The 1949 Canadian Figure Skating Championships

After Barbara Ann Scott turned professional and Wallace Distelmeyer retired following the 1948 World Figure Skating Championships in Davos, one might have predicted a dearth in Canadian figure skating. That simply was not the case. However, things became very complicated in 1949 when the Canadian Championships and World Championships ended up being scheduled at the exact same time. As a result, Canada's best figure skaters convened at the Minto Skating Club in Ottawa to vie to become Canada's next champion and the country went completely unrepresented at that year's World Championships.

Donald Gilchrist

In the senior pairs event, Marlene Smith of Toronto, who had won the junior women's title the previous year, teamed up with Donald Gilchrist to take the title ahead of Pearle Simmers and David Spalding of the Connaught Skating Club and fellow Toronto Skating Club representatives Joyce Perkins and Bruce Hyland. As only one fours team had entered, an official competition was not held but a quartet from the Toronto Skating Club added comedic flair to their performance and earned some laughs from the packed audience, which included Their Excellencies, The Governor General and Viscountess Alexander of Tunis.

In ice dancing, the Tenstep was won by eighteen year old Pierrette Paquin of Quebec and twenty year old Donald Tobin of Ottawa, who had passed both the Canadian and U.S. Silver Dance tests together. However, in the Silver Dance and Waltz competitions, Joyce Perkins and Bruce Hyland reversed the result. Placing third in both events were Joy Forsyth, a stenographer, and her partner Ronald Vincent, a graduate of the University Of British Columbia with an honours in genetics who played the violin in his university's symphony.

Maintaining a slight lead of 3.9 points over Toronto's Bill Evan Lewis in the school figures, Roger Wickson of the University Skating Club in Vancouver delivered a strong free skate to secure his first of two Canadian senior men's titles and The Minto Cup after skating in the shadow of Distelmeyer and Norris Bowden in years previous. Bowden, who had won the senior men's title in 1947, dropped from third after the figures to finish fourth behind Donald Tobin.

Norris Bowden

There were nine entries in the senior women's competition. Jeanne Matthews of Vancouver, who had finished second behind Barbara Ann Scott at the previous year's Canadian Championships in Calgary, lead after the figures with 742.9 points ahead of Suzanne Morrow with 738.0. Patsy Earl of The Granite Club was third with 734.8 ahead of Marlene Smith, Vevi Smith, Pierrette Paquin, Patsy Scully, Cynthia Kirby and Betty Hiscock. Morrow, a fifth year student at Lawrence Park Collegiate from Toronto, came from behind to win the gold. The February 19, 1949 issue of "The Ottawa Citizen" noted that she gave "a dazzling display of free skating" to snatch the title and The Devonshire Trophy. Patsy Earl finished second and Jeanne Matthews third.

Although the Toronto Skating Club won sixteen of the twenty seven medals offered in all events that year and earned the Earl Grey Trophy for most points accumulated by any one skating club, it wasn't for the host club's lack of trying. The aforementioned article from "The Ottawa Citizen" noted that "the tense atmosphere of the titular contests was relieved by the cheering antics of the 'Mintoettes', the youthful club members who lustily supported their Ottawa favourites. They were doing their best to 'sway judges and influence people,' according to one remark. There was always a loud cheer when the judges held up high score cards. Following the spirited and colourful competitions, the Minto Club was host to all officials, contestants and guests at a party at Landsdowne Park, when they were greeted by President and Mrs. D. Cruikshank."

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":

A Spring Skating History Roundup

When I'm digging around for ideas for blogs, I sometimes come across the most unexpected and random stories. Today on Skate Guard, we'll sift through several fascinating tales that didn't quite have enough meat on their bones for a blog of their own. Grab yourself a nice cup of coffee, open the windows and let the fresh air in and enjoy a little spring skating history roundup:  


Toronto born Frederick 'Casey' Walker Baldwin earned his rightful place in the history books as the first Canadian to fly an airplane. What on earth does this have to do with skating? Before we get there, I want to start with the back story... which starts right here in Nova Scotia. The article "The Walkway Of Time: Highlights In The History Of Canadian Aviation" from the Canadian Aviation Museum talks about the development of the Aerial Exploration Association by telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell: "The younger members of the A.E.A. included Glenn Curtiss, an American designer of internal combustion engines; Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge of the U.S. Army; and two Canadians, John A.D. McCurdy and Frederick W. 'Casey' Baldwin, both recent engineering graduates from the University of Toronto. The A.E.A.'s purpose was an ambitious one - no less than the construction of a 'practical aerodrome or flying machine driven through the air by its own power and carrying a man.' The Association operated alternately out of Hammondsport, New York, where Curtiss had a machine shop, and Bell's estate at Baddeck, a tiny Maritime village on Cape Breton Island. The A.E.A. was extremely successful, building and flying four airplanes in rapid succession. The last of these was the Silver Dart, designed by John McCurdy and considered one of the more advanced airplanes of its day. On February 23, 1909, McCurdy made the first airplane flight in Canada in the Silver Dart, taking off from the ice of Baddeck Bay and flying for about 800 metres." We know now that McCurdy was actually the first man to fly an airplane in Canada, but it was actually Baldwin who first flew it on March 12, 1908... but he did it down in the States. Here's where the skating comes in. In order to gain momentum and get the plane going, A.E.A. members took to the icy surface of Keuka Lake in Hammondsport, New York. Mark Kearney and Randy Ray's article "Casey Baldwin's Airplane: First In Flight" explains how the A.E.A. actually SKATED to try to get this plane moving and off the ground: "Baldwin got to fly the plane, named the Red Wing, because on the frigid say he was the only one of the aviation team who wasn't wearing ice skates. Since he was slipping on the ice, the others decided he would be most useful sitting in the cockpit." When the plane began to skid across the ice, the skaters (including Curtiss and McCurdy) managed to hold it in place while the skateless Baldwin climbed aboard. Henry Serrano Villard's "The Story Of The Early Birds" offers a great more detail about this momentous first flight: "The Red Wing, piloted by Casey Baldwin, sped over the icy surface of the lake on runners, bounded into the air, and actually flew for a distance of 318 feet 11 inches. Being virtually uncontrollable since it lacked any stabilizing device, it flipped over on one side and crashed. However, disregarding the practically unpublicized flights of the Wright brothers, this was the first time than an aeroplane was flown puclicly in America. The Red Wing was followed in a few weeks by a resplendent White Wing, designed by Baldwin. This model, because the ice had melted, was put on a tricycle undercarriage and taken for trials to an abandoned race-track known as Stony Brook Farm. It was soon apparent that to get the White Wing into the air was one thing, but to get back down without wrecking the machine was quite another. Smash followed smash in discouraging succession---fortunately with no injuries save to the feelings of the operator. 'It seemed one day that the limit of hard luck had been reached,' wrote Curtiss of these first ventures, 'when, after a brief flight and a somewhat rough landing, the machine folded up and sank down on its side, like a wounded bird, just as we were feeling pretty good over a successful landing without breakage.' The only way to learn was the hard way: by trial and repair, by study of stresses and strains, by provisional changes in details of construction. But on May 22, the White Wing, with Curtiss at the controls, flew a distance of 1017 feet in 19 seconds and actually landed intact in a ploughed field outside the old racetrack. It was cause for elation---and for the prompt construction, under Curtiss's direction, of a bigger, better, prize-winning plane: the June Bug." A replica of The Silver Dart, which McCurdy and Baldwin designed together, can be seen at the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum here in Nova Scotia. It's near the Halifax airport - you can't miss it!


Born in Höxter, Germany in 1951, Wolfgang Beltracchi was the son of a house painter and church restorer who supplemented his income by creating inexpensive duplicates of Rembrandts, Picassos and CézannesIt suffices to say Beltracchi had been around art his entire life and considering his father's side 'job', it was no surprise that he himself admitted to copying a Pablo Picasso painting at fourteen years of age... in a single day. After being expelled from school at age seventeen, Beltracchi took to a nomadic life. He travelled extensively, spending time in Amsterdam, Spain, Mallorca, Paris, Morocco, London and Paris, experimenting with LSD and putting on psychedelic light shows at an Amsterdam nightclub. He also paid his way across Europe by forging painting after painting after painting and selling them to the highest bidder. According to a 2012 interview with Joshua Hammer in Vanity Fair, "one day during his wanderings, he bought a pair of winter landscapes by an unknown 18th-century Dutch painter for $250 apiece. Fischer had noticed that tableaus from the period which depicted ice skaters sold for five times the price of those without ice skaters. In his atelier, he carefully painted a pair of skaters into the scenes and resold the canvases for a considerable profit. Thirty years ago, fakes were even harder to detect than they are now, he tells me. 'They weren't the first ones I made, but they were an important step.' Soon he was purchasing old wooden frames and painting ice-skating scenes from scratch, passing them off as the works of old masters."

In 1993, Beltracchi married his wife Helene and took on her last name. They worked together a husband and wife con-artist team with an elaborate fictional back story about grandparents who had been art collectors in the twenties. While police have identified almost sixty paintings they suspect to have been forged by Beltracchi, he admitted to have forged hundreds of paintings by over fifty artists. This went on for almost four decades until the husband and wife "team" were finally arrested in 2010. Both were given prison terms which they are serving in an 'open prison', meaning they both are allowed to leave and work 'day jobs' and return to prison at night. Although like in any good story the bad guy 'got his' in the end, he sadly bilked millions out of art collectors worldwide. An exact figure of how he much he swindled out of buyers is really anyone's guess at the end of the day. It's especially saddening to me that he decided to drag skating into his art forgeries. Perhaps more heartening is the story of Marei von Saher (a former West German Junior Champion skater and mother to British Champion and Olympian Charlene von Saher) who has in recent years made considerable headway in long-standing legal battle to have several paintings stolen from Jewish relatives by the Nazis during World War II returned to the family. The universe has a funny way of dishing out justice in its own funny ways and it's heartwarming to see a some positive come to the life of a German skater in the wake of a German forger who spent so many years making money using depictions of skaters to rip people off.


From the infamous McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit to an American inmate who sued himself and asked the state to pay, history is peppered with stories of litigious lawsuit lovers. Sadly, the skating world has not been immune. On January 8, 1956, a married, thirty six year old mother of three from Billings, Montana named Ada Cassaday gathered up her family and headed over to the City Of Billings Municipal Park skating rink for a refreshing morning skate. She had her figure skates on when she arrived and before taking to the same ice she had enjoyed skating on since 1945, she noticed that the ice had frozen in a pitted manner. Although she acknowledged that conditions were less than ideal, around the rink she went three times. Ada and her husband suspended their four year child in the air between them as they glided along. Surprise, surprise, down came the rockabye baby, mother and all... and an injured Ada decided to sue the city. In district court, Ada's case was deemed a nonsuit because the law assumed the risk of falling on the ice, adding that her child dangling had been 'contributory negligence'. Unwilling to take 'no' for answer, Ada appealed... and the case was submitted to the Supreme Court of Montana on April 16, 1959. Curiously, there was discussion as to whether or not the fact that she wore 'sawteeth edge' (figure) skates had added to the risk in the fall. Ada's lawyer Joseph P. Hennessey, argued that his client " did not know whether the saw teeth on the front of her skate caught in the ice or not" and the transcript of the legal proceedings acknowledged that "skating on observed and tested rough ice with sawteeth edge skates certainly is a risk." In the end, Ada's case went nowhere. It was noted in the legal transcript that "the only cases which have imposed liability are cases where there was a hidden, lurking, structural defect, or where the defendant permitted rowdy, rambunctious, dangerous use by patrons or employees which were the proximate cause of the injuries. We have been unable to find any case, nor was one cited, which allowed recovery in the circumstances herein set forth." The moral of the story? Ice is slippery, honey.


For decades, a flooded field on the corner of Mount Auburn and Willard Streets in Cambridge, Massachusetts was home to the Cambridge Skating Club. Conceived by Frederick Swift and established in 1898, the club boasted such eminent members as George H. Browne, Maribel Vinson, Theresa Weld Blanchard, Nathaniel Niles, Sherwin Badger and Bernard Fox. Joan Tozzer and Grace and Jimmie Madden all won competitions at the club in its first fifty years. Largely overshadowed by the who's who of figure skating that graced the ice at the club over the years are two siblings who dedicated their life to skating in Cambridge: The Milligan Brothers. Frank L. Milligan came from Nova Scotia in August 1887 at the age of twenty two to Cambridge to work as a labourer. Two years after his arrival in Massachusetts he was 'discovered' by none other than eminent skating author George Browne. Impressed by Milligan's skill in cutting fancy figures on Fresh Pond, Browne got Milligan a job as an assistant to the club's superintendent Stanford Smith and a skating instructor. Frank Milligan taught the club's members figures, the Waltz and Tenstep and by 1904, he was so in demand as a teacher of skating that he brought his brother Jim in from Nova Scotia to take over his off-ice responsibilities so he could focus solely on teaching. For over twenty five years, Jim sat in the club's old gate house guarding the entrance to the rink. Arthur M. Goodridge's 1948 historical record of the club recalled, "It is believed that Jim can call by name more Cambridge people than anyone else and that Frank knows more Cambridge grandmothers by their first names than any other person. Frank and Jim are full of stories of the old days. One night when something went wrong Jim had to go down the man hole in the poorly lighted Willard Street sidewalk to turn off the water. Dressed in white cap he emerged in the darkness to confront the trembling form of the most frightened lady he had ever seen. Frank delights in one about the night his former boss, thinking few likely to come, permitted skating on ice not strong enough. Fifty came. One broke through. Forty-nine gathered to witness the rescue. Fifty waded out!" In 1917, Frank Milligan took over as the club's superintendent but continued his work as a skating instructor. Goodridge recalled, "If record of such things had been kept it might be possible to prove that Frank has taught more people to skate and taught more people to dance the ten-step than anyone else in the world. Be that as it may, no one can deny him his record of hours of the night nursing ice and fighting snow in order to have skating on the morrow. He has a great knowledge of ice and is weather wise beyond belief. For his marvelous understanding of children the Club and many fathers and mothers owe much. Frank loves the Club as its members as they love him." In 1929, The Milligan Brothers even installed a sound system so that club members could skate to photograph records. Both brothers served the club for over fifty years, passing away in the fifties.


Blogging about skating history is (on a good day) ninety percent detective work and ten percent happenstance... and it was through the latter that I came upon this charming story from Scottish skating history about a twenty two year old potato farmer who went on vacation to Switzerland and returned an international champion. Shared in its entirety, here's the blurb from the Monday, January 27, 1947 edition of the Dundee Evening Telegram: "When 22-year old James Best, of 34 Victoria Terrace, Dunfermline, left last week for a fourteen-day holiday in the Swiss Alps, he had no intention of entering any skating competition. He took his skates just in case he would be near a rink. But he will return an international figure-skating champion, having beaten 12 French and Swiss entrants in the contest for the Arthur Cumming Cup at Wengen. Younger son of Mr. William Best, market gardener and potato merchant, Jimmy learned to skate himself and later had tuition from Mr. Cartwright, former instructor at Dunfermline Ice Rink. He started skating in 1930 when Dunfermline rink was opened. He holds a silver medal for the intermediate examination of the National Skating Association, and with Miss Margaret Young, of Kelty, was runner-up in the Scottish Pairs Championship at Paisley last year. Miss Young, who is also a silver medallist, and Miss Sheena Balfour, of Kirkcaldy, who is Scottish Junior Champion, are among the party holidaying with Mr. Best. He works in his father's business in Baldridgeburn, Dunfermline." You know, the stories that jump out and charm you sometimes aren't about the skaters who 'make it'. More often than not, they are about the skaters whose stories we only catch a fleeting glimpse of, whose special moments on the ice as skaters are only one adventure in a much bigger life story. That's something that any of us who have skated  can probably relate to, myself included. Belated congratulations to this skating Scot on a wonderful vacation surprise almost seventy years ago. Returning home to the potato fields, I am certain it had to have been a memory that provided great comfort.

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":

Searching For Fritzi: Talking Fritzi Burger With Author Carol Bergman

An important part of sifting through history is making deductions. Perhaps most the memorable segment from the documentary "Reflections On Ice: A Diary Of Ladies Figure Skating" is a montage of a half a dozen or so of Sonja Henie's contemporaries offering some rather veiled shade towards their former rival. Print interviews over the years have been far less complimentary. The recollections of Sonja's competitors have cast a less than brilliant light on the Norwegian skating sensation. Over the years, some critics have predictably cried "sour grapes!" but in digging even deeper into the subject - which I will do in an upcoming blog - I learned that the complaints of Henie's former rivals who lent their voices to that documentary certainly weren't the only ones. At some point, it became reasonable for me to deduct that Henie's rivals were telling the truth.

One of the most women in that documentary was Austria's Fritzi Burger, perennial runner-up to Henie in the late twenties and early thirties. To say that Fritzi's competitive résumé was impressive is an understatement. She won two Olympic silver medals, four World medals and four European titles. Yet, she was only able to claim the European title once... in 1930 when Henie opted not to compete. Maribel Vinson once described her as "bubbly", yet Fritzi's disdain towards Henie in print interviews was palpable. While Sonja has taken serious flack for hobnobbing with Hitler at the 1936 Winter Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Fritzi has largely gotten off the hook. Enter Carol Bergman's 1999 book "Searching For Fritzi".

Photo courtesy Bildarchiv Austria

In happier times, Carol's mother Gerda Grätzer Poll skated hand in hand with her cousin Fritzi Burger on the glittering ice of the Wiener Eislaufverein in Vienna. Like skater Anne Frank, years later Gerda's parents Berthold and Nanette Grätzer were among many family members murdered in Nazi Concentration Camps. Both Gerda and Fritzi survived, but their lives couldn't have been any more different. "Searching For Fritzi" recounts Carol and Gerda's at times reluctant, at times determined quest in the nineties to reconnect with Fritzi and reveals several disturbing truths and questions about her story.

Through her contact with Fritzi, Carol was able to deduct that Fritzi denounced her Jewish roots and went on to live a life of privilege in Japan during World War II with her businessman husband Shinkichi Nishikawa, a descendant of pearl tycoon Kokichi Mikimoto before moving to America and remarrying. After warmly connecting with and then being threatened by Fritzi, mother and daughter travelled to Vienna to revisit their roots. And then, a retired American soldier who met Fritzi in Japan provided the final, shocking puzzle pieces, allowing further deductions to be made about Burger's life during wartime. Wrote Bergman, "We do not know if the irony of her position in Japanese society troubled her in any way, or if she understood that the dignitaries and officers she entertained were the same individuals who were perpetrating the genocide against her own family in Austria. There is no evidence to suggest she tried to save anyone in her immediate or her extended family, though she would have been well placed to do so. There is no evidence to suggest she made use of the Mikimoto pearls as currency, though she would have been well placed to do so...I have asked myself often how I might have behaved during the Nazi reign of terror. And though it is impossible for any of us, I feel, to answer this question, I always come back to the available facts: Fritzi Burger was not like others in my family; she was privileged; she was rich; she lived in luxury and relative safety; she showed no remorse about the loss of family when we talked to her in America."

The book left me astounded, angry and contemplating the concept of privilege. The privilege granted to Sonja Henie when her servant sat the autographed photo of Hitler on the piano of her Oslo home and her precious worldly possessions were spared. The reality that by hopping a steamship to America, Belita Jepson-Turner and her mother Queenie avoided the bombs that showered over Hampshire, the Anderson shelters, gas masks and meagre rations while many of her teammates from the 1936 Olympic Games contributed to the war effort. The privilege of the countless other European figure skaters who came to North America for safety and ended up making a pretty penny touring with American ice shows. The privilege of sportswriters who roll their eyes at bloggers for doing the same work they get paid to do for free, out of the love for the sport. The privilege of the anonymous SkatingFan1234's of the world who get their rocks off trashing skaters who can do things on the ice they could never dream of. The privilege of the white, rich, Christian, heterosexual males who largely dominate our ballots and dictate the world we live in. It's all a bunch of nasty business.

I asked Carol if her perceptions of Fritzi had changed in the years since she wrote "Searching For Fritzi". She reflected that "they have shifted in an interesting way: I feel more compassion for her. Needless to say I also was angry and I still do feel angry. But I also know more about the history of her growing-up years. And as a young protégé what choices would she have had? None. Her parents made sure she was registered as a Catholic so she could skate. I have another cousin who survived the war years in Vienna as a registered Catholic. That's Dorrith in the book. I don't have any bad feelings about her or her parents. And if Fritzi had welcomed us as family I would have felt the same about her. There is no way we can judge such survival strategies so long as we own up to them. This is what we had to do... As a grown-up Fritzi did have more choices, of course, but she also still might have felt afraid or ashamed. And the fear of exposure in the midst of a war machine is traumatic. She carried the trauma of exposure with her to Japan, married into a family close to the Emperor, and then endured the bombing, albeit probably at a distance. Then a return to a bombed-out Tokyo must really have been difficult, a divorce, a young son, and so on. There remains the question of her great gift. She had a great gift. So did Picasso and he was a cruel misogynist. But he created masterpieces. I do separate the artist from the work."

One doesn't even really have to dig too far in skating history to see that the pictures often painted aren't exactly how they seem. Is the answer to despise Sonja Henie or her father for their off-ice scruples while she was competing? No. Is the answer to despise Fritzi Burger for the choices she made in her life? No. Hate and fear are the omnipresent undercurrents that ruin our world. The most valuable thing we can do is call things as we see them, make our own deductions and realize that like both privilege and history, not all things are black and white or how they appear on the surface.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

"Searching For Fritzi" is currently available as a digital download for Kindle on for the incredibly low price of $2.99. You can learn more about Carol Bergman, her books and writing workshops on her website. She would also love to hear from readers! "Once someone reads the book it belongs to them," she explained. "Our conversation becomes part of our continuing study of history, and ourselves." I could not agree more!

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":

Brackets In Brooklyn: The Oscar L. Richard Story

From the day Oscar L. Richard was born on June 2, 1855 in Brooklyn, New York, he never wanted for anything. Oscar was the son of German immigrants Charles B. Richard and his wife Julia Heller. His father founded the New York Stock Exchange firm of C.B. Richard and Company and raised Oscar, his younger sisters Flora, Olga and younger brother Edwin in the lap of luxury.

Oscar Richard learned to skate at the old Fifth Avenue Pond at 59th Street and Central Park and Hugh Mitchell's pond on the side of 5th Street in New York City. At age sixteen in 1872, he went to work at his father's firm for four dollars a week. That same year, he won his first of sixty trophies for 'fancy' figure skating. As he rose to prominence as a skater, it was evident that he had a knack for business as well. By the time he was in his twenties, he was making considerably more than his initial salary and earning quite a reputation of his own as a financier. The "Milwaukee Sentinel", on June 6, 1948 recalled that in addition to skating and banking, "he was one of the first members of the New York Athletic Club and excelled in boxing, fencing, horseback riding and the hurdle races. He was a dancer, too. His partners ranged from Princess Nicholas of Hesse to the young ladies of the skating rinks." In 1876, he won the New York Athletic Club's high jump and hurdling contests.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

On December 20, 1883, Oscar married Anna Littauer and together they had three sons: George, Harold and Walter. During the first twenty years of his marriage to Anna, Oscar gave up ice skating entirely to focus on his business, which required him to travel extensively throughout America. An avid motorist as well, Richard got his first speeding ticket in 1896. The same "Milwaukee Sentinel" article cited earlier noted that "in his first brush with traffic policeman, in 1896, he was riding a motor tricycle of French make down Fifth Avenue. Brought into court for speeding, he told the judge that the motor company needed at least $100,000 more to improve its vehicle so that it could go 15 miles an hour, much less exceed it. Case was dismissed." He also travelled countless times across the Atlantic and it was on a 1907 trip to the skating resorts of St. Moritz, Switzerland where he learned to skate in the freer Continental Style. It reinvigorated his interest in the sport.

Richard returned to the New York City skating scene just as this 'new style' was really making waves in America. In 1920 - at age sixty five - he entered the junior men's competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and won. The senior men's champion that year, Sherwin Badger, was only nineteen. As a reminder to those of you who may be baffled by this, back then the difference between junior and senior events had nothing whatsoever to do with age and everything to do with which tests you had passed. At any rate, a junior national title at age sixty five was NO small accomplishment, even back then. Ten years later in 1930, then seventy five year old Richard skated to gold in a waltzing competition in St. Moritz, Switzerland. His partner was none other than a nine year old Megan Taylor. To this day, this partnership likely represents the one of the biggest age differences (sixty six years) in any winning ice dance couple. Six years later on Christmas Eve, 1936, eighty one year old Richard was one of six amateur skaters who gave an exhibition at the Rockefeller Center's skating rink. Skating lore goes that he was the very first person to ever skate on the newly finished rink.

A shrewd negotiator, Richard had his second brush with the law the following year at age eighty two. Arrested for double parking and with a paltry two dollar fine at stake, The Milwaukee Sentinel describes how he won what he called 'the biggest legal battle of his life': "Mr. Richard sent a barrage of letters to police officials and magistrates. He went into court flanked by witnesses and armed with figures. His chauffeur had indeed double-parked, he said, but only while he himself went into a flower shop to make a purchase. The car was there not longer than two minutes, he asserted... The judge dismissed that case, too."

Jane Nicholson Bratt and Oscar Richard. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Remaining active both as a financier and regular soloist at skating shows in New York, Richard also continued on his whirlwind travels. The Milwaukee Sentinel noted that "in June 1941, he went to Maine, returned in August, took a plane to Chicago, a train to Sun Valley, Idaho, where he skated a few days, and then motored through the Canadian Rockies, Yellowstone Park and Colorado Springs. After climbing Pike's Peak in a snowstorm, he went to St. Louis for the wedding of a grandson, drove back to New York, went out to Sun Valley again for six weeks, returned to New York, and took off a few days later, in February, [1942] to attend the wedding of a granddaughter in Miami." He was well known in skating circles from St. Moritz to New York to Sun Valley and even had an honorary lifetime membership with the oldest skating club in America, the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society.

Sadly, his wife Alice died in November 1942 but this didn't slow Richard down one bit. Lynn Copley-Graves, in her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", noted that "from 1919 to 1947 he skied at St. Moritz until a shoulder injury made him fear that future injuries might interfere with his skating." He remained a fixture at the Rockefeller rink and at age ninety, gave one of his final solo performances on ice in the Skating Club of New York's club carnival at Madison Square Garden. Noted by many sources for his muscular physique well into his eighties, he was asked at age eighty five how kept in such great shape. His response (which I absolutely love) was, "well, I eat everything I want, drink as much as I want, and smoke six or seven cigars a day. I feel fine."

Before he passed away at age ninety two on March 9, 1948, his three sons had a reluctant conversation with their father about his estate. They were all well off themselves from the family business and wanted their father to leave his considerable fortune to other family members who may have been in greater need. He did. His daughter-in-law's split four hundred thousand dollars. A further sign of his benevolence was the donation of the Oscar L. Richard Award, which was given to the U.S. Figure Skating Association to be rewarded for the 'most outstanding free skating performance at the U.S. Championships'. In 1953, Ronnie Robertson won Richard's award, passing the torch from one generation of inspiring skaters to another.

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":

Revisiting The Royals: Skating With The British Monarchs

Without question, the British Royal Family has long been the subject of endless fascination and admiration around the world. Back in August 2013, we investigated the story of "The Royal Skating Mishap That Could Have Changed History" and looked at Prince Albert's skating accident and Queen Victoria's connection to ice skating. The fact of the matter is, England's royals have long had historical connections to the ice and today on the blog, we will explore some of these fascinating stories.

Let's begin by going way back to the seventeenth century and looking at how James Scott, the first Duke Of Monmouth, came to introduce English skaters to the Dutch Roll. Elsie Weirich Reighard's column "The Ice Patch" in the December 14, 1971 edition of the Observer-Reporter noted, "recalling the political history of 1653, we find the royal Stuarts from Scotland still exiled in Holland. While there, the Duke of Monmouth taught English contra (country) dances to the Dutch court ladies. In return, they taught him to execute the 'outside and inside edge.' He skated with the Princess of Orange who tucked up her cumbersome long skirts for easier footwork. Horrors! She showed her knees! These wealthy youngsters were darlings of the 17th century jet set, so no eyebrows were raised. Meanwhile in England, the Lord Protector, Richard Cromwell, was making a mess of things. The Scottish army marched in, overthrew the government, and restored the Stuarts as rulers of England. Returning from Holland, the Stuarts brought two novelties - iron-bladed skates and the 'Dutch Roll' (the natural method of stroking we use today). Introduced in 1662, this new recreation spread like wildfire."

Henry Eugene Vandervell, pioneer of the English Style of figure skating, noted in his 1869 book that "The Skating Club has been more than once honoured by an invitation for a limited number of its members to skate in the presence of the Royal Family. On the first occasion the invitation was to the water in the rear of Buckingham Palace. A thaw suddenly set in, which sadly disappointed the members, no skating being possible. On the next occasion the invitation was to Virginia Water, and seventeen of the members of the Club, including one of the writers, went there. This was during the life of the late lamented Prince Consort. A sudden thaw again set in, and the Royal Family consequently did not attend, but sent General Seymour to receive the members. It is pleasant to record his courtesy on the occasion. A little skating was carried out, but the thaw was fatal to the complete enjoyment of the expedition."

In December of 1874, Queen Victoria's son Prince Albert Edward caused a stir in Paris, France when he crashed a figure skating practice of the Club de Cercle de Patineurs and proceed to go pigeon shooting on the ice while the men skated their figures. The Public Ledger reported on December 1 of that year that, "making all due allowance for court etiquette, and the fact of the game being beaten up to a particular spot, everyone admits the prince is more than an average good marksman, and the French sporting men do not hesitate to express an opinion that he would hold his own against the best of them, among the pigeons at the Cercle, if he could only be prevailed upon to spend a day there previous to his departure."

Photograph from the McCord Museum's Archives: H. R. H. Prince Arthur, ice skating, Montreal, QC, 1869-70; William Notman (1826-1891)1869-1870, 19th century

In March 1878, Queen Victoria's fourth daughter, Princess Louise, celebrated her birthday with a fancy dress skating party at Victoria Rink in Montreal. The March 19, 1879 edition of The Montreal Daily Witness described the masquerade thusly: "At eight o'clock the band of the Victoria Rifles struck up, and shortly after the doors of the dressing-rooms were thrown open, and out poured the masqueraders in a continuous stream until the whole glacial surface was alive with the most motley crowd imaginable. The many gas-lights overhead caused the moving figures to be reflected in the mirror of ice, until by the gradual cutting up of its surface deep shadows took the places of the inverted skaters." Costumes included Old Mother Hubbard, Little Red Riding Hood, Elephant, Fairy King and Clown. Even Louis Rubenstein appeared dressed as a rag-picker from Paris.

Princess Patricia skating at Rideau Hall with Major Worthington, 1914

For a twentieth century account of the British monarchy's role in skating history, we can easily turn to Howard Bass' wonderful 1960 "Winter Sports" book: "The Duke of Windsor recounts in his memoirs how, when the life of his father, King George V, was slowly ebbing away, Princess Mary was summoned to the King's bedside. A sharp frost during the night had frozen the pond outside and, as he roused himself, the King asked his daughter whether she had been skating. The Duke writes: 'My father's mind must have been travelling far back into the past and the wonderful skating parties that he and the rest of us had had there when we were young. Then he dozed off again.' The thought that the pleasant picture of a happy skating party may have been paramount in the King's mind just before he passed away must appeal to all devotees of the rink. It would seem that the British royal family have enjoyed many such 'wonderful skating parties' on the frozen lakes at the royal residences, particularly at Sandringham. When Prince of Wales, the Duke of Windsor frequently skated at the old Westminster Ice Rink with his brother, King George VI, the Duke of York. Queen Elizabeth, when a child, skated at the rink formerly at Grosvenor House, and her sister, Princess Margaret, has skated at Queen's Ice Club, Bayswater. Both Princess Charles and Princess Anne have taken lessons at Richmond Ice Rink." Prince Andrew, Duke Of York, learned to skate at the age of seven, eventually playing hockey at Lakefield.

Perhaps my favourite of any the British Royal Family skating stories I have encountered is that of Sonja Henie meeting Queen Mary, Mary of Teck, the Princess Consort to King George V. This humorous account, retold from her autobiography in Bass' book, serves as a delightful ending to a look at a centuries old love affair between skating and the British monarchy: "Mention of royalty and skating recalls to mind an amusing episode which Sonja Henie described as 'the worst faux pas of my career' when, in 1928, as a very little girl, she was presented to Queen Mary and responded to the Queen's disarming expression of interest in the sport with a suggestion that Her Majesty might take up roller skating, as it might be less hazardous. The ageing Queen broke the pause which followed to say: 'I will think about what you have said.'"

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 figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":

#Unearthed: The 1983 Betty Callaway Interview

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. Today's gem comes to you from the February/March 1983 edition of the "Canadian Skater" magazine. It's an interview that British writer Christopher Hilton conducted with the late Betty Callaway, coach of the incomparable Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, at the start of the 1982/1983 season before they unveiled their "Barnum" free dance that took them to their third of four European and World titles. Shared with you with the permission and blessing of the good folks at Skate Canada, I think you're going to be fascinated with this inside glimpse into the perspective of one of the most decorated coaches in history.


It began in Ottawa four years ago. The exact location: the elevator of a hotel.

It began, as these things often do, with a polite, almost meaningless conversation between two absolute strangers.

Betty Callaway said to Christopher Dean: "Oh hello, I've heard you've been ill. How are you? Do you feel better?"

Police constable Dean was, as Mrs. Callaway remembers, "so painfully shy he just about managed to say 'Yes, thank you.'"

And that was it. She'd first glimpsed Dean and Jayne Torvill at the Europeans at Strasbourg a month before when she was preoccupied with training those respected and admired Hungarians Krisztina Regőczy and András Sallay.

Torvill and Dean? "They look quite interesting, I thought, and really thought no more about it." She'd trained Germans and now the Hungarians and had no particular reason to have seen Torvill and Dean before. The direction of her life had been Continental for a lot of years.

But at Ottawa, during the Worlds, she had the conversation in the elevator (by chance) and then (by chance) first spoke to Jayne Torvill. "On the last night after the free dance I found a dress hanging up. I remembered the color and wondered if it was the British girl's dress. So I took it back to the hotel and it was Jayne's."

A few weeks later, Janet Sawbridge - who was training them at Nottingham - retired and Betty Callaway was asked if she'd take over. "I went up to Nottingham and we met one Thursday morning we said: Let's give it a month's trial."

It began seriously at that moment: A blond policeman on the beat, a petite insurance clerk, a tall English lady who has always loved to teach. Betty Callaway is firm, formidable, kind, understanding and the essence of the English. She has awesome achievements (her couples have won every European and World championships since Dortmund, 1980 in ice dancing) but I don't suppose she's raised her voice, never mind actually shouted at anyone, for a couple of decades.

The story of Torvill and Dean and Callaway is so compelling that it must be allowed to tell itself. Like the skating, it has a power all of its own, an impetus which becomes an inevitability.

"I always knew that they had got something special. But you have to become good friends and you have to become close. It helped a lot having András that first year because they all trained together and became real good pals, and of course András and Krisztina were very polished. Some of that rubbed off. They were very shy but they were dedicated and they knew what they wanted to do. They were also very astute. They learnt by watching."

"Gradually (in fact it was happening month by month) you could see it coming through. András had a ballet teacher in Hungary. He was a great character and a real man, and Christopher learnt that you don't have to look sissy to show your emotions and to show your feelings on the ice."

"We went to Budapest because they had the facilities there and" - note this please - "I thought that if Christopher and Jayne were going to be brought out as people, we had to travel and meet more situations."

"Don't you feel that Christopher had a uniform to hide behind? In some ways a policeman does keep a certain distance from everybody? Being a policeman held him back at the beginning."

"He was so fair-haired and a little bit nervous at championships that he used to look as if he was going to peg out on us, so we insisted that he put some color on his face. But we literally had to sit on him, Krisztina, Krisztina's mother, the British team leader: hold him down to put it on."

"But of course he realized" - Dean and Torvill are quick learners, all right - "and the ballet teacher helped tremendously."

"In Dortmund, it was already beginning to show. They were fourth, third after the compulsories. The first year I had them, they had one or two disappointments in that they could have been fourth but finished fifth, but it was good for them. They couldn't have handled the situation without a little bit more time. In some ways I was pleased they didn't get there too quickly."

"Instead of being a nice little couple from Nottingham" - part of England's backbone, an industrial town associated with coal mining - "they had to be turned into a 'professional', outgoing couple."

I unashamedly interrupt the flow of the story at this point to tell you about Betty Callaway, who foresaw and orchestrated these things. She is 54, began skating at 16, "much too late, and really I would never had made much of a competitive skater." She joined a show to her parents fury (they were paying her school fees).

She sensed she was "cut out" for teaching, and she was right. In time, she took the German couple back to a European title (1972), Regőczy and Sallay to a World title (1980). She also taught Prince Charles and Princess Anne the rudiments of skating. She thinks he might have made a skater.

Now, moving towards Innsbruck and the 1981 Europeans, she had opened up a seam of purest gold. Nobody among the outsiders - press, specators, camp followers - was really prepared for the extent of Torvill and Dean's victory. It was to be the first of many surprises for the outsiders.

They won the Worlds at Hartford and they were around 5.9 in the free for technical, the same mark for impression. Very good, we all thought, very good indeed.

They went away to Bavaria and we all got on with basking in both days of the British summer.

But something had changed. The policeman had left the force to skate all the time, the insurance clerk had put away her ledger for the last time and was now carrying a German phrase book around.

They came to the Europeans in Lyon last year. "They had matured," Betty Callaway says. "They had confidence in their new ideas."

A British dancer helped them. He made Jayne laugh. "She didn't mind wiggling about." - Then, and please do not misinterpret these words - "he helped her to be a little more vulgar."

At Lyon, it was a slaughter. They got fourteen sixes.

At Copenhagen in the Worlds, the slaughter went on: six sixes in the OSP, five in the artistic free. And this before all the Russians had skated.

After the blues, I sat by myself in the rink beside an American woman who was so moved she cried in contorted sobs, all to herself; tried to say something and found noo words. She was lucky. I had to find words for the Daily Express.

Some reflections from Betty Callaway: "They got along incredibly well. Jayne has her feet firmly planted on the ground. Christopher occasionally explodes, mainly because they're both perfectionists, but he must have it exactly right each time."


"Last year after the British nationals, I said: Right, you must have a holiday and get completely away from it. You go on holiday."


"Moiseeva had only one range. Jayne is just an ordinary attractive girl and therefore can go several ways. If she was strikingly sad, she would only have that."


"Fortunately, we have the same taste in music, clothes, everything. I personally like everything we do. You have to make a couple what they are, not what you want." Trainers, everywhere, here is a key to the big door.


"Sometimes Christopher is the dominant one but then Jayne can be the dominant one because she's so steady. I don't think we've ever had a change of tone" - a diffident laugh - "never mind a disagreement." Then, after due consideration: "I think we have a telepathy between the three of us."


"I think I shall probably finish when they finish."

At the time of writing this, we haven't seen the new program, although whispers suggest it makes last year's program look exactly like something which happened a year ago and is now - well, a historical curiosity, dried, embalmed, put away.

Don't leave your television sets for a moment when the championships come around this winter.

The success of Torvill and Dean and Callaway wasn't as easy as the story suggests. It never is.

It was honed. It was sweated over. It was rehearsed in front of mirrors. It made ankles painful because it seemed neverending - always going on towards a creation of perfect human movement; it was spread across a thousand hours of preparation.

In the story are subplots which can never be developed: the relationship between three people, the thousands of hours when each minute brought a problem or a gratification or existed as just another ordinary minute. Somewhere in it all is the gold. Nobody can know exactly where.

Alchemy, of course. A former policeman, a former insurance clerk, a tall lady: this is the chemistry and it might just blow your mind.


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":

The Boy From Bratislava: The Ondrej Nepela Story

"Many people perceived him as handsome or even as beautiful. He evidenced an androgynous, Nijinsky-like quality. In physical features he reminded me of a Tartar from the Eastern European steppes, with slanted Mongolian eyes yet light skin. He was small. He was fine. He was a steady, nerveless competitor, completely lacking in personality or finesse: a generic Soviet-satellite skater who had been browbeaten into becoming a fine technician - less fine in free skating and more precise or womanlike in the school figures." - Toller Cranston, "When Hell Freezes Over, Should I Bring My Skates?"

Born January 22, 1951, Ondrej Nepela was the child of Central Slovakian parents. His father worked as a driver at the ministry and his mother was a seamstress and homemaker. He was drawn to the ice rink in Bratislava at the age of seven after watching figure skating on television and like so many great skaters, imitating what they saw by dancing around the living room in imitation. Hilda Múdra, Nepela's coach for the entirety of his amateur career, spoke about how she first started working with the young skater in one of dozens of Slovakian news articles I used in researching today's blog: "I did not train young children. Mrs. Nepelová arrived. Supposedly her son had skated two weeks and [all the coaches] ignored him. I told her, dear lady, show me the boy. She did so. I took [him]. I [took] the best in the world." The shy young skater forged an immediate bond with his coach. Múdra explained, "I often told him to go into the rink to train a paragraph and I left. I returned [after an] hour and he still practiced and practiced. He was a great boy on whom I could rely absolutely."

Nepela made his international debut at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, finishing an unheralded twenty second of twenty four competitors at just thirteen years of age. He was again third to last at that year's World Championships in Dortmund, West Germany. However, diligence and hard work soon paid off for the young skater. He won his first of eight Czechoslovakian national titles the following year and placed a creditable eighth at the European Championships and sixteenth at the World Championships. By 1966, he had won the bronze medal at the European Championships and was ranked eighth in the world. Over the following two seasons, he'd defend his bronze medal at the European Championships two more times and finish in the top ten at two more World Championships and the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.

Training early in the mornings, going to school and returning to the rink in the afternoons, much of Nepela's training was done on a sectioned off third of Bratislava's ice rink. Although off ice training in dance wasn't something that was incorporated into the Czechoslovakian skater's training regime, he did practice jumps and spins off the ice regularly and soon became well known as a specialist in school figures. When Austrian skaters Wolfgang Schwarz and Emmerich Danzer retired from competition following the 1968 season, Nepela rose to the occasion and established himself as the skater to beat. In 1969 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, he won his first of five consecutive European Championships. After claiming silver at the World Championships in both 1969 and 1970, he finally became World Champion in 1971. That same year he was honored as Czechoslavia's top athlete and was afforded a prefab housing estate in the Dubravka borough in northwestern Bratislava. Nepela lived in the same building as his coach and second mother 'Aunt Hilda'.

At the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, Nepela found himself in a very similar situation to Austria's Trixi Schuba. He amassed an incredible fifty five point lead over his closest competitor, France's Patrick Péra in the school figures and despite falling on a triple loop attempt and finishing fourth in the free skate, still won the competition by over sixty points and ten places. Perhaps most amusing was the fact that in Communist Czechoslovakia, when the live television transmission of the men's free skate in Japan failed, radio host Gabo Zelenay conveniently failed to mention Nepela's fall to listeners, despite describing the rest of his performance in detail. Mudra recalled that "after the [competition] I did not feel any particular joy, though I imagined what it would be when I saw the flag rise to the mast. Maybe I'm immodest; I knew Nepela obtained gold. He also was one of spectacular emotions. We had a habit. The morning before the competition we [would go] for long, private walks... [When we returned] we discovered the rink was empty. We wandered through the darkness until we suddenly saw a red light that showed us the way out. That was the only dramatic moment." After winning a second World title in Calgary, Nepela toured fifteen cities with Tom Collins' Tour Of Champions alongside Janet Lynn, Toller Cranston, Karen Magnussen, Trixi Schuba, Jojo Starbuck and Ken Shelley and others.

A wonderful video montage of Ondrej Nepela footage made by Frazer Ormondroyd

After winning a final European title in Cologne in 1973, Nepela finished his competitive career with a win in front of a hometown audience at that year's World Championships in Bratislava. It was the only time he performed a short program at a World Championships during his career and he skated exceptionally well, winning the figures and finishing second in both the short and long programs. It was also at this event that Toller Cranston reported to have a fling with Nepela, described in his book "When Hell Freezes Over, Should I Bring My Skates?" Nepela told his coach 'Aunt Hilda' his thoughts on his final competition: "It was the hardest night of my life - I had a responsibility to stand up at home, where I was skating for sixteen years. Saying goodbye felt like a divorce."

Moving on to a professional career, Nepela toured with Holiday On Ice in Europe from 1973 to 1986.
'Aunt Hilda' said that "he often called me, telling me about choreography and steps and I also describing in detail sequin studded costumes that had... He was interested not only of the figure skating, even though he was in the ice show, and talked to me constantly about whom he met... He did not like athletics and later began to work on horseback riding."

Life changed in 1986 when Nepela got an apartment in Mannheim, West Germany, became certified as a skating coach and started working with promising West German skater Claudia Leistner. Through Nepela's coaching, Leistner reclaimed past glory and returned to the European and World podiums. Things seem to be looking up just when they came crashing down.

Tragically, Nepela passed away on February 2, 1989 at the age of thirty eight in a hospital in Mannheim, West Germany. The West German Skating Union, who made the announcement he'd passed away stated only that he'd died "after a long illness" although accounts suggest that his death was HIV related. We know that his mother cared for him a week before his death and 'Aunt Hilda' arrived five days beforehand. We also know that he was so sick he couldn't even open a bottle of medication. After two surgeries (I'll spare you the details but the latter wouldn't have been pretty) he died as a result of cancer of the lymph nodes and colorectal cancer. A January 2009 article from Instinkt magazine noted that after his death, his mother and 'Aunt Hilda' visited the bank and found that although a "wealthy admirer from Bolzano had regularly sent gold jewelry, every world champion received skates with insets of diamonds and he should thus have [had] three, and as a soloist in Holiday on Ice he earned a lot of money, the safe and accounts had nothing left. It was said that he had been ripped off [by] friends." Nepela was interred in the Slávičie Údolie Cemetery in the Karlova Ves borough of Bratislava.

Posthumously, he was honoured with the creation of the Ondrej Nepela Memorial international competition in 1993, a postage stamp in 1995 and in December 2000 he was named the Slovak Athlete Of The Twentieth Century. The following year, he had a rink in Bratislava named after him. However, the only skater from Czechoslovakia ever to win an Olympic gold medal has never been named to the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame. Petr Barna, in his July 2014 Skate Guard interview, said that "he was always a very down to earth kind of person. He always treated me and other people very nicely and that is what I took from knowing him personally." Cyclist Anton Tkáč, who grew up with Nepela, said "Ondrej was quiet, as if a fearful boy. But when he started talking about sports plans, he embodied a sense of purpose." However overlooked for his role in figure skating history he was because his speciality was school figures and not free skating, Ondrej Nepela deserves to be remembered.

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":

Giving A Fuch About Gilbert Fuchs

The very first man in history to hold the distinction of winning a World title recognized by the International Skating Union was Austrian born Anton Gilbert Fuchs. He represented the Münchener Eislauf-Verein in Munich, Germany during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II and shares the historical distinction with his contemporary Austria's Gustav Hügel of being one of only two people in history to win World titles in both in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Gilbert won his two World titles exactly ten years apart; his first came in 1896 on the frozen Yusupov Gardens in St. Petersburg, Russia and his second in 1906 on home soil in Munich, Germany. In addition to his two World gold medals, he also won two silver and two bronze medals at the World Championships as well as four medals at the European Figure Skating Championships and three German titles. What made his wins even more impressive is the fact he was entirely self-taught as a skater and only started skating around five years before he won his first World title.

In his 1926 book "Theorie und Praxis des Kunstlaufes am Eise", Gilbert rather confidently describes in his own words the challenges of being self-taught: "All by myself, then - never satisfied with my own attempts, an unsparing critic of myself - I strove in every way possible to bring these turns to perfection. It was soon clear to me that they must be skated without change of edge, for otherwise they were combinations in disguise. So, after various experiments, I came to form the style which I subsequently expounded, and have always upheld by voice, pen, and by my own practice on the ice. This last has obviously told against me in various competitions, because, although the justice of my view has been appreciated when fully understood and when seen in actual demonstration, it may be some time before the correctness of my position is fully acknowledged."

From Fuchs' ""Theorie und Praxis des Kunstlaufes am Eise"

Descendant Anatoly Fuchs of Russia shared a contemporary account of his ancestor Gilbert's 1896 win: "The strongest in the championship proved a German athlete Gilbert Fuchs. In the performance of 'school' figures he wowed audiences and judges with confidence and purity movements, was bold and original in the free skating. He showed outer 'ship' complex pirouettes cleanly executed jump in half turns landing on outstretched leg... Observers felt that difficulties diversity of the program and it was definitely better than others. All five judges gave him the first place."  In fact, Fuchs came from behind to defeat the winner of the figures competition Georg Sanders of Russia to take the overall title based on his free skating performance.

Gilbert Fuchs, Gustav Hügel, Georg Sanders and Nicholas Poduskov at the first  World Championships in figure skating recognized by the International Skating Union

A fierce rival of ten time World Champion and contemporary Ulrich Salchow of Sweden, Gilbert only ever defeated Salchow in one major ISU Championship: the 1901 European Championships on neutral territory in Vienna. Seeing as judging panels of the era would often be stacked with several judges from one country it stands to reason that both skaters fears may have been founded dependent on the composition of the panel on any given day. Salchow both opted not to compete in important competitions on each other's home turf for fear of being judged unfairly. That said, Salchow wasn't always particularly known for always being a good sport.

One of Fuch's free figures and a list of the elements in Gilbert Fuchs' free skating program (in German) 

Though described in T.D. Richardson's "History Of Ice Skating" as a "big, heavily built man who skated with tremendous swing"", according to Beretvás Blanka's book "Figure Skating", Gilbert Fuchs certainly gave a fuch about staying in skating shape.

Photo courtesy Dutch National Archive

He was an athletically inclined man, taking to skating after learning gymnastics, shot put and weightlifting. After finishing secondary school, Gilbert served in a cavalry regiment and later studied agriculture in Vienna, Austria before moving to Munich and studying forestry. He also demonstrated passion for the land he lived on.

In addition to a book about figure skating called "The Practice And Theory Of Art Skating", Gilbert studied the morphology of the bark beetle and in 1929 (approaching sixty) he wrote his thesis "Europäische Holzwirtschaft der Nachkriegszeit (European timber industry after the war)".

A survivor of both World Wars, Gilbert died in Germany in 1952 at the age of eighty one, and will be perpetually be not only remembered as numero uno in terms of world champions in figure skating but also for his scholarly contributions to the worlds of forestry and zoology he was so passionate and knowledgeable about long after he had hung his skates.

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":

Lutzes Behind The Great Wall: Communist China's Skating History

Whenever the history of figure skating in China is discussed, there's always a certain script that is followed. In 1980, when Irish IOC President Lord Killanin won his long battle to allow Chinese athletes to compete in the Winter Olympics under the People's Republic, the Chinese Skating Association sent Xu Zhaoxiao and Zhenghua Bao to compete in Lake Placid. Both finished dead last. Then, at the World Championships in Dortmund, West Germany, the two Olympic skaters were traded out in the men's and ladies events for Liu Zhiying and Wang Zhili and a pairs team, Luan Bo and Yao Bin, was also sent. All four of these skaters fared no better, again finishing in last place in their disciplines. A rocky start is an understatement.

Bo and future coach Bin, in particular, were the topic of ridicule in their debut effort at the World Championships in 1980. A contemporary Reuters article from February 6, 2010 noted that Bin "heard the crowd laughing at him and pairs partner Luan Bo as they struggled to keep their balance during an unconvincing performance". Among those laughing was three time Olympic Gold Medallist Irina Rodnina, who in a March 21, 2005 article from the Russian Olympic Committee's website recalled, "I remember the debut of the Chinese pairs in the World Championship of the eightieth year. Frankly, I was very much laughing. In this pair was Yao Bin, the current coach of Chinese couples." Another classy moment for the politician who may or may not have tweeted a racist picture of President Barack Obama. But I digress...

Then in early November 1980, a contingent of elite (mostly American) skaters converged on the People's Republic China to perform a rare exhibition of elite level figure skating for China's people and offer some basic instruction to China's skaters. Among the contingent of skaters who went to China were Toller Cranston, Peggy Fleming, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, Linda Fratianne, Jojo Starbuck and Ken Shelley, Lisa-Marie Allen, Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert, David Santee and Elaine Zayak. Recalling the China expedition in the October-November 1981 edition of the "Canadian Skater" magazine, Santee remarked, "It was such a totally different experience from any I'd ever had. The Chinese are a happy, congenial people, almost naively content with what they have. For so many years they were cut off from outside. They have very little idea what the rest of the world is doing." Taped for ABC's Wide World Of Sports, an edited version of the show was edited and broadcast to American audiences on December 27, 1980. In my 2014 interview with Wide World Of Sports producer Doug Wilson, he recalled the trip thusly: "I was there for the first visit of U.S. skaters in China. It was grey, with no cars... bicycles and piles of cabbage on the sidewalk... the whole experience was incredible. To go again in the nineties and find a KFC sign dominating the main street and vitality, cars, people and commerce thriving... it was just extraordinary."

The expedition sparked great interest in skating in China and before long something miraculous happened. North American coaches started heading to the Communist country at the invitation of Chinese Skating Association president Jing Bowen to help develop the country's skating programs and athletes. By February 1, 1988, Wang Yingfu, the general secretary of the Chinese Skating Association, was remarking that "we've improved a lot in some events and believe we can finish around the middle in most of our contests." He wasn't too far off either. At the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Zhang Shubin finished twentieth in a field of twenty eight men, ahead of Michael Huth and Peter Johansson, who would both go on to prominent coaching careers. Only three years later, Lu Chen was on the podium at the World Junior Championships. Four years later, she was the first skater from China to win the World Championships. In 2010, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao became the first skaters from China to win an Olympic gold medal.

That's the abbreviated version of the first act of Chinese skating history's script that we've all come to know. It of course excludes the Eight Banner Ice Skating Battalion and the royal skater Wu Tongxuan. It also excludes how skating developed as a sport in the country long before North Americans came along to offer their valuable assistance... which is actually quite a unique story.

Recreational ice skating actually thrived in Harbin's Jewish quarter in the thirties. Yaʼacov Liberman, in his 1998 book "My China: Jewish Life in the Orient, 1900-1950" recalled that in his youth, "as winter approached, the center of activity would move to the two existing skating rinks in the city. One was located in the Apothecary Street Stadium and the other on Commercial Street. The cold winter kept the ice hard, and the Chinese staff smoothed it by watering it each day. If you were looking for someone in Harbin in winter, you could easily find him or her at one of these rinks... At the Apothecary Street skating rink, a glassed-in wooden hut had been built for the orchestra. The band was composed of White Russian musicians whose repertoire was limited to waltzes and polkas. At the Commercial Street rink, the music was provided by a blaring loudspeaker wired to a gramophone... Indoors there was an array of small stoves to warm your body, while the expert hands of the Chinese personnel massaged your frozen feet back to life."

1895 Hungarian engraving of skaters pulling a royal carriage in Beijing

As for competitive skating, way back in 1939 the Chinese Communist Party set up a Yenan Sports Committee that was sponsored and guided by the Youth Work Committee of the party's Central Committee. They oversaw the development of competition in a wide range of both winter and summer sports. As early as the winter of 1942, ice skating competitions were organized among government workers, army members, factory workers and student groups. Equipment was an issue. Jonathan Kolatch's 1972 book "Sports Politics And Ideology In China" tells us that in the forties "ice skates were manufactured by adding blades, made in the Yenan Iron Works, to slabs of wood. Boots captured from the Japanese often served as the skate shoes."

During this time, the Chinese Communist Party was studying the Soviet Union's physical education programs, and in the early fifties translated Soviet physical education teacher's books and distributed them to schools as guides. The party's motto for developing students as athletes translated roughly to "cultivate from an early age, train for many years, establish a good foundation" and skating was actually an extremely integral part of most school's physical education programs during the winter.

The party was of the belief that training in ice skating had to begin by the age of eight or nine. In the late fifties - the era of China's labour-defense system and The Great Leap Forward - the Physical Culture and Sports Commission of the People's Government developed a new decree which required all students between the ages of thirteen and fifteen to prove proficiency in six events: a sixty meter dash, a four hundred meter dash, long or high jump, grenade or softball throw (yeah, you read that right!), rope or pole climb and a sixth event "according to local conditions". In the country's north (in Harbin, for instance) that sixth event was more often than not ice skating.

The first ice sports school opened in Harbin in 1953 and skaters trained in the flooded field of the Red Star Stadium and travelled north to Heihe in the northern Heilongjiang province, where they practiced on the frozen Black River. In 1956, the Chinese Skating Association became the second Asian country to join the International Skating Union. The following year, a Czechoslovakian coach and four of his pupils came to Harbin and gave Chinese coaches and skaters their first exposure to world class skating. Before long, figure skating was being contested at the National Games of the People's Republic of China.

However, as Joy Goodwin's book 2004 "The Second Mark: Courage, Corruption And The Battle For Olympic Gold" explained, it wasn't all roses: "In October 1968 the entire figure skating team was 'smashed and discarded.' and its former participants were placed under the supervision of the Management Group of the People's Liberation Army. A formal order stated that as sports teams had been infiltrated and controlled by bad people, the athletes must be re-educated and politics must be stressed. In Harbin, the ice sports school was locked and stood empty, and the skaters were shipped out under army supervision to Chalianhe, Tonghe County." There, in a former labour camp for prisoners, China's figure skaters were forced to work on a farm, subsist on sorghum and corn flour and participate in 'struggle sessions' were they verbally assaulted their former coaches. In June of 1969, they returned to Harbin only to be shipped back for more of this perverse 'thought-remoulding' months later. In 1970, they finally returned to Harbin and those skaters allowed to return to the Harbin ice sports school were allowed to resume training. For another ten years, Chinese skaters quietly toiled away on the ice in relative obscurity and under close scrutiny.

Learning about the role that the government and education system played in turning the Chinese people on to skating long before 'North America showed up' actually reminded me A LOT of the blog I wrote on the history of skating in Colonial America where we learned of the Iroquois people skating up a storm long before 'the white man' showed up. Although the story of how the Chinese skating program developed was not always pretty, it is a fascinating glimpse into how unique each country's skating history can truly be. 

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":