How Judges Decide Who Takes Home Synchro Gold/by Skate Canada
The four S’s – synchronization, spacing, speed and strength – were on championship display at the 2015 ISU World Synchronized Skating Championships at FirstOntario Place in Hamilton, Ontario on Friday, April 10 and Saturday, April 11th. Relive the short and free program performances from the world’s premier synchronized skating teams, including the gold medal performances from Canada’s NEXXICE of Burlington, Ontario.
Read below to learn how the judges determined who deserved to take home the gold medal.
Synchronized Skating – The Secret Weapon
After slightly more than 30 years as an official discipline, synchronized skating is still relatively unknown outside the circle of skating. With the world’s best synchronized skating teams competing for the global title in Hamilton in April, the sport is quickly finding its place in the spotlight … and hopefully someday soon into the Olympic Games.
Skating fans have been so entrenched in the traditional disciplines of singles, pairs and ice dance that it has taken time for this fifth on-ice member of the skating family to gain recognition and credibility. Thanks in part to huge interest here at home, Canada has been a giant force in helping develop synchronized skating and bringing it to the international stage.
So what exactly is “synchro” and how does it differ from the other forms of skating we already know and love?
Think team skating.
With teams of eight to twenty skaters on the ice performing fast-paced and intricate moves side-by-side at the same time, the sport requires nerves of steel, adaptability, control, confidence and teamwork. Just like in other skating disciplines, speed, power, edge work, skating skills and choreography are important but so are additional technical elements like accuracy of formations (see below), transitions, and precision of movement within the team. Consider how difficult all those goals are to achieve with only two people on the ice in pairs and dance, then add in additional skaters and more hard stuff to do … and you’ll have a much clearer idea what the sport is all about, why it’s so difficult and why it’s growing in popularity around the world.
Many involved countries have their own version of a synchro program which starts with introducing young skaters to the experience and benefits of belonging to this specialized area of the sport. As part of a team, every skater can enjoy the thrill of competition and the success that comes from participating. But be warned! Like skating anywhere, once the synchro bug gets hold, what may start out simply as wanting to learn to skate for fun can become seriously competitive!
To attract members, Canada’s synchro program starts early through a gamut of stages of expertise, Beginner through various levels to Junior, Senior and Adult, each one based to some extent on age and ability. Teams may form merely for fun and recreation, like for an appearance in an ice show, or they may take a more serious route with competitive goals, auditions, fund-raising, long-range commitment and extensive training on and off the ice.
To align high level synchro competition with other skating events, junior and senior teams must compete in short and free programs, each with required elements to ensure a well-balanced program. Performances are judged using the International Judging System where the Technical Score is based on the difficulty of the element and the quality of its execution, and the Program Components score reflecting the quality of skating skills, performance, choreography, transitions and musical interpretation.
As similar as the structure of these events may be to traditional competition, you won’t see triple jumps or complicated spins during synchro … or at least not yet. Although these elements will likely come to the sport eventually, what you will see today is some of the most technically demanding skating and creative choreography on the planet.
In synchro, keeping in mind that every element should be skated in unison with speed, power and control and with maximum ice coverage, here are the basic formations to look for.
Line: one line, parallel lines or diagonal lines
Block: a rectangular formation with a minimum of three parallel lines covering the length of the ice with lines close together and skaters evenly spaced
Circle: a consistently round shape rotating for at least 360°, skaters evenly spaced with no pulling or tugging between individuals
Spin: solo spins performed in unison with a minimum of 3 revolutions
Intersection: one half of the team intersects individually with the other half
Wheel: formation must rotate at least 360° where all skaters rotate around a common point, like spokes of a wheel
Group Lift: two or more skaters will lift one or more skaters to any height and set them back down
Creative: innovative movements, free skating elements or moves that reflect the music, performed individually, as pairs or as groups
Moves: a flowing sequence of at least 3 different skating movements, e.g. spirals, Bauers, spread eagles, etc. skated with strong edges and linking steps
No Holds: similar to a block formation except the skaters are not connected – team must hold the block of 4 or 5 lines and maintain spacing while skating turns and linking steps in unison over the entire length/diagonal of the ice surface
The first step to enjoying synchro is being able to ID the above formations. Once you have a taste for those, next you’ll want to ask yourself the following questions to determine the quality and difficulty of the move.
- Is every skater doing exactly the same thing during formations?
- Are skaters close together and equidistant from one another? (Closer is much harder!)
- Do elements appear easy and comfortable without pushing or pulling (tension) between skaters?
- Are the formations clear and accurate?
- Are they held for the required amount of time or ice coverage?
- Are the transitions between moves seamless?
- Are lines straight?
- Is the performance skated smoothly and with confidence?
- Has any element been made more difficult by the addition of footwork, changes of direction, pivoting or by choreography that makes the element harder to skate well or the formation harder to hold?
There you go … now you have the basics.
While the athletes test their skills … with these guidelines … now you can test yours too.
Skate Canada Celebrates National Officials Day/by Skate Canada
Happy National Officials Day to all our Skate Canada volunteer officials!
Today we celebrate and honour the contributions of our dedicated and passionate officials all across the country. From the grassroots to Olympic level, officials provide the backbone for our sport in all disciplines. As judges, referees, data specialists, evaluators, technical specialists and controllers, our officials support the participation of all skaters through test days, competitions, monitoring sessions, workshops and much more!
Why does one become an official? What does it take to be a successful official? How do I get involved? These are some of the questions that may come to the mind of anyone with an interest in the sport (skater, coach, parent, etc.) so we have reached out to some of our current officials from across the country to collect a brief snapshot of their journey as officials to share with you all.
Richard Vallee – NO Section, Judge/Evaluator (Officiating for nearly 40 years)
Deciding to conclude my coaching activities, yet wanting to stay involved in the sport, it was suggested that I consider joining the judging ranks. My mother, a low test judge, encouraged me to continue to pursue this avenue which would eventually assist our local skating club by defraying future costs of importing judges for test sessions. I began the educational aspect by reviewing judging materials and attending test sessions to learn as much as possible. As I advanced through the test levels, Norm Carscallen, an International judge from Sudbury, Ontario who had judged several of my skating tests served as my mentor, encouraging me to progress through the ranks.
Advancing through the competitive levels resulted in involvement in related activities such as sectional and national committee work, facilitating clinics and seminars, and monitoring skaters.
As a competitive judge, I was fortunate to reach Canadian and international status with the guidance of several highly esteemed officials: Jane Garden, Joyce Hisey, and in particular Jean Mathews and Elizabeth Clark. As I reflect on my nearly 40 years as a Skate Canada official, I believe that it is extremely important for judges to share their knowledge, expertise, and experience in order to assist others in attaining their goals. My life has been enriched through the wonderful judging experiences, lifelong friendships, and the immense satisfaction I have received from working with parents, coaches, volunteers, and in particular, the skaters.
Lyse Prendergast – BC/YK Section, Data Specialist (Officiating since 2013)
After many years of involvement in figure skating, beginning as a skater myself and later as a parent, club volunteer, board member and then club administrator, I decided to continue my participation in the sport by beginning training to become a data specialist about two years ago. It has been a great experience so far. It’s given me a way to stay involved in skating while really challenging myself and developing new skills and knowledge. As well as learning the particulars of the data specialist role, I have enjoyed learning more about the sport itself, and continuing my connection with the skaters, coaches and officials I’ve come to know over my years as a club volunteer and staff member. We have a great team of data specialists in BC and the mentoring I’ve received from people like Sharon Dahl, Lorraine Mapoles and Wayne Sutherland has been incredible. For data specialists, the competition hours are often long and demanding, and sometimes punctuated with challenging technical crises, but I really enjoy being part of a team where everyone is dedicated to the sport, works hard and looks out for each other, and pulls together when needed.
Chelsey Schaffel – AB/NT/NU, Synchronized Skating Technical Specialist/Technical Controller/Judge (Officiating since 2006)
I was always quite analytical about synchro programs that I skated, and that I watched, so I was very interested in the technical specialist role when the new judging system was introduced. I was invited to attend the technical specialist training seminar right around the time I could start to see my career as a skater winding down due to cost, injuries, and other life commitments. I passed the exam, and though I competed for two more seasons, I was also given opportunities to officiate and discovered that I enjoyed it immensely. Being able to continue skating and test the waters of officiating at the same time made the transition away from competing much easier, and I found the technical specialist role was a great fit because I still got to work in a team environment, which was what had drawn me to synchro (“precision” when I started!) in the first place.
I love educating coaches and skaters, and giving teams feedback. Judging criteria and processes seemed very mysterious when I first started competing, and I feel the CPC judging system really fosters dialogue between officials and competitors. It’s very rewarding to see your words have a positive impact on a team’s development.
Being an official is a bigger time commitment and involves more hard work than most people probably realize, but it’s also much more rewarding than I ever anticipated. Having the best seat in the house at competitions is an obvious perk, but I also get to learn and teach, travel, meet people from all over the world who love to talk about synchro as much as I do, and stay involved in an amazing sport. The experiences I had as a synchro skater have had a positive impact on so many areas of my life, and I know that by volunteering my time, I am giving other skaters the chance to have those experiences too.
Benoît Lavoie – QC Section, Judge/ Technical Controller (Officiating since 1982)
As a beginner I was dreaming about Olympics. I was a huge fan of the Olympic movement since I was a young boy. I was quite realistic as an athlete even when I competed at the senior national level. I wanted to stay involved after my skating career and when an accelerated program was created to train new officials I became involved that way in 1982. Being an official has allowed me to stay active and accurate with the technical rules, and also stay involved somehow with athletes and the skating family who have given me so much for so many years.
I would recommend becoming an official because it’s the best seat in the house at events, best second family to contribute as a volunteer and best sport organization in the world.
Many people have contributed to my desire to become a better official; Sally Rehorick inspired me at first at a skating conference. Eva Finlay was my mentor through all my levels up to senior. Debbie Islam was a role model for me to become an international official.
I have several favourite officiating moments but I guess one of the best would be having the privilege to judge at the Olympic Winter Games in 2002 when Salé and Pelletier won Gold through adversity. I felt I contributed in a special way and for the credibility of our sport and the respect of the Olympic values, I had so much pride.
Nancy Bray – NS Section, STAR 1-4 Judge (Officiating since 2014)
I decided to become an official for a number of reasons, one of them was to give back to a sport that gave me so much. Figure skating taught me the value of never giving up and instilled in me a solid fitness foundation, which I carry with me today. I also became an official to stay actively involved in the sport. As a new mother, I don’t have the time that coaching would demand. Being an official offers me more flexibility, allows me to enjoy watching the skaters develop and at the same time builds my own knowledge about the sport. It’s a win-win situation; I can give back to the sport I love and do something positive for myself that fits easily into my busy schedule.
Do you have a love for the sport of figure skating? Do you want to learn more about the sport and join a team of passionate and dedicated individuals?
Whether you have experience as a skater yourself, or have put in extensive time at the rink as a skating fan or parent, there is an officiating opportunity available for you! To learn more about developmental officiating opportunities, please contact your section office: http://www.skatecanada.ca/skating-programs/section-offices-skate/
Canadore College Students Skate for the First Time/by Skate Canada
Many skating clubs across Canada are incredibly successful and boast of ever increasing enrollment. Others are facing huge operational challenges. Costs are rising dramatically while membership in some areas is dropping due to competition from other activities and a changing demographic. Even the limited pool of dedicated volunteers is shrinking.
Some clubs like the North Bay Figure Skating Club in Northern Ontario have resorted to developing fundraising initiatives to help defray some of their costs. While the old tried and true fund-raising events have proven to be moderately successful in the past, with dwindling resources and opportunities, this season the club realized it had to get creative and find a fresh new approach to ease the bottom line.
The club already had history with Canadore College, North Bay’s College of Applied Arts and Technology, when students from the Marketing and Advertising Program helped develop the club’s marketing plans to recruit new members and promote the club to the community. One day during a chance conversation at the rink between a CanSkate parent and the club’s CanSkate Coordinator, the discussion focused on involving the college once again, this time by attracting its international students through some kind of learn-to-skate program.
With the College’s significant international student body, many of whom have never seen ice and snow, the idea of collaborating with the club to create a pilot learn-to-skate program could offer students a brand new Canadian experience.
Fraser Mowat, the College’s International Officer, was quick to see the benefits. “Skating is a slippery experience for all of us and if you have never skated before, the whole experience can be frightening. By using the expertise of the local skating club, the students would gain the ability to challenge the ice and learn from the best.”
North Bay Figure Skating Club President David Villeneuve, also a professor at the college, knew the idea was a perfect fit. “I pursued this partnership and although it took a lot of discussion, we managed to work out some shared ice time with our Preschool program. We knew it would be challenging for the Club and certainly for the coaches that had to deliver the program, but the concept was new, innovative and exciting.”
Once the College was on board, the club moved fast. The idea took root in October with a goal to have the program operating by December. With only two months to figure out the details, planning went into overdrive.
Number one consideration was to create a reasonable environment for these adult skaters. “We decided to split a portion of our Preschool ice,” said David, “so the college-age skaters wouldn’t feel too self-conscious.”
Another challenge faced was encouraging participants to recognize the need for good equipment. Although Canadore College and the International Department provided skates and helmets, some skaters came with their own skates that had been bought online or from friends … very poor quality, no ankle support and blades so dull, they couldn’t cut through butter.
Designing the actual on-ice program was another exercise in creativity. With coaches and the club working together, it was decided that each student group would have three 45-minute sessions.
Coach Cara Song realized there might be other special circumstances in designing the program. “Considering possible language barriers and differing skating capabilities, running a laid back program that centered on the skaters’ needs and concentrated on the basics seemed to be the best approach.”
The coaches looked forward to every new group of students. “The very first day was so exciting”, admitted Cara. “Initially there were 23 students registered for the first session, and because for most of them it was their first time taking public transit to the rink, they all came staggering in late. We had set up signs all around the arena and were anxiously waiting to meet everyone.”
Standing rink side, David will never forget watching students take those first tentative steps on the ice. “Everyone was clinging to the boards! But with the help and encouragement of our coaches and PA’s the new skaters had an incredible first day. They enjoyed themselves to the point that they were taking selfies and group pictures in their equipment to post on Facebook for family and friends back home.”
Cara agreed. “Everyone was so excited and eager to be there. We had students from all around the world … Asia, Europe, South America. With the exception of a couple of people, most had never ice skated before. There were a few that really picked it up naturally; a handful that relied on skills they had from other sports, like rollerblading; and about half the group that started the session clinging to the boards.”
Language never seemed to be a problem for CanSkate Senior Program Assistant Callie O’Connor. “A couple of times I found myself having to demonstrate and visually show them what to do instead of simply saying it, but obviously over time, they understood clearly.”
One of the first students was Breno da Nobrega Bezerra from Natal, Brazil. “I was excited wondering how it would be and I was a little scared of skating. I had tried do it one time before in Ottawa but I didn’t have the right equipment and I didn’t know how to do it, so I was very happy when some friends talked to me about the skating class.”
“Each class I could improve a little and learn some new things. The instructors helped me to gain confidence, so in the end of skating lessons I had enough confidence to play on ice. It was a great moment for me. I will never forget that!” – Breno da Nobrega Bezerra
For Coach Cara, it was an incredible program in which to be involved. “When you’re working with teens or adults in CanSkate or learn to skate programs, I find there’s a unique passion among the skaters. They all genuinely want to be there. With these international students, their excitement was contagious, and I found myself appreciating the sport more after experiencing it through their fresh eyes.”
The end results have been inspiring for everyone.
From Canadore’s perspective, Fraser Mowat acknowledged how much all of the students loved the experience and considered it a highlight of their time living in North Bay. “Most of them wanted to go back for more lessons. A few of the students have borrowed skates and gone on their own after finishing their classes.”
Breno is one of them. “Each class I could improve a little and learn some new things. The instructors helped me to gain confidence, so in the end of skating lessons I had enough confidence to play on ice. It was a great moment for me. I will never forget that!”
Cheryl Maltby, another member of the coaching team, was thrilled by the students’ reactions, “On the last day some of the skaters were saying to me that they were going to continue with their skating as much as possible in their home country.”
From the club’s perspective, it’s been a huge win for the community and for the club’s budget. “This has given us the opportunity to build a new community connection with Canadore College” said David. “Since I bridge both of these organizations, I can see how this project could allow us to create connections with other educational and cultural institutions that will allow us to give these programs some additional ice time and coaching. We have tapped into a new population and clientele that we had not thought of before. Canada itself is a nation of immigrants looking for new opportunities, perhaps this could be one of them.”
For other clubs inspired by the North Bay club’s story, David has some sage advice. “Start early. Talk to International Student departments in post-secondary institutions, to local high schools with foreign exchange students and to community multicultural agencies. They’re always looking for unique experiences. Someone is always willing to try if the opportunity is provided.”
If you’re interested in learning to skate, joining a Skate Canada club is easy. There are 1400 clubs across the country for you to choose from … all of them with certified coaching and nationally recognized programming.
To find the club nearest you, check out our clubfinder and embrace the joy of skating.
And finally … congratulations to North Bay Figure Skating Club for developing more skaters for life!
Synchro’s 2018 Olympic Dream/by Skate Canada
Although it’s generally recognized that Synchronized Skating got its start in the United States, it wasn’t long before Canada hopped on board too. Now the sport is promoted around the world with 20 countries represented at this year’s ISU World Championships hosted by Canada this month in Hamilton, Ontario.
Making history has always been a significant part of the sport’s motivation. And now, after more than 20 years of work by the ISU Synchronized Skating Technical Committees (SySTC) and participants in the sport, there’s a glow around Synchro (SyS) that is definitely of Olympic proportion.
Canada’s Cathy Dalton, an internationally acclaimed Synchro coach and expert, has been involved in the sport from its beginning.
“Being in the Olympic Games was a dream at first,” admits Cathy, “but with all the chairmen of the SyS Technical Committee working tirelessly towards this Olympic goal, Marie Lundmark (Finland), Leon Lurje (Sweden), Uli Linder (Switzerland) and Chris Buchanan (Great Britain), we all became huge believers that Synchro had a place in the Olympic Games.”
Finland’s Marie Lundmark is the current Chair of the SySTC. “I was on the SySTC from the beginning in 1994 when our first goal was to build the sport to hold the Synchronized Skating World Championships which we did in 2000 in Minneapolis. Of course, with that success, it opened the door to talk about the possibility of Synchro becoming an Olympic discipline.”
In the Committee’s initial 4-year plan, a strategy was developed that would prepare the sport for its ultimate event. One step along that path to the Olympics was to have SyS included in the FISU Winter Universiade, a milestone accomplished in 2007. As the sport‘s popularity surged around the world, work continued in collaboration with the ISU to establish standards, requirements, ages of skaters, composition for SyS teams, event structure … all the details that would help the sport align with other Olympic events.
There was much work to do on and off the ice. Behind the scenes and deep into the synchro community, the prime directive was to build credibility for the discipline by promoting quality skating skills.
As a coach, Cathy was front-line. “Decisions were made that would improve the athleticism of the skaters, improve their skating quality, increase the difficulty of the elements and also further coaching development.”
Then in April 2011, another major step was taken.
“There was a Synchronized Skating Working Group meeting,” reflects Marie, “where together with the Council figure skating members, the SySTC, Peter Krick, Chair Sports Directorate and Krisztina Regöczy, Figure Skating Sports Director, we discussed making a formal application to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) by creating a proposal outlining the logistics of having SyS teams in the Games.“
It took three years of painstaking work when finally at the 2014 ISU Congress in Dublin, Ireland, the proposal was presented to the ISU and accepted by Congress. The next step undertaken by the ISU was to send an application to the IOC to have SyS recognized as an Olympic discipline with the goal to have it included in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
In July of 2014, in response, the ISU received an official acknowledgement from the IOC … with an accompanying application requesting detailed information about SyS, including questions about things like participant and event information, team composition, number of athletes, ticket sales, TV ratings and social media statistics.
Cathy was part of the application team. “It was hard work to find accurate statistics … but we did it! A brochure was developed for the IOC that summarized SyS and included wonderful photos, facts and videos.”
But the IOC’s investigation into SyS didn’t stop there.
In the summer of 2014, the IOC sent a team of observers to a top-notch SyS event, the French Cup, to report and make recommendations on the sport’s activities, the noisy and enthusiastic environment and the public’s response.
“The French Cup was a wonderful event for them to witness,” says Cathy. “The three people from the IOC were very astute and observant. They seemed to enjoy the event and liked many of the different teams and their routines. They took photos and video of the competition that would hopefully accompany their report to the IOC … and they certainly saw how the team sport of figure skating could bring a fresh new dynamic and new fans to the Olympic movement.”
Marie is optimistic that SyS fits beautifully into the Olympic model.
“The growth in popularity of this discipline among younger age groups with fans following their favorite teams has fuelled the rapid rise in popularity and participation among young people in the ISU Member federations spread over all five Continents. This sport showcases fast and dynamic, physically and technically demanding programs that have a very different appearance from the difficult performances shown in skating’s traditional disciplines.”
From the business side of the equation, Marie is quick to add, “Given the strong youth appeal of this sport and the strong social media following, we can see a tremendous upside in the development of branded content that has a strong base for sponsorship and for generating increased fan support.”
“The sport is ready!” boasts Cathy. “Many of the organizational details have been worked out for an Olympic event: schedule, location, doping, mix zone, accommodation and transportation. The teams are ready to go!”
For Marie Lundmark and many other SyS leaders and supporters, to receive IOC approval would be the final dramatic step in the sport’s evolution. “I think that from the beginning all who have been involved in Synchronized Skating (skaters, coaches, officials, and parents) have contributed to the development of this beautiful sport. We hope that our work and dreams will be appreciated.”
The IOC’s decision is pending.
52-year-old skater to pursue gold at Nationals/by Skate Canada
For most Canadian children, learning to skate is considered a rite of passage.
That wasn’t the case for Jeffrey Morden from Fergus, Ontario. His passion for skating came much later.
“When I was in grade four my family moved out of Fergus to a farm just up Highway 6. When my parents went to work, we used to go into town to babysitters where school was within walking distance. Once in a while after school my sitter would put my skates on for me and I’d walk down the sidewalk, a block and a half, to the arena. I didn’t know you were supposed to wear guards!”
Although Jeffrey never took skating lessons as a child, other sporting experiences were becoming a part of his daily routine.
“My Dad trained and raced Standardbred horses and I helped him with that when I was growing up. When my cousin started riding, something I wanted to do too, I got riding lessons for my tenth birthday. I loved it so much that by the time I was in my teens I was competing in Junior, then in three day Eventing and finally twice at Canadian Pony Club Nationals.”
During high school and throughout his years as a competitive rider, Jeffrey was also heavily involved in music, concert Band, choir, school musicals and his favorite, as a member of a contemporary pop group called Surge. “Surge was a big deal at my school … Surge was like ABBA!”
Then in his grade twelve year, his school took on its first big production, Guy and Dolls. For Jeffrey it was a turning point.
“At that time I was still riding and taking an exam through Pony Club so I had no time to audition for the show.”
But that didn’t mean he wasn’t interested, in fact, he was feeling so left out that his voice teacher talked the director into giving him a last-minute audition. The director was hooked and immediately cast Jeffrey in the show that year, following up the next year with the role of Lawyer Louie Loser in Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang.
During his final year, as Jeffrey’s love for music and theatre continued to grow, he knew he was at a cross roads and had to make a big decision after graduation. Would he continue with riding or would he pursue his education?
“University won out,” admitted Jeffrey. “I ended up in the School of Dramatic Art at the University of Windsor starting out as a Costume and Set Design major.” But after one year, sensing that he had hidden talents that hadn’t yet been explored, he switched to Performance.
“I studied voice at the School of Music, acting at the School of Dramatic Art and dance at any studio in the city.”
Little did he know that another discipline, skating, was waiting in the wings.
“When I was at university I was watching skating on television. There was something about it that struck a chord. Since there was a rink a couple of blocks from my apartment, I decided I’d give it a try. So I went to Goodwill and bought these antique skates, died them black and then got out the phone book to see where I could get them sharpened. When I took them to the figure skating shop, the people there just looked at them stunned … there was no way anyone could actually skate in them!”
And in true “Jeffrey” style, he started talking to the owner. “In exchange for a pair of used men’s skates, I offered to bead dresses and make design templates. That year I even beaded a dress for international pair skater Denise Benning!”
When Jeffrey finished school, Toronto was in his sights. “The first thing after getting settled was to find a skating club and a coach beginning at the West Toronto Figure Skating Club and then at Moss Park Skating Club. I studied dancing and figures, started testing and took my preliminary free skate about four months later … and I’m proud to say my program had two Axels in it.”
It was a great start for a 24-year old adult skater but then when Jeffrey began getting more work as a singer/dancer/actor, skating had to take a back seat to life. On the road and performing for years on stage and on cruise ships, he never forgot the joy of skating, often taking advantage of rehearsal time to keep up his skating muscle memory.
“You could always see me doing jumps off ice while in rehearsals, at the gym or warming up for a show. Occasionally I would sneak one into a number here or there. There was a lovely double loop in the Summertime adage during Birth of the Blues on one Holland America Cruise but for the most part that was it. I didn’t go public skating or guest skate anywhere during those years except on one occasion in Singapore when I tried to get to the rink but they were closed that day.”
Fast forward a few decades to 2011 and to the moment skating came back into Jeffrey’s life. “One day when I was teaching at a private school in Guelph, my friend Lisa said to me, ‘You know, they have adult competitions now.’ So I guess I can blame her for my passion to compete and test while in my fifties.”
And come back, he did, with a fierce determination to learn, become a judge, compete and share his performance expertise.
On the ice, Jeffrey continues to train for tests and competitions. He’s accomplished his goals of passing his Junior Bronze Dances, his Senior Bronze Freeskate and his Gold Artistic test. Competitively he’s been successful at Adult Nationals, last year finishing second in both the Men’s Gold Free Skate and the Men’s Bronze Interpretive. This year in Calgary, he’ll be back at Adult Nationals representing the Elora and District Skating Club and looking for the top spot on the podium.
As for sharing his performance knowledge, that part of his skating career is growing too. “I have always said that skaters are being judged on something they have no training in. I believe the fact that I am a skater and now a judge, combined with my years of performance training and experience, I believe I can bring many things to the table.”
Coaching skaters on theatrical understanding and impact has already given him some wonderful opportunities. “This summer will be my third year working in Toronto at Ice Dance Elite with Carol Lane. During the summer skaters come to Carol from all over the world so I’ve had the pleasure to work with teams from Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic as well as amazing junior and senior Canadian teams.”
Working off ice with competitors, teaching performance classes and helping to develop new appreciation for character and storylines convey Jeffrey’s admiration of a sport he calls a combination of athletics and artistry. He also feels in many ways the sport is a mirror of life.
“There is so much cross over here. Whether it’s time management, healthy living or obtaining a new skill, you really do use skills that you bring from the ice to your daily life.”
Jeffrey also emphasizes you don’t have to be young to skate.
“As you get older, it’s a great non-impact sport, develops greater balance and core strength, coordination, muscle toning, cardio… and that’s just from basic stroking. Add musicality by using your whole body to create shapes and suddenly you’re at a whole new level of activity.”
His attitude is infectious. “At the end of 12 or 13 hours of judging everyone is always saying ‘I need a drink’ and I’m always saying, ‘I just watched people skate all day, I want to go skate!’
“The problem though is that I sit there and watch and think, I’m only 52, I can still learn that.”
Calgary … Adult Nationals …get ready!
There will only ever be one Toller/by Skate Canada
There is only one Toller.
You don’t need to say Cranston to flesh out the spirit of the man: Creative. Flamboyant. Outspoken. Voraciously well read. Colourful. Generous. Prickly.
Toller was a diva. A master of outrageous one-liners. A big spender. A clever self-marketer. A larger-than-life guy who always cut to the chase.
And perhaps, a lonely artist, gone too soon at age 65. There’s a ghostly photo of him walking out of his San Miguel de Allende studio into the Mexican light, a lone figure, reluctantly leaving his work behind.
In his book, “Zero Tollerance,” Cranston noted: “I spent 20 years looking for love (any kind of love) without finding it. The subset of that, ironically, is that at the end of 20 years, I’m not sure that I would have recognized it if I had found it. It might have been right under my nose, but I didn’t have the sensibilities to discern it.”
He always walked his own path. He was an island, even in his own family, he once said. His mother left him nothing in her will. She didn’t support his skating. At the 1974 world championship in Munich, Toller had her kicked out of the rink. His father, an ex-football quarterback, was by Toller’s admission, a kindly man with whom he had no bond. His father once said he was immensely proud of his son, but Toller would never let him become close. “He has always been that way,” Monty Cranston once said. “Out there on his own.”
One of Cranston’s toughest crosses to bear, so he said, was his failure to win an Olympic gold medal in 1976. He took home bronze instead. He later said that loose end largely dictated his “lust for acceptance and recognition.” And that it led to “exaggerated personal behaviours and ruinous conspicuous consumption,” he said.
His novel skating style was not always accepted by the establishment. (When he won his Canadian junior title at age 14, his placements ranged from 1st to 22nd, he said.) Nor was his art accepted. Canadian art has been described by some as the “frozen art of a frozen people.” But Cranston’s work burst with warm colour, arabesque forms and exotic Silk-Road characters. He was completely an outsider. Perhaps his fantasy art wasn’t taken seriously. To Cranston, it was very serious, an expression of his inner vision.
“Do you have any paintings by Toller Cranston in your gallery?” Maia-Mari Sutnik, a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario was asked after Cranston’s death. “No,” she replied quickly. “His work doesn’t fit into any of our collections. His work is decorative art. And then he left the country. He wasn’t part of the community. If you have a Toller Cranston piece, just keep it and enjoy it.”
In June of 2011, Cranston was awarded an honorary doctor of law degree at Carleton University, where he addressed a convocation of students. “This is important to me,” he told the begowned ones. “This is the first time I’ve received a pat on the head.”
Ron Shaver, a contemporary of Toller, who pushed him to the max at Canadian championships, knew the artist-skater since he was six years old. “I don’t think he was ever anyone that people got close to,” Shaver said. “He just didn’t let people in. “
Shaver burst into tears when he heard that Toller had died.
Cranston was well known for his conspicuous consumption, so rampant that at age 40, he sold the entire contents of his Toronto home at an auction at Waddington’s in Toronto, hoping to stem the over-the-top collecting and pay for a new abode in Mexico. But in Mexico, it eventually continued apace. “Usually it means that something is missing in your life,” said one of his best friends, Thom Hayim. “When he goes on a spending spree, I know he’s feeling inadequate.”
Other close friends acknowledge that he was a lonely man. “He lived a very independent, alone life,” said Clive Caldwell, who has known Cranston for almost 44 years. “But he was never alone. He was always the life of a party. He wasn’t the guy sitting in a corner, feeling sorry and sad because he was alone. He was hell bent and determined to take over the world, and he was trying to do it every day.”
Caldwell never felt that Cranston missed anything or that he wanted more. He was a driven painter, and hated distraction. Solitude was necessary to create.
“He always used to ask me things like: ‘What’s it like to have a partner?’” said John Rait, an ice dancer who has known Cranston since he was 16. “He didn’t understand how normal people lived and how those relationships worked. He was always quick to ask: “Well, what happens then, and how does that work? Or how do you feel when that happens?’ He was interested in how other people existed, but I think his existence was so rarified.’
Everywhere Cranston went, people followed. He was always surrounded by people. Some of his friends called it “the circus.”
“And everybody wanted something from him,” Rait said. “Everybody was there to take and very few people were there to give. Those are the people that have stayed with Toller over the decades: the givers. The takers have come and gone several times. And there’s always somebody new.”
Toward the end of his life, however, Cranston was getting the “circus” under control and many of the people in his life were the givers, generally concerned about his welfare. Some helped him sort out financial issues. He was in a good place, at peace, calmer than he’d ever been. He began to paint in pastel hues, rather than the fulgent reds and blues. The future looked bright.
His death stunned his long-time coach Ellen Burka. “I think now he’s in peace,” she said. “I think now at least he can smile. He lived his last years in a most beautiful environment.”
Coaching legends prepare to share their wisdom in Winnipeg/by Skate Canada
The National Coaches’ Conference in Winnipeg May 27 to 30 for both coaches and officials will offer a hint of just how Canadians are taking the lead in all pressing questions relating to skating.
Held as part of Skate Canada’s Annual Convention General Meeting (ACGM), this year’s theme “Partners in Progress” promises to offer an excellent range of workshops and social networking opportunities to the participants – Skate Canada coaches, officials, and international coaches as well. As a result of Skate Canada changing their bylaws, NCCP certified Skate Canada coaches will become full voting members of the association for the very first time, which marks the importance of the voice of coaches.
“Skate Canada is really working on the coaching and I think that is so key,” says Tracy Wilson, slated to give two skating skills workshops at the conference. “It’s such a resource and we share information because we all have our fields of expertise and when we come together and share, we all benefit.”
Skate Canada has identified partnerships as the glue that binds together all of their strategic imperatives to 2018. One of those partnerships is with Hockey Canada to bring the joy of skating to all Canadians. Guest speaker at the NCC opening dinner is Melody (call her Mel) Davidson, coach of the women’s hockey team that won gold at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics. She’s a builder of her sport, which now emphasizes speed and skill so much.
Speaking of partnerships, the 2015 ACGM/NCC will also feature Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje and Olympic women’s hockey team gold medalist Meaghan Mikkelson, who also teamed up with hockey colleague Natalie Spooner to win seven legs of The Amazing Race Canada during the show’s second season.
Yes, a big field is opening up to skating, with its well organized skills system, especially with the new CanSkate program, which teaches learn-to-skate skills to youngsters who may become speed skaters or hockey players, or ringette players or adults who skate for the love of it.
At the conference, Wilson will go through many of the exercises she has used and developed over the years, starting with her work as an Olympic medalist in ice dancing with Rob McCall, her work with hockey players, and finally with international skaters such as Olympic champions Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, Yu Na Kim, and Yuzuru Hanyu and European champ Javier Fernandez. She and coach Brian Orser have both “honed in on what works to help different skaters,” she said. Her first workshop will show basic skills and exercises (“It’s everything that everybody knows but with a different slant,” she says) and the next class is about how to develop them.
The conference is packed with other gems: renowned Winnipeg sports psychologist Dr. Cal Botterill will speak about how to prevent burnout and “under-recovery” in athletes and coaches; sport headliners Sally Rehorick, Dr. Jane Moran and Monica Lockie will probe the burning problem of troublesome boots and blades; and judge Karen Howard will expound on what the referee says to the panel before an event (information coaches don’t want to miss!). Dr. William Bridel offers up chats about currently hot topics of bullying in sport and pain and injury from a socio-cultural perspective; Donna King and Lockie will preview the next chapter of the CanSkate juggernaut with new materials, resources and activities; and choreographer Mark Pillay will present on-and-off-ice workshops on musicality (and as an extra treat, his pupil Liam Firus will show off his new programs for 2015-2016.).
Rehorick and friends have already been busy behind the scenes conducting an informal six-month investigation into the effects of boot and blade selection on the performance of skaters at all levels and will try to propose the next steps toward research and education.
Rehorick has spoken with coaches, doctors, parents, researchers, skate technicians, distributors, team leaders and administrators about the problem. Sadly, she’s seen skaters at the Learn-to-Train and Learn-to-Compete levels struggling with boots that “seemed to control the skater, rather than the other way around.” The problem is a world-wide one. The ISU has been studying it through medical commission chair Dr. Moran, a Canadian.
Dr. Bridel, a former Skate Canada employee and now a professor at the University of Calgary’s department of kinesiology, will discuss preventive measures with bullying issues, rather than reactive strategies and how kids are exposed to bullying in the larger sociocultural context. He sees bullying becoming more of a problem because of social media. He’s also involved with a bystander intervention group at the university.
He also describes a culture that prevents skaters from revealing an injury, so that they don’t get help when they need it. Again, prevention is the key.
Dr. Botterill’s chat will be vital. “Under-recovery is kind of like an epidemic,” he says. “In high performance fields, people are pushing the envelope so hard, life in this era has so many distractions, and people aren’t recovering in the way they need to.”
Over the past 15 years of his 40-year career, most of Dr. Botterill’s work has been focused on helping people get rest and regain their health – and performance levels. Technology is addictive, he warns. He believes a high percentage of people are burned out and don’t even know it.
Last year, the National Coaches’ Conference reached a height of 275 registrants. And oh yes, names like Olympic cyclist Tanya Dubnicoff, now an executive coach, synchronized skating coach Shelley Barnett, and others such as Manon Perron, Lee Barkell, and Skate Canada’s Coaching Development Committee members such as Laurene Collin-Knoblauch, Raoul Leblanc, Paul MacIntosh, Pascal Denis, Keegan Murphy, Mary-Liz Wiley, Megan Svistovski, and Chris Stokes will unleash their wisdom in workshops, too.
Have you booked your trip yet?
Strong Canadian Bond between Duhamel/Radford and Weaver/Poje heading into the World Championships/by Skate Canada
Fate and destiny have bought Canada’s top two upwardly mobile duos to much the same place, on the same path, so much so, it’s almost chilling to behold.
Never have Canadian doublets been in such step as pair skaters Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford and their ice dancing counterparts Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje.
At every bend this season, they have been matching steps to the ISU World Figure Skating Championships where both are favoured to win gold. And it would be a first if they did. Although Canadian skaters have won double-gold at world championships before (Donald Jackson and Maria and Otto Jelinek in 1962, Kurt Browning and Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler in 1993, and Patrick Chan and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in 2012), it’s never happened to two Canadian twosomes.
Partway through the season, both noticed the similarity of their journeys. “After the NHK Trophy, we had both won the event, and we looked at each other and said: ‘Wait a second. We’re the exact same right now. We’re three for three;” Weaver said.
Last fall, Duhamel and Radford and Weaver and Poje both scored victories in early season internationals in Barrie, Ont. and Obertsdorf, Germany for win No. 1. Afterwards, they never competed apart. They were assigned to the same Grand Prix events, and swept them all. Then they both won gold at the Grand Prix Final (four for four); gold at the Canadian championships (five for five); then gold at the Four Continents Championships (six for six.). In Shanghai, China next week, they’ll go for seven, a lucky number that signifies divine perfection, completeness, something that is finished.
Both didn’t have their best Olympics in Sochi last February. Both realized that they had to do their jobs on their own terms, for the joy of it. Not training in a relaxed way (“We’re exhausted after every practice,” Weaver said), but shutting out the distractions of opinion and result.
“We both feel the same pressure,” Weaver said. “To have someone else to share that with, not only with your partner, but another team altogether, has been really fun and enlightening.”
“I feel like we are sharing this special journey with them,” said Duhamel, who will room with Weaver in Shanghai. “I think we share a really special energy between the four of us.”
In Barcelona, Duhamel and Weaver started a tradition together: finding a yoga class when they first get to an event. The texts fly back and forth. Last Monday, Weaver texted Duhamel: “Last Monday of the regular season of training!”
“Yay,” Duhamel said in return. “She’s always checking up on me to see how things are going.”
They find that they share the same feelings, the same trouble getting their feet under them after a trip, the same jetlag, the same ease that things have settled back to normal at the same time. “Every time she texts me about something, we’re both feeling the same way, or our energies are the same,” Duhamel said.
Ditto for Radford and Poje, who roomed together in Barcelona. “At every competition, I think there is an unspoken connection and feeling because we’re both in the exact same situation,” Radford said. “And it’s comforting and nice to know in those really high intense moments of pressure, when you’re feeling nervous, we have teammates that are in the exact same situation. And they are still alive. And they survived. And they are doing an amazing job. It gives us confidence to know we are going through the same situation with some of our best friends.”
It’s not as if they are forged from the same pieces of clay. They are in different disciplines for Pete’s sake: pairs with their fearlessness, ice dancers with their twizzles and emotion. They have decidedly different personalities, all of them.
“What’s neat is that you get to see how someone else handles the situation,” Weaver said. “I really admire Meagan’s tenacity and I love her aggressiveness when she skates. So we can learn from each other in that way.”
If Weaver and Poje arrive to the rink after a pair practice, they’ll ask how Duhamel and Radford fared. They’ll say (so many times this year): “Awesome!”
“And you know what? We can have awesome practices, too,” Weaver said. “They are very confident and we feed off each other in that way. I think we are all very different personalities, but we are able to come together and know that we are all feeling the same thing.”
Case in point: In Barcelona both wanted to do so well and Duhamel was feeling butterflies about it all. Weaver advised her that they do the same program every time, the same quads, the same twizzles, the same lifts. Nothing changes from one competition to another. “We both really kind of hung onto that,” Weaver said. “We have that little reminder for each other every time we go out.” They both won gold at the Grand Prix Final – quite decisively.
And what if they both were to win in Shanghai? The thought gives Weaver chills up her sparkly arm.
“It would be monumental for sure,” Poje said. “It would be such a powerful message for Canada to be able to display those two champions. We both have to go out there and do our jobs and make sure that we put everything we can out there.
“But it’s a wonderful picture to think about and to be able to share the same memories and the same moment with them, coming from the same country and hearing the same anthem. It would be amazing.”
Weaver says she rarely misses watching Duhamel and Radford skate, at least for the long program. She thinks she’s seen them five out of six times, perhaps all of them. “I’m very proud to witness their growth and the incredible strides that they have made as a team, especially with that long, which is gorgeous,” she said.
And what if there is an incredible double-barrelled win, two golds for two teams?
“It would mean a lot of champagne for Team Canada,” Weaver said.
Synchronized Skating – Tracing Back/by Skate Canada
Compared to other skating disciplines that have been around for nearly 150 years, synchro is the new kid on the block.
Historically, as early as 1838, there are references to something in England called “combined figure skating” practiced at the Oxford Skating Society, but after that, reports of organized group skating dry up. Over a century would pass until the 1950s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when the sport would get its first foot-hold as an official skating pursuit in North America.
It was called “precision skating”.
The activity began rather innocently as a fun hobby in which more recreationally-based athletes could concentrate their efforts on team skating, groups of skaters performing moves in unison across the ice. Initially those performances were full of cutesy moves … toe tapping, hand clapping and hip slapping … more attuned to glitzy show biz than to quality skating.
But all of that was about to change. As experts began to recognize the young sport’s potential for promoting good skating in a new and different form, precision skating started to get some well-deserved attention.
Up until then, outside of tests up to the gold level, there were few places for non-traditional competitors to go, no competitive arena to build those skills that helped promote goal-setting, perseverance, creativity and artistry. If you weren’t in the elite competitive stream, skating was a dead end for many participants. With precision skating, suddenly there were new opportunities to advance, bringing fresh life to the sport and welcoming a whole new community of individuals, including athletes, coaches, officials and volunteers.
During the 1960s the sport spread in popularity in Canada and the US bringing with it competition and new ideas. It was an exciting time of growth and rapid development when teams were pushing precision skating boundaries by performing more creative and innovative routines. Gradually, focus on the types of choreographic content was evolving too, identifying and discarding more clichéd moves in favour of adding difficulty and skill … in other words … with the goal to develop quality skating.
Finally in 1977, the Ilderton Winter Club in Western Ontario hosted the first ever Canadian Invitational Precision Skating Competition and in 1983, next door in London, the first sanctioned National Precision Skating Championships were held. Overall, there were 60 teams registered to compete … 22 teams made it to the finals. Just one year later, the U.S. followed Canada’s lead and established its own National Precision Skating Championships.
By the end of the ‘80s, Canada was dominant on the international stage sweeping the podium in the senior category at the first international precision skating competition in Sweden. With such remarkable success and the resulting international attention, more and more enthusiasts were interested in joining the blossoming precision movement.
Precision skating was becoming the rage! As a result, countries had to move fast to expand membership, develop more categories for a greater variety of participation and agree on clearly defined rules and standards of competition.
Despite the growth in Canada and the US, it would take the International Skating Union (ISU) another decade to recognize precision skating as an official discipline of figure skating and in 1994 to sanction international competitions. Back here at home in 1995, Canada hosted its first ever ISU international precision skating event, the Precision Canada International in Toronto.
Perhaps the biggest change came off the ice a few years later in 1998 when the sport officially changed its name to “synchronized skating” to adopt more internationally understood terminology. After that, growth was so fast around the world that just two years later in 2000 at the very first official ISU World Synchronized Skating Championships in Minneapolis, Minnesota, there were 21 teams competing from 17 countries. Canada’s team, black ice, made history by winning the silver medal.
Since then, Canadian teams have been on the podium ten times including in 2009 when Canada hit another milestone. After years of finishing in third place, Canada finally struck gold. NEXXICE, from Western Ontario and the Burlington Skating Club, coached by Shelley Simonton Barnett and Anne Schelter, won Canada’s very first gold medal, the only gold Canada has won to date against the currently dominant Nordic countries.
At this year’s World Championships in Hamilton at the FirstOntario Centre April 10th and 11th … and with home ice advantage … NEXXICE will once again carry Canada’s banner into competition along with Les Sûpremes from Quebec’s CPA St Leonard.
To claim that honour, both teams competed recently at the Skate Canada Synchronized Skating Championships in Quebec City where NEXXICE won an unprecedented ninth consecutive senior title. Along with Les Sûpremes, those two teams are considered role models for the 800 other skaters on forty of the country’s best teams competing at nationals.
It’s no surprise that to have that kind of national and international success, synchro runs deep in Canada.
This year 6500 skaters were registered on 467 teams at all levels of expertise across the country. From beginners to experts, for fun or for medals, skating at home or abroad, participating in synchro is good news for everyone! It can be as light-hearted or as competitive as the motivation of the individual skater.
While teams around the world concentrate on continuing to push the level of skating to amazingly high standards; while more countries and more skaters become involved, the sport is approaching another major turning point.
The dream to compete in the Olympic Games may be coming into focus.
Irish Kiss: Nova synchronized skating team pays tribute to cherished manager with emotional Celtic program/by Skate Canada
Just before the music starts, Nadine Tougas glances skyward and blows a kiss towards the heavens.
It’s become the choreographed signature of the season for the Nova Open synchronized skating team. This kiss, this sentimental Irish kiss, for their own Linda McGirr.
“Every time we did that, in every program, it was in Linda’s memory,” says team captain Tougas.
“It is for her.”
Call it the longest goodbye in this most emotional of seasons for the Quebec-based Nova squad, an enduring tribute to their longtime manager who passed away so suddenly one year ago.
No one ever saw it coming. Hours after Nova returned home from the 2014 Skate Canada Synchronized Skating Championships in B.C. with a fourth straight Open title, McGirr, a beloved teacher who had dedicated her spare time to Nova for more than a decade, told her family she was feeling unusually tired.
“At competitions, she was always the last one to bed and the first one up, she was always doing something for the team,” says team coach and choreographer Marie-France Sirois. “It was just who she was. We thought that was why she was tired. We never thought it could be anything else.”
McGirr went to the doctor for what she thought would be a routine check-up.
Instead, what followed was the devastating news that she had been diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer, and she did not have much time left.
Linda McGirr never went home again. Instead, she went straight to the hospital. A month later, she was gone, at just 51 years of age.
“The last thing she did in her life was with this team,” Sirois adds. “That is how much she loved us. That is how much she loved this team.”
“We didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye. We honestly thought we still had lots of time with her…”
McGirr seemed to have a profound effect on everyone she ever met, whether it was her students at Champlain College Saint-Lambert, where she taught for over 30 years, or her skating families at CPA Brossard and the Nova Synchronized Skating Club. Even after her daughter, Caroline, stopped skating with Nova a few years ago, Linda’s bond with the team only grew stronger.
In her final days, McGirr found comfort in the Celtic music she had listened to her entire life. Her battle was brief yet courageous.
And then she was gone.
At her funeral, several of McGirr’s favourite Irish songs were played, including Danny Boy. As she struggled to hold back the tears, Sirois found herself captivated by the music.
“It was such a sad day, but that music…” says Sirois of the funeral, before pausing.
“Beautiful music for a beautiful person. It was then I decided we would honour her with our program.”
Without a chance to bid a final farewell to McGirr, Nova created their own goodbye, set on their terms, to their music, their program and their season.
Sirois, looking to find that perfect balance for their four-minute routine, began listening to Irish music night and day. Once she decided on the songs, Sirois brought in Hugo Chouinard, renowned in skating circles for his music design mastery, to build a medley that opens with a moving Celtic rendition of Amazing Grace and culminates with a toe-tapping Riverdance number.
Once the music was cut, Sirois turned to esteemed Quebec designer Josiane Lamond to create the team’s Celtic-inspired outfits. She also enlisted the help of Montreal Irish dancer Martin Côté, who has performed all over the world, to work with her team.
The final product was an exquisite four-minute labour of love that kindled a year-long tribute, culminating with Nova claiming their fifth consecutive national Open championship two weeks ago in Quebec City.
“It was very emotional, and people came up and told us we were able to pass on that emotion to the story,” adds Tougas. “I will never forget this moment.”
“Linda inspired us right up until the end,” admits Tougas. “Each time we performed the program, we let her know, ‘This is for you. Enjoy.’”
“She loved to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and loved everything Irish,” says Sirois, adding she was always inspired by the famed Riverdance program of Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz. “Her sense of humour helped make her who she was. She always had us laughing.
“I just wish we would have done this program when she was still here with us.”
“It has been very emotional, but we want people to remember her, to talk about her and let people know what she meant to us,” Sirois continues. “I always tell the girls to skate for themselves – not for their parents, not for me – but for themselves.”
“This season it was different. Something was missing. They were also skating for someone else.”
In Quebec City for the national championships, their first without McGirr, Nova taped a photo of their beloved manager on each of the team’s hotel room doors.
On the final day of practice, as Nova went through one last dry run on their biggest stage of the season, a lone bird glided into the arena, circling high above the ice for a few minutes.
The moment was not lost on anyone.
“Someone said ‘it’s her. She’s here,’” says Sirois.
“It almost felt like a sign that she was still with us.”
Some things are just not meant to change.
Fifty Years Later: Petra Burka, 1965 World Champion/by Skate Canada
It doesn’t feel like 50 years, says Petra Burka, 1965 world champion, of her momentous achievement, almost a lifetime ago. Somebody sent flowers and cheer. There’s a celebration in Toronto on today. The years have gone in a flash. Still, Burka is ever youthful. “I think because I’m with kids a lot, I don’t feel old,” she says, still working as a team leader and coach.
She remembers little of that day 50 years ago of her stunning win. But she recalls that she and her coach/mother Ellen Burka looked at each other when they heard Petra had won. “I think she was happier than me,” Petra said. “I was in shock.” She had swept both the figures and the free skate.
In a way, she’s paying the price for having an innate jumping ability and she did it in a time without the sort of support that the skaters of today enjoy. Last year, she had hip replacement surgery. The banging on her leg as she worked the doubles – and the triples – took a toll. “It’s a skating thing,” she says. “I think you’ll find a lot of figure skaters, dancers, athletes need hip replacements. It was my landing foot. Now they have sophisticated programs that allow you to get your body warmed up so you won’t injure yourself.”
In Petra’s time, there was no such science or help. Skaters back then did not do off-ice work. She went to the rink straight from school, put on her skates and jumped. Strangely enough, Petra never suffered an injury as a competitor. And just like so many other things in her life, it wasn’t easy for Petra to recover from her hip surgery. The flat in which she lives – in an orchid-hued house designed by architect sister Astra – requires her to navigate 45 steps to the top, to her sun-filled digs.
Petra was Ellen’s first international student, and together they learned the ropes. For her now 93-year-old mother (she still has her driver’s licence), there had been many more to follow. Ellen Burka has taught students that made it to seven Olympics and won 48 international medals. Petra led the way, often training on her own while her single mother worked to pay the bills. Fifty years ago, skaters didn’t get money to train, and they were restricted from earning money. The rule back then was that if skaters earned more than $25 in a season, they’d be banished from the amateur kingdom for good.
“After worlds, we’d be in shows all over Europe and North America, but we didn’t see anything of it,” says Petra. While Petra’s journey to her first world championship in Prague in 1962 was paid by the skating association, Ellen had to buy her own ticket. While she was away, she’d lose the revenue from lessons missed. At Petra’s first Canadian championship in Regina, she and her mother dined on their own breakfast of champions – a can of beans on a hotel dining room plate – because her mother didn’t have the cash to pay for steaks. Remember, women weren’t allowed to apply for credit cards in those days.
In her day, skaters didn’t have the luxury of going to sports schools that would understand the demands of an athlete schedule. Petra would get to the rink by 6 a.m. for four hours of figures, and two hours of free skating a day, and she’d miss the first period of school. Between January and March, she seldom showed up at school because of her travels. The school would demand that Petra still write her exams and she’d cram to fit it all in. Luckily, she has a photographic memory and it would all stick. The year she won the world championships, she got 49 out of 50 on a health exam, but zero for the physical education portion of the course – because she was never there.
It didn’t take long for the Russians to spot Petra’s superior jumping ability at her first world championship in 1962. During a tour that followed, she received a telegram from the Russian federation, asking if she and her mother could go to Moscow and do skating seminars. “They wanted to know how my mother taught ‘that girl who could jump.’” Petra says. “What’s the secret?”
In Prague, the Russians had taken their passports. Ellen was understandably skittish, with no documents in hand in a Communist country. Finally they boarded a cargo plane with no seats for the ride to Moscow. Ellen calmed her nerves by downing vodka. “I remember the plane flew really low and dropped mail or whatever and would keep flying,” Petra recalls.
After her amateur career, Petra toured for three years with Holiday on Ice, with the final two years in Europe. It was a culture shock for Petra, used to training, never going out, missing the high school prom. They played to sold-out houses for a month in Paris, and Amsterdam, too. Picture this: near a rink in Paris, there would be 10 caravans, where the show’s cast and crew would have wives and dogs and lives. Petra could have stayed for another two-year stint, but she decided that she didn’t want to get caught up in a never-ending carnival life with “all those gypsies that stay in forever.”
Mostly, Petra would stay in cheaper hotels in Europe (skaters paid for accommodations) because that’s where her friends were. One night, she was caught off guard. During a drive from France to Spain, Petra stopped to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969 on a tiny TV screen somewhere out in the countryside. When Petra finally arrived in Madrid, the sun was rising over the city, and her room had been taken. It was the only time she checked into a five-star hotel during her career.
She arrived back home in Toronto with a designer wardrobe and a Mercedes 250 SL that promptly died, and found herself in the midst of another culture shock. While she’d been gone, hippies had blossomed, and they all wore gauzy dresses with flowers in their hair. “We were yuppies before there were yuppies,” Petra says. She had to adjust to the real world. “It took me the next 40 years to recover,” she says, laughing.
With the money she made on the tours, she bought her mother a refrigerator. “I want to make sure my mother gets credit,” Petra says. “She had a pretty tough life. She had to drive herself around between three clubs to make a living. My mom was instrumental in my doing well. It was because of her that I became a champion.”
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