This is a story I wrote for the Skate Canada website on Victor Kraatz and what he is doing today:
This is a story I wrote for the Skate Canada website on Victor Kraatz and what he is doing today:
This is a story I wrote about Patrick Chan’s new programs for his comeback season:
A story I wrote for the Skate Canada website on world champion synchro skating team: Nexxice.
Welcome back, Mao Asada, if indeed you are back.
It won’t be easy for you to return after a year away and news of a pack of young figure skaters intending to try out your triple Axel and even quads in the future. (Training those things is one thing. Producing them in competition is another, as Asada well knows.)
But Asada has never been one to back away from a challenge, insisting throughout most of her career on including a triple Axel that was often underrotated, a jump that seemed to cost her more than it helped her. Never mind. It’s higher, faster, stronger with Asada.
Asada doesn’t seem to be returning because she’s trying to avenge her Olympic losses in Pyeongchang three years hence. She’s coming back, she says, because she has found that figure skating is “essential” to her life. Something in her bones. It’s something that makes her feel good, to accomplish something. It gives her happiness. At times, however, skaters cannot leave what they know and press on with their lives to achieve other things, but Asada is still only 24 years old.
It seems as if Asada has been around forever, but she was such a tiny, smiling prodigy when we first saw her. She was apparently named after Japanese actress, Mao Daichi, although it is said that her mother, Kyoko, who loved ballet, named her after legendary Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. She started skating at age 5, tagging along with older sister, Mai, and eventually began to train with Machiko Yamada, the coach of Midori Ito.
Ito was an entirely precocious skater. So was Asada, who was given special permission to compete at the senior national championships when she was only 12, at a time when she was still too young to compete on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. And she was astonishing. Wearing a mauve costume – that actually belonged to Ito when she landed a triple Axel – smiley little Asada landed a badly rotated triple Axel and a formidable combination: a triple flip- triple loop –triple toe loop combo, although underrotating those jumps, too. But she was charming, even down to the wonderful layback spin. She skated with joy, and ended her routine while a girlish smile.
Finally, she was old enough to compete on the junior circuit in 2004, and swept all events, including the Grand Prix Final, 35 points ahead of Yu-Na Kim. In the spring of 2005, Asada was the first female to land a triple Axel at the world junior championships, again defeating Kim by more than 20 points. Her mother promised her a dog if she won, and that’s how she got Aero, a toy poodle.
All three of the Olympics she contested came at the wrong arc of her days. She was too young to compete at the Turin Olympics although she had easily dusted off all senior-level competitors at the Grand Prix Final a couple of months before. In Vancouver in 2010, Asada became the first female to land three triple Axels at a competition, but after a few fumbles in the long program, Asada finished second to Kim.
After Vancouver, Asada did the gutsy thing and why should anybody be surprised? She completely relearned her jump technique, right from the basics, and it contributed to a slump in years following. At the Sochi Olympics, after beginning to regain her power, Asada met with disaster, falling on her triple Axel, and dropping to 16th place after the short program, where it is very risky to do such a jump. The tweets flew from all manner of top figure skater to console her. “Mao – you were great. Special thanks for the 3.5 Axel! You’re a real fighter!” said Evgeny Plushenko. “Mao Asada – heartbreaking,” tweeted Michelle Kwan. “Hard day for Mao –But still you are amazing!!One of my favs,” said Javier Fernandez. “Mao has a gentle grace that you cannot teach. I’d have watched it if she marked all three jumps,” said John Coughlin. “Omg. So much respect for Mao. Pushing the boundaries not only technically, but artistically as well.” quoth Jeff Buttle..
Asada triumphed with a supreme effort in the Olympic free skate, finishing third, and sixth overall. She was mesmerizing in her courage, going after that troublesome triple Axel and landing it. At the world championships that followed, at home in Saitama, Japan, she won her third world title, setting a world record for the short program with 78.66 points, finally breaking Kim’s four-year-old mark of 78.50.
Asada announced her return earlier today, first in a blog on her website, than in a press conference that was to showcase her show “ The Ice” that will take place next month in Japan. She said that while the 2014 world championship was to have been her swan song, she needed to take a physical and mental break. She earned a university degree from Chukyo University, and appeared in glorious attire upon graduation, dressed in a kimono, with long navy skirt and pink floral top in March.
Then she started to work with Nobuo and Kumiko Sato – her coaches from 2010 on, again. In her blog, she said she started to think she could still do it, and felt a void. “And then the idea came to my mind that I wanted to return,” she wrote.
So should Asada return, she will have much to live up to, including her own previous efforts. There is still no guarantee that she will be back. She says she must get herself back to the shape she was in when she won her most recent world championship. If not, she won’t be ready. In other words, she’ll be back when she’s ready.
It’s doubtful we’ll see her during Grand Prix season. She might show up at Japanese nationals this year, and then perhaps worlds in Boston. She knows the bar has been set higher now by young Russian girls and a host of others who are rushing to the triple Axel. She’s coming to Canada for choreography. Sounds serious.
If she can return to her former glories, it will be a huge shot for skating in Japan. While Midori Ito started the ball rolling, Asada made the sport outrageously popular in Japan, where she is still the most recognizable athlete in the country.
Asada ranks extremely high on the DBI or the David Brown index, which evaluates the marketability of athletes – and it has done so for more than 7,000 of them. If you get a zero on this index, you are in trouble and need to find another line of work. A score of 100 is tops.
On the DBI, Asada gets an 88.83, higher than most other female athletes such as Mexican golfer Lorena Ochoa, Venus Williams, Steffi Graf and Carolina Kostner (who also ranks quite high with 86.45). Asada has an awareness factor of 99 per cent from the Japanese population. Who in Japan does not know about here? Incredible.
At the Sochi Olympics, Asada attracted the most twitter mentions, more than her archrival Kim and American snowboarder Shaun White, a two-time Olympic gold medalist. It seems that when Asada makes a misstep, the world feels her pain.
So welcome back, Mao. We need your pioneering spirt, your lovely touch on the ice, your soul.
In the early morning light – say 7 a.m – a battalion of choreographers showed up at the Powerade Centre in Brampton, Ont. Their job? To create moving, arresting, complicated routines for the sixth Margaret Garrison Ice Show. In one day. In all, 29 choreographers lent their talents to this show.
This show held extra significance because it also marked the 60th anniversary of the Central Ontario Section of Skate Canada – a sizable area in the mostly highly populated section of the country. It’s a highly influential section that has spawned 10 level-four coaches, (24 per cent of the total Canadian coach population at this level), six level-five coaches (half of this top-rank in the country), and 11 Olympic medals.
Its skaters have produced the first triple Salchow by a woman (Petra Burka), the first triple Lutz (Donald Jackson), the first triple Axel (Vern Taylor) and the first quad combo at a world championship (Elvis Stojko.) The section has had nine world champions.
The Central Ontario Section or shall we say simply the COS, has muscled its way around the national championships, producing 20 women’s champions, 21 ice dancing champs, 24 pair titlists, eight synchro skating victors and – get this – 40 men’s champions over the past 60 years. Currently it has 94 clubs, two of them with more than 2,000 members and of course, the show is never complete without skaters flying the flags of each club in undulating formations.
Here’s another cool fact, brought up by COS chairman/MC Paul Cotter. Of the 92 members of the Canadian Figure Skating Hall of Fame, 46 of them fly the flag of the mighty COS.
So at one end of the lively complex, which features Brampton’s Hall of Fame, rippled an elegant black curtain with “COS” and “ 60” detailed in bright white lights. The tables floated around the ice surface, ringed in lights. The folks that filed in saw two hours of non-stop skating, from tiny CanSkaters to Canada’s newest hero, Nam Nguyen, the 40th COS men’s champion, who at age 16, finished fifth at the world championships in Shanghai in March.
There wasn’t a dull moment. There never is. There were plenty of falls and skids and hats flying off. All hugely entertaining. And all in honour of Madame Margaret, who buzzed her way into the section and did it all for 25 years: prepared meals in the kitchen, and making sure everybody had their teacups full before a board meeting. She was the vice-president of administration before she died of cancer May 15, 2009. Surely Margaret was somewhere behind that big black curtain in the Powerade Centre, directing traffic, at least in spirit. It was also an awards night for volunteers. The number of volunteers who had a hand in producing the show was staggering.
One skater was missing. Dylan Moscovitch, the Canadian pair silver medalist with his new Russian-born partner Lubov Ilyushechkina, broke a finger in practice last week and at the moment can do no lifts, no throws, nothing. Ilyushechkina performed by herself in a group number, now an honoured member of the COS. This twosome won the Standing Ovation Bursary Award, given to skaters that share Garrison’s “passion for figure skating, selfless attitude and perseverance,” and this bursary couldn’t have rained in a drier spot, with Moscovitch and Ilyushechkina having to turn to crowd funding last season to finance their incredible journey. They are celebrating their first anniversary of being together.
The show started on a high note. First out of the box, from behind the black curtain came 10-year-old Stephen Gogolev, gold medalist in pre-novice at Skate Canada Challenge and also the champ at the pre-novice level at the Canada Winter Games in Prince George, B.C. At that event, Gogolev got valuable experience: the stands were packed and they were loud. “I was pretty scared when I got out there,” he said.
Not apparently so at the Garrison show. Gogolev astonished spectators with his crisp spins and his arm movements and his body awareness and his flying blond hair, all there for a boy so young. Troll through some YouTube videos, and you can see him landing triple Axels under the watchful eye of coach Brian Orser. He could be a treat in years to come. (And that’s one benefit of getting to a Margaret G. show.)
And another treat: pre-novice women’s bronze medalist NatalieD’Allessandro, who came out in petal pink and skated with lovely body movement too. She’s 10.
Floods of skaters came out: STARskaters, Future Champions, two little ice dancers looking for all the world like tiny versions of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, all of them en masse, in a huddle, out of the huddle, and then a CanSkater of the year award came up: to 4-year-old Clark Paton, a little peanut under the “60” lights. (This to a skater who shows enthusiasm and dedication to the CanSKate program throughout the season.)
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a CanSkate demonstration, with toddlers finding their feet. They had the same presence at this show as did Carol Hopper, who earned a 50-year pin for her work in the section, and also the Peter Hunt Memorial Award (named for a long-time volunteer). You have to be a cherished volunteer to get this award. Hopper has passed the acid test, many times. She has been ubiquitous over the years.
Other highlights: Roman Sadovsky, now seemingly a regular, slipping around the rink in his jeans with inimitable style; (coach Tracey Wainman tells me he’s sprouted some more inches, even since we last saw him at the Canadian championships in January); Michelle Long, who finished 7th in senior women at her very first Canadian championship last January at age 22 (didn’t start competing until she was a 15-year-old pre-novice skater), floated out, dressed in rich orchid and skated to an iconic Leonard Cohen tune: “Hallelujah.” However, unlike Jeremy Ten, who used Jeff Buckley’s version to win the silver medal at the Canadian championships from his B.C. perch, Long used k.d. lang’s powerful one. (In the 30th anniversary of the song, Newsweek ranked 60 version of the song, from worst to best. Lang ranked fifth. Buckley was second. Cohen himself was eighth. Susan Boyle faded away at 56th place. Yikes, the Canadian Tenors were 59th).
Junior dance national silver medalists Lauren Collins and Shane Firus were winsome, skating to the haunting and heartbreaking “Say Something:” Two Special Olympics skaters dressed in black velvet may have been the best-dressed of the night. Some adult skaters showed off cheek while skating to “Fly Me to the Moon.” (And don’t we love it when skaters slap their rumps on the way out?). Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam did what they do best: something lyrical and lovely with long edges. Team Elite featured Gabby Daleman coming out in a long cloak: Leaside’s synchro club offered up some talented newbies in Meraki, the novice version, making “I Love Lucy” come alive. Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier showed up at their third Garrison, fresh from a sixth-place finish at the world championships and gave us gorgeous moves, including one in which Poirier picks up Gilles on the fly, and then replayed a beautiful move done by Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay years ago in their Reflections number.
And then there was Nguyen, who showed us a side we haven’t seen before, a routine choreographed by Shin Amano, otherwise known as a tough technical specialist, but obviously a program designer with enchanting vision. All of the cheekiness and showmanship of Nguyen disappeared and in its place was a lovely, classical and emotive routine. Stay tuned for more of this in the coming season.
A link to an obituary that I wrote for my old mother ship, The Globe and Mail, on mastercoach Sheldon Galbraith, who died on April 14.
A story I wrote for The Paulick Report, based in Kentucky, about thoroughbred race announcer Dan Loiselle, who I’ve known for a great part of my life:
Apparently, Patrick Chan lives on the edge. He wants his skating to do the same. We apparently have seen nothing yet.
And that, boys and girls, is why he is returning to the competitive skating wars next season, but not before he takes in a few more high-risk, death-defying activities.
Today he, Kaitlyn Weaver, Andrew Poje, Jeffrey Buttle, Eric Radford, and the instigator of all this risky business, Joannie Rochette, are going sky diving in Montreal, where the Stars On Ice tour has landed. Chan doesn’t intend to tell his coach Kathy Johnson about this, but he says he’s sure she’ll be okay with it.
He certainly didn’t tell her the first time he did it a few weeks ago, down in Florida, with Rochette leading the way. “Joannie is quite the sky diver,” Chan said earlier today on a conference call. “It was a blast.” He admitted he was very scared. “Contemplated life,” he said.
At one point, Chan turned to his experienced jumping partner in the plane and noticed how high about the planet they were. He figured they were about ready to peel out of the door any minute. Not so. “We’re only half way,” he told Chan.
“Are you kidding me?” Chan said.
The anticipation and the waiting were eerily similar to that fluttery feeling that Chan endures after the six-minute warmup at a skating event, he said. The first two or three seconds out of the plane gave him more than goosebumps. Call it terror. “After that, it was such a great rush,” he said. “And I’m really in the moment and you enjoy every minute of it. And you pull [the ripcord], and oh my god, the view is amazing.
“And it just makes you realize how small I am – and not to bash on the figure skating world – but how small the figure skating world is. Many of us think that figure skating is our world and it’s huge and it’s all about us. But at the end of the day, the world is very big, and there are many, many people out there doing many, many different things. I ‘m just a part of this sport and I want to give the best I can and just have a great experience and have that rush. I live for that rush that I get from sky diving.”
It’s not the gold Olympic medal he’s missing that is pulling Chan back into this quixotic skating world – although he admits it’s at the back of his mind. He wants the rush of competing. He’s spent the past season doing all the things he never dared to do while competing: surfing, skiing in the back country, sky diving, where your life is on the line. It has all reminded him that he has a great life, and where he finishes at an event doesn’t affect who he is and what he does with his life. That mindset could make him dangerous next season.
Chan, now 24, feels he has more to give, particularly on the performance side of the sport. He doesn’t want to look back when he’s 40 and regret the hesitation. He wants to remember the feeling of complete satisfaction on an endeavour that will drive future generations to pop the DVD in a machine and say: “This is what skating should be.” He wants to try new things styles, new choreography. He wants to try music with lyrics, which he feels enhances choreographic adventures. He wants to expand his “vocabulary in movement and choreography,” he says.
More than ever, he feels there’s a place for that in the men’s discipline. Chan admits he did not watch the men’s event at the world championships in Shanghai last March. He watched only the ice dancing event, because his friends in Detroit were ice dancers competing there (Weaver and Poje, Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam).
Later, he used the magic of YouTube to watch the routines of Javier Fernandez and Olympic champ Yuzuru Hanyu. He skimmed through their programs. “That says a lot,” Chan said candidly. “It wasn’t that I disliked them. I like Javi and I love his jumps as well as Yuzu: his jumps and his triple Axel. I admire it and I admire a lot of elements of their programs. It’s just that’s what it is. I literally fast-forwarded through their biggest jumps and that’s it. Then I stopped watching.”
Chan feels that their skating hasn’t changed. “It doesn’t look any different. They’re skating to the same pieces of music and style.” Even though Fernandez skated to the Barber of Seville, Chan feels that Fernandez still exhibited very much a Charlie Chaplin style, which “totally works for him.” Chan says he’d love to see him do classical pieces. “Just because that’s what I would do if I was in that position,” he said. “I would challenge myself and do that.”
The skaters that brought the kind of special flair that Chan wants to bring to the skating world are ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who shocked the world by leaping from 13th to first in world standings in one season. Chan admits he knows nothing about ice dance, but he understands the feeling that the French team evoked. “When they skated, I was really taken away,” Chan said. “I was sitting at my house, at my computer, on my desk. I felt like I was in a whole different world. I was taken into their world. I was enchanted. I felt they expressed the emotion of pain and love, and all that cheesy stuff. (!)
“But I felt that it really came out on the computer screen. Imagine that. That’s what I look for these days. The reason I do extreme stuff like jumping out of an airplane is to get that extreme feeling. I had goosebumps watching them. That’s a good sign.”
He wants to get back into the regimented world of competing. David Wilson will be choreographing his routines: “Stepping Out” for the short program (music he used for exhibitions during the 2013-14 season) and a revamping of the long program that we’ve seen only at last year’s Japan Open, which he won convincingly by 23 points over Fenandez. (Hanyu wasn’t there.) The music? Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude.
So drink to that. Chan can help with that, too. In June, Ontarians will be able to buy his own label of ice wine, bottled up in Niagara.
This is a story I wrote that appeared on the Skate Canada website:
By Beverley Smith
Tracy Wilson figures she learns as much as she teaches.
Yes, we all know she’s a crack skating analyst for various television networks, having won Gemini Awards for her work. But the former Olympic ice dancing medalist has quietly and behind the scenes fashioned a stellar career as a skating coach to some of the world’s best. Teaching all manner of skaters the true art of the blade, Wilson has become the wind beneath the wings of Olympic champions and world contenders.
And she’s done it through partnerships: Learning from other sports as she teaches their athletes. She’s deconstructed puzzles, and has come out on the other side with exercises and methods that seem to work wonderfully well. Several weeks ago, three of her students placed among the top five in the men’s event at the world championships in Shanghai: new world champ Javier Fernandez, Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu and the irrepressible Canadian champion Nam Nguyen who made believers out of many with his fifth-place finish at age 16.
Wilson’s exercises are a hybrid of many things, starting with what worked to make her and partner Rob McCall seven-time Canadian champions, three-time world bronze medalists, and the first Canadian ice dancers to win an Olympic medal (bronze in 1988.) She and McCall did foundation exercises every day as they trained. “It really helped us to find our balance, to create muscle memory so that we weren’t ever having to think,” Wilson said. “Our bodies just know how to maximize efficiency.”
After the death of McCall in 1991, Wilson didn’t skate for five years. She returned to the ice only because her children wanted to skate. Her oldest son, Shane, started playing hockey. Everything changed after a chance meeting with a hockey coach at a cocktail party. Wilson found herself telling him: “Guess what you guys need to do?” The coach asked her if she’d like to do it. Wilson said: “Sure.”
She worked with her son’s team from the time he was about seven or eight until he was in his mid-teens. Another son, Ryan, also played hockey. “I just took my ice dance exercises and that’s what I did with these hockey players with music,” she said. She adapted the exercises to the needs of the players.
And of course, the needs were different. She learned that hockey players didn’t care how they looked on ice. They had no need for the pointed-toe thing. They cared about balance and speed and power. She quickly discovered that she had to always stay one step ahead of 9 and 10-year-olds, and always tried to come up with new exercises.
“What I gained from them was a freedom,” she said. “It was really interesting to me.” And in turn, she brought that to her figure skating exercises. It’s great to have the correct technique, but best if you couple it with power and energy.
One day, son Shane was on the ice at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club because he had asked his mother to work with him. Intrigued, U.S. skaters Adam Rippon and Christina Gao, who were training in Toronto at the time, asked if they could train with him. “It was fabulous,” Wilson said. “They got on the ice and you could really see the difference. They were going for style over power. And I said: ‘Guys, just for fun, get in behind Shane. And always listen to his blade and forget about how you look. Just stay in there.’”
She and cohort Brian Orser have both honed in on what works to help different skaters. There is no set formula. When Wilson actually went back to coaching figure skating, her first students were astonishing: Chinese pair stars Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao. Lori Nichol, who had been choreographing for them, sent them over to Wilson to tinker with their skating skills just as both Orser and Wilson had started at the club.
Together, they worked five hours the first day. Wilson took them right back to the basics. At the time, Yu Na Kim’s mother was in the rink, coming to work with choreographer David Wilson, and she asked if Wilson would work with her daughter.
“Sure,” Wilson said. “When?”
“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,” she said. So Kim became Wilson’s second student. She had a whole year to work with Kim. Eventually, whatever Wilson could think up for her, Kim could do.
“If you haven’t really broken down the skating basics to their most simple form, you can’t build on top of it,” Wilson said. She had set Shen and Zhao right back to doing two-foot skating exercises, called bubbles (feet go in and out together), and it was to teach them knee action and balance. They spent about 30 to 40 minutes on the first exercises and then moved to inside edges.
“I just knew if I was going to do for them what they needed, we had to start from the very beginning and I didn’t know any other way,” Wilson said. Later she called Nichol and told her she was going to apologize in advance for frustrating Zhao in particular. Nichol said on the contrary: they had loved it and wanted to do it every day. They trained with Wilson for 10 days in a row.
Last spring, Zhao, now a coach, sent three of his pair teams to Wilson so that she could work with them in the same way. They are the same exercises that Wilson and Orser use to teach beginner skaters and adults.
Wilson has also developed off-ice training over the years, too. She herself had worked Pilates, and dance on the floor and adapted some of those exercises onto the ice. “You can be very creative once you have the basics and see how the principles follow through at all levels,” she said.
Most importantly, in the beginning, Wilson wasn’t sure – coming from an ice dance perspective – if what she was doing was what a single skater or a hockey player or a hockey player, or a synchro skater needs.
“But you know what?” she said. “It is. It’s the same.” Yes, partnerships and cross-discipline learning works.
For a decade, Toller Cranston played the strawberry violin.
Picasso had his Blue Period. Cranston had his Strawberry Period.
Cranston always subscribed to the maxim that “If something is worth doing, it is worth overdoing.”
In 1970, he walked into the home of a California coach and his psyche was ignited by her over-the top, exuberant strawberry décor. He went home and painted “The Strawberry Queen,” which was followed in quick succession by “The Strawberry Patch,” the “Strawberry Tango,” the “Strawberry Sisters,” the “Strawberry Warrior.”
“Strawberries overwhelmed my paintings like juicy red barnacles on a ship’s hull: clusters and clusters and clusters and more and more and more,” he said in his autobiography “When Hell Freezes Over, Should I Bring My Skates?”
When serious art collectors began to think them trite, Cranston said he phased out the strawberry period, but sometimes, during a decorative work, “a strawberry pops out of nowhere and lands on the canvas.”
But not before Cranston’s first television production of “Strawberry Ice,” a visual fantasy, a 1982 CBC production that won a string of awards and was broadcast in 67 countries.
Out of the trunk of his coach Ellen Burka came an old video of that show, and that video begat Toller’s Strawberry tea, held at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club a day before what would have been Cranston’s 66th birthday on April 20. Cranston died on Jan. 24 of an apparent heart attack.
At the Cricket, the strawberries returned en masse. There were chocolate-covered strawberries, strawberry cookies, strawberry scones, strawberry ice cream. Astra Burka, daughter of coach Ellen Burka, came dressed in red from head to toe. Red skirts, pink blouses, honoured the strawberry.
Best of all, was the star of the show, the costume that Frances Dafoe had designed for Sarah Kawahara, the Strawberry Queen in the film. While the video’s colour had paled over the years, the costume had not. It stood resplendent at the front of the room, all intense pink petals of various shades, a work of art, indeed. Dafoe, herself, was at the party, seeing it again.
During the video, the crowd tittered when Osborne Colson gestured as only he can on camera, wearing a costume that made him appear portly. Sandra Bezic arose from a clam. Peggy Fleming danced with the artist. Chita Rivera brought a sensual touch. Allan Schramm was the second lead, and seemed to be the force of evil, or the anti-artist that keeps returning like a bad penny, until Cranston throws him off his game, banishing him down a whirlpool into a black hole. That’s when the strawberry court is free to come out.
Early in the story, a ghostly Toller floats out of his body and into a painting, taking a fantastical journey. Bodies float in this film. Is it any surprise that, in so many Cranston paintings, figures float above the earth, untied to convention, free of gravity and rules?
Downstairs at the Cricket, in a special display cabinet, was a figures medal that Cranston won during a Skate Canada International event. Yes, a figures medal. “His big problem was figures,” said former international judge Jane Garden, who used to be Cranston’s judge monitor, even back from the time he trained in Montreal.
“He had a rather free spirit toward what figures should be,” said Garden, who said it was challenging but interesting to be his monitor. Garden discovered that Cranston executed the figures best when he laid them out on clean ice in front of a judge. So every morning, she got into the habit of stopping by the club (she lived around the corner from the Cricket) on her way to school, and watched him do one figure. She’d look at it and continue on to her teaching job.
One morning, a CBC crew showed up to film Cranston. “They had somebody following him around the figure with a microphone to catch the sound of the blade,” Garden said. “He laid out the best figure that morning that I’d seen in years. He rose to the occasion.”
Shortly after that, Cranston won that figures medal. And when he returned to Toronto, he gave the medal to Garden, telling her that she was really the one who had earned it. Garden gave the medal to the club a couple of years ago, and during the tea, it was on display, an unusual trophy in Cranston’s career.
But Garden really came to the tea to talk about Cranston’s “extremely generous nature.” A tiny woman, she stood on a stool behind a massive podium to deliver her message.
When Cranston was on tour, he was always on the lookout for talented young skaters. When he found one, he’d let the Canadian Figure Skating Association know. He’d sometimes get them to perform on one of his tours or shows. He started up a bursary fund at the Cricket Club – and it was meant to help novice level skaters who needed encouragement. Garden was on that committee that made it happen. Cranston endowed it.
As interest rates fell, the endowment needed help. So Cranston would donate items for silent auctions and the bursary has continued. “He said there were so many times along the way that he thought why was he pushing on, when nobody seemed to recognize his ability – which was partly because he was so off the wall,” Garden said. “He said you need it when you’re at that novice level. You need encouragement to keep at it and work. He said it doesn’t have to be a huge amount, just enough that somebody cared enough to give you a couple of hundred dollars to help out.”
He showed his generosity other ways. During the 1970s, Cranston had opportunities to perform in Russia. He knew that Russian skaters had a hard time buying tights inside the country – after World War II, many European countries fielded skaters that showed up with darned and tattered tights. Coach Sheldon Galbraith, head coach at the Cricket, trained his skaters to take an extra pair with them – to help others.
Cranston would stuff his suitcase full of women’s tights. And if he had to explain to Soviet customs why he brought so many, he’d tell them that he needed them “so his pants would ride smoothly as he performed, but that they didn’t survive more than one performance. So he needed many of them,” Garden said.
He’d also fill his suitcase with fruits and nuts for coaches and officials and tell customs that they were his form of nutrition. In reality, he knew that people in Russia couldn’t get the candied fruit they needed to bake Christmas cakes.
“He did all sorts of considerate things,” Garden said. “Yet at the same time, he could be obnoxious, because he didn’t do the thank yous that people were expecting. But he did all these things that showed he really did care deeply about people.”
Haig Oundjian, a former president of the British Ice Skating federation and a member of the British delegation that brought the Summer Olympics to London in 2012, was a skating colleague and long-time confidante of Cranston. Oundjian was also a contemporary of John Curry, Cranston’s greatest rival.
Oundjian also partook of strawberries and tea at the Cricket Club and noted how he worked to keep Cranston on the financial straight and narrow. “It wasn’t that easy,” he said. Cranston’s typical retort in times of trouble was” Oh for god’s sake, I’m an artist. What do you expect?”
But Oundjian also counselled Cranston on another of his great life regrets: that he hadn’t won the Olympic gold medal in 1976. It ate away at him for years like rust on an old jalopy fender.
Oundjian told of a wonderfully written 2014 book by British filmmaker/author Bill Jones called “Alone” a book about the tortured inner life of John Curry, Cranston’s archrival – the one who had snatched Olympic glory from him.
“John was well behind Toller in the days of the old judging system,” Oundjian said. “When you were behind, you stayed behind, correct?”
So, said Oundjian, Cranston had every reason to expect that he would remain ahead of the British skater, especially after a powerful skate at the 1974 world championships in Munich, Germany – when Curry had a disastrous performance. And, according to “Alone,” Italian-born coach Carlo Fassi was looking to bring a male skater to Colorado Springs, where he coached, in 1974.
To Cranston, Fassi said: “Toller, I have Dorothy Hamill here, as you know, I have all the facilities, and I want you to come on a full scholarship. I want you to come to Colorado and train with me and my wife and we will make you an Olympic gold medalist.” He offered free lessons, free ice, even a car.
The book describes Fassi thus: “In a sport infected by politics, Fassi was a master politician; a professor of spin….Fassi prowled backstage tirelessly.”
“Does that mean I have to leave Ellen Burka?” Cranston asked him.
“Yes,” Fassi said. “You do. The offer is open right now. There’s a ticket booked with your name on it. Come down.”
Cranston didn’t bite. He could not discard Burka so callously. “She’s been a wonderful coach and a wonderful friend, given me great guidance and it’s my feeling that between the two of us, I have as good a shot at the gold medal as anyone else,” Cranston told Fassi.
According to Oundjian, who confirmed the facts with Cranston, Fassi was on the phone an hour later to Curry, offering him the same thing, an Olympic gold medal. “Within a day, John [Curry] was on a plane and Alison [Smith], his coach was dropped.”
In later years, Cranston became very estranged from figure skating. “He really distanced himself,” Oundjian said (although he still took enough of an interest to phone various Canadian coaches to give his advice on their proteges). “We had these long discussions at night when he said he was never appreciated, he was never understood and really, John came out of nowhere to win and “it was unfair.”
Oundjian said he worked with Cranston to get him to come to terms with his skating career, and to “understand that in life, you don’t always win everything. Actually, there is ultimately something that underlines your purpose in life.”
Oundjian asked Cranston to describe himself. And because he refused to leave Burka in 1974, Cranston replied: “I’m a man who has values and I have substance and I couldn’t do that to someone who has done so much to me.”
The irony is, Curry died in 1994, penniless, and Cranston enjoyed a very productive artistic career.
Oundjian always tried to convince Cranston that becoming an Olympian is exceedingly difficult – some countries now don’t get to send a representative at all and that in the Olympic movement, “medalist” is a key concept, rather than gold, silver or bronze medalists.
Before Cranston died, Oundjian spent time with him in Mexico and believes the painter finally came to terms with his failure to win Olympic gold.
Cranston called Oundjian up one morning in January before he died, and said: “Haig, I’ve had an epiphany.”
“Another one?” said Oundjian.
“Yes,” Cranston said. “Do you know who I am?”
“No,” Oundjian said. “Why don’t you tell me?”
Cranston said: “I’m an Olympian.”