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