Gary Beacom: Blade Master

Around the rink they flew, all manner of skaters executing unusual shapes and steps, all in the mold of blade master Gary Beacom, a 56-year-old pied piper of sorts. There were falls. There were smiles.Giggles to be sure.  A tiny girl clearly unafraid of the odd slip – who undoubtedly had never heard of Beacom – young skaters, adult skaters too, all drank in the funky Beacomisms.

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Gary Beacom performing “I’m Your Man.” (Photo by Beverley Smith)

 

Beacom had folded his personal challenge to perform his signature piece “I’m Your Man’’ 100 times (anywhere anyone would have him)  in memory of the song’s author, Leonard Cohen, into a seminar hooked into the week of the World Figure Championship in Toronto. He performed that routine, once again, and then taught them the skills to do it in a freeform kind of way.

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Gary Beacom, the pied piper. It’s not so easy to do what he does. Witness the splats. (Photo by Beverley Smith)

 

With all of the skills he showed off – and more – Beacom won the men’s World Figure title last week with great ease, displaying edge qualities rarely seen today, since compulsory figures were dropped after the 1990 world figure skating championships in Halifax. To see Beacom trace a figure is akin to watching Yo-Yo Ma stroke his cello.

One of the event judges, 1962 world champion Donald Jackson waxed enthusiastic over the prints that Beacom left on the ice, especially a complex creative figure that Beacom did on one foot. “Just gorgeous,” Jackson said. It was not only the well-traced design that gave goosebumps; It was the way he did it, in endless motion, in fine form, body never breaking, slipping around the curves with speed, as if he had been doing it forever. “He had control of his whole body,” Jackson said.

“He has balance to die for,” Isabelle Duchesnay once said.

Before he was awarded the medal, Beacom gathered speed from one end of the arena to the other and planted a double Axel with aplomb. Fellow competitor Shepherd Clark saw it, and threw his arms into the air. Then the others began to applaud. He also did a single Axel over the red carpet to the podium. And all probably on his figure blades.

Beacom was always the creative one, right? The cerebral one. The one who always thought up different ways to skate an edge, or express a piece of music, to even skate with boots and blades on feet AND hands. So from whence comes this ability to do figures so well?

It always started with figures. Beacom is who he is because of figures. From the time he was a young skater, he learned special figures, even though their heyday was from 1870 to 1890. He studied the lost art under Tim Brown, who was a four-time U.S. silver medalist during the 1950s. And he studied under Sheldon Galbraith, a stickler for detail and for rules. So was Beacom, believe it or not.

“Not everybody thinks about Gary Beacom as a rule person, because I’m kind of creative and out there and I do things that are not inside the box,” Beacom said. “But I do like to stay within the rules.”

When one thinks of Beacom and compulsory figures, one recalls his utter frustration after the third figure, a back change loop, at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo. When judges placed him 11th on that figure, Beacom kicked the boards, his emotions overcoming the usual decorum.

“My figures at worlds met the exact specifications according to the rule book,” Beacom said. “And nobody else’s did. My figures looked weird because they followed the rule book.”

Others, he said, skated a flattened middle circle because it was easier to do so. And Beacom’s figure was the correct size: rules stated that they must be the height of the skater, minus the head. And that’s how big his circle was. It was perfectly lined up. Beacom expected to win that figure. Inside, he knew he  wouldn’t.

“I was angry,” he admitted. “I had my temper tantrum there. But that’s in the distant past now.”

Still, it’s clear that Beacom has learned how to use his blades to do everything he does. Beacom can do footwork from one end of the ice to the other. He can blitz the ice for longer with high-risk edges and complexities. He can do off-balance footwork, swinging his arms in opposite directions to the norm.  He’ll lean to the left, and be on an edge he has no business being on and staying upright, on an edge that would be impossible for most. He used to have rubber ankles, too. And Beacom would use antique figures in his choreography. Only a student of figure skating might recognize what they were.

Beacom only reluctantly agreed to take part in the World Figure Championships last week. He’s busy building his seminar, teaching and choreography business around the world, from his new home base in Obertsdorf, Germany. He was invited to a figure workshop last October at the North Toronto Arena, where the world figure championships were held. After he underwent some arm-twisting, he thought it would be kind of cool.

“I’m quite glad I did,” he said. “It is a real challenge and it’s a really good foundation and a good way of honing the skills. I’ve already noticed that I’m free skating better now that I’m practicing figures.”

Since figures have been dropped from ISU competitions, Beacom has noticed a decline in actual skating ability. “The name of the sport is still figure skating [unless you skate in Canada, where Skate Canada has dropped “figure” from the name],” Beacom said. What they are doing out there nowadays is not figures.”

Figures are always on one foot, not two feet at a time. And everything is traced on curves. “What you see out there now is straight lines and two-footed skating,” Beacom said. “And a lot of jumps. We’re seeing a lot of quads and the girls are doing all triples now. It’s really quite remarkable what they do, stamina wise and technique wise. But skating has lost its beauty and charm in my view.

“I think there’s something really nice about seeing nice curving edges all the time, rather than skating down the rink straight on a flat, pausing for a long time, then cranking off a jump. It doesn’t have appeal for me.

“And it’s the hard way of doing things. Curves lead so naturally into rotations, so if you want to do an easy jump, do it on curves.”

Beacom injected a double Axel into his “I’m Your Man” routine and it’s easy to see his strong curve on the ice as he launches himself into the air.

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Beneath him, the curved entry, visible on the ice. (Photo by Beverley Smith)

 

Case in point? Mao Asada comes from the Midori Ito “school” of skating, where jumps are important.  And when she switched to Nobuo Sato to fix her issues, he faced a tough task trying to change her technique after years of doing things another way. The muscle memory had been so ingrained. Shoma Uno comes from the same school as did Asada in the beginning: he skates in straight lines. And he skates much of his routine on two feet. As for Zuzuru Hanyu? He’s been known to practice figures under Brian Orser in Toronto. And edge work is an important part of schooling in the club. It’s not a surprise that skaters from this school excel.

Many skaters do jumps the hard way now, even as the bar keeps going higher and higher. And injuries are far more common. “There’s an upside and a downside to the progress that skating has made,” Beacom said.

Tracing figures has its downside, too. While doing them, you are always looking down. As a free skater, you do not want to be looking down, but rather looking up and projecting into an audience. “This is one of the reasons why I didn’t want to get back into figures,” Beacom said. “I didn’t like the idea of looking down and it’s kind of a habit that I’ve gotten into from doing so many figures and I have to constantly remind myself to keep my focus up. But I think there are more pluses than minuses in doing figures.”

Beacom didn’t have to pull old figure blades out of mothballs to compete last week. He really is a skilled blade master in many ways. He can work the blade himself, as an expert skate sharpener. Earlier this year,  in China to do a seminar, Beacom found that his luggage didn’t arrive. So he was forced to go shopping for another set of blades. He found a set made by a different manufacturer than what he is used to.

Because he figured he probably wouldn’t use them for free skating again, he had no qualms about altering them to become figure blades. He shaved the toe pick off and put a two-inch radius hollow in them. Translated, that means the hollow for figure blades is a lot shallower than those for free skate blades.

Beacom mounted them on a new pair of Edea boots, and sharpened them himself. No doubt, they had precision sharpening.  He had no excuses and didn’t need any.

His figure boots were works of art, actually. Stationed permanently in Germany, (at least when he is not out and about doing seminars),  Beacom designed the choreography for the free skate of rising German pair stars Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot. With it, they won a bronze medal at the 2016 world championships in Boston.

Savchenko got hold of Beacom’s boots and – because she has a bling business – she decorated them with sparkly stones. “She puts Swarovski stones on gloves and tights and just about anything she can get her hands on,” Beacom said.

He admits, he’s not really a sparkly kind of guy. “But reluctantly I agreed to have her put those on and I guess it makes me feel very special,” he said.

Beacom sparkled, too, during his “I’m Your Man” seminar. He had retired that popular number after performing it about 500 times, but when Leonard Cohen died  on Nov. 7, he decided to bring it back in tribute to an artist he admired, the so-called Godfather of Gloom.

“It’s a wonderful piece of music,” Beacom said. “And Leonard Cohen in general is such a great musician, thinker, performer and I was saddened by his passing. I thought it would be nice to do a tribute.

“It’ was a signature piece of mine. I got a lot of attention from it and people loved that piece,” he said.

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Beacom, performing “I’m Your Man.” (Photos by Beverley Smith)

 

He’s performed it on an outdoor rink in beautiful Bled, Slovenia in early December and in Innsbruck Austria, too. And he’ll do it again in Tallinn, Estonia on Jan. 14. Before the world figure championship began, he performed it at the Scarborough Ice Galaxy in Toronto for Special Olympic skaters.

The steps in that piece are meant for entertainment rather than as a complex display of skills, Beacom admits. Yes, there are some straight lines and two-foot skating in it. That’s when he added a double Axel, to show off some skill. The emphasis, he said, in that piece is the way it has been choreographed musically. “I listen to the rhythm,” he said. “And I stay on the rhythm the whole time. I listen to the melodies. I try to hit the highlights. I feel  the character of the music. This is something that figure skaters can improve on: their musicality. And their component score.”

Since Beacom has moved to Europe, he has travelled the world to give seminars. He has no trouble filling up his dance card in Asia. He’s spent a lot of time in Japan, where he has been well received. He’s building his services in Europe. Next week, he’ll be in Turin, Italy, then Tallinn, Estonia and Helskinki, Finland.

He’s even given some lessons in Japanese. “I know all the body parts,” he said. “I know how to say up and down and right and left. I don’t have perfect grammar, but I’ve learned.”

He gives lessons in French, German and Italian, too.  He speaks many languages, some better than others. In Italy, he taught a 6-year-old girl who could speak no English at all. “Most of it is demonstrating,” he said. “I don’t need to speak a lot, but sometimes it comes in handy.”

He has more than half a century of experience as a figure skater. “It’s nice to be able to pass on what I’ve learned and developed over the years to the next generation of skaters,” he said.

There are many from other generations who remember the Beacom mystique and still applaud it. It was not for nothing that Beacom’s first job as a pro skater was on the Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean World Tour back in the 1980s.

From John Thomas, who was a Canadian medalist in ice dancing and a contemporary of Beacom: “You are a national treasure and a true inspiration,” he said on a Facebook post after Beacom won the World Figure championship.

“You make me proud of my sport and proud to know you. Still, I think unless you have changed, you used to be a crazy driver. I will not drive with you. Other than that, they need to make a statue of you to honour you and your amazing talents.”

It’s Beacom in a nutshell.

 

A different kind of victory

TORONTO

The atmosphere at the rink at the World Figure Championships last week in Toronto was hushed, quiet, subdued. Heads tilted downwards, eyes on the tracings. People huddled in the cold in the spare stands.

But this event and this pursuit – tracing figures with precision and intent – have given life to Christian Hendricks, a lanky skater from Tacoma, Wash. Trumpets could have been blaring, albeit silently, in this special arena of black ice.

Six years ago, Hendricks was in hospital in a wheelchair, doctors having told him he would never walk again. Diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 2009, Hendricks waited to die. And waited. “I wasn’t living,” he said. “I was a very unhappy, struggling person.”

That is, until former U.S. national competitor Shepherd Clark talked him into competing at the inaugural World Figure Championships last year in Lake Placid, N.Y.  Finally, after an eon of darkness, a flicker of light fell across his brow.

His doctors were dead set against Hendricks getting up out of that wheelchair and engaging in a sport. They didn’t think his body would hold up. Hendricks says he has three terminal diseases: diabetes (most recently diagnosed), pancreatitis (not fixable and painful) and AIDS, to the point that he has only about 12 per cent of his immune system left to sustain him. He takes more than 50 pills a day. A couple of years ago, he weighed only  114 pounds, his cheeks hollow, his six-foot frame gaunt.

But six weeks before the Lake Placid event, Hendricks began to practice. The energy came from somewhere. From spirit. From will. Everything that he had left.

Ironically, figures were never his thing. “I was horrible,” he said. “Absolutely horrible and I hated them. Hated them!”

Hendricks was definitely a free skater, one of the first to land a triple Axel in competition as a junior, at a time when few senior men were trying the jump. (Brian Orser landed his first triple Axel as a junior and was the second man to land one, after countryman Verne Taylor squeezed out the first one in 1978.) Hendricks competed at four U.S. championships, one of his coaches being Frank Carroll. And he was a popular show skater, performing back flips, strong and confident. He worked as a producer and choreographer. When he found out he was HIV-positive in 1993, his show career eventually stopped.

Now Hendricks finds figures absolutely fascinating. “If I had understood those things when I was younger, I might have been a little better at them,” he said. “I never really knew how my blades worked. I just knew that they skated. And it’s made me aware of how important your equipment is.”

Most importantly, Hendricks does not compete to win medals. Last year, with little time to prepare, he set out to do the best he could. He did win a bronze medal last week at the Toronto event – against only two other competitors. He was a distant third, after falling flat on his back during one of the figures, a forward change loop, one of his best figures. The fall took some of the wind from his spirit, too. His entire goal last week was to skate clean. “Heartbreaking,” he said. However, he looked better this time, somehow managing to pack enough pounds to weigh 130, despite every medical problem he is up against.

Still, the fall and the slips and the touching down of the free foot where it shouldn’t, didn’t matter as much as his quest and his purpose.

“I’m here to represent all the people that were ever told they can’t, because I was told that I can’t,” Hendricks said. “I refused to believe that.”

He worked as hard as he could this year. But all that work did take its toll. He ended up in hospital in August for 16 days, trying to modify treatments to get himself back together. Now doctors absolutely approve of his quest. “They back me up. They do whatever they can to help me,” he said. “It’s really wonderful. It’s turned my life around.”

He’s become an inspiration to others. His fans open up to him, because they know he understands the most difficult of difficulties. “I’ve had that kind of disappointing news,” he said. He listens to their stories.

Now Hendricks has a purpose. It’s remarkable that he’s on his feet at all. He’s become a role model. He takes it very seriously.  He feels a responsibility to help others gather their forces to live, to work, to try, to ignore negative thought. Astonishingly enough, he laced up a pair of boots with free skate blades to take part in Gary Beacom’s Master Blades seminar one night at the championship. He can’t remember the last time he put them on. He floated about the ice, trying as many Beacom-like movements as he could, taking the microphone at one point to offer advice, and offering encouragement to youngsters in the group. He had experience. He had knowledge to pass along, too.

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Most gratifying: Judge Trixi Schuba, a figures master who won the 1972 Olympics, singled out Hendricks, “kidnapped” him and asked him to sit at the judges’ table during the opening night gala at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club. He found the experience “enlightening.” And heart-warming.

Hendricks has inspired many people with his quest, and he’s been inspired by those who have stepped up to help him. Last year, he couldn’t pay the $500 entry fee to the first world championship, so World Figure Sport Society president Karen Courtland Kelly found him a sponsor to get to Lake Placid.

This year he’s had to rely on a foundation he’s set up to raise money through the sales of T-shirts and hoodies, and through a GoFundMe account.

His personal campaign is called the Infinite Love campaign, with the shirts emblazoned with the infinity sign. “”That’s how I feel about skating, how I feel about my friends and my fans,” he said. “I’m skating the infinity sign because I do have an infinite love for skating, and this really has made me happy again.” This campaign is not going to make him wealthy.

It was touch and go whether or not the GoFundMe campaign would generate enough money to get Hendricks to Toronto this year. People gave what they could: $30 here, $100 there. One anonymous donor gave him $2,400. Another, also anonymous, donated $4,000. And so he made it to Toronto. It took him three days from Washington State to get to Toronto, what with flight delays and cancelled flights. But to Toronto he came and he laced up his skates, happy, a spark in his faded blue eyes.

Hendricks didn’t have his own figure blades, which are flatter than free skate blades and which have fewer toe picks. There aren’t exactly a lot being manufactured these days, since compulsory figures were dropped from International Skating Union competitions 25 years ago. The World Figure Sport Society encourages people to use what they have, even free skate blades. But women’s competitor Tracey Robertson-Hanford, a Canadian novice champion and junior bronze medalist, while skating alongside Brian Orser and Elvis Stojko in Orillia, Ont., with coach Doug Leigh managed to find an Ottawa man who had bought up all the old figure blade stock and got herself a pair, started training in November and finished fourth in the women’s category. She found that the rocky nature of free-skate blades made the tracing of figures difficult.

Hendricks found another way. The mother of a friend who died of AIDS gave him the young man’s blades that he used to pass his eighth gold test. “She was just so proud that Rickie [Scarry] was a part of the world championship in any way, shape or form,” Hendricks said. “Everybody has gone beyond the call of duty for me.”

When Hendricks finishes using those blades, he plans to shower them with gold leaf, frame them in a shadow box and send them back to Scarry’s mother.

Hendricks has a different definition of winning, indeed.

Shepherd Clark: a jewel of a figure

Make way, all you Yuzuru Hanyus and Nathan Chens and Javier Fernandezes, and hey, even Evgeny Plushenkos. The real  hero of the World Figure Championships, held this week in Toronto, is Gillis Grafstrom.

Grafstrom, a poetic Swede who was a three-time Olympic champion (1920, 1924, and 1928), a painter, an etcher and by trade an architect, created the mind-numbing intricacies of the Swiss S (the bracket stop bracket- and it’s the “stop” part that is the killer) competed at the World Figure Championships this week.

grafstromGilles Grafstrom. Nuff said.

Gilles Grafstrom’s creations (He said he had designed about 50 figures at one time) have brought the sweat out on the brow of competitor Shepherd Clark, a former world junior silver medalist who competed 10 times at U.S. championships as a senior. Now 45, he’s testing his mettle on a side of the sport that disappeared 25 years ago. And that in his early days, he could have done without.

This week, competitors were required to trace that Swiss S, a special figure that had never been competed at a world championship. Control of the blade has never been so important.

At least, Clark competed at a time when figures were part of the game. Clark skated the next-to-last figure ever competed at a U.S. championship. Paul Wylie skated the last one. And the organizing masochists made it the hardest figure they could find: a left forward paragraph loop.

“It was the freakiest one,” Clark said. “It’s extremely difficult. It sounds like backward would be harder, but it’s easier to have flow on a backward edge, even though it’s difficult. When you go forward, you have to have nerves of steel to do it.”

Clark thought his figure was good, strong, decent. It wasn’t his best, he admits. But he was happy with it. And thought he’d never be doing these things again.

Clark stopped competing in 2003. Thirteen years ago. “I find it surreal that I’m here, competing in figures at a world championship for figures,” he said with a hearty laugh.

In the beginning, figures were not Clark’s friend. He was so bad at them when he was a young boy, that even at regional competitions, examiners would stop him in mid figure. They wouldn’t even look at his entire test. They’d stop it. No more, they said.

Please.

“It was the ultimate failure in figure skating,” Clark said.

So Clark began drawing his figures on a piece of paper. Remarkably, his hand made the same mistakes that his feet had made on the ice. But somehow, it all helped Clark figure it out. He moved from his hometown of Atlanta to Denver, Colo., to work with Don Laws, who had coached Scott Hamilton, and then eventually to Colorado Springs to work with Christa and Carlo Fassi. By this time, Clark was winning figures. He’d win short programs. He’d win free programs. His figures career had changed like night into day.

Obviously, Clark has changed his opinion of them. “I’ve always thought that figures should be included in the Olympics as a separate event,” he said. “It has a rich Olympic history. It’s the creating of art on the ice. It has several art genres all wrapped into one. I think you can make an argument that it is one of the hardest art forms in the world, if not the most difficult. It’s creating pictures with your whole body, balancing on a blade and as I like to say, dancing on a crystal in a jeweled sport.”

Grafstrom fits into all of this perfectly. In fact, Clark is a big fan of a man who died 78 years ago, when he was only 44. All you need to see is the photo of Grafstrom in a 1929 photo, seemingly skating into the clouds, a white fedora perched jauntily on his head, his free leg outstretched behind him, his arms just so. Picture Clark in a fedora. You can.

cci21122016Gilles Grafstrom, poetry in motion.

“Gilles  Grafstrom had a very interesting personal style,” said Clark, who has one, too. “The way he dressed. The way he moved on the ice. He didn’t do all those world championships, but would come into the Olympics every four years and dominate. He had an extraordinary talent for balancing like a cat.” (At the 1924 Olympics, Grafstrom traveled around the last three loops of his loop figure in a crack in the ice that was about an inch deep. No other skater could have accomplished it.)

Grafstrom once worked with Norwegian skating star Sonja Henie, who was powerfully good at figures, too. “She was an amazing athlete,” Clark said. “People sort of glossed over that. We never really knew. I never got to see Trixi Schuba’s figures. I remember Don Laws and Christa and Carlo Fassi talking to me about Trixi Schuba. And I hadn’t met her.”

heniegrafGilles Grafstrom with Sonja Henie

Clark finally met Schuba last year at the inaugural World Figure Championships last year in Lake Placid, N.Y. where she attended as a judge. And she’s here in Toronto, too, pouring over the tracings. “I was just amazed that I was meeting this sort of mystical person I had heard about,” Clark said. “I never saw her figures, but she had accomplished something that no one else in the world had accomplished.”

Clark refers to another of the judges, Tim Wood, as an American male version of Schuba. “His technique is really interesting,” said Clark, who worked with him on practice day. “It’s not what I learned. He’s showing this to all the skaters so it is not lost.

014Shepherd Clark and Tim Wood

“I like the fact that we’re doing figures for the first time in competition that haven’t been done in 100 years. So people are having to learn something that no one who is ever alive ever did in competition.”

And that Swiss S that Grafstrom has inflicted on this brave, new world? There are 24 turns to a Swiss S., Clark said. The ice gets pretty rough by the final swish of a Swiss S.

And all that talk of jewels and such? Well, Clark is a jeweler by trade, among a host of other pursuits. He creates paintings encrusted in jewels. The heels of his skating boots are bejeweled. An entrepreneur, he also has a soft spot for a cause, for charities, for people that need a hand up, for a sport that needs a hand up, too. He designs jewelry to help raise money.

025Clark’s sparkly heels

He’s currently working to put together a television series based out of Los Angeles. It has a jewel theme, of course.  It’s a story about an eccentric jeweler who shepherds people, generates money to do good in a challenging economy. It sounds like Clark, himself.

“It’s people who reflect light,” Clark said. “People are precious.”

Clark, a silver medalist at the first world championship last year, took another silver on Wednesday after producing a creative figure with infinite interwoven curves. In other words, the Olympic rings.

Janet Lynn and why she loves figures

Janet Lynn has that pixie smile still. You know it’s her, although she stepped out of sight for 25 years to raise a family after igniting the world with her free and joyful skating style during the 1970s.

She’s back as a judge at the second World Figure Championships from Dec. 19 to 23 at the North Toronto Memorial Arena in Toronto along with a host of other skating icons of the past.

janetlynnPhoto by Deborah Hickey

 

Strangely enough, figures were never Lynn’s best friend when she competed as an American teenager. “The narrative was that my figures weren’t very good,” she admitted candidly. “But I was competing against the very best school figures in the history of the world.”

Lynn was known more as a free skater who could weave a spell, even in defeat. She never won world or Olympic titles. Some compared her free skating to poetry. Toller Cranston once said that Lynn was the best female skater he had ever seen. “On the ice, she became ethereal, magical,” he said. She created mass press hysteria in Japan after the Sapporo Olympics in 1972, when she won the bronze medal behind Trixi Schuba of Austria and Karen Magnussen of Canada, who were much more adept at school figures.

When Lynn moved on to a professional career, Ice Follies paid her the unprecedented amount of $1,455,000 (U.S.), making her the highest paid female athlete in history.

But figures were the key to Lynn’s magic. They made her what she was. And next week, here she’ll be, shuffling about the ice, analyzing the tracings of some 16 “foundational figures,” and to spice things up, some special figures, like they did during the 1870s and even at the 1908 Olympic Games. And there will also be creative figures too. There will be no free skating at this event, only the quiet swish of blades on black ice.

The International Skating Union dropped compulsory figures from its competitions 25 years ago.  Today, there are few who know what a loop-change- loop is – the favourite figure of Schuba, the master.

“The entire underlying knowledge base has been very eroded,” said Karen Courtland Kelly, a former American Olympian based in Lake Placid, N.Y., who is the president and driving force behind the new World Figure Sport Society. The society conducts these world championships and also works to bring a more modern perspective to figures through seminars, workshops and exams. The society does not use the old words “compulsory” or “school” figures. It calls them “foundational figures.

The value of skating figures? Since they are skated equally on both feet, they create a symmetry in the body. Figures teach control of the blade and balance. “Skaters who grow up with current blades, with a very deep hollow and toe picks, they don’t necessarily become very strong in their feet and ankles,” Courtland Kelly says. “They become limited in technique. The foot doesn’t know how to move as much as it needs to manipulate those turns. That leads to more injuries.

“Toe picks aren’t the biggest problem, but being over-booted causes one’s muscle development and alignment to be affected. Figures help the whole skating body. But people can still practice their fundamental figures even with toe picks.” The society wants to look forward, not back.

The sport was built on turns. Some of them fly in the air and become jumps. Courtland Kelly calls them “flying figures” – which are not part of the world figure championships. The techniques learned in figures will also help other families of skating, such as hockey.

Courtland Kelly’s group has worked hard to address the ominous undercurrents and biases that existed around the old compulsory figures, left out of skating competitions because they were too boring, took up too much time, were not interesting to audiences or television, and were an easy mark for score manipulation, because tracings were never very visible to the eye of an audience.

The tracings have not been easily visible because ice has been artificially painted white since the 1949-1950 hockey season after an NHL board of governors vote. “With the TV and everything, people were having a harder time seeing the puck,” said Red Kelly, who played on eight Stanley Cup champion teams and who, at age 89, has just released his autobiography “The Red Kelly Story.”

“And so if they painted the ice white, the fans on TV could see it better and the fans in the building could see it better,” he said. “The puck travels at over 100 miles an hour and it’s pretty tough to see it, even today on the white ice, but it’s certainly better than on the old ice, which wasn’t so white.”

So the World Figure Championships will be skated on black ice.

Also to eliminate bias, judges at the Toronto event will be sequestered in a room while competitors are tracing figures. A referee will take note if anyone touches a foot down inappropriately, which results in a penalty. For each figure, competitors will be given completely different patches of ice, so judges will never get a sense of identities. There are eight skaters on the ice at a time, who all skate the same figure at the same time, creating a visually pleasing spectacle.

Last year, Lynn remembers waiting in a room with the other judges and hearing ovations from the rink. “I’m thinking to myself: ‘This was something that was said not to be interesting to the public,’” she said. Others from Lynn’s generation remember standing ovations for school figures in the past.

Lynn found the experience  “inspiring” last year. Learning the fundamentals of the sport is important for many reasons, she said. When she took up skating again about 10 years ago, “I could not believe how many muscles in the feet were developed by school figures,” she said. “And the muscular development goes all the way up the body.”

There is a specific muscle and neurological memory and building up of strength that cannot be done on the floor, she said.

Figures also taught her a language, a way to move and manoeuvre and bring finesse to it. “If you do a change of edge [from inside to outside], and you move from one circle to another, without moving your body, first of all, it’s beautiful. And second of all, people go: “How did you do that?”

“It’s a beauty that is in the world that has to be developed,” Lynn said.

Lynn had taken all eight figure tests by the time she was 11, and she also studied the Canadian and international systems, too. They were precise development systems that were “genius,” she said, as each skill is built on a previous skill.

“From all of that is where the joy of skating comes from, because it sets you free, because you have that kind of control,” she said.

All of the skaters who will compete – and the other renowned judges – are a part of “preserving something that literally is going to be lost if these people do not learn it and pass it on,” Lynn said.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISV1Rgd1ofA

Janet Lynn’s long program from the 1971 world championship. She won the long program but finished

Fourth overall.

Donald Jackson and the Maltese Cross

Donald Jackson is many things: the 1962 world champion; the first man to land a triple Lutz in competition; and a 76-year-old show-off.

Furthermore, he’s a painter on ice. That’s because he’s one of the few skaters in the world who knows how to do a Maltese Cross, a “special figure” that harkens back to the turn of the 20th century.

Although Jackson will work as one of a storied group of judges at the second World Figure Championships at the North Toronto Memorial Arena in Toronto from Dec. 19 to 23, somewhere along the way, he’ll find a patch of black ice and lay down frosty white lines that suggest a historical cross.

maltesecrossDonald Jackson tracing a Maltese Cross on black ice. (Photo by Deborah Hickey)

 

The actual Maltese Cross has been associated with the Order of St. John since 1567 and currently is the most cherished symbol of the people of Malta, a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea. The cross is star-like with four equal-length arms, joined in the middle at their pointy tips. It was such a cross that led the crusades.

Jackson is almost a one-man crusade when it comes to this difficult figure. The only other skater who does them is fellow Canadian Gary Beacom, twice a national silver medalist behind Brian Orser in 1983 and 1984, a world professional champion, a Masters champion and a master of edges.

Beacom learned the Maltese Cross from Jackson many decades ago. “I’m not sure I have mastered it,” he said. “But I use parts of it in my choreography for adult competitions.

“Like any difficult skill, it takes balance and timing to master,” said Beacom who will compete at the world figure championships, do two exhibitions of his iconic “I’m Your Man” routine (music by Leonard Cohen) and offer seminars.

Jackson doesn’t find the Maltese Cross difficult at all, even though it’s all done on one foot, which makes it even more challenging. He said he used to add a little loop at the top just for fun, when he was younger, but he can’t do that anymore. Now, he’s back to just the basic mind-numbing task of drawing that figure.

Special figures go well beyond tracing versions of a figure eight, the figures seen in international until 1990. These “special” ones require a combination of edge and balance skills and some are exceedingly complex. Skaters still traced them back in the 1930s when Gilles Grafstrom, an elegant Swede that won three Olympic gold medals, turned them into an art form. He is considered the greatest tracer of figures that ever lived. Grafstrom had a collection of at least 50 special figures that he would do.

Trixi Schuba, of Austria, the other figure kingpin and the 1972 Olympic champion, never tried a special figure.

Jackson has been doing the Maltese Cross for so long, he can’t remember when it all started. He took lessons from French-born Pierre Brunet, who knew about such things. “I don’t know whether he taught me or whether we were playing around,” he said. But it was a challenge for him.

“It’s really about rhythm after all,” he said. “A nice soft knee and rhythm. I can make them big. I can make them small. I think it’s good for skaters to be able to do things like that.”

The World Figure Sport Society is trying to make that happen, with seminars and educational tools. Last September, in Toronto, the society invited Jackson to teach the Maltese Cross at a workshop called: “Figure It Out.”

This year, the society requires competitors to do a Swiss S, during the special figure competition. It’s a figure that hasn’t been competed in 80 years and features a host of stops and starts and sliding forward and backward. It’s official name is the “bracket stop bracket.” Swiss champion Hans Gerschwiler, a world champion who finished second to Dick Button in the 1948 Olympics, taught the figure when he came to North America to coach. And he taught it to World Figure Sport Society president Karen Courtland Kelly years ago.

“These are all wonderful little gems that we are uncovering,” Courtland Kelly said.

The last time that Jackson did a Maltese Cross was last Friday at a rink in Oshawa, Ont., where he skates during an adult session. Some of his peers skate around the outside of the ice surface. Jackson finds a spot of blue ice near a goal post and lays down his Maltese Cross.

Because Jackson does it often, one of his skating mates stopped to doff his hat: “Don, that’s your mark of excellence,” he said.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJvgWfMQSRY

Christian Hendricks, a U.S. competitor at the first world figure championships last year, practicing a Swiss S.

 

Trixi Schuba: World champion without compare

Trixi Scuba is skating’s calmest perfectionist, a scientist on blades, probably the best female tracer of compulsory figures that ever lived. Yet, she’s perhaps the least-known world and Olympic champion on the planet.

Forty-five years after the Austrian won her first world title in 1971 in Lyon, France – largely because of her utter dominance in figures – Schuba is finally being feted for her accomplishments. She’s one of a star-studded cast of judges who will peer over an endless array of figures at the second annual World Figure Championships at the North Toronto Memorial Arena in Toronto from Dec. 19 to 23 in Toronto.

schubaTrixi Schuba. (Photo by Deborah Hickey)

 

Up to 16 skaters will skate a total of 16 figures over two days, then test their mettle on special figures – a category of complicated tracings popular during the turn of the 20th century – and then creative figures too, in which skaters make up their own designs. The competition is staged by the fledgling World Figure Sport Society, based in Lake Placid, N.Y. with a mission to revive a set of skills that its members fear will be lost.

Last year, at the first world championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., as Schuba was announced as a judge, all of her peers spontaneously applauded her. “I got a lump in my throat because she finally got the recognition she deserved,” said Donald Jackson, the 1962 world champion who also worked as a judge. Both are back this year to judge again.

Janet Lynn, the polar opposite of Schuba, will also judge at the world championships next week. Schuba defeated the American at the 1971 world championships after building up such a lead in the compulsory figures, that she finished seventh in the free skate and still won gold. Lynn was fifth in the figures, but then won the free skate and the hearts of the French crowd.

When Schuba won the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, the same scene played out: she won the figures exceedingly easily, while Lynn came from behind to take the bronze medal, with Canadian Karen Magnussen, proficient at both figures and free skating, taking the silver.

“TV had developed quite a bit by then,” Lynn said in an interview. “And the audience on TV only saw the free skating [at the Lyon event.] They did not see the school figures. Trixi was so far ahead, as she always was, because she was such a master, that it was impossible to even think of being able to beat her.”

When Lynn took to the ice for her free skating program in Lyon, she skated so well – with her attitude of joy, her exquisite line and her sensitivity to music – that she got a standing ovation. “It was really quite an amazing time for me,” Lynn said.

But when the medals were awarded, and Schuba was standing on the top of the podium – and Lynn had finished only fourth, out of the medals altogether – the crowd began to chant Lynn’s name.

“It was very, very embarrassing for me,” Lynn said. “I was always taught sportsmanship. Someone from the French federation requested of my coaches that I take a bow.”

French-born coach Pierre Brunet, who worked with Lynn, took her by the shoulders and moved her to the edge of the ice. The audience cheered wildly as the others were getting their medals. Lynn felt awkward.

It proved to be a pivotal moment in figure skating. At the next International Skating Union congress, members voted to create a short program and reduce the weight of the compulsory figures on the final mark. The new rule came into effect in 1973, after the Sapporo Olympics.

Schuba heard the ovation, knowing it was not for her. “I was happy that I was world champion,” she said. “But then a little bit sad that the public didn’t appreciate what I had done, not much. But I was not angry at Janet, because I knew it was not her fault.”

Lynn said she felt badly for a very long time afterwards. “I shouldn’t have let someone  push me out to take the bow, but I was 16” she said. “And it was my coach that was pushing me. But I should have known better.”

Forty years later, Lynn had a chance to apologize to both Schuba and Magnussen and she had already apologized to the other medalist Julie Holmes, a fellow American. Last year, Schuba spent a few days in Lynn’s home in the United States when she came to the first world figure championships. “We were all serious competitors, but we remained friends,” Lynn said. And they are of like minds about figures and their importance to skating.

Schuba was born to excel in school figures, as they were called at the time. “As a young girl, I was already very precise,” she said. “It’s just probably my nature and I loved to do the figures. I always wanted to get better and be more precise. Of course, knowing that I was so good in figures and I knew my competitors were a little bit more nervous, it gave me strength.”

She was blessed with good coaching from the start. When she was only 4 ½ years old, she took lessons from 1952 Olympic men’s silver medalist Hellmut Seibt (who had been runner-up to Dick Button) and he instilled in her a love of figures. Schuba would practice figures for six hours a day, sometimes starting at 6 a.m. before school when her teeth would chatter and her hands would go numb on the outdoor ice surface. After an hour, she’d retreat to the dressing room to warm up, but back she’d totter onto the ice for more. She was never satisfied with her tracings on the ice.

When arenas finally opened up, she practiced in the centre of the surface, while speed skaters whizzed around the outside of it.

In 1962 her father died, a shock for sure. And the same year, Seibt left to start coaching in Germany.  “[Seibt] was like a second father to me,” Schuba said. “In 1962, I lost two persons which I loved very much.”

Schuba never wobbled or wavered in competition. She never had an attack of nerves. While her competitors were weak in the knees, Schuba approached each competition with utter confidence. At the 1972 European championships in Sweden, a sports scientist took Schuba’s pulse, just after she had skated the first figure.

The reading? Sixty beats a minute. A normal resting heart rate for teenagers and adults is between 60 and 100 beats per minute.

At the time, competitors had to train 24 figures a season and had no idea which six would be drawn for an event. “It never got boring,” Schuba said. After the rules changes of 1973, they skated only three figures at an event.

But now, being together with skaters from her age group at these championships and having been so warmly welcomed by them, has warmed Schuba’s heart. She has found her spot in the sun. “I received last year such appreciation that I never received in my own country,” she said. Back home after she won the Olympics, there were no ticker tape parades for her, no bonuses, no recognition.

“I’m thankful that I get it back now,” she said.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SscrUDzeDcs

Shuba and Lynn tracing figures at the Sapporo Olympics. Lynn in her free skate.

 

 

 

Janet Lynn and why she loves figures

Janet Lynn has that pixie smile still. You know it’s her, although she stepped out of sight for 25 years to raise a family after igniting the world with her free and joyful skating style during the 1970s.

She’s back as a judge at the second World Figure Championships from Dec. 19 to 23 at the North Toronto Memorial Arena in Toronto along with a host of other skating icons of the past.

janetlynnPhoto by Deborah Hickey

 

Strangely enough, figures were never Lynn’s best friend when she competed as an American teenager. “The narrative was that my figures weren’t very good,” she admitted candidly. “But I was competing against the very best school figures in the history of the world.”

Lynn was known more as a free skater who could weave a spell, even in defeat. She never won world or Olympic titles. Some compared her free skating to poetry. Toller Cranston once said that Lynn was the best female skater he had ever seen. “On the ice, she became ethereal, magical,” he said. She created mass press hysteria in Japan after the Sapporo Olympics in 1972, when she won the bronze medal behind Trixi Schuba of Austria and Karen Magnussen of Canada, who were much more adept at school figures.

When Lynn moved on to a professional career, Ice Follies paid her the unprecedented amount of $1,455,000 (U.S.), making her the highest paid female athlete in history.

But figures were the key to Lynn’s magic. They made her what she was. And next week, here she’ll be, shuffling about the ice, analyzing the tracings of some 16 “foundational figures,” and to spice things up, some special figures, like they did during the 1870s and even at the 1908 Olympic Games. And there will also be creative figures too. There will be no free skating at this event, only the quiet swish of blades on black ice.

The International Skating Union dropped compulsory figures from its competitions 25 years ago.  Today, there are few who know what a loop-change- loop is – the favourite figure of Schuba, the master.

“The entire underlying knowledge base has been very eroded,” said Karen Courtland Kelly, a former American Olympian based in Lake Placid, N.Y., who is the president and driving force behind the new World Figure Sport Society. The society conducts these world championships and also works to bring a more modern perspective to figures through seminars, workshops and exams. The society does not use the old words “compulsory” or “school” figures. It calls them “foundational figures.

The value of skating figures? Since they are skated equally on both feet, they create a symmetry in the body. Figures teach control of the blade and balance. “Skaters who grow up with current blades, with a very deep hollow and toe picks, they don’t necessarily become very strong in their feet and ankles,” Courtland Kelly says. “They become limited in technique. The foot doesn’t know how to move as much as it needs to manipulate those turns. That leads to more injuries.

“Toe picks aren’t the biggest problem, but being over-booted causes one’s muscle development and alignment to be affected. Figures help the whole skating body. But people can still practice their fundamental figures even with toe picks.” The society wants to look forward, not back.

The sport was built on turns. Some of them fly in the air and become jumps. Courtland Kelly calls them “flying figures” – which are not part of the world figure championships. The techniques learned in figures will also help other families of skating, such as hockey.

Courtland Kelly’s group has worked hard to address the ominous undercurrents and biases that existed around the old compulsory figures, left out of skating competitions because they were too boring, took up too much time, were not interesting to audiences or television, and were an easy mark for score manipulation, because tracings were never very visible to the eye of an audience.

The tracings have not been easily visible because ice has been artificially painted white since the 1949-1950 hockey season after an NHL board of governors vote. “With the TV and everything, people were having a harder time seeing the puck,” said Red Kelly, who played on eight Stanley Cup champion teams and who, at age 89, has just released his autobiography “The Red Kelly Story.”

“And so if they painted the ice white, the fans on TV could see it better and the fans in the building could see it better,” he said. “The puck travels at over 100 miles an hour and it’s pretty tough to see it, even today on the white ice, but it’s certainly better than on the old ice, which wasn’t so white.”

So the World Figure Championships will be skated on black ice.

Also to eliminate bias, judges at the Toronto event will be sequestered in a room while competitors are tracing figures. A referee will take note if anyone touches a foot down inappropriately, which results in a penalty. For each figure, competitors will be given completely different patches of ice, so judges will never get a sense of identities. There are eight skaters on the ice at a time, who all skate the same figure at the same time, creating a visually pleasing spectacle.

Last year, Lynn remembers waiting in a room with the other judges and hearing ovations from the rink. “I’m thinking to myself: ‘This was something that was said not to be interesting to the public,’” she said. Others from Lynn’s generation remember standing ovations for school figures in the past.

Lynn found the experience  “inspiring” last year. Learning the fundamentals of the sport is important for many reasons, she said. When she took up skating again about 10 years ago, “I could not believe how many muscles in the feet were developed by school figures,” she said. “And the muscular development goes all the way up the body.”

There is a specific muscle and neurological memory and building up of strength that cannot be done on the floor, she said.

Figures also taught her a language, a way to move and manoeuvre and bring finesse to it. “If you do a change of edge [from inside to outside], and you move from one circle to another, without moving your body, first of all, it’s beautiful. And second of all, people go: “How did you do that?”

“It’s a beauty that is in the world that has to be developed,” Lynn said.

Lynn had taken all eight figure tests by the time she was 11, and she also studied the Canadian and international systems, too. They were precise development systems that were “genius,” she said, as each skill is built on a previous skill.

“From all of that is where the joy of skating comes from, because it sets you free, because you have that kind of control,” she said.

All of the skaters who will compete – and the other renowned judges – are a part of “preserving something that literally is going to be lost if these people do not learn it and pass it on,” Lynn said.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISV1Rgd1ofA

Janet Lynn’s long program from the 1971 world championship. She won the long program but finished fourth overall.