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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

Donald Jackson: there’s only one

kurt and don 1

It started out as a tantalizing little secret.

“I have a BIG surprise for skating fans,” bubbled Kurt Browning on twitter several days before the Toronto stop of the 2016 Stars On Ice tour in Canada.

He started dropping hints. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore?” King of Blades? The special guest would show up only in Toronto and Hamilton.

It all seemed hush hush. But when Elvis Stojko stepped out on centre ice and introduced the duo about to skate: Browning and Donald Jackson, the 1962 world champion, a hush settled. Yes. Donald Jackson, a newly minted 76-year-old in a tux and a grin, his packet in trade when he skated for Ice Follies so many years ago. He is the King of Blades, or so his autobiography was called.

They skated to “Don’t Get Around Much Any More,” a duet sung by a younger voice, Michael Buble, and an older voice, Tony Bennett. Perfect. When Bennett starts to sing, Jackson starts to skate. Buble begins to warble. So does Browning on skates. Genius.

Missed the Saturday dance
Heard they crowded the floor,
Couldn’t bear it without you
Don’t get around much anymore.

They stole the show. Fans that filled the spacious lower bowl at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto rose to their feet as one. It was the only complete standing ovation of the night. Everybody was in on it, appreciating the usual Browning thing, and the Jackson spirit of old: his head up, smiling, playing to the crowd, just like he always did, so many years ago.

kurt and don 4

Photo by Julie Larochelle

The only other ovation that came close was for Browning’s solo in the second half, a solo with deft footwork, body movement, attention to every note. A ham, as always. Neither of them are newbies to this sort of gig. Browning will turn 50 in mid-June. Experience worked.

This is the first season that Browning is not part of the entire tour. He will take part in only five stops. But his sense of what charms a crowd is still fully intact. He created the duet, from start to finish.

Browning had been working on a commercial for the Home Equity Bank that will air later this year, and one day, in a creative meeting, someone suggested that another skater was needed in the clip. It didn’t have to be a known skater. Then somebody mentioned Donald Jackson’s name. Obviously, the name still resonates in Canada.

“Hmmm,” thought Browning. “He still skates. He’s charming. He’s funny. He’s handsome. Yes, yes, yes.”

They made it happen. They filmed the commercial. But Browning had to go further. If there was a camera around, they had to play at doing a duet. “Because that’s just too cool,” Browning said.

They filmed something very casually, in a rink, and thought perhaps it could be used to supplement the commercial.

But Browning’s instincts – dead on – were still at work. “This is so cool, people should see Don do this,” he thought.

So he suggested the idea to the Stars on Ice brass and they liked it, too.

Jackson is the oldest person ever to take part in a Stars On Ice show.

To create a number for the show, Browning asked Jackson to come to the Granite Club in Toronto and the “youngster” filmed the “oldster” doing all of his cool tricks. Browning wanted an idea of what a 76-year-old Jackson could do. He saw waves of fancy footwork, spins, an Axel jump.

“I tried to implement as much of his natural footwork into the program that I could, making it easier for him,” Browning said. “Otherwise, it’s more than he needs to worry about and besides, his stuff is really cool.”

“This show, I never expected,” Jackson said. When Browning saw what Jackson could do, he told the septuagenarian that he was actually going to push Jackson a little. “You can do it,” Browning told him.

“I don’t know if he pushed me, but he did,” Jackson said. “He was a good coach. He told me about the knees and what happens when you’re in the show [they tighten], and it just brought back a lot of things.”

Browning asked Jackson what sort of music he’d like to skate to. Jackson told him: something in the direction of Frank Sinatra. A week later, Browning had found the music and they began to create.

I thought I’d visit the club
Got as far as the door
They’d have asked me about you
Don’t get around much anymore.

kurt and don 5
Photo by Julie Larochelle

Back behind the curtain on performance day, Jackson paced the halls, listening to the music on earphones, just like Patrick Chan or Javier Fernandez or Nam Nguyen would on competition day. He admitted to a case of nerves, a gimpy leg and foot. “He’s really pumped,” Browning said. “He really wants to land that Axel.

“He’s nervous. So am I.”

“Are you going to land that triple Axel?” he was asked in jest.

“No, but I’m dreaming of it,” Jackson replied.

Browning tried to help him ease the nerves, to bring back memories of how Jackson would have handled things decades ago. “Now Don, don’t think about what comes next,” Browning told him. “Just do it. Bend your knees and think ahead a little bit. Keep that soft knee.” Browning told Jackson that soft knee is his gift, and it’s something not everybody has.

Part of what was so special about the duet is that Browning and Jackson have a little bit of history.

“He gave me some advice when I was a kid about landing the quad and doing it,” said Browning. “And having the confidence to stick your neck out and go for it.”
After all, Jackson knew. He had been the first man to land a triple Lutz in competition at the 1962 world championship, the first time he had ever landed the jump in his life, at a hard-fought competition, in which he needed to be perfect in the free skate to win. And he did. “So he knew,” Browning said. “He was like: ‘Just go for it. You’ll thank yourself later. Just go and do it.’”

So Browning did and became the first skater to land a quad in competition at the 1988 world championships in Budapest.

Browning had met Jackson even earlier. When Browning won the Canadian novice title, someone grabbed him and led him to an unfamiliar room – the media room. “I didn’t really know why,” Browning said. They planted him in front of a man with a pen and a piece of paper. It was Jackson, who was working at the time as a skating correspondent for a Toronto newspaper.

“I’m going: ‘Oh my god, that’s Donald Jackson,’” Browning said.

Jackson started by asking him how it felt to be Canadian novice champion. Browning hadn’t even realized he had won.

“What?” Browning said.

“How does it feel to be novice champion?” Jackson said again.

“I won?” Browning cried. “I won! I won!” He began jumping around the room, later reminiscing that Jackson must have thought: “How does this kid get to the rink?”

Browning and Jackson haven’t spent much time together since. Browning also had a relationship with Barbara Ann Scott, who became affectionately, his adopted grandma.

As for Jackson? “Let’s call him skating Dad,” Browning said. “I don’t think he’d want to be called Skating Grandpa. He’s very proud of his age, but there’s a limit.”

Browning wanted to do something creative and interesting and fun with this man. The theme of the music, according to Browning is that “I don’t get around and womanize anymore because I’m in love with you.” But for the Browning/Jackson duet, it’s simply: “We don’t get out of the house much anymore. And here we go.” At various points, they clench their hips, as if their bodies are giving out. Jackson shakes a finger at Browning. Tsk tsk.

Darling I guess, my mind’s more at ease
But nevertheless, why stir up memories?

During the shows in Toronto and Hamilton, Jackson landed a single Axel on two feet. He’s annoyed with himself, still a true athlete. He’d been 90 per cent consistent at landing them in practice. But he was taken aback when the crowd applauded him doing a waltz jump.

“I thought, what the heck?” Jackson said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

It’s not as if Jackson has had to crawl into an attic and dust off old leather hardened by time. He still skates three times a week in a public sessions that he shares with three “older guys” who skate around the outside, while Jackson skates around the inside of the ice surface in Oshawa.

And he teaches too, mostly CanSkate and adult skating. “I don’t want to teach competitive skaters, because once you do that, your time is their time,” he said. He does work with some singles skaters, but loves working with young skaters, trying to instill in them a love of the sport so that they will want to return, as he has.

He’s always kept up his skills, as he can. He landed a triple Salchow when he was 60 years old. There is a private video to prove it somewhere in the dustbins of time.

After his ground-breaking performances in Stars On Ice, Jackson phoned Cathy Sproule, who asked him to skate solos at intermissions of NHL Legends hockey games that traveled across Canada. In the first season, Jackson did 20 shows in 22 days. But he kept coming back from 1998 to 2008. He credits this 10-year gig with helping him to stay fit enough to skate at Stars On Ice at age 76.

He reveled in the standing ovations during his brief stint, but the best part of being invited to skate was the feeling that he was part of the skating family, again. “It’s different, going back into an ice show like that again,” he said. “But what I really liked was getting to know the stars. They know me because I’ve been around, but just to say hi. Now I know them as real people. They were so nice to me. It was so nice to see that all of them were stars in their own right….They worked their tails off.”

And the way they spoke to Jackson, it was “almost like they had me on a pedestal,” he said.

Andrew Poje admitted he felt intimidated by Jackson’s prowess. “He does things I wouldn’t even dream of doing,” he said during rehearsals.

“They are being nice to me,” Jackson said.

“He killed it,” Tessa Virtue said of Jackson at the Hamilton show.

“We will have to tell Don to tone it down a bit,” Scott Moir said.

kurt and don 8
Photo by Julie Larochelle

The whole thing has energized skating in these parts in the right way. And reminded us that the old trick ponies have a lot to offer.

“I don’t know if there is anybody else I could have skated with that made us look good together,” Jackson said. He might have told Browning:

They’ve been invited on dates
I might have gone but what for
It’s awfully different without you
Don’t get around much anymore.