Zach Daleman forging his own path

Here is a story I wrote on Zach Daleman for the Skate Canada website here:


South Korea embraces anonymous judging at ISU Congress

Say what? Are you kidding me? Are you really reading that headline correctly? Say it isn’t so!

But it is. South Korea, the country that presented a petition with two million signatures protesting the results of the women’s event at the Sochi Olympics – and which certainly wasn’t served well by anonymous judging – voted to keep it at the Congress, held in Dublin, Ireland this past week.

The proposal intending to do away with anonymous judging which has so frustrated and angered skating fans for the past 15 years or so, needed a two-thirds majority to pass at the ISU Congress. And the vote was very close, according to sources: 30 voted in favour of banning it, 24 were in favour of keeping it and two willy-nilly members abstained altogether. How can you not have an opinion on it?

Why is it so important to do away with anonymous judging? Originally, it was brought in supposedly to keep federations from pressuring judges at events, like the Salt Lake City Olympics. In reality, having such a clause isn’t going to stop federations from pressuring their own judges anyway. And the optics of it are terrible: it’s not transparent. Nobody can dispute results. Nobody can call things into question. It looks like a coverup. If there is anything that really bugged fans and people in the sport, it was this anonymous judging thing.

Case in point: The ISU disciplinary committee, in their ruling into the South Korean protest of the women’s Olympic event, were told by the ISU’s Officials’ Assessment Committee that the scores of Russian judge Alla Shekhovtseva were “within the acceptable range of scores.” Her judging therefore was not considered “unacceptable.” She got no assessment from them, with the panel deeming that her work was neither “biased nor partial to the Russian skater Sotnikova.”

I guess we have to take their word for it. We don’t know what this acceptable corridor was. Nor do we know which countries created it. In the old 6.0 days, the majority rule wasn’t always correct. A good referee would look at results of all judges and sometimes declare that a judge who was out of line had actually judged the event correctly and the others had missed it (or were perhaps colluding.) Everybody could learn how to be better from it.

While the fan base for skating is not in any way in trouble in Japan or South Korea, it is in other parts of the world, where skaters sometimes perform in empty rinks and TV deals aren’t what they used to be. This anonymous judging thing is vitally important to the future of the sport. Trust has been disappearing.

So what countries voted to do away with anonymous judging at the Congress? The ones you’d expect, mostly: Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Britain, Hungary, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, United States, Andorra, Argentina, Armenia, Boznia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Serbia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, and a little more surprising: Russia, which has been well served by anonymous judging.

Countries that voted to keep anonymous judging, according to sources close to the Congress were: Austria, Sweden, Finland, Germany, both North and South Korea, all southeast Asian nations, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus, Georgia, Poland and Slovakia.

It’s entirely distressing to see countries like Sweden, Austria, Germany and South Korea voting to keep anonymous judging. Perhaps some members just don’t understand the implications? Do they want to keep judges’ scores secret? Why? What could possibly by in it for South Korea, especially with the 2018 Olympics coming up? The nobleness of their petition regarding the women’s event at the Olympics – at first they didn’t ask for medals to be reassigned, only that results be investigated “immediately and transparently” to ensure fair judging in the future – takes a bit of a hit, knowing that they want anonymous judging. It’s hard to comprehend. Open judging could have helped their case against the results of the Sochi event.

The Koreans must have been entirely frustrated in their protest and petition to the ISU. It certainly fell on deaf ears. First they were told that their original protest for a general investigation was outside the jurisdiction of the ISU disciplinary committee, who said a complaint must be directed at an individual or a federation. The committee invited South Korea to answer this. In total, it took South Korea 69 days to file the second one, against Shekhovtseva as the offender. Russia complained, because rules say you must protest within 60 days of the event. The committee countered, saying they had invited the Koreans to take a second crack at the problem and the second complaint was an amendment of the first.

Perhaps the Koreans should have thought more carefully about what they needed to take on. The new Korean complaint apparently dealt only with Shekhovtseva’s embrace of Adelina Sotnikova after the event was over. The problem with going after Shekhovtseva was that there are apparently no rules that prohibit her from judging, even if her husband is Russian federation director-general Valentin Piseev, according to the ISU. None of the rules apply to a family relationship, and Shekhovtseva and her husband weren’t officiating in the same event, the panel said. Perhaps it should. Isn’t that the spirit of ethics? (And no, perhaps federation presidents shouldn’t be judging their own skaters, as happens in other countries, which may not have enough judges to do so, by the way.)

The committee did note that “it would be obvious and reasonable to assume that she was under the influence of and had an emotional connection to the FSFR [Russian federation] in the pursuit of glory that a gold medal would bring to FSFR in an Olympic competition held in Russia. In a glaring testimony to the interest Shekhovtseva would have in the outcome of the competition, Shekhovtseva was seen embracing Sotnikova backstage …..”

Yet, the panel unravelled those assumptions. It differentiated between a judge on duty and off duty. (Who is ever “off duty” in ethics situations?) And they figured that Shekhovtseva was off-duty when she embraced Sotnikova. And the skater initiated the embrace, not Shekhovtseva. “A violation of the ISU rules requires a deliberate act,” the panel said in its decision. “The Alleged Offender [better known as Shekhovtseva], did not deliberately or negligently breach the rules. She responded reflexively.”

Boy they were splitting hairs. At the end of the day, the marks just didn’t make sense, and didn’t match what was seen on the ice.

The biggest question is: why didn’t South Korea ask the ISU to look into the actions of the technical controller, Alexander Lakernik, who is also a vice-president of the Russian federation? “Even a blind person could see the wrong edge of Sotnikova on her Lutz,” said one observer. “Except the technical controller and the technical specialist for whom the edges were correct. Nobody complained.”

The ISU should have appointed a special committee to verify the marks awarded by the judges and to have examined them. The rules allow this. The “extra” panel could have opened the mark vaults and evaluated them. But no, it’s easier for the ISU to ignore problems, especially if they want to avoid ruffling the feathers of Russia, a powerful voter in elections.

All in all, a sad day in the skating world.

Manley finding her true calling

Elizabeth Manley is a little engine that could. Her history reads like that and so does her future. Despite pestilence and famine, Manley chugs on, one blade in front of the other.

Evidence: during rehearsals for her Elizabeth Manley & Friends ice show in Peterborough on April 5, Manley broke her back in three places, when she fell from a lift. Her friends saved her from hitting her head on the ice. But she had an inkling, as soon as she hit the ice, that she had done some damage.

The Peterborough Petes’ trainer happened to be at the rink and began to treat her. Miraculously, she skated in the show. Later she found she had indeed fractured her lower No. 1, 2 and 3 lumbar vertebrae.

“It was the weirdest situation because when you’re falling and looking up at the ceiling, you don’t know you’re falling,” she said, remembering that she was held up by two skaters, fully laid out, with her face upwards.  “I didn’t know I was falling. It happened so fast. But I’m okay.” She had to pull out of a Kitchener-Waterloo 75th anniversary show that followed, the first time in 40 years that she’s had to bow out from a performance.

Manley’s number in her show was to Glass Tiger’s Alan Frew singing live. “Artists take it seriously when the show has to go on, it has to go on,” he said to the crowd. “Liz just had a serious accident during rehearsal, but she’s going to do her best.”

Manley went out and did not jump or spin. She did a corkscrew spin, but it wasn’t easy, because the pain was in her left side and she couldn’t do anything to the left. Doing crosscuts to the left hurt, too. Manley manipulated her body through the routine and didn’t go to the hospital. “You know me,” she said. “It’s my show. I’ve just got to keep going.”

When she returned home to Ottawa, she had Dr. Don Chow, team physician for the Ottawa Senators, examine her. Doctors put her in a protective brace for 10 weeks. It looked a little bit like a strait jacket, she said. “It’s not the prettiest looking thing,” she said. It had 15 velcro straps to keep it on. But she avoided surgery.

The show wasn’t just a show to Manley. Aside from being an attempt to create work for skaters, (“Skating is really tough out there right now,” she said), the show was her chance to give back, to help others “It’s my time to be able to make a difference,” she said. The show was in aid of community living in Peterborough, to raise money to help the intellectually challenged live in homes, and with some support, learn how to live on their own, how to cook, how to find a job. She fell in love with the charity.

Manley’s current work tends to centre around mental health and depression issues, conditions that afflicted her when she was a competitor. “I’m a firm believer that everything happens in your life for a reason,” Manley said. “My mom really made me a strong believer in that. I feel everything I went through with depression, my place is to give and to help. I tried to expose it with my book after the Olympics, and people didn’t really want to hear about it. I find my calling now is exactly what I’m doing right now.”

Even 26 years after winning her Olympic silver medal, Manley is busy on the talk circuit still. She’s talked at about 40 schools in the past season, and probably 20 to 30 other events. She’s spoken at a military families’ organization in Cornwall, and she’ll probably speak to a similar group in Alberta next year. She’s done some talks with the Coaching Association of Canada and Skate Canada, too. While still wearing her uncomfortable support brace, she spoke to 1,200 students at a college at Belleville, Ont. during the spring.

The topic has become much more open since Manley was dealing with dozens of issues as a teenager: the separation of her parents, being sent to Lake Placid to train and feeling very alone, losing her coach Bob McAvoy to illness, feeling like she couldn’t cut it. The stress caused her hair to fall out and she grittily competed at the 1983 Canadian championships in Montreal, not looking her best in a sport that treasures beauty.

“I’ll never forget it in 1983, when people saw me coming down the hallway of the arena, they just dispersed into other rooms,” Manley said. “They didn’t want to understand. They didn’t want to know. They didn’t get it. They were scared of it.

“It was hard, because I felt like nobody loved me and that is really tough on a teen and that’s what teens are going through today. They don’t feel loved for who they are. That’s how I was feeling. If I hadn’t embraced the help that was given to me, who is to say where I would have ended up?”

Athletes are always trained not to express their feelings, because if you do, you’re considered weak, Manley said. Figure skaters must always make the difficult look easy, to hide the sweat behind the smile. So Manley kept everything inside. That’s when her body physically broke down and said: “Stop.”

But with Olympic cyclist/speedskater Clara Hughes going public with her depressive issues and rower Silken Laumann speaking of her troubled youth, too, the tide has changed about mental illness. And it wasn’t until Manley started talking about her issues that she realized that it wasn’t just skating that caused it. Now, young people are her target, and she stresses to them to reach out for help, that they are not alone, that they can change their lives.

Sometimes, when Manley speaks at high schools, she’s seen teens begin to cry. It scared her, at first, because she feared she had scared or upset them. But then after the chats, the kids come up and ask to speak to her alone. “They literally say to me: ‘Thank you. Thank you.’” Manley said. “They say they are going through something themselves and I’ve made them realize they can get help and that they can change. And that’s what is so great.”

She’ll get emails from people telling her that her words are inspiring and heart wrenching at the same time. Manley jokes that she does it for therapy. “It’s very therapeutic for me to be able to express and tell what happened.”

It’s not as if Manley has found a straight path to a cure from her youthful depressions. She’s not always happy. Nobody is. When her mother, Joan, died five years ago, Manley hit rock bottom again. “Completely,” she said. She’s not afraid to tell people that she’s in therapy again, having had to deal with a lot of changes in her life. She’s lost her father, her mother, her dog, feeling a little lost sometimes.

“Honestly, when things get hard as an adult, doing these talks and speaking to people really brings me back to smarten up,” she said. She tells herself that if she could pull herself out from the bottom of her boots then, she can do it now.

People in society generally are under too much pressure, Manley said. Pressures to do well. Pressures to pay the bills. Pressures to have a life. Part of her talks to women include not being afraid of change or of starting over again. Manley seems to do it every 20 years: first the skater, then the professional, then the grownup, finding her way to the next step.

“With everything I’ve been through, I think my place now is to give and to help,” she said. “And that’s really what my motivation is right now. To help, especially our youth. I see so much going on with our youth right now.”

So once again, Manley is winning, always seeming to show up with a sunny, bubbly disposition, buoyed by her experience of how to cope with life’s bobbles.

May Luck Be With You

Luck is something horsemen pray for, dream about, wink at, covet.

At age 72, standardbred trainer Bill Cass has finally found it. For the first time in his life, he’s qualified a horse for the $1-million North America Cup at Mohawk Raceway. In the early days, Cass was known as a stalwart at folksy little Orangeville Raceway, a track that doesn’t even exist anymore.

At the draw for post positions on Tuesday at Mohawk, Cass was the first horsemen in the room, his tweed cap perched on his head, his smile ever ready. This was something he wouldn’t miss. He likes to spin tales. He’s a story teller by heart, and this one he could spin for a long time into the future.

The horse that brought him here is Luck Be Withyou. They call him “Lucky” around the barn.

With the fortunes of the racing industry plummeting by government dictates, Cass could see the advantage of calling it a career a couple of years ago. He promised his wife of 53 years, Priscilla, that he’d step away from all those early mornings and dusty ovals and late nights. After all, they had already taken to spending four months of the winter in Arizona, to escape the Canadian winters. (Who wouldn’t?)

But long-time owner John Craig, a corporate lawyer from Toronto – with Cass for almost four decades – wanted something special for the trainer. He told Cass to get himself to the Lexington, Ky., yearling sale in October of 2012, and buy a nice colt. They weren’t going to get out of the business on a down note, Craig said. He wanted one more “kick at the can.” Cass could buy anything he wanted. Not to worry: Craig would take care of the cheque. What horsemen doesn’t dream of such luck?

“We used to buy five for $100,000,” said Cass, who has trained some decent horses over the years, one of them (Samfrancisco Irv), a claimer-turned-freeforaller,  actually winning $440,000 in his career. “Now you really have to buy one for $100,000.” Irv raced 186 times to win that money.

Luckily – and this is the theme of this thing – Cass spotted a colt that was a three-quarter brother to a world champion, and he plunked himself down in his bidding spot and started to raise his hand. He got the horse for $77,000. He expected he’d have to go for $125,000 to $150,000 to get him. Afterwards, folk would ask him: “How did you manage that?” There had been a lull in the sale, when others went off looking for better. Cass won: he was the one who paid attention.

Last year, Luck Be Withyou won the Breeders’ Crown at Pocono Downs in Pennsylvania for Cass and Craig. That’s as good as it gets in this business. It signifies you are a champ. Luck Be Withyou is the second leading money winner in the North America Cup, outpaced only by JK Endofanera, an American colt from the powerful Ron Burke stable, from whence comes Foiled Again, a pacer that has won $6.8-million in his career.

Cass has a seven-horse stable, and doesn’t want to have much more than eight. He’s trying to make it all count with better stock. And for the first time in his life, he’s been really lucky.

He’s still trying to pick himself off the floor, pinching himself that he’s at the brink of ultimate success near the end of a long career, he says. Luck Be Withyou has as good a shot as any in the field, he thinks. “An undertaker couldn’t take the smile off my face,” he said. He’s ably assisted by Howard Aas, a Norwegian who would rather call himself Howard Cass. He’s pretty much been adopted by the family, anyway.

“This harness business has been good to me,” Cass said, and he’s not complaining about the falling fortunes of the sport over the past couple of years. He hasn’t had an easy life. One of his sons, Jimmy, was killed in a motorcycle accident when he was only 14. Nine years later, Cass lost his other son, Joey, a budding harness driver, in a car accident.

Four years ago, he said, he underwent triple bypass surgery, with three arteries blocked 90 per cent and the other 80 per cent. He had no idea he was ill. He didn’t feel dizzy or weak. Doctors discovered the problem during a checkup and whizzed him into surgery immediately. He’s always upbeat.

But there has been harness racing and every day that he goes to the barn, he’s met with something different. Horses are like people, he says. They have moods. There will be problems to solve. And on Saturday night, he’ll be racing for $500,000 in one race against the best pacers in the world. And that’s something.