suffered a broken nose and contusions under her eye and had to have stitches. Their bad luck continued in the short program with a miss on the side-by-side jumps, allowing Gillian Wachsman and Todd Waggoner, the bronze medallists in 1985, to move into the lead.

Despite a crash into the boards early in their free skate, Wachsman and Waggoner rebounded to deliver an otherwise strong free skate. Watson and Oppegard missed both throws and were forced to settle for silver. 

Wachsman and Waggoner's training mates Natalie and Wayne Seybold moved up to take the bronze. They had been fourth in the short after getting dinged by the judges for a missed spin. Wachsman and Waggoner had been together for only fourteen months. They trained in Wilmington, Delaware with Pauline Williams. The Seybold's were coached by Ron Ludington, who had guided Kitty and Peter Carruthers to an Olympic silver medal in 1984.

Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard

The dangers of pairs skating were featured in "The New York Times" as the result of a practice accident in Uniondale. Jerod Swallow, the only senior skater to compete in two disciplines in 1986, and his partner Shelly Propson had a serious fall on a lift in practice. "I was watching and my stomach dropped," recalled Todd Waggoner. "It felt terrible. Jerod had her in a lift when his skate hit a rut and she fell. That can happen to anyone." Propson was rushed to the Nassau County Medical Center in East Meadow, where it was revealed she had a slight skull fracture and the team was forced to withdraw.


Brian Boitano

The path to Uniondale wasn't an easy one for twenty two year old defending U.S. Champion Brian Boitano of Sunnyvale, California. With a serious case of tendonitis in his ankle, Boitano was in excruciating pain. He missed practice sessions in the lead-up to the event, there was talk of him withdrawing. "I tried everything I could to help the pain," he said. "Acupuncture, ultrasound, chiropractors, icing my ankle and then giving it heat treatment." In the end, he opted to push through the pain and compete, winning the figures over eighteen year old Christopher Bowman of Los Angeles. He won the short program as well, landing a solid triple Lutz/double loop combination and earning five 5.8's for composition and style.

Christopher Bowman was also injured, suffering from a bone bruise on his landing leg. The injury was the result of breaking new skates at the Prize Of Moscow News event in the Soviet Union the December prior. After finishing third in the short, he withdrew. He quipped to reporters, "My heart ached but my leg ached a lot harder."

In the free skate, Brian Boitano pushed through the pain with a gutsy performance that featured the only clean triple Axel of the Championships, performed in combination with a double toe-loop.
Though he fell on a triple flip attempt, he still received marks ranging from 5.6 to 5.8 and managed to defend his title. His coach Linda Leaver said, "He's a very courageous young man. This was really a mental struggle. I felt he could do it, if anyone in the world could do it. On that basis, I encouraged him to skate if he could stand the pain. He could have dropped out, but it shows his own desire to be the U.S. Champion again. He'll be glad all his life he didn't let this one go because it hurt."

Scott Williams. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

The silver went to twenty year old Scott Williams of Redondo Beach, California, who was coached by his stepmother Barbara Roles Williams, the 1960 Olympic Bronze Medallist. Daniel Doran, who trained in Colorado Springs won the bronze. Angelo D'Agostino, Paul Wylie and Jimmy Cygan rounded out the top six.

Despite his withdrawal, Christopher Bowman received a bye to Worlds. The rules at the time allowed an 'exemption' for any skater who finished in the top four at the previous year's Nationals and officials were impressed both by his showing in the figures (a previous weakness of his) and the fact he'd earned a 6.0 at the U.S. National Sports Festival the summer prior. Ultimately, his injury didn't allow him to compete and Daniel Doran, who was originally named first alternate, got the third spot anyway.


The women's podium

Like Brian Boitano, Toluca Lake, California's Tiffany Chin had a rough road to Uniondale. Tests following the 1985 U.S. Championships revealed that several of her leg joints were out of alignment and she was suffering from an extreme muscle imbalance. "At a certain point, I couldn't move my knee, and the motion was limited," she explained. "I had thought that was normal. And when they pushed on some muscles I thought were strong, my leg went right down. I was told, 'you're supposed to be jumping off those muscles.'" She spent several months off the ice, undergoing physical therapy to rebuild her leg muscles. Her training was limited in the lead-up to Nationals and she admitted that she lacked consistency on some of her triple jumps. The December prior, she'd began working with Scott Hamilton's former coach Don Laws and doing three hour daily exercise sessions devised by the International Sports Medicine Institute. Many were surprised she even planned to compete.

Stanford pre-med student Debi Thomas took top honours in the school figures six judges to three, but it was Tiffany Chin who won the second figure. The short was won by Erie, Pennsylvania's Caryn Kadavy, who trained with the Fassi's in Colorado Springs. Kadavy performed a triple loop/double loop combination, while Debi Thomas did the double loop/triple toe-loop. In the warm-up for the free skate, Thomas kept falling on the triple loop. Tiffany Chin drew first to skate in the final group and skated surprisingly well. The ice was littered with flowers after her performance and Thomas actually collided with one of the flower girls before she performed her program.

Debi Thomas' performance was outstanding. She landed two triple toe-loops, two triple Salchows and the triple loop to earn first place marks from seven of the nine judges. Kadavy skated right after Thomas and landed her opening triple loop but almost fell on the triple toe-loop and doubled a planned triple Salchow to settle for silver over Chin. Tracey Damigella, Jill Trenary and Tonya Harding rounded out the top six.

Debi Thomas

In winning the gold, Debi Thomas made history as the first person of colour to win the U.S. senior women's title. The most remarkable fact is that she almost didn't compete out of frustration. After getting two B's and a C for chemistry in her first exams at Stanford, she tore up her entry form to the competition.  

Debi later admitted, "I talked to my mother and taped it back together and we sent it in." At the time, twice a week Thomas had what she called 'suicide days' with six and a half hours of skating after lectures and classes in the morning. Studying kept her up until three in the morning on those days. "It was the most exhilarating thing I've ever experienced in my life," she told reporters. "I hadn't been skating worth beans all week and I amazed myself. I'm speechless... I went through a lot to get here and it feels good. This is the pot at the end of the rainbow but it was a bumpy rainbow."

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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