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