Friday, 19 May 2017

The Other Barbara Ann's: A Forgotten Era Of Canadian Women's Skating

Barbara Ann Scott

If you don't know the name Barbara Ann Scott, you lose your princess points and perhaps this isn't the blog for you. It's as simple as that! The four time Canadian Champion, two time European Champion, two time North American Champion, two time World Champion and 1948 Olympic Gold Medallist captivated an entire country. She has been lauded in the history books for inciting generations of Canadian skaters after her to lace up and take to the ice. As fabulous as Barbara Ann was (and she was) the truth is she wasn't alone. In the era preceding her dominance of Canadian women's skating, a host of other incredibly talented skaters also captivated audiences from Victoria to St. John's, each leaving their own imprint on the Canadian skating zeitgeist. You don't as often hear their stories though! That changes today, thanks to a handful of old newspaper articles, carnival programs and M. Ann Hall's wonderful book "The Girl And The Game: A History Of Women's Sport In Canada". Get ready to meet some of the leading ladies you didn't know near as well!

FRANCES CLAUDET JOHNSON



Born April 12, 1910, Frances Claudet Johnson started skating at the age of ten at the Minto Skating
Club. Reigning for six consecutive years as the club's junior champion, she won a pair of medals in the junior women's event at the Canadian Championships in 1928 and 1929. In 1931, she teamed up to skate pairs with Chauncey Bangs and in their first try, the duo incredibly beat the North American Champion brother and sister pairs team of Constance and Montgomery Wilson, two of the most eminent skaters of that era. Bangs was an experienced pairs skater, winning the 1927 and 1928 Canadian pairs titles with Marion McDougall, but the lesser experienced Frances held her own when the duo hit the international stage. They won the silver at the 1931 North American Championships and in 1932 placed in the top six at both the Olympics and World Championships. Bangs retired from competition that year (sadly dying from illness only ten years later) but Frances wasn't finished yet.


After teaching music at Elmwood School in Rockcliffe Park, Frances staged a comeback effort in 1935 but it would be her former pairs rival Constance Wilson who would win her ninth and final Canadian women's title that year. Frances would end up third. She went on to skate in the Ice Follies, later acting as the tour's choreographer for an incredible thirty three years. She passed away in her home in Fairfeld, Connecticut on October 17, 2001. Quoted in the "Legendary Night Of Figure Skating" program in 1999, she said, "Skating changed my life. Never too serious about it, I was always completely surprised when I won anything. I loved it passionately. In the spring when the natural ice at the Minto Skating Club in Ottawa started to melt, it was like watching someone die. I would often rush there after school and get down and kiss the ice goodbye."

ELEANOR O'MEARA PHELAN


Hailing from the Granite Club, Eleanor O'Meara started skating at the age of nine and won her first skating competition in 1931 as a teenager. Three years later she'd claim the silver medal in the junior ranks at the Canadian Championships behind fellow Torontonian Margaret Leslie. In 1936, she succeeded perpetual winner Constance Wilson and won her first of two senior Canadian titles, the other being in 1938. After finishing third in 1939, O'Meara decided to give pairs skating a go but she never seemed to be able to keep a partner for long. In 1940, she won the bronze medal in the women's event and in pairs as well with Donald Gilchrist. The following year, she teamed up with Ralph McCreath to win both a Canadian and North American pairs title but their partnership too was short lived because of the War.

Eleanor O'Meara and Ralph McCreath

With a new partner and game plan in 1942, she was incredibly back to successfully defend her senior pairs title with a new partner, Sandy McKechnie. A busy skater at those 1942 Canadian Championships in Winnipeg, O'Meara also won a fours title with her former partner Donald Gilchrist and a Waltz title with McKechnie. With Gilchrist, she earned the silver in the tenstep. When did this woman have time to even retie her skates? With the 1943 Canadian Championships cancelled due to World War II, O'Meara made the decision to go pro and perform in benefits and skating shows for the troops until learning that the big ice shows sold millions of war bonds by giving performances where admission could only be obtained by buying a victory bond.

Photos courtesy "Skating" magazine

Her program to "Prelude G Minor" and "Carmen" was praised highly when she toured with the Ice Capades. She was lauded by one California columnist as being the "greatest natural skating ballerina", even moreso than Sonja Henie.  A Boston newspaper in 1945 raved, "Eleanor stands alone - she's marvellous. She's a Toronto girl but has achieved frozen fame on every major ice rink in North America."  A MacLean's Magazine article from February 15, 1944 said of O'Meara: "Call it oomph, showmanship, or whatever you like, Eleanor O'Meara has learned to combine her great natural skating ability with her refreshing beauty and personality." She toured with Ice Capades for only three years, retiring from skating in 1946, married a judge in 1947 and raised five children in Toronto. O'Meara died of cancer in Toronto on March 21, 2000 at the age of eighty three.

DOROTHY AND HAZEL CALEY


Of the five Caley sisters of Toronto, Dorothy and Hazel were the two that made the biggest mark in skating. After winning the Canadian junior women's title in 1936, Dorothy Caley moved up to the senior ranks and won the senior title in 1937 on her first try. The defending champion Eleanor O'Meara had to settle for silver that year. They traded places in 1938 and by 1939, Dorothy Caley turned to fours skating, winning the North American title in Toronto with her sister Hazel, Ralph McCreath and Montgomery Wilson. The sisters in fact had a LONG history of skating together. They first learned to skate together in their backyard in Toronto, which their father flooded every winter for his daughters to practice on. Like Eleanor O'Meara, their former training was at the Granite Club. With the war putting an effective stop to any Olympic aspirations for either sister, they decided to join the professional ranks. They had dreams of touring in Australia but when Sonja Henie extended an offer to the sisters to join her tour in 1940, they put those didgeridoo dreams away quickly too. Their first show was at Radio City in New York, which had an ice theatre recently opened by the Rockefeller's. Given to whim, both sisters were known to improvise their routines. They also reportedly refused to have a manager, turned down all movie offers and only performed when they felt like it. In 1941, Hazel married and had a child and took some time away from the sport, but was back skating with her sister Dorothy by 1943, who had been skating by herself in the meantime.

Dorothy also skated with Austrian stilt skater Fritz Dietl for a time and sadly passed away on September 5, 2012 in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Her obituary said: "Outgoing, charming and high-spirited, Dody loved the camaraderie of Granite Club Ladies curling, often writing or directing the light-hearted annual Robertson Ladies Bonspiel show. She golfed enthusiastically as a York Downs and a Saugeen Golf Club member, devising an alternative method of scorekeeping to recognize the joy of many 'great shots' on a hole. Her eternal passion was creating her exuberant and ever-changing garden, where she might be found, or lost, late into the night, tending the flowers and baby trees that found their way to the gardens of her many friends." Hazel (Caley) Waite McTavish, a mother of four, passed away at the age of ninety eight in January 2016. Her daughter quoted her as once saying, "I've had some hard times but everyone does. I've had a wonderful life."

CATHERINE NORAH MCCARTHY


Like the Haley sisters, Norah McCarthy grew up skating outside of Montreal with her sister Tasie, a Canadian junior women's champion and senior fours champion in her own right. Their father was a railroad official and sports promoter. When he was transferred to North Bay (an area that lacked a skating coach at the time), Blanche McCarthy would drive her two daughters all the way to Ottawa to train in the winters. In the summer, the sisters trained in Lake Placid and were popular stars of the carnivals put on for locals there. Training for eight months a year and being tutored paid off for Norah McCarthy in 1938, when she won the Canadian junior women's title. The next season she'd win silver in the senior ranks and in 1940, she won her one and only Canadian senior women's title. In 1939 and 1940, she'd also won the Canadian senior pairs title with Ralph McCreath. The cancellation of the 1940 Winter Olympics after she'd been named to the team in two disciplines meant an uncertain future for the young skater who was described in magazines as "a beautiful black-haired skating cutie" and had trained all her life for that moment. She stuck it out for another season, finishing third in the women's event at Nationals and winning a bronze in the Canadian women's medal sweep at the North American Championships in 1941, but opted to turn professional in 1942. She balanced a highly successful career touring North America with Ice Follies with an incredible busy life that included time spent coaching younger skaters, playing tennis, horseback riding, swimming, sailing, canoeing, fishing and hunting. After a four year stint on the tour, McCarthy married 1942 Canadian Men's Champion Michael Kirby and had eight children. She was honoured by Skate Canada when she attended the 2013 Canadian Championships in her hometown of London, Ontario.

MARY ROSE THACKER-TEMPLE


Mary Rose Thacker and Dorothy Caley

Born April 9, 1922, Winnipeg, Manitoba's Mary Rose Thacker was perhaps of all of the women mentioned here the most successful as a singles skater. She won the Canadian senior women's title in 1939, 1941 and 1942 in addition to two North American titles. However, the advent of World War II hampered her participation in Olympic or World competition. Like McCarthy, Thacker was named to the 1940 Olympic team that never was. A diminutive skater at five foot four and one hundred and fifteen pounds, Thacker was a shy brunette with a confidence that exuded when she took to the ice. Her coaches were Leopold Maier-Labergo and Ferdinand G. Chatté.


She was particularly known as a strong free skater and actually finished ahead of Barbara Ann Scott in winning her 1941 and 1942 Canadian titles. Thacker started skating at four years old and was also an exceptional equestrian, swimmer, ballet dancer (trained at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet), fencer and spoke several languages. Turning professional in 1942, she very briefly skated in professional shows before turning her attention to coaching, becoming the first professional coach at the Vancouver Skating Club in 1945. Two years later, she opened the first summer school in British Columbia. In 1976, she even teamed up with Ron Vincent and Frank Nowosad to found the Canada Ice Dance Theatre. Training skaters for over thirty years, Thacker passed away in July of 1983. She was posthumously honoured by Skate Canada (CFSA) with an induction to the organization's Hall Of Fame in 1995.

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