Victor Kraatz hadn’t expected to be inducted into the Hall of Fame of the British Columbia/Yukon skating section on May 2. The memories fluttered back from long, long ago. It was a great honour.
In recent years, he’s been out of the loop. He’d moved on, left figure skating behind. He hasn’t set foot in a figure skating rink in about 2 and a half years, since he began teaching skating skills to young hockey players all over the lower mainland of British Columbia.
But the glittery Hall of Fame night came, the crowd gave Kraatz a standing ovation, and of course, everyone had to watch a video of Kraatz and partner Shae-Lynn Bourne, in green garb, skating to their signature routine, the high-energy “Riverdance” from the 1997-1998 season.
Kraatz’s 4-year-old son, Henry, tugged at his father’s sleeve and said: “That’s not Mommie. Who is that woman?”
Kraatz is married to former Finnish ice dancer Maikki Uotila, and has two sons, Oliver, 8 and Henry. ”My oldest understands that there was a figure skating background of some sort,” Kraatz said. “And that I may have accomplished something. He’s not quite sure.”
“But the little guy just thinks I play hockey. That’s all he’s known of me. I coach hockey. I work with kids all the time. I’m on the go, so the little guy was really confused.”
Kraatz’s new world doesn’t necessarily realize that he was a 10-time Canadian ice dancing champion with Bourne, a three-time Olympian, and a world champion in 2003. And that this unforgettable duo brought hydroblading to the vocabulary of skating, that they dared to be different with their Riverdance routine, in which they transferred a stationary dance to the glide of the blade with blinding footwork.
On learning of his induction, Kraatz’s mind immediately went to the people who had input into his skating career and his life.
Born in Germany, Kraatz started out as a hockey player when his family lived in Switzerland. But that all ended when a coach bluntly told him that he was too short. “You’re done,” he was told.
He learned his first skating skills with former Swiss pair champions Mona and Peter Szabo, who taught him the fundamentals and all sorts of caring life lessons. Kraatz moved to Vancouver at age 15, and coach Joanne Sloman played a major role in teaching extra skills sessions. Kraatz invited her to the Hall of Fame ceremonies.
During the early 1990s, Kraatz moved to Montreal to train with Eric Gillies and Josee Picard, also instrumental in his career. He loved Picard’s tough work ethic. “I liked her style and I liked who she was as a person. I really respected her,” Kraatz said. It was tough for him to leave, he said.
A relationship with Uschi Keszler, was also important: she was “relentless” in having he and Bourne show communication between the two and that they remain true to themselves. Tatiana Tarasova took the team to a new level.
Most of all, there was Bourne, who Kraatz called the most important person in his life at the time. They were completely different people, Kraatz found. “I just loved the freedom that she had,” Kraatz said. “There were no boundaries. She wanted to experience the joy of life. And I was very set.
“She would always say: ‘Let’s have fun.’ And I would go: ‘No, fun in German means just not working hard. Fun is fun. And work has to be work.’ She’d say: ‘Canadian fun means just enjoying it.’ For the longest time, I never understood that having-fun part of training.”
By their final year together, Bourne’s life force rubbed off on Kraatz. Kraatz learned to trust his training and relax. It worked.
But it all ended a short time after Bourne and Kraatz won the world title. Today, Kraatz acknowledges that the breakup of the team was his fault. He had been so driven to work, even on breaks and vacations; he’d head straight to the gym. “I personally did not have the release,” he said. “I never wanted to be out of shape. I always wanted to be on the top of my game, because that’s who I wanted to be.” Things fell apart.
Today, Kraatz has huge admiration for Bourne, who has made a career of being a world-class choreographer. “She was such a wonderful person,” Kraatz said. “It’s unbelievable what she brought to the table. I was very lucky that I skated with her, that I was able to spend that much time with her. We always had a great professional relationship and I’m so grateful for that.”
In 2003, Kraatz needed something else. He moved back to Vancouver, and taught skating for a while. But to truly forge his own path, he went to school and studied marketing. But it wasn’t easy, when all of his credentials were as an athlete. He found work at a marketing agency in Yaletown, when one day his life changed on a fluke. A friend told Kraatz he was going on a break and could he look after his hockey team? Sure, said Kraatz and promptly went out and bought hockey skates, a helmet, a stick and a puck.
His first session with the hockey players “went really horrible,” Kraatz said. But the coach said: “We want you back. You’ve got to come back tomorrow.” About 2 and a half years ago, Kraatz decided to ditch the marketing career for the open arms of hockey.
These days, Kraatz moves with ease in his new life. It allows him to contribute, to create. He has some 6-year-olds that are doing well. He has some teenagers. He has a player who was on the roster for a Junior A team in Kelowna. Like Szabo, Kraatz tries to teach life lessons to his young charges. And he has gone back to the gym, to meet the increasing physical demands of his new work.
“I’ve come full circle,” Kraatz said. ”It’s something as a kid I always wanted to do and I didn’t have the chance to do it.” When he pulled the hockey skates on, all of his muscle memory came back from his teens. The boots felt light.
He feels like he used to when he was a figure skater: he wakes up every morning and it doesn’t matter if he feels tired. He also feels energized. “That feeling is back,” Kraatz said. “I’m finally back. I’m finding myself. I am myself again.”
It’s been a long road for Kraatz.