Saturday, 18 February 2017

The Sabena Aftermath, Part Three: The Patterson And Radix Report


Even so many years later, the 1961 Sabena crash seems almost surreal. How could have something so horrific have even happened? Why were they all travelling on the same airplane, anyway? Initially, the plan had been for the U.S. figure skating team to travel to the 1961 World Championships in Prague in two groups. The first group (primarily skaters) was planned to arrive by air in Czechoslovakia on February 15, 1961, giving them time to recuperate from jet lag and a second group (mostly family members, judges and officials) would have arrived five days later on a second plane. Those original plans changed at the 1961 North American Championships in Philadelphia after USFSA officials were unable to secure travel on two separate airplanes that didn't have Soviet ties, keeping in mind that this was during the Cold War. The negotiation of entry visas with the Czechoslovakian embassy also played a role in the USFSA's decision to opt to take that Sabena flight instead of two separate planes as initially plane. These assertions about the decision to fly with Sabena were made in a report written by then USFSA President F. Ritter Shumway shortly after the tragedy.

However, one document penned five years before the Sabena tragedy that I stumbled upon completely by accident nearly made me spit out my coffee. It was an official report written by Theodore G. Patterson of Boston, Massachusetts and Harry E. Radix of Chicago, Illinois, who served as the manager and acting coach of the 1956 U.S. Olympic figure skating team in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. This report appeared in conjunction with official reviews of America's participation in four international sporting events held in 1955 and 1956: the 1955 Pan American Games in Mexico City, the 1956 Winter Olympic Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, the 1956 Equestrian Games of the XVI Olympiad in Stockholm and the 1956 Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne.

Patterson and Radix offered several recommendations in their report to future figure skating delegations sent to international sporting events, including an opening banquet so that skaters could become acquainted prior to competing against one another and adequate transportation arrangements to and from hotels and practice venues. The recommendation that almost made me spit java everywhere? "We had a pleasant airplane trip to London where the hockey team left us. We continued to Travisa, Italy, then by bus to Cortina. It was fine to have our entire team together with coaches, manager and parents, thus enabling the manager and coach to keep a sharp eye on the team and many pieces of luggage. This was the first time in the last three winter Olympic Games that the team travelled as one unit - which was a good arrangement and should be followed in the future if at all possible." The craziest part? The suggestion that all skaters travel on one airplane, though uncommon in America, was the norm in Europe at the time.

Passenger manifest of Swissair Flight 844 on February 20, 1957

The entire 1956 U.S. figure skating team had flown on a DC 6B operated Pan American World Airways from Idlewild Airport in New York through London to Italy's Traviso Airport. What Radix and Patterson neglected to mention in their report was the fact that that DC 6B flight had to make an emergency landing at the U.S. Military Airport in Stephenville, Newfoundland because of extremely bad weather. The fact they made it to Stephenville was a miracle in itself as the plane had tried to land in both London, Ontario and Gander, Newfoundland but was unable to do so. The 1956 U.S. Olympic figure skating team was delayed for four hours before conditions were safe enough for them to continue their journey. These facts were all brought to light in a detailed official transportation report about America's participation in the 1956 Winter Olympic Games penned by Amateur Athletic Union official Daniel J. Ferris.

One cannot fairly even consider placing a lick of blame on Patterson and Radix for their recommendation or Shumway or the USFSA for putting the entire U.S. figure skating team on one airplane five years later. I mean, who would have known? That said, reading that advice which was penned by two men whose opinions likely would have been taken into account by those in positions of influence at the USFSA at the time gave me chills. Hindsight's 20/20 and unfortunately, it took an unthinkable tragedy for figure skating federations worldwide to grasp the inherent risks of sending teams to international events together on the same plane and change travel policies.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Sabena Aftermath, Part Two: Gertrude The Gallant


They say that no parent should ever have to bury their own child. Horrifically, as a result of the 1961 Sabena plane crash that killed the entire U.S. figure skating team, not only did Gertrude Vinson have to bury her daughter... but also both of her granddaughters. However, her courageous story of perseverance during a time that would break most of us is one that so few really know.

Born in 1880 to Leander and Mary Belle Cliff, Gertrude Yerxa Cliff graduated from Radcliffe College, a women's liberal arts college in Massachusetts, magna cum laude in 1902. In her book "Advanced Figure Skating", Gertrude's famous daughter Maribel Vinson-Owen recalled, "Mother... typified the skating belle of the outdoor rinks; the ponds, lakes and rivers. If fine 'black' ice were reported anywhere near, she would skip a class any day to pursue her merry course of Dutch rolls and great lilting strokes over miles of the local iceways. Sometimes, too, though she never tried a figure eight in her life, she would dance an ice 'valse' as it was then called." Gertrude skated regularly on the frozen Charles River and at the Cambridge Skating Club and it was on the ice that she met her husband, Thomas Melville Vinson, an accomplished skater who had gone head to head with the top Canadian skaters of his era in 'fancy' skating competitions. During World War I when their only child Maribel was but an infant, the happy couple joined the Skating Club Of Boston, taking lessons from a German coach named Herr Schmidt. They both soon warmed to the new International Style of skating and by the time Maribel started to compete, Gertrude was something of an expert in school figures despite never having done them herself.

In 1938, after Maribel had won an incredible fifteen gold medals at the U.S. Championships and an Olympic bronze medal, she married Canadian skater Guy Owen at Gertrude and Thomas' home 'the Locusts' in Winchester. Maribel and Guy gave her parents two granddaughters, Laurence and Maribel, who too went on to become U.S. Champions. Both Maribel's and Laurence, as we know all too well, sadly perished on that fateful plane crash in Belgium in 1961.

When news reached America of their deaths, Gertrude was ready to have breakfast. Her cousin Catherine Yerxa arrived and sat her down to eat but the phone kept ringing off the hook. Catherine told Gertrude that the plane had made a bad landing, and Dr. Hollis Albright (the father of 1956 Olympic Gold Medallist) and Gertrude's rector, Rev. Dr. John W. Ellison, stood outside the front door, debating how they'd break the news. Dr. Albright entered, gave her a sedative and told her there had been a crash. She asked, "Are they all dead? Tell me the truth. Don't keep anything from me." The doctor nodded yes. She reportedly responded, "I mustn't cry. My father told me I should never cry" and went upstairs to her bedroom.


Then something remarkable happened. In the midst of her grief, Gertrude took to the rink and became something of a fixture at the Skating Club Of Boston. She even began watching Maribel's former students and offering words of encouragement. Every gathering, every chance to be around others... she was there. In her wonderful book "Indelible Tracings", Patricia Shelley Bushman recalled, "The rink was the lifeline to her family. She always received lots of love and attention. In turn, many people visited her in her home and took care of her."

Dr. Hollis Albright recalled, "We were in a state of shock, frozen, not knowing which way or where to turn. It was Grammy who snapped us out of it. She did what all of us should have done. She turned her grief into something constructive - she started working with the young skaters. She is an amazing, marvellous creature. I have never seen anyone like her." Mrs. Louis Goldblatt said, "Grammy was out there every day hanging over the rails. She would examine the tracings with that sharp eye of hers, offer helpful hints and tell the kids what Maribel would have said." Reporter Will Grimsley noted that she moved "with the quickness of a 20-year-old", that she could "spot a flaw on a figure from 50 feet" and that she could "talk skating techniques with the best of them."

In her own words on her decision to come back and assist with her daughter's former students, Gertrude Vinson said in the "Spokesman-Review" that "Maribel wouldn't have wanted us to mope around and feel sorry for ourselves. She was one of the most vivacious persons I ever saw. Figure skating was her life. She would have said, 'Let's get up and get going'. That's what I intend to do."

Despite the support Gertrude received from members of the Skating Club Of Boston, the image painted by some contemporary journalists of her life in the wake of the Sabena crash was one of an isolated woman surrounded by sad memories. A February 11, 1962 article in the "Spokesman-Review" noted that she lived "alone with a Negro maid in the big onetime farm house, which has 14 rooms and six baths. Once the Vinson homestead sat in the middle of 62 heavily wooded acres but now all but four of those acres have been sold for home development. Inside, there is a small trophy room glistening with cups and medals won by her husband, Thomas M. Vinson, a lawyer who died in 1952 at the age of 84; by daughter Maribel, who for years was the chief rival of the great Sonja Henie, and more recently by her illustrious granddaughters. On one wall hangs a large, blown-up photograph of Maribel and daughters Laurence and Maribel, taken on the steps of the giant airliner moments before it took off from Ildewild on its ill-fated journey." However, other accounts noted her steadfastness, describing how she often got up at five in the morning and painted the interior of her massive brick and clapboard house without any help. Reflecting on her late husband's skating career, she told Will Grimsley, "He was a wonderful skater. Maribel was just like him. So were Laurence and little Maribel. I didn't skate competitively, but I could cover a pond in no time." On Maribel's silver medal finish behind three time Olympic Gold Medallist Sonja Henie at the 1928 World Championships in London, she remarked, "I would never say it, but others have said that Maribel should have won. Many people thought Sonja was a professional. She brought along a whole retinue of coaches and handlers with her. I only know that she was very cute, with those big flashing eyes and that turned-up nose. Nobody was going to beat her."

In the years following the tragedy as her health declined, members of the Skating Club Of Boston helped move Gertrude Vinson into a nursing home where she passed away at age eighty-nine on February 10, 1969. She is interred in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her daughter and granddaughters.

This woman's decision to not only go on when the world couldn't have been any darker but to go back to that rink and work with Maribel's students... it just gets you. I can tell you that if I was in her shoes, as much as I might have wanted to do it, I don't know if I could have. Brave is not the word! I think it was Will Grimsley who said it best: "While the load of her sorrow must have weighed like a ton on her frail, aging shoulders, Grammy, alone and her world shattered all around her, never once showed it."

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The Sabena Aftermath, Part One: An Unlikely Comeback


One question I always seem to get asked is why I haven't really covered the 1961 plane crash that tragically claimed the lives of the entire U.S. figure skating team. Well, there's honestly a great reason. Between the RISE documentary, Patricia Shelley Bushman's excellent books "Indelible Tracings" and "Indelible Images" and countless other sources, this extremely sad event has been documented extensively - and really well - already. That said, there were three particularly fascinating tales that stemmed from the aftermath of that horrific event that I have always wanted to delve into and in this three-part series, I aim to do just that. The first is the 1962 comeback of Olympic and World Medallist Barbara Roles Williams.

Skating somewhat in the shadow of Olympic Gold Medallist Carol Heiss Jenkins for much of her career, Barbara won the U.S. novice title in 1956, the U.S. junior title in 1958 and then the following two years, the bronze and silver medal at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships before her international successes during the 1959/1960 season. Coached by Nancy Rush and hailing from Temple City, California, Barbara married her first husband (a hairdresser) after retiring from the sport in 1960 and was then known as Barbara Roles-Pursley. The following June, she gave birth to daughter Shelley. Incredibly, just when the future of U.S. ladies skating couldn't have looked bleaker the new mother launched a comeback effort like no other, returning to competitive skating in top form at the age of twenty in time to compete in the 1962 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston, the first Nationals since the Sabena tragedy.


Back in 1962, the compulsory figures accounted for sixty percent of the final score and the free skating for forty, so success for Barbara in the initial phase of the event in Boston was paramount. however a controversy over the start time of the competition on Friday, February 2, 1962 almost dashed her comeback effort. After the skaters had left the rink after practicing Thursday night, officials changed the start time from 12:30 PM to noon and although all of the senior women's competitors staying at one hotel were notified, Roles-Pursley was not. In Patricia Shelley Bushman's book, Barbara remarked on her late arrival which sparked quite the controversy as to whether or not she should have been allowed to compete: "Most people treated me fine, but there were a couple of people that were not too kind because they wanted Lorraine Hanlon to win. For instance, the referee. The night before they changed the starting time - they put a newspaper clipping over it. I wasn't late for the regular time. I was late for the time change. They didn't call and tell me. I came in a taxi (the running-out-of-gas story was false). When I arrived they were starting to warm up. They let me skate because somebody else showed the referee that it was posted underneath and was not out in plain view. There was only one official that yelled at me, but he died of a dreadful disease." I love it!

Ultimately, Barbara had the last laugh. The February 3, 1962 edition of "The Bulletin" explained, "Mrs. Barbara Roles Pursley, a 20-year old California mother, took the lead in the featured senior ladies' class but still had to contend with a brace of teen-agers, Canadian native Frances Gold, now of Norwalk, Conn. and local favorite Lorraine Hanlon, 16, of Boston." Further, "The Spokesman-Review" of the same date noted she accomplished this "while her 7-months-old daughter snoozed peacefully in a corner of the Boston Skating Club rink (and) received only one first place vote from the five judges but had two second place votes and no vote below third." After a whopping six figures were completed, Pursley lead not only Gold (the daughter of coach Otto Gold, a Canadian citizen who was given special permission to compete as she had taken out U.S. citizenship papers) and Hanlon but Minneapolis' Victoria Fisher, Philadelphia's Lynn Thomas, New York's Carol S. Noir and Seattle's Karen Howland, who was forced to withdraw after being diagnosed by Tenley Albright's father with a paralytic condition known as Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Although Barbara had only one first place vote, her eleven ordinal points to Gold's fifteen gave her a healthy advantage leading into the free skate competition that was held on Sunday, February 4, 1962.

Her lead in figures was commanding enough that the February 3, 1962 edition of the "St. Petersburg Times" reported that she had "virtually clinched the senior national figure skating championship by virtue of her performance in the school designs" before the free skating segment of the event had even been held. The February 5, 1962 edition of the "Daytona Beach Morning Journal" described Roles-Pursley's free skate in Boston thusly: "A capacity crowd of 4,000 cheered wildly as Mrs. Pursley, dressed in devil red cashmere with a bejewelled neck, spun, pirouetted and leaped through a sparkling repertoire to the tune of three Italian operas. Mrs. Pursley, ranked one of the world's outstanding free skaters, was more daring and more acrobatic in her four minute routine than her two main competitors. Miss Gold's number was a mixture of artistic and athletic while Miss Hanlon's freestyle exhibition was of a ballet nature, smooth and graceful with a minimum of jerky breaks in the routine." In the end, it was the 1960 Olympic Bronze Medallist who became the first senior ladies champion from west of Philadelphia to win the U.S. title that year, with Hanlon second and Gold dropped from second to fourth place overall with Fisher claiming the bronze medal.


Explaining the ultimate reasons for her decision to come back to competition in 1962 in the "Spokesman-Review," Barbara said, "I shudder when I think how close I came to being on that plane. I was training for the world championships when I suddenly decided to get married. The accident was only partly responsible for my decision to try a comeback. The main reason was that I love skating - and I just got restless." Following her win in Boston, the California skater headed to the World Championships in Prague (the same European city that was slated to host the 1961 event before its cancellation) and finished an impressive fifth out of twenty one competitors. Following that event, she would again retire from competition. She had her second child later that year and toured with Ice Capades before moving on to an incredibly successful coaching career. Among her many students were Brian Pockar, Lisa-Marie Allen, Scott Williams, Wendy Burge and Vikki de Vries.

The return of a young mother to competition against all odds in an uncertain time in American figure skating to such incredible success is like something straight out of a movie to me... but the resilience that so many showed during this trying time is just something that tugs at your heartstrings.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Patinage Poetry: The Language Of The Ice (Part Six)


How doth I love skating? Let me count the ways... Just prior to the Sochi Olympics, I put together the blog's first collection of poetry about skating called "Patinage Poetry: The Language Of The Ice". The topic of skating poetry has recurred often on the blog, in "Georg Heym: The Skating Prophet" and "Canada's Valentine" and the second, third, fourth and fith editions of "Patinage Poetry". Guess what? I just can't get enough! The sixth part of this collection is jam packed full of wonderful gems from Williams Haynes and Joseph LeRoy Harrison's 1919 collection "Winter Sports Verse". Put on your beret and get ready to snap afterwards for another fabulous collection of historical skating poetry.

"THE CHAMPION SKATER" BY A.G. SHIELL (DEDICATED TO GEORGE MEAGHER)

Behold the champion of the world appear,
Equipped his feet with blades of gleaming steel;
As Hermes light, he of winged heel,
Or, graceful as Apollo Belvedere,
He skims the gelid surface of the mere;
Swift as across the tarn the started teal
In noiseless flight he circles wheel on wheel.

In sable garb upon the water frore,
Is this we see a disembodied shade
From some remotest planet earthly strayed,
Thither escaped from the Stygian shore;
Or a creature of a more ethereal mould,
And by terrestrial matter uncontrolled?

"THE SKATER'S SONG" BY REV. EPHRAIM PEABODY

Away! away! - our fires stream bright
Along the frozen river,
And their arrowy sparkles of brilliant light
On the forest branches quiver;
Away, away, for the stars are forth,
And on the pure snows of the valley,
In giddy trance the moonbeams dance;
Come let us our comrades rally.

Away, away, o'er the sheeted ice,
Away, away, we go;
On our steel-bound feet we moved as fleet
As deer o'er the Lapland snow.
What though the sharp north winds are out,
The skater heeds them not;
Midst the laugh and shout of the joyous rout
Gray winter is forgot.

'Tis a pleasant sight, the joyous throng
In the light of the reddening flame,
While with many a wheel on the ringing steel
They rage in their riotous game;
And though the night-air cutteth keen,
And the white moon shineth coldly,
Their homes I ween, on the hills have been;
They should breast the strong blast boldy.

Let others choose more gentle sports,
By the side of the winter's hearth,
Or at the ball, or the festival,
Seek for their share of mirth;
But as for me, away, away,
Where the merry skaters be;
Where the fresh wind blows, and the smooth ice glows,
There is the place for me.

"O'ER CRACKLING ICE" BY SAMUEL JOHNSON

O'er crackling ice, o'er gulphs profound,
With nimble glide the skaiters play;
O'er treacherous pleasure's flow'ry ground
Thus lightly skim, and haste away.

"TEACHING A GIRL TO SKATE" BY THOMAS WINTHROP HALL

Oh, there's nothing in all the world so fine
As teaching a girl to skate;
There's the going up to her house to dine,
And the taking her home quite late;

There's the clamping of skates on her dainty shoes,
And it takes so long a while
That she calls you several times a 'goose' -
And you do not make denial.

There's the frightened grasp of her hand, in haste,
And her dear little shrieks and calls;
There's the putting your arm round her slender waist,
And the picking her up when she falls.

"MONTREAL CARNIVAL SPORTS" BY GEORGE MARTIN

The Frost-King sat on a throne of snow,
On a plain in the Royal Isle:
In his hand a sceptre of ice he bore,
On his brow a crown of ice he wore,
And his face was set in a holiday smile,
When he bade the carnival trumpet blow
For the famous Sports to begin.
The voluble hills returned the din
In echoes that travelled o'er many a mile ;
O'er the broad St. Lawrence to St. Helen's Isle,
To the sounding rapids of old Lachine,
To the Boucherville woods with their tufts of green,
And the peaceful hamlets that smiled between.
A multitude vast as the waves of the sea,
When Tritons rejoice that the winds are free,
People from far off Southern lands,
Where the eagle exults on outspread vans,
People who came from the prairied West,
And pine-clad East, and numbers untold
Of natives who laughed at the teeth of the cold
Were there for a gala- day, threefold blest.
The trumpeter wight was an Arctic sprite,
Whose limbs were lank and whose locks were white,
And when he had blown with all his might,
The Frost-King raised his sceptre high,
When it flashed all the lights of a boreal sky,
And thus, in accents of festive tone,
He welcomed the guests who encircled his throne :
"Friends! who have journeyed far to share
The verve of our Canadian air,
Greeting and love to all.
'Tis wise to lay aside each heavy care
And all the petty ills that do enthral,
To find in ampler scope this lusty joy,
This social amity, where no alloy
Of turbid passion mingles with the gold
Of kindly fellowship:
Where harmony betwixt the heart and lip
Its primal sanctity delights to hold.
Pleasure is native to the heart of man,
Here let it freely flow ;
Here let an ocean tide of gladness roll,
Here where no tyrant's interdict can ban
The sacred glow
That freedom kindles in the human soul.
Now let the Sports begin, and first
Let youths and maids who stand athirst
For Canada's supreme sensation,
For motion's wild intoxication,
Launch from yon hills their swift Toboggans.
Behold, upon the utmost crest,
How democratic Jones and Scroggins
With Lords and Ladies freely jest.
Blow, trumpet, blow !
The signal sound how well they know!
Down, down they plunge, what frantic speed!
No lightning-shod celestial steed
E'er swifter clove the azure air
Than headlong down the polished slide
Those young athletes and damsels ride,
Obedient to the trumpet's blare
Like foamy waves that seek the shore,
When red-mouthed storms behind them roar,
Like avalanches loosed from high,
Like meteors rushing down the sky,
They spurn the steep, they leap, they fly,
Till on the flats in bubbling joy they pour.
A Sport of more elastic grace
Now claims from us its honoured place.
Again, my merry sprite,
The trumpet sound, and let the night
In starry azure veil the face
Of Earth, enrobed in purest white.
The signal blast the Skaters know,
And eagerly with cheeks aglow,
Their costumes varied as the flowers
And blossoms that the Summer hours
On all the sunny lands bestow
They skim in joy the crystal floor,
So full their bliss they ask no more.
In sooth it is a goodly show,
Twice twenty hundred twinkling feet
In fairy flight, advance, retreat
Whilst others, more ambitious still,
In loops and scrolls assert their skill.
The Champion of a hundred rinks,
Behold him there ! his bosom mailed
With trophies rich ; what fancy jinks
Those lithe, light limbs that never failed!
What complicated, airy links
They weave, as weaves a spider's feet!
Till tip-toe wonder, stares and winks,
And plauding hands his triumphs greet.
What ho ! what means yon wild array,
In blanket-coats and sashes gay,
With red fire armed, that wind this way?
Stretching afar for many a mile,
Hither they haste in Indian file,
Ha ! Ha ! the rebel horde I know;
Blow, Trumpeter, the trumpet blow!
To arms! the Snowshoe host have sworn
To storm our castle walls, this morn
A faithful courier warning gave;
Defiant let our war-flag wave!
And you, my guests, remain in sight,
Spectators of the weirdest fight
That ever shook the vault of night.
To arms our veterans! man the walls,
Receive them with a million balls
Of roaring flame, with dart and brand,
And serpents that no mortal hand
Can parry ; let our trusty Pinch,
Who never has been known to flinch,
Protect the gates j our princely friend,
Great Zero, shall in wrath defend
The turrets and the loop-holed walls;
Let Blizzard a tremendous power
In fury guard the centre tower;
And Coldsnap, thine the task to shower
With fiery hail and blistering squalls,
And cannonade of burning snow
From every point the reeling foe!
The rebels advance with a shout and a cheer
But they reck not the might of that spectral host,
Each warrior chieftain a blood-freezing ghost,
Who answered their mirth with a jeer.
Strange voices such sounds as the winter winds make
When lattice and casement they wrench at and shake,
Were heard in those halls ;
And such terrible calls
As made the most valiant assailant to quake.
The castle, a lucent volcano, emits
An ocean of flame on the heads of the foe,
They waver they stagger they lose their five wits,
And print their appalling defeat in the snow.
Short, sharp and decisive the battle no breach
In that marvellous structure the rebels could reach.
To the mountain, abashed, bearing torches, they fled,
Oppressed with the weight of their wounded and dead.
The Frost- King, no longer enveloped in wrath,
With pity surveyed their laborious path;
And then, to the multitude bending, he said :
What folly, what ingratitude !
To think with such rebellious war
This wonder of the world to mar!
This temple that in mist and flood
And cataract in embryo slept,
Till near this Royal Island crept
The fluent particles, on which
I breathed and wedded each to each,
And made the solid lustre rich
In dazzling beauty, fit to reach
And rival, in these gleaming spires,
The loveliness of astral fires,
The mellow radiance of the moon.
Ah! whether late or soon
We with our retinue depart,
Is there a single human heart
Will mourn our exit ? Shall we not
Some few months hence be quite forgot?
If even so, another year,
With equal pleasure, equal cheer,
King Frost shall hold his court, we wot,
And meet your warmest welcome here.

"SKATING SONG" BY CORA ISABEL WARBURTON

Moon so bright,
Stars alight,
Clouds adance, adance;
Snow of night,
Fleecy white,
Silver ice agleam, aglance.
High, hey, high, hey,
Skimming the smooth, bright way,
High, hey, high, hey,
Over the ice away.

Cheeks so bright,
Face alight,
Heart adance, adance;
Eyes of night,
Brow of white,
Silver skates agleam, aglance.
High, hey, high, hey,
Skimming the smooth, bright way,
High, hey, high, hey,
Over the ice away.

"SHE SKATES ALONE" BY PHILIP VERRILL MIGHELS

She skates alone, and swift as swallows fly
She skims and glides until she seems a shy,
Fleet winter nymph, for whose bewitching sake
The frosty gnomes the glittering mirrors make
All glassy smooth. And ah! a yearnsome sigh
Escapes from scores of swains, who far and nigh
To win the slightest notice vainly try,
With fancy curves and fine, as o'er the lake,
She skates alone.

But ah! they fail that with her muff would vie
To hold her hand. They little dream that I
Alone the place of warming furs may take,
And merely sit upon the shore and shake
Because I never skate - and that is why
She skates alone.

"SKATER" BY GORDON MARTIN

When the frigid hand of winter froze the surface of the lake,
old McGinley did some talking and he made a big mistake.
He declared he was a skater who was far and wide renowned,
and he bragged of phony honours when the youngsters gathered 'round.
Thus he found himself in trouble when the kids procured some skates,
and demanded that he show them how to do some figure eights.

Now McGinley, even with a youth, was not a skater bold,
And he soon found out, upon the ice his feet were uncontrolled.
But the kids demanded action and they shoved him out in front,
in the hope that old McGinley could perform a fancy stunt.
Then he staggered and he slithered 'cross the floor of glassy ice,
and for all his blatant brags, he had to pay an awful price.

For 'twas then the children organized a game of crack-the-whip,
and McGinley soon was flying at a mile-a-minute clip,
But he lost his hold and slipped and fell, a-slidin' on his face,
and he ended in a bank of snow - the picture of disgrace.
Now McGinley, bruised and battered boasts no more of figure eights,
and there's no amount of money that could get the guy on skates.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The History Of Figure Skating In Harlem

Winter scene in Harlem. Photo courtesy New York Public Library.

Founded in the nineties by Sharon Cohen, Figure Skating In Harlem has enriched the lives of countless young people living in New York City... in particular, young people of colour. In December 2016, I had the pleasure of speaking with Sharon about the history of this incredible, one-of-a-kind organization and the importance of sharing the stories of skaters of colour who helped paved the way for a program like this to even exist.

It all began in 1990, when Sharon moved to New York City after graduating from Brown University and learned of the Ice Hockey In Harlem program, which had started in 1987. "It was a happy accident. I was working at CBS News at the time right after college and I heard about the after school ice hockey program in Harlem," she said.

Sharon called the organizers of Ice Hockey In Harlem up to congratulate them and learned that many young people of colour living in Harlem hadn't been exposed to ice sports and that the prohibitive costs of participating in hockey played a big factor in that. She recalled, "They said they had some girls that wanted to figure skate - would I meet them?"

A meeting between Sharon and these girls in a church basement was what set the ball in motion for a figure skating program in Harlem. "They were amazing, very embracing and we got some old used skates, we put them on and we started to skate on the north end of Central Park on Lasker Rink. I did that for about seven years. I just volunteered in my spare time and what was amazing to me was that it was like a Pied Piper effect. More and more girls wanted to do it and what I saw was that real transformation in them. Once they were given this opportunity to be introduced to figure skating, they really started to take pride in setting goals and learning to be resilient - falling down and getting back up," she said.

In 1997, when Sharon was coming out of graduate school, the after school program that was linked to the Lasker Park skating lessons was closing. Several parents, impressed by the positive changes they'd seen in the lives of their children, asked if she'd continue the program. "I took a break from my film pursuits, paired with the parents and together we launched Figure Skating In Harlem," explained Sharon. "I always believed that if you created something of value, the support would follow... The only caveat to this was that I believed if we to do a full-blown, youth development organization that education had to be the heart and skating was really the hook. We went from there and now, twenty years later, so many hundreds of girls have come through the program and gone on to colleges like Spellman, Brown, Michigan State, Williams... I could go on and on. We're just so proud of the results, because really, skating was the vehicle to teach lessons in perseverance and discipline and appreciating the arts... It's really just had a very positive effect and I'm so proud of the many people who have played such a big part in building this over the years - the parents, the students, the board and the community." Today, the program has a staff of over seventy time full-time and part-time workers... coaches, teachers, tutors, social workers and counsellors.

In a sport that has been - let's face it - extremely dominated by white people since its early roots, young skaters of colour growing up have had few role models to look up to on television. Sharon had skated with Bruno Jerry in Delaware, a skater of colour who went on to tour with the Ice Capades, but recognized her own need to learn more about the history of the community she was working with. She made educating herself on the history of Harlem, the Renaissance and African American skating history a priority. "So few African Americans had participated in the sport, let alone risen to the top. In my era it was Debi Thomas but we learned about Mabel Fairbanks, who was really an extraordinary pioneer. I have her photograph in my office and all my students learn about her history. She really broke barriers and was an unsung hero, really. She was skating in the same rink where we started at - in Lasker Rink - where they didn't allow people of colour to even get on the ice. She just defied that and got on the ice anyway. We really have great reverence for her history and the people she taught. Tai Babilonia and Atoy Wilson have been wonderful supporters of Figure Skating In Harlem because I think they see we are providing access to a sport that has historically never done any outreach to communities of colour."


For now, the biggest struggle for the program is getting ice time. "We create own culture of success and positivity but if we have more ice time I'm sure the next great skaters would be coming out of Figure Skating in Harlem. For now, our biggest focus is education," explained Sharon. However, the program has plans for expansion to Detroit, Michigan in 2017. Cohen hopes the program will continue to grow in the years to come. "I just realized that when you open the door and invite people in and you give them the same equality and access as anybody, they will fall in love with the sport. I think what makes me the most happy are the hundreds of girls who came through the program who never would have known that they loved to ice skate... And we're building leaders, young women who are educated, who have voices and are unafraid to take risks. We're really a holistic program and the support is needed, especially for young people today, with so many distractions, so many inequalities... We feel we're a second home to many young women. It's truly a village and there are so many talented, kind-hearted people out there."

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Making History: Three Decades Of African American Figure Skating Pioneers

In the sixties, seventies and eighties, several American figure skaters made history as the first people of colour to make a real impact in national and international level figure skating competitions. In the last Skate Guard blog, we looked at the incredible story of Eddie B. Henderson. Today, we'll put faces to the names of several more skaters who opened the door for people of colour to be accepted into a sport that was about as white as it gets since its early history.

ATOY WILSON



Atoy Wilson got his start as a figure skater at the age of seven after his parents took him to see Ice Follies at the Pan Pacific Auditorium. After taking his first lessons at The Polar Palace in Hollywood under the watchful eye of Mabel Fairbanks, he joined the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club, where he took from Peter Betts. His first competition win was in 1963, when he claimed the Southwest Pacific juvenile men's title. In Lake Placid in 1965, he became the first skater of colour to compete and medal in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, taking the silver medal in the novice men's event. The following year at the age of fourteen, he became the first person of colour to win a U.S. title at any level, claiming the gold medal in the novice men's event at the U.S. Championships in Berkeley, California. Following in the footsteps of his famous first coach, he later joined the professional ranks, touring with Ice Follies and Holiday On Ice as the first person of colour to hold a principal role in a touring ice show. His travels often took him to cities in the deep south teeming with profound racism.  In 1973, Wilson made history yet again by becoming the first person of colour to compete in a professional competition: the 1973 World Professional Championships in Tokyo, Japan.

LESLIE ROBINSON



Like Atoy Wilson, Leslie Robinson got his start at The Polar Palace and was coached by Mabel Fairbanks. Ever supportive, Fairbanks helped Robinson get his first audition in the professional ranks. He went on to skate with a show in Las Vegas and in Holiday On Ice.

MICHELLE MCCLADDIE AND RICHARD EWELL III



Michelle McCladdie and Richard Ewell III's rise to prominence in the early seventies almost eerily mirrored the story of Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. Like Tai and Randy, McCladdie and Ewell got their start at the Culver City Ice Arena, were paired by Mabel Fairbanks and went on to be coached to the medal podium at the U.S. Championships by Mr. John Nicks. While skating, McCladdie studied sociology at Pepperdine University; Richard history at West Los Angeles Junior College. Both of their fathers worked for the U.S. Postal Service.

Michelle had blonde hair and green eyes and admitted that she surprised everyone but Richard when she announced her ethnicity. "My looks contradict my origins," she laughed in a November 1972 interview for "Ebony" magazine. "But then, black comes in many different shades and I'm proud of it. Maybe it'll bury a few stereotypes."


Ewell, a talented singles skater, became the first person of colour to win a U.S. junior men's title in 1970 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Together, McCladdie and Ewell became the first pairs team of colour to win a medal at the U.S. Championships in 1971 and the following year, the first to claim the U.S. junior title. They went on to become the first pairs team of colour to be signed as principals with the Ice Capades.

REGGIE STANLEY



The only non-Californian of the bunch, Reggie Stanley of Philadelphia got his start on the ice at the age of nine. In an interview in the February 1977 issue of "Boys' Life" magazine, he recalled, "I liked it right away, even though I was falling all over the rink. It wasn't one of those storybook things, where the guy gets out there and boom! He's jumping and spinning like a pro. But it really got to me - the feeling of the ice under my blades like I was skimming under glass... My skating improved over the next two years, and when I was 11 I started taking lessons and practicing seriously. The lessons and practice weren't much fun. I kept wishing the sport would just be skating the way you felt inside. But I saw that there was a lot more to it than I could teach myself, and I definitely wanted to get better. I also wanted to compete - and win."


Win he did. Training under Don Laws at the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society, Stanley became an Eastern Champion in 1975 and the U.S. novice men's champion in 1975. While competing, he attended Harritton High School, rising before dawn every morning for patch sessions and then heading back to the rink every day after school.



A series of ankle injuries ended his competitive career in the late seventies. While still competing, Stanley expressed, "I've never felt any discrimination. Not from the judges, the other skaters, anyone. Some parents may be annoyed because I placed higher than their kids, but it has nothing to do with my colour. In this sport you're measured by how good you are on the ice."

JOAN CAMPBELL

Hailing from Carson, California and representing the Los Angeles Figure Skating, Joan Campbell became the first person of colour to win a woman's title at the U.S. Championships in 1980, when she bested another African American skater, Debi Thomas, for the novice women's crown.

BOBBY BEAUCHAMP



Bobby Beauchamp of Culver City was born with clubfoot, wore braces and casts for the first nine years of his life and slept with steel bars holding his legs together in an attempt to properly align his hips. His family doctor suggested skating would be good physical therapy and he first learned to skate at Culver City Ice Arena. Following coach Mabel Fairbanks to the Santa Monica Ice Chalet, he started taking from John Nicks. After placing second in the junior men's event at the 1979 U.S. Championships at the age of sixteen, he moved up to the senior ranks, placing as high as fourth in 1983. While competing, he worked at Robinson's Department Store in Costa Mesa, selling imported Waterford crystal decanters to housewives. Quoted in the "Kansas City Star" on February 1, 1985, Beauchamp lamented, "The LA Times has never done an article on me. But I've even tried to interest 'Ebony' magazine in my story several times, but they have no interest. Sometimes it makes me want to scream in their faces, but I know it is best to keep doing the best I can and forget it. There also is no interest, no encouragement, from the black community. We get much more support from our skating family than anyplace else."

DEBI THOMAS


When Debi Thomas was growing up in San Jose, California, her mother Janice put her in flute, piano and trumpet lessons, ballet and gymnastics, but figure skating proved to be her true love. Showing promise, she eventually started working with British coach Alex McGowan at the Redwood City Ice Arena while driving ninety miles every day to attend classes at San Mateo High School. At the age of thirteen in 1980, she won the Central Pacific Regionals and placed second in the novice women's event. In the years that followed, she made history time and time again. Winning the 1983 International Sugar Criterium in Tours, France, she became the first person of colour to ever win an international figure skating competition. In the years that followed, she became the first person of colour to win a U.S. women's title, a World women's title, an Olympic medal and a World Professional women's title. Quoted in the "Kansas City Star" on February 1, 1985, her coach Alex McGowan remarked, "Debi is actually much better known internationally than at home. In France she is known as La Perle Noire, The Black Pearl. Here, we are pretty much ignored."

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Friday, 3 February 2017

From Cotton Club To Camel Spins: The Eddie B. Henderson Story


"Music and medicine are both divine disciplines. You're dealing with the human body, which is a divine creation, on one hand. And then you're dealing with the divine creation of music. The universe is made of music. Everybody's billions of cells in their bodies - those are vibrations, the vibrations of the solar system, the movement; everything's in a constant flux. And I'm dealing with both of them. They're just very different mediums through which you can see yourself." - Eddie B. Henderson, "Jazz Times", 2001

Born October 26, 1940 in New York City, Eddie B. Henderson (Jackson) was surrounded by music from the day he was born. His mother Vivian was one of The Brown Twins, famous dancers in the original Cotton Club who rubbed shoulders with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Billie Holliday. His father Eddie was a tenor singer with The Charioteeers, a gospel/pop group who rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance, signed with Columbia Records and appeared in "Hellzapoppin'" on Broadway.

Young Eddie received his first trumpet lessons at the age of nine from Louis Armstrong himself and also received instruction from the legendary Miles Davis. After his father passed away, his mother remarried to Dr. Herbert Henderson, a wealthy San Francisco physician in June 1955. The family relocated to San Francisco when he was fourteen. While studying at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as a teenager, he watched a professional ice show and became absolutely taken with figure skating. "I had some athletic ability so I decided to take lessons," he explained in a January 1960 interview with The Associated Press. In a 2001 interview with Bill Milkowski he added, "During the summer I was on the ice at least 10 hours a day, from 5:30 in the morning until the evening. And at the same time I was going to the [San Francisco Conservatory of Music], going to high school, playing basketball, too."

The talented teenager competed in both the Pacific Coast and Midwestern Championships in the late fifties and early sixties, undaunted by the very real colour barrier that existed in the skating world at the time. Enlisting in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War period, he relocated to Colorado and was permitted entrance in the Denver Figure Skating Club, which he represented at the 1960 Midwestern Figure Skating Championships in Minneapolis. He placed sixth out of seven competitors in the school figures at that event, but made a considerable impression with his fine free skating.

In 1960, Eddie expressed, "Amateur figure skating isn't a sport you can go into without money. Negroes as a group are not very wealthy, and I doubt whether many Negro athletes have had the opportunity that I've had in this sport, that is both the interest in it and the means... I never felt any special nervousness as the first of my race performing in this sport. I am grateful I've got the chance to lead the way. That's one of the reasons I'd like to stay in it for a while." After his stint as an airman ended in 1961 - the same year as the fateful Sabena Crash that took the lives of the entire U.S. figure skating team - Eddie ultimately opted to leave the ice behind five years before the USFSA changed its by-laws to take a stand on racial prejudice within skating clubs to pursue joint careers in music and medicine. He passed the barrier breaking torch on to incredibly talented skaters of colour like Atoy Wilson, Joan Campbell, Reggie Stanley, Michelle McCladdie and Richard Ewell III, Bobby Beauchamp, Rory Flack Burghart and Debi Thomas.

He studied zoology and medicine at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964 and got his M.D. at Howard University in 1968, but didn't start practicing medicine until the early seventies, instead choosing to devote much of his time energy to music. He performed with Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi band, Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Slide Hampton and Elvin Jones. He also endorsed Selmer trumpets and toured Great Britain. In the years since he hung up his skates, he's produced albums under Capricorn Records, Columbia, Blue Note, Steeplechase Records and Smoke Records and served as a faculty member at the Juilliard School of Music and Oberlin University.


Whether on or off the ice, figure skaters are without a doubt some of the most driven, talented people in this world and Eddie B. Henderson's story has to be one of the most fascinating and inspiring success stories out there.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Skating Puts It Skate In Its Mouth: Blackface Minstrel Shows On Ice


I was really hesitant as to how I was going to approach the subject matter of today's blog. It's definitely a touchy subject and quite honestly, one that offends me personally. However, it is still a footnote from figure skating's history that I think absolutely merits being brought up.

In the nineteenth century, minstrel shows were a significant and unfortunately popular part of culture. The very act of donning blackface is one that screams exploitation, expropriation and blatant racism to us today, but the fact of the matter is that 'back then' it was something that was extremely commonplace as a form of Vaudeville-style entertainment. One doesn't have to go any further than the film "Gone With The Wind" and Hattie McDaniel's Academy Award winning role of Mammy to see how characters often perpetuated tired and offensive stereotypes, but the act of blackface was a whole different and much more abhorrent caricature. I'd love to be able to tell you that blackface minstrel acts didn't make their way into the figure skating world but I'm writing a blog about the subject, aren't I?

S.H. Hook and Jocelyn Clarke as King Tut and Queen Seti in the Toronto Skating Club's 1923 Carnival

On February 18, 1946, three New England Skating Clubs (Bridgeport's Holland's Skateland, Worcester's Dance And Figure Skating Club and the Rot-Land Figure Club in Norwood, Massachusetts) got together to present a skating show for the soldiers of Fort Devens right after World War II. The star of the show was Danny Ryan, who would sadly die in the 1961 Sabena Plane Crash that killed the entire U.S. figure skating team. Ryan, a future U.S. and North American Champion with partner Carol Ann Peters, would have nothing to do with the offending act in question. An article from the March 9, 1946 issue of Billboard Magazine proclaimed that "blackface reigns" in the show's act 'Minstrel Daze', "devised by Herbert L. Wilson... featured were Vernie Bauer, George Kuzina, Jerry Nista, Carrol Bodden, Paul Bauman and Bob Norton..." The worst part? The soldiers loved it.

Canadian Figure Skating Association President H.E. McLean and six time Canadian Champion Melville Rogers in "Plantation Party"

The next month, the Minto Skating Club in Ottawa presented their annual ice show Minto Follies. One of the acts in that year's show was called 'Plantation Party' and the majority of the skaters in the act dressed as wealthy, white plantation owners. The stars in this minstrel show on ice were two men who painted themselves in blackface, one dressed as a man and the other as a woman. They weren't just any old men either. One was a highly esteemed Canadian men's, pairs and fours skater: Olympian, six time Canadian Champion and six time North American Champion in Melville Rogers. The other? Wait for it... the President of The Canadian Figure Skating Association H.E. McLean. It certainly puts Mabel Fairbanks' story into perspective considering she would have been down in California trying to establish her coaching career at the exact same time all of this insanity was going on. Simply put, minstrel acts were not uncommon in many hotel and touring skating productions during that era. At least the grand finale of the Ice Cycles Of 1953, also called 'Minstrel Daze', had the decency to skip the blackface.


When World Champions Oksana Dominina and Maxim Shabalin showed up for the 2010 Olympic season with an original dance where they were dressed as "Australian aboriginals" wearing "war paint", the figure skating world weren't the only ones taken aback and offended. Australian aboriginal leaders were too. Sol Bellear, a member of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation News, "We see it as stealing Aboriginal culture and it is yet another example of the Aboriginal people of Australia being exploited." Writer Patty Inglish noted, "The first 20 seconds of the routine are straight out of the 1920s and 1930s club performances of Blacks before white audiences. It smacks of the old minstrel show and discrimination new and old... The routine seems to resemble a parody or cartoon." The Russians later 'toned down' the offending performance but it is still widely regarded as one of ice dancing's biggest face palm/'Did that really just happen?' moments. Sadly, it did.

In James Baldwin's book "The Cross Of Redemption: Uncollected Writings", he offered a wonderful quote: "America sometimes resembles, at least from the point of view of a black man, an exceedingly monotonous minstrel show; the same dances, same music, same jokes. One has done (or been) the show so long that one can do it in one’s own sleep." I often think figure skating is in a way much in the same. A healthy dose of caution and creativity in exploring a whole new world of carving out stories on the ice could lead to so many wonderful adventures in expression on the ice. All it takes are more skaters and choreographers willing to take intelligent risks. The difference between risks in choreography and costuming and downright offensiveness is something that the skating world - as evidenced in this blog - hasn't always quite grasped.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Racism At The Rink

"Puck" magazine political cartoon depicting a person of colour on a skating chair at the Union Skating Pond

One year after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March On Washington, a riot broke out at a Medford, Massachusetts skating rink when a young black man asked to cut in on a young couple ice dancing together. According to the July 30, 1964 issue of "The Age", "before the brief fracas ended, at least 10 people suffered minor injuries, and the stone-throwing, club-wielding crowd damaged a bus and turned over a police car... Fifty club-swinging police from five nearby communities broke up the disturbance. Several police were pushed and punched by rioters. Others said they were hit by rocks... To prevent further fighting, the police escorted groups of youths out of Sullivan Square and made sure the crowds dispersed quickly. Police from Malden, Somerville, Boston and Cambridge and the metropolitan district commission assisted in breaking up the riot."

Flashback to almost twenty years earlier, north of the border. In 1945, a fifteen year old Toronto student named Harry Gairey Jr. made his first trip to the Icelandia indoor arena on Yonge Street with his friend Donny Jubas. Jubas was Caucasian; Gairey a person of colour. Gairey started skating at the age of eight and regularly frequented the Varsity Arena and Ryerson Park rink but when he and Jubas arrived to skate at this new rink on Yonge Street one day that winter, everything changed. "I go up to buy tickets and the guy says to me, 'We can't sell your friend a ticket,' I turn around and look behind me, then I turn back and say, 'Are you talking to me?' And he says, 'Yeah, I'm talking to you. We don't sell tickets to Negroes. We don't let them in here. So do you want only one ticket?' And I turn and say, 'Let's get out of here,'" Jubas recalled in a February 16, 2009 article in the "Toronto Star".

Like a broken record of Mabel Fairbanks' experiences in New York City, rink racism was still very much alive and well in many North American cities during that era... and like Fairbanks, Gairey didn't turn the other cheek. His father, a Pullman porter, had studied race relations and arranged a meeting with Alderman Norman Creed which alerted Mayor Robert Hood Saunders to the situation. Twenty five University Of Toronto students picketed the Icelandia rink with signs saying  "Color Prejudice Must Go" and "Racial Discrimination Should Not Be Tolerated". Two years later, as a direct result of the rink's refusal to admit Gairey, Toronto's city council passed an ordinance against discrimination based on race, colour, creed or religion. Gairey's father became a prominent activist for civil rights and the rink where Gairey, Jr. and Jubas skated as children was renamed the Harry Ralph Gairey Ice Rink. At the naming ceremony, Gairey and Jubas rekindled their childhood friendship.

In terms of breaking down colour barriers, skating has come a long, long way since the earlier decades of the twentieth century. There have been Olympic and World medallists of colour like Debi Thomas, Robin Szolkowy and Surya Bonaly. Just this past week, Vanessa James became the first woman of colour to win a medal at the European Championships in pairs skating.


Over the course of the next couple of weeks in conjunction with Black History Month, we'll be exploring the historical impact of persons of colour in the skating world on Skate Guard and I sincerely hope that these stories - some heartwarming, some heartbreaking - serve as a reminder of how far the skating world has come but how far it still has to go.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Back In The USSR, Part Three: Ice Dancing's Humble Beginnings In The Soviet Union


"Perhaps the USSR will soon occupy all three rungs of the stand of honor." - Tamara (Bratus) Moskvina, "Skating" magazine, April 1970

Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin, Maya Usova and Alexander Zhulin... It would really be quite easy to assume from thinking back on these legendary names that ice dancers from The Soviet Union were always dominant. However, like everything else in figure skating history, everything begins somewhere.

In 1958, Svetlana Smirnova and Leonid Gordon made history at the European Championships in Bratislava as the first Soviet ice dance team to compete in a major ISU international competition. They finished dead last. Prior to taking up ice dancing, Smirnova had been a pairs skater with partner Yuri Nevsky. Nevsky had previously skated pairs with Ludmila Belousova before she teamed up with Oleg Protopopov and when he retired from competitive skating in 1957, he took on a major role in popularizing ice dance in the Soviet Union.

In the September 1962 issue of "Skating World" magazine, Nevsky wrote, "Ice dancing had been practiced in the Soviet Union at public rinks long before the USSR Federation became affiliated with the ISU. But it was merely a pastime for those who attended the rinks after their daily work and found pleasure in skating to music. The number of ice dances in those early days did not exceed a dozen, and the patterns were rather primitive, being based on simple edges. These were mainly polka, tango and foxtrot movements, waltzes (to both slow and fast tempo) and some dances converted to the ice from the ballroom, of the Pas de Grace and Pas d'Espagne type." Aside from recreational performance, the most audience that these dances really received was at carnivals.

Lynn Copley-Graves' wonderful 1992 book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice" noted that "while reading the USFSA magazine 'Skating' in 1955, Yuri happened upon some ISU dances. He showed them to others and sparked interest in competitions using ISU regulations. Within a year, skaters at the public rinks embraced the new dances, calling them 'sporting dances'. Poor technical ability hampered progress because knowledge of edges, cross rolls, mohawks, etc. was scanty. As the Soviet skaters fumbled through the European Waltz, Foxtrot and Fourteenstep patterns, interest waned. The highly qualified skaters - those who could handle the intricacies of these dances - snubbed them, unconsciously associating them with the old dances. To them, the dances were 'a new toy for beginners or for those who attended the rinks for fun.' Only a few of the leading figure skaters recognized the worth of the new dancing. Among them were Yuri's pair partner Svetlana Smirnova and Leonid Gordon."

Smirnova and Gordon gave exhibitions of these new dances in St. Petersburg but perhaps discouraged by their loss in Bratislava, turned professional and joined an ice ballet. However, their brief but pioneering step to putting ice dance on the map as a bona fide sporting discipline added credibility to these new dances, and it wasn't long before the Soviet federation adapted these 'new ISU dances' into their competitive structure and developed a three-tiered testing system with four levels in each tier. Within ten years, ice dancing had became so popular in the Soviet Union that qualifying competitions were instituted to whittle down the number of senior ice dance teams at the National Championships to fifteen.


Lyudmila Pakhomova and Alexander Gorshkov

By 1969, Lyudmila Pakhomova and Alexander Gorshkov were on the European and World podium. Their secret? Choreography from The Bolshoi Ballet. As compared to the severely contrasting style of the dominant British teams of that era, it would be the Soviet ice dancer's infusion of classical dance into their ice dancing that would give them that edge for years to come. Talk about a contrast from initial resistance to innovation!

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Back In The USSR, Part Two: Training Behind The Iron Curtain


"We can only guess at what age human 'motor bricks' are formed. But considering hundreds of years of ballet experience in Russia and the fact that the Moscow Ballet School students start at age seven, we have to presume that at age twelve, 'motor bricks' are already rather 'firm' and it is hard, if not impossible, to get rid of incorrect 'pronunciation' in body motion. - Dr. Sergei Aleshinsky

It wasn't until the sixties that the Soviet Sports Program started taking figure skating seriously. Prior to that, as Henry W. Morton noted in his 1963 book "Soviet Sport: Mirror Of The Soviet Society" sports with low military potential like figure skating and tennis just weren't paid much credence. Initially, unless officials believed that a skater could contend for a medal they simply weren't 'good enough' to be sent to international events.

Galina Beskina of Moscow, who took from Boris Podkopaev

However, with the success of many Soviet skaters abroad as the sixties wore on, the Soviet Sports Program began to recognize the potential of competitive figure skating. They took concerted steps to get people on the ice. Morton explained that "in winter, which is usually severe and lasts from six to eight months, skating surfaces in cities are flooded to provide frozen pathways in parks and near large stadia." The whole point of this would have been to not only promote physical education, but to get people in skates and moving. It was all about hand picked talent identification sweetie. Among those who first learned to skate on a flooded sports field? None other than the legendary Tamara Moskvina herself.


A great example of the push to get more and more skaters on the ice during this period comes from Miriam Morton's 1974 book  "The Making Of Champions: Soviet Sports For Children And Teenagers". Morton writes that "there is also a countrywide movement to teach figure skating to masses of children. The 'Pionerskaya Pravda' and the figure skating schools are encouraging this. In Moscow, for instance, there are posters at every skating rink inviting children and teenagers to enroll for free instruction and practice. To give balance to the program, these figure skating centers offer calisthetics, elements of music appreciation, and ballet dancing... Marina Sanaya began her training in one of these centers. When she was thirteen, she participated in the world championship competition in Calgary, Canada. 'So far,' reported a Soviet sports journalist with a touch of humor, 'her biggest reward has been a kiss and a big hug from her parents, but she skated with champions Karen Magnussen and Janet Lynn.'"

Lynn Copley-Graves, in her wonderful book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On The Ice" noted that in the late sixties and early seventies "Soviet skating developed rapidly as skaters and coaches took back training techniques and ideas for competitive tiers from their interactions abroad. By 1969, Soviet competitors could work up through club, city, provincial and national meets... Ice time was no problem, because competitors could attend school in the morning or afternoon or fit training time around their work schedule. Everyone either worked or went to school. Dressmakers were paid to design costumes for the competitors to fit the music or theme, and competitors had access to the Union House of Music or Conservatory to pick out music... Most World Class skaters trained in Moscow or Leningrad, drilling the same whether for pairs or dance... At Moscow's Crystal Palace, Nancy D'Wolf watched six skaters go through drills that seemed like 100 of everything for two hours: Axels, Argentine twizzles, waltz jump split lifts, Kilian patterns. The warmup readied them for program run-throughs... There were no tests at the lower levels. Either trainers passed their students on to the next level of proficiency, or the students achieved the next level by winning a certain event. Soviet skaters were called 'sportsmen,' not athletes; those considered 'pros' skated in shows. When the sportsmen practiced, no one else could used the ice. In August, the Moscow rink closed to all other skating to let the sportsmen train for the upcoming season. As skaters progressed to higher competitive levels, they received more ice time."

Promising young skaters received free skating attire and competed against the students of other coaches. Each city's training bases held regular competitions, closed to the public. The objectives of these city competitions weren't just to offer skaters competitive opportunities but also to identify potential international competitors, the national competition in the Soviet Union not being the sole basis on which international assignments were selected. By the seventies, the Soviet Union had over fifty artificial rinks and four thousand competitive figure skaters.

Copley-Graves further explained, "Lower-level skaters trained three hours a day and world class [ones] put in four hours a day on the ice. Exercise programs - running and floor exercises imitating figure skating technique - supplemented on-ice practice in a deliberately prolonged training cycle to make skaters peak later in life. To develop instructional techniques, Soviet trainers analyzed videotapes of top World competitors... One aspect of Soviet training is to develop skaters equally in both directions, instead of just counterclockwise... While Western skating associations struggled with methods for guaranteeing accreditation of coaches, the Soviet system set up Institutes of Physical Culture. Even the best skaters had to graduate from an institute to coach. Medical doctors and scientists - many among them former competitors - researched the mechanics, physics and biology of figure skating. Skating coaches were, thus, specialists and commanded high social status; they worked independently with the less advanced skaters. Ballet choreographers helped coaches arrange [programs] and exhibition numbers for the elite competitors...  Many retired sportsmen went on to coach the youngsters. The Soviet government considered a full-time job as working 16 hours a week, and they spread the word to keep everyone employed. Thus, the many instructors worked on a rotation basis."

Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev

The Soviet Union's identification of the relationship between physics and figure skating technique understandably gave Soviet skaters an edge and interestingly, an American coach of renown who I spoke with explained that a Soviet skating manual discussing physics was indeed smuggled into the U.S. by a Russian coach and this information has indeed been disseminated and passed on through oral tradition to several American coaches over the years.

Another obvious advantage that Soviet skaters had was dance training. Elena Tchaikovskaya was one of the eminent coaches who stressed the importance of ballet training to coaches and Sergei Alechinsky, in the September-October 1988 edition of "Professional Skaters Magazine" noted that "the students of the Soviet specialized figure skating schools begin to attend ballet classes at about the same time they are selected for the school (about six years old)."

Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov at the 1986 World Championships in Geneva

Although the concept of the Soviet Union's training system may seem completely foreign to those of us living in other countries, there's no denying that many aspects of their system, in particular the study of physics and implementation of ballet training, were really ahead of their time. Like it or not, the system certainly produced more champions that you can shake a skate guard at.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.