Saturday, 1 August 2015

AXELS IN THE ATTIC, EP01: South American Skating History... You'd Be Surprised!


Put your cha cha heels on honey! In the very first episode of the Axels In The Attic podcast series, Allison and I took a trip back in time and talking South American skating history! Show notes:

SOURCES
  • Ball, Deidre and Hoefer, Hans. "Argentina". 1988. APA Publications.
  • Copley-Graves, Lynn. "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice". 1992. Platoro Press.
  • Kay, Muriel. "Origins Of Ice Dance Music". 1992 edition. Platoro Press.
  • Palais de Glace: Palacio Nacional De Las Artes. Official website. http://www.palaisdeglace.gob.ar/
  • "A Skating Star". The Deseret News. November 12, 1966.
  • "Belita Was A Baby Ballet Star And Also Tops In Figure Skating World". Milwaukee Journal. June 15, 1946.
  • "Rotary Ice Show Has Huge Success". Montreal Gazette. March 5, 1938.
  • "You Should Know --- Argentina Has Quintuplets". The Day. May 5, 1955.
  • The Glasgow Herald. October 8, 1935.
FOR FURTHER READING
PHOTOS AND TRANSCRIPT GUIDE


Patinação, patinaje... no matter the language, I promise you that the history of ice skating in South America is not only a fascinating tale but one that takes us back in the time machine much further than many would suppose.

We'll start by revisiting the story of the continent's first Olympic figure skater, Horatio Tertuliano Torromé. Born in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in 1861 to an Argentine father and a Brazilian mother, Horatio Tertuliano Torromé emigrated to Great Britain with his family and took up figure skating. In 1902, he almost won a medal at the World Figure Skating Championships in London, England, but dropped from a third place finish in compulsory figures to finish fourth in free skating and just off the podium underneath Ulrich Salchow, Madge Syers-Cave and Germany's Martin Gordan. In 1905 and 1906, Torromé would compete at the British Figure Skating Championships and win the men's competition, which wasn't technically a men's competition as female skaters contested the men for the 'men's title' until they were finally given a competition of their own in 1927. A forty six year old Torromé qualified to compete as a representative of Great Britain at the 1908 Olympic Games and almost did, but instead opted to represent his father's home country of Argentina. He was the only athlete in ANY sport to represent Argentina at those Games and in the more than hundred years and countless Olympic Games since then, there still hasn't been another figure skater from Argentina. Although he would finish seventh of the seven men finishing the men's event at those Games (two didn't finish), Torromé would also judge the pairs figure skating competition at the 1908 Games. I know what you're thinking. He didn't SKATE in South America so it doesn't count. It wasn't long before people were at all.

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the lifestyle of high society in Buenos Aires, Argentina began to echo that of Europe more and more. In 1910, Joseph R. King, a Briton living in the city, built the opulent belle epoque style Palais de Glace on land provided the city and opened the space as South America's first ice rink. The venue is still operational today for trade shows and exhibitions and explains its early skating days as such on its website: "Modeled on the Paris Palais des Glaces, the skating rink round occupied the central hall, and the surrounding boxes and lounges gatherings were distributed. In the basement of the building machines manufactured ice that supplied the track were installed, and the first new floor boxes, confectionery and a body completed facilities with a vaulted ceiling culminating in a dome with a large central skylight that even today 
preserves, designed to give natural light to the rink. Halfway through the 1910s, with ice skating and less in vogue, the Palais de Glace became an elegant ballroom with oak floor to welcome the new ambassador of civic culture: tango." The actual year of the Palais de Glace's transition from ice rink to ballroom was 1915 and it was in the venue that Porteno trendsetter Baron de Marchi staged tango soirees there in the 1920's, after which the dance was accepted by local high society. 

Although skating didn't catch on in South America at first, it enjoyed a surge of popularity in the early forties in both Brazil and Argentina. Here's a fun fact! Ice dancing pioneer Muriel Kay tells us in her book "Origins Of Ice Dance Music" about a rumoured South American Sonja Henie connection: "Sonja Henie was credited with playing a part in bringing Carmen Miranda to the U.S. According to some versions (and there are several) of the discovery of 'the Brazilian Bombshell', Sonja Henie, in the company of Broadway producer Lee Shubert, saw Carmen Miranda's show at Cassino da Urca while on a short visit to Rio in February 1939, and realizing the U.S. 'show biz' potential of the entertainer, pressured Shubert to give her a contract. Reportedly, Sonja even wore to a shipboard party a costume that Carmen Miranda had given her." Sonja was not the only skater to be taken by the samba. In 1941, Guy Owen and Maribel Vinson-Owen starred in the continent's first ice show in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Their show was well received and upon returning to North America, they debuted an early ice interpretation of the samba dance. Guy Owen even performed a popular solo act as a gaucho.

That same year in Buenos Aires, the Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima opened an ice rink. It was so popular that between six and hundred people skated there daily and the club had a waiting list of eight thousand. The October 8, 1935 edition of The Glasgow Herald explained that "this club, inspired by Dr. Aldao, one of the most public-spirited citizens of Buenos Aires, and financed out of unclaimed lottery prizes, provides for thousands of the young people of that great city a centre of healthy social life at nominal subscription." Essentially Argentina's answer to the YMCA, ice skating for a time was an incredibly popular activity. 1936 British Professional Champion Barbara Wright Sawyer and Swiss Champion Lucien Bouler both taught at the Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima, using the United States Figure Skating Association's rulebook as a guide as the country had no established skating federation or teaching program.

Speaking of the forties, one of skating's biggest stars of the era had a South American connection. Belita (Jepson-Turner) - whose story we looked at on the blog back in August 2013 - got her first name from the Argentinian side of her family. The June 15, 1946 issue of The Milwaukee Journal explains that "her great-grandfather, Charles Drabble, went from England to Argentina in a sailing ship, and was one of a group of Englishmen who played an important part in the development of the country. Acquiring thousands of acres of land in the vicinity of Buenos Aires, he established five great estancias (ranches), mainly devoted to the raising of cattle. He built his own railroads to these properties, established his own bank in the capital and later started a great frozen meat company. One of the estancias, and its terminal railroad station is called 'La Belita.' The firm of Drabble Brothers is now one of the great commercial firms of the Argentine."

By the fifties and sixties, the great touring companies of the era like Holiday On Ice were heading to South America gypsy style with ice making supplies, large ensemble casts, salchows and stilt skates. In addition to shows in Brazil and Argentina, figure skating was exposed to the people of Nicaragua, Ecuador and Colombia. The famous Argentine quintuplets - Carlos Alberto, Maria Ester, Marla Fernanda, Maria Cristina and Franco Diligenti - even had a skating connection. The May 9, 1955 edition of The Day noted that the family lived "outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, in a palatial home which has nineteen rooms, a skating rink, tennis court and swimming pool."

Popularity of skating in South America waned in the seventies but in the eighties made a resurgence. Deidre Ball and Hans Hoefer's 1988 travel publication "Argentina" explained that "ice skating has become the latest form of entertainment for young and old alike. You'll be able to find ice skating rinks all over Buenos Aires and in most of the major cities of the provinces." However, there was a big difference between skating as recreation and skating as competitive sport and it wouldn't be until the twenty first century that the country would start fielding competitors in international events when 
in 2002, the  Confederação Brasileira de Desportos no Gelo became a member of the International Skating Union and was followed closely behind two years later by the Federación Argentina de Patinaje sobre Hielo.


Today, skaters like Isadora Williams and Denis Margalik are representing South America with pride in international competitions. Just as Horatio Tertuliano Torromé was Argentina's first - and to this date only - Olympic figure skater back in 1908, Williams earned her place in the history books as Brazil's first Olympic figure skater in 2014. Figure skating may still not be as developed as in other parts of the world but today, Santiago, Chile's Parque Arauco mall plays host to an ice rink. Colombia's Los Yarumos fifty three hectare nature park offers horseback riding, barranquismo (rappelling through a waterfall) and seasonal ice skating. You can do paragraph double three's in Peru 
at the Mini Mundo in Lima's Jesús María district or execute brackets on Bolivia's synthetic XtraIce rink in La Paz. Every loop and lutz would only be adding to the continent's unique skating history.  

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html

Friday, 31 July 2015

The 1951 Plane Crash: Remembering Helen Fishbeck


They say that history repeats itself and the rather sombre topic of today's blog is a reminder of just that. Exactly ten years before Sabena Flight 548 crashed en route to Brussels, Belgium killing the entire U.S. figure skating team - almost to the month - another American skater's dreams were cut short in a horrific air tragedy.

Born January 28, 1930 in Detroit, Michigan to Lloyd and Bernice Fishbeck, Helen Lois Fishbeck was a talented junior skater who trained in Michigan in the winter and in New York at summer camps in Lake Placid. In March 1948, she was even a guest soloist at the Ann Arbor Figure Skating Club and University Ice Skating Club's joint show "Melody On Ice". Incredibly, she had turned professional in her mid-teens, taking up coaching jobs in Detroit and Lake Placid before completing a stint coaching at Akron's Iceland in Ohio in the winter of 1950/1951.

Although Fishbeck loved passing on her knowledge to younger skaters, she still had a great drive and passion to perform and that winter auditioned for Ice Follies. She got the job and was set to join the tour rehearsals on Sunday, March 26, 1951 in Milwaukee in anticipation of a March 29 opening night, according to The Milwaukee Sentinel. On March 25, after teaching at Iceland in the morning she boarded a small pilot plane with a thirty six year old Akron detective named Clarence Kitchen who rented the plane from Akron Airways where he was a part-time flight instructor, twenty three year old student at Ohio State University James J. Longstreth and Ernest H. White, a twenty five year old flying student and Goodyear Aircraft Corporation employee. With a little help from her friends, Fishbeck had absolutely no intention of missing her first day of work with Ice Follies the next day.

Things didn't work out that way at all. The March 26, 1951 edition of the Toledo Blade explains that "a few minutes after the red cabin Stinson left Akron - and within a mile of clear skies over Cleveland - the craft got into trouble in a cloud bank. Residents near the Brooklyn Heights farm where it crashed said the plane spiraled down from the clouds, tried to level off, and tore through roadside treetops - some six inches thick. As the damaged craft roared along for another half-mile, the left wing broke away, the engine and propeller broke loose, and the fuselage, with its four occupants, ended up a twisted mass of metal that had to be torn apart by trucks and chains." Sadly, Helen and her three travelling companions were all killed.

After the crash, two administration safety officials from Cleveland began working with C.E. Stillwagon of Romolus, Michigan's Civil Aeronautics Board conducted a formal investigation of the crash and the victims were taken to the Cuyahoga County morgue, where Helen's parents had to identify her body. I couldn't even imagine how heartbreaking and painful that must have been. Her autopsy lists her cause of death as "multiple contused, compound comminuted fractures of 85% of all the bones in the body, lacerations of the thoracic and abdominal and pelvic viscers. Laceration and a isceration of the brain. Airplane accident." Not sugar coating anything, the twenty one year old skater would have probably suffered terribly.

We all read and watch the news to some extent. Earthquakes in Nepal, shootings in churches, "weapons of mass destruction", civil unrest, missing airplanes... It's hard to wrap your head around it all. Although the loss of a whole generation of U.S. figure skaters, coaches and officials ten years later would capture international headlines and threaten to decimate American skating's future, from that tragedy came a wonderful appreciation of the love of skating of those individuals who died in Brussels that day like Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughters. That said, I felt it was just so important that I share the story of another young skater whose dream of a bright future in figure skating was cut short in a very similar way. Helen, you are remembered.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Freddie Tomlins And The Nazi Watch


There's something about jewelry and accessories and British men's skaters of the thirties. Back in February, we looked at the unusual story of 1935 World Silver Medallist Jack Dunn and a supposedly cursed ring. Today on the blog we're going to explore an equally bizarre story involving a Briton who too was a World Silver Medallist in the thirties and a watch. Coincidence? You tell me.

Freddie Tomlins was a 1936 Olympian, European and World Silver Medallist in 1939 known for his speed and power and was by all accounts quite a jumper for his era. He also at one point held a speed skating record for the two hundred and twenty yard distance in Britain. Shortly after winning his medals in European and World competition, Tomlins enlisted with Britain's Royal Air Force, first as a truck driver before serving as an air gunner in the tail of a big British bomber in raids over Germany. He then came overseas for further training in aviation in Canada at a pilot school in Ontario. While brushing up on his flying skills, Tomlins was afforded several leaves to perform in skating shows in North America, including a charity show in Oakland, California in December 1941 and the Minto Skating Club's Minto Follies show in March of 1942.  


After finishing fifth at the 1937 World Championships in Vienna, a seventeen year old Tomlins travelled to Germany and competed in an international competition at the Berliner Sportspalast. He won the gold medal, defeating Horst Faber and the rest of the Germans entered. While in Berlin, Tomlins was personally presented with an eighteen carat gold watch by none other than HITLER himself (who he met three times during his skating career) inscribed in German with the words "To our dear Freddie Tomlins in remembrance of his skating in the Berliner Sports Palast, March 29 to April 4, 1937". The Nazi leader's words to Tomlins? "Great sport like this will unite the nations". Reading that quote almost made me throw up a little in my mouth.

The watch Hitler gave to Tomlins served both a practical and symbolic purpose. A March 5, 1942 article in The Ottawa Citizen speculates that "during the long dark hours as his plane sped on its dangerous mission, he must have smiled with deep satisfaction at the gold watch on his left wrist to learn how time was passing. For in these flights over enemy territory he felt he was being given a chance to repay the donor of the watch. Freddy, although he would not be without the watch for anything has no love for the giver, who was no other than the hated little paperhanger with the toothbrush moustache, the arch-criminal himself, Adolf Hitler." In a December 19, 1941 article in The Spokesman-Review, of the watch Tomlins was quoted as saying "That will come in handy one of these days! It is just right for timing the release of the bombs."  

In case it all sounds too familiar, Tomlins' story was featured briefly before on the blog but certainly with no mention of this watch or in great detail. The ultimate irony is that the watch given to the future pilot officer by the Nazi leader himself did him absolutely no good. While fighting a German submarine, Tomlins was killed over the English Channel on June 20, 1943. Was it fate, bad luck or another curse? We'll never know... We do know that a talented skater who could have gone on to achieve even more had he survived the war was lost in 1943 and turning back the hands on a watch can't bring him back. 

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Interview With Todd Eldredge


When I made the decision to phase out interviews on the blog in June, I had originally planned for the July 5 interview with Olympic Gold Medallist Robin Cousins to be the final one, but due true to life, things don't always work out the way you originally plan! I had actually set up an interview with World Champion, six time U.S. Champion and three time Olympian Todd Eldredge prior to my interviews with Robin and Petr Barna but due to scheduling, we weren't able to chat until after I had made the announcement. So for both me and you, this turned out to be an extra special treat as I have long admired and respected Todd and his skating. An incredible athlete who actually won his first of six World medals back in 1990 right here in Halifax, Todd's career spanned more than a decade and has inspired so many of us. We reflected on his time competing, talked shop about the IJS system and the current crop of elite men's skaters as well as about coaching, performing professionally and much more. I hope you all enjoy this wonderful bonus interview as much as I did!:

Q: The things you accomplished during your competitive career were just incredible. The 1996 World title (and four other World medals), six U.S. titles spanning over a decade, three trips to the Olympics, five wins at Skate America, the Goodwill Games title in 1998... I could go on and on and if you had the time, I'd be happy to. If you had to pick one moment that was the most fulfilling and another that was by far the most excruciating, which would they be?

A: The most fulfilling would have to be the obvious - standing atop the podium at the Worlds in Edmonton. It's the ultimate goal for any skater to be able to win a World title or Olympic title so to have been able to come back from several years of injuries and hard times to pull that off was an incredible feeling. The most excruciating would probably be dislocating my shoulder at the beginning of the '98 Olympic season and losing valuable training time to feel one hundred percent prepared for the outcome I had hoped for.


Q: One part of your career I'd like to ask about are your experiences competing in the pro-am and open events. You won a great deal of them including the Canadian Pro/Open, Ultimate Four and Masters Of Figure Skating Competition. For you personally, how were these kinds of events particularly fulfilling and do you think figure skating would benefit from an influx of these events in the present day? 

A: I enjoyed participating in those events. They were great for getting and keeping in top form as well as for reaching outside the box creatively which I believe helped me grow more as a performer in my later years of competing. I think there could be a place for events like those in the future, however I believe the reason those events worked as well as they did is they were a showcase of past and present all coming together under somewhat similar rules to what we had all competed with. It would be very different now to get any of the marquee names from the past as they would have to learn an entirely different way of skating. They could work if you only used past champion skaters who have competed under the IJS system as that would keep them relevant with the current rules... unless they change the rules every week.


Q: You're now coaching in McKinney, Texas alongside your former coach Richard Callaghan. What is your own personal coaching philosophy?

A: I am enjoying my time coaching both figure skater and hockey players. They are both rewarding in their own right. When you have a skater who scores a personal best or completes a new move or passes a test or if I have a hockey player who makes it onto a higher level team or simply gets on a team for the first time. It's fun to be a part of the next generation of both sports. I like encouraging the young kids who are interested in skating and hockey to have fun with it and work hard because you never know how far it will take you.

Q: Whether it's coming from people reporting on the sport or from so-called fans, we live in a different age with social media where skaters are connected twenty four hours a day with their audience. This obviously brings with it both a lot of positive and negative. What are your thoughts on the impact of social media on skaters?

A: As you say, it can be both a positive and negative for athletes. It is something that is very individual. A skater who thrives on the recognition and excitement they may get from fans via social media can use that for motivation whereas in the situation of someone facing bullying or negative criticism, then it can be harmful to their skating and even affect them personally as well. It's definitely a subject that skaters and coaches have to approach and deal with on a skater to skater basis. What works for one may not work for another.


Q: Of the men competing on the world level today, who excites you the most to watch from a coaches perspective? 

A: There are many skaters I enjoy watching and each skater has something different to offer. I enjoy watching Yuzuru Hanyu for his youthful exuberance and the ease with which he is able to do all the crazy jumping passes he can do. Josh Farris' short program at Nationals was unexpected and incredible, Denis Ten reminds me of Patrick Chan a bit with the way he skates with such ease and can connect all the elements within his programs. I really enjoyed seeing Adam Rippon this year go for the quad lutz but moreso he really came to the rink with a renewed aggressiveness and confidence that he was missing before.

Q: How important is diet in your life?

A: My wife has a plethora of delicious things she can whip up, all of which are extremely healthy. I should have eaten like this when I was training and competing!


Q: Is touring professionally again something you see in your future?

A: I don't think I will tour again for any extended period of time at all. I am enjoying being at home with my wife and boys too much and watching them grow up that I wouldn't want to miss any of the fun. Our son Ayrton keeps all of us laughing with his hilarious personality. Who wouldn't want to be home for that all the time?

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: My top three favourite skaters of all time.. One would have to be Janet Lynn. She was and still is a pioneer for the sport and is one of the sweetest people you will ever meet. She always seemed to have a smile of her face as she floated across the ice. Brian Boitano was the skater I wanted to emulate most because of his consistency and longevity in the sport. Who else is 50+ and still performing and doing triples? Awesome! Michelle Kwan... I think her record speaks for itself as far as her skating is concerned, but for someone who had such a long a illustrious career to have reinvented herself to work as an envoy for the government to help others around the world is nothing short of remarkable.

Q: If you could change one thing about the current judging system, what would it be?

A: The system... I like the idea that it's a cumulative points system from short to long so there is a chance for someone who skates well and sits in sixth place, but only a couple points behind, to be able to pull up and win any event. I don't necessarily like the idea that the audience needs to be given so much information about the rules and scoring that they become disinterested and confused at what they are watching and why things are being scored as they are. If I had to understand what the angle of attack and the spin rate of the ball and the groove depth of the club and the swing plane and the swing speed and the shaft angle and the wind direction and how that affected the outcome on every shot during a round of golf at the Masters, I would be exhausted after the first hole, totally confused and would most likely switch the TV over to something else I could just enjoy watching for the purity of whatever that activity is football, baseball, hockey, auto racing or even the Food Network. I get it there has to be rules, but when it gets so complex that it becomes difficult to follow and understand for those not in the sport then it isn't working to help keep those who are interested still watching and generate more interest for those who might not be.

Q: What's one thing about you most people don't know?

A: I always put on my skates the same way: right foot in then left foot then tie the left then tie the right.


Q: If you could go back in time and tell a twenty year old Todd Eldredge one thing, what would it be?

A: Work hard, but work smarter. I was a work horse doing run through after run through and working all my jumps over and over until I felt happy with my completion percentages. Toward the end of my career, I worked so much smarter and gave myself limits of the number of things I needed to do in a day and just made sure I did them when I intended to instead of beating things into the ground. I have the hip replacement to show for it now!

Q: What is the biggest lesson that figure skating has taught you about life?

A: One of the most important lessons skating has taught me is focus. If you focus on something positively you will always have a positive outcome, no matter if you achieve the result you expected of yourself or not you will take the positive out of any situation and apply that towards your next goal and so on.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Out Of Africa: Adventures In African Skating History


Back in October 2013, I wrote Winter Sports Without The Winter: Skating In Africa and touched a little on the development of skating in South Africa and Morocco as well as pointed out several other countries where skating programs and rinks have slowly been starting to crop up. Today, I want to celebrate the colourful and unusual skating history of the continent and let me tell you... I think you are going to have your jaw on the floor for much of this. Get your safari hats, binoculars and skate bags ready... things are about to get VERY interesting!:

TRAGEDY IN LESOTHO 

The landlocked country of Lesotho lies in Africa's southern climbs and is completely surrounded by South Africa. Owing to its altitude in most areas, temperatures in winter can actually reach as low as minus seven to minus eighteen Celsius and snow and ice really aren't uncommon sights in the highlands year round. It's really no surprise that skating caught on in the small country and sadly, when a particularly bitter winter storm moved in on July 10, 1988, three young skaters skating on a lake near the country's capital, Maseru, perished when the ice broke and they fell through in a tragedy that mirrored The Regent's Park Tragedy in London on a much smaller scale. An older man also froze to death in Linakeneng, a town in the northeastern Mokhotlong highlands during the storm. This late eighties calamity served as a reminder that the omnipresent danger of outdoor skating is every bit as real in Africa as it is in the rest of the world.  

A HELLUVA REACTION

In 1960, the iconic skating tour Holiday On Ice for the first time decided to take on an extensive tour of the African continent. The cast included sixty Americans who were permitted to participate as part of the U.S. State Department's cultural exchange program. The first half of the tour started in Khartoum, the capital city of the Republic Of Sudan and travelled through Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania through to Mozambique. After a Christmas break where they were permitted to return home, skaters returned to the continent for shows in South Africa and The Congo. A December 3, 1960 article in The Miami News explained that "the African company carries its own ice-making equipment with it into the back-country on railroad cars." Although probably considered incredibly politically incorrect by 'today's standards', tour producer Morris Chalfen remarked "You get a helluva reaction from the natives, once you get them to come. They don't know at first what you're talking about. In Nairobi, they didn't even have a word for skate. We finally called it 'knife-on-show.'" 

PAPA HOUPHOUËT'S ICE RINK

The first President of Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Félix Houphouët-Boigny, played such a significant role in the decolonization of Africa and was so beloved by citizens that during his thirty three year tenure as the country's leader that they referred to him as Papa Houphouët. It was really no surprise when he got the crazy idea in 1970 to have an ice rink built in the Western African city of Abidjan that they flocked in to see what all the fuss was about and get their skate on for the first time. The rink was in a hotel called The Ivoire and an October 8, 1970 article in the Reading Eagle pointed out that "a painful one-point landing suffered by one young Ivoirian miss on the new ice rink in the presence of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny suggests it may never become the Ivory Coast's favorite rink." The Ivoire did manage to keep the rink (the only one in Western Africa) operational until the nineties, when the economic crisis hit the hotel hard and the skating rink wasn't able to subsist on the dwindling business from mostly the children of European expatriates. That 1970 reporter may have been right but who knows? Maybe one day skating will make another comeback in Côte d'Ivoire. Time will tell.

THE WORLD CHAMPION ICE SKATING CHIMP


A lot of the details of how Jinx - or Spanky - came to North America are sketchy at best but we do know that he was according to owner Dave Pitt "orphaned in the jungles of Equatorial Africa". The ape first showed up as a novelty in a skating show in The Sands in Las Vegas under the name of Jinx and went on to perform multiple shows a day with four female skaters at the Manhattan Savings bank in New York in December 1960 as part of a Christmas ice show installed in the lobby. A December 18, 1960 article in the Palm Beach Daily News describes the rather hairy skater as keeping "a cranky eye open to see how his audience reacts to his act. He breezily jumps hurdles, walks on stilts, cuts up the ice in a dizzy spin, does a couple of leisurely backflips, and in an unusually show off mood, manages a wobbly figure-8. That bit of exertion over, Jinx refreshes himself by lapping up some of the cool ice water at his feet then looks up expectantly at his audience. If applause is not immediately forthcoming Jinx remedies that by leading the ovation himself." Two years later, professional skater Dave Pitt bought eleven year old Jinx from his then owner and trainer Darlene Selleck at a Las Vegas gambling casino for one thousand, five hundred dollars, renamed him Spanky The World Champion Ice Skating Chimp - no, there wasn't really a competition - and together they joined the cast of Ice Capades. Together, Pitt and his African born friend made waves in Colombia, South America, where according to an August 7, 1962 article in the Schenectady Gazette, "officials recorded his speed at 32 miles per hour... Later that night, Spanky made a tremendous leap, powering his 81-pound frame through the air to a distance of 10 and a half feet." However inhumane training animals to ice skate might be considered today, this American import from Africa certainly made his mark.

SKATING'S JANE GOODALL

Another African immigrant to America with two names - her birth name Norma Vorster and adopted name Norma Foster - made quite an impact both in skating circles and the animal kingdom. After winning a gold medal at South African Figure Skating Championships and the 1956 Miss South Africa title, Foster represented her country at the Miss Universe pageant, took up Latin American ballroom dancing and acted in three films before moving to the U.S. in 1967. However, in the seventies, the former skater returned to her old stomping grounds in South Africa to host what else but a Jane Goodall-inspired show called "Wildlife In Crisis". Twenty six episodes of the show aired in Canada and the U.S. in the seventies. In a July 31, 1976 article in The Morning Record, the skater explained that "there is a good deal of deception being handed to the public in many wildlife series. Man is not as beastly and ruthless in regard to wildlife as some would have you believe... We concentrate on the enormous human effort that is being exerted on behalf of wildlife. Most wildlife shows present animals supposedly in their natural environment and how they behave. But in actuality this is a complete fallacy. It doesn't exist in Africa, most of these shots are staged. Africa has seen enormous encroachment by man in recent years, so what is really important is not going for animals in this so-called 'natural' environment, but showing the enormous problems the continent is having with wildlife management."  It's a shame that THIS African skater wasn't able to save Jinx - or Spanky - from exploitation in North America. She was only about a decade and a half too late.  

That's all for now but stay tuned in the coming months. We'll return to Africa for a three part look at some FASCINATING skating history from South Africa. You won't want to miss it!

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

John Forbes And The Starr Manufacturing Company


Every so often a blog begs to be written. Material jumps out at you in the most unlikely of places. In this case, it started with a book from The Heritage Trust Of Nova Scotia called "Rogers' Photographic Advertising Album, Halifax 1871" given to me by a friend with old advertising copy and photographs of the city I live in from the nineteenth century. What sealed the deal was my July visit to Sherbrooke Village, a living museum in Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia. While on a walking tour with friends, after tasting homemade buttermilk made the old fashioned way, we found a pair of Starr Skates hanging on a hook on the wall in the town jail. When we made our way to The Cumminger Brothers' General Store, we found a poster for the Starr Manufacturing Company advertising the same skates displayed on the wall. These coincidences, all within the course of a couple of weeks, convinced me it was finally time to sit down and write about an important part in skating history that hits very close to home.


For those of you who have never even heard of John Forbes, Starr Skates or the Starr Manufacturing Company, I'm betting the term 'Halifax Skates' means little to you, either. However, back in the nineteenth century, it was John Forbes, who at the age of eight emigrated from Birmingham to settle in Nova Scotia with his family of artisans that completely revolutionized skate making. Before we get to just how he did this, I want to talk a little about what skates were like in the years preceding his inventions.

J. Keith Young's October 12, 1965 Chronicle Herald article "Acme Spring Ice Skates A First For Nova Scotia" (which I was able to track down in the form of a yellowed newspaper clipping in the archives of the Halifax Public Libraries) tells us that "for some three hundred years wood frame skates only were available with a screw in the skate going up into the heel of the boot and two leather straps for fastening. As can be imagined, hilarious accidents were rife when the boot-heel would break off or the straps break at a crucial time. The first all-metal skates followed with brass plates at the toe and heel with corresponding plates inset into the sole and heel of the boot. The plates engaged and locked with a pin and later improvements saw the heel-plate turned up as a lug at the back of the boot. In this latter style a metal nut was set into the back of the heel and a small thumb-screw passed through the lug into the nut, making for a fairly sturdy setup for skating. Nevertheless, customers of the day bemoaned the obvious shortcomings of the skates and young Forbes began thinking on how to improve the skates."

John Forbes actually worked as a young man as a clerk in a Halifax hardware store, where ice skates were a popular purchase for many in the unforgiving Eastern Canadian winters. Full of ideas as to how he could solve the quandary of unsatisfied customers, he left for the United States to gain machine experience and capital for his projected business. While below the border, war with the Southern states broke out and his return to Nova Scotia was hastened until 1860. From 1865 to 1868, Forbes patented four different designs of his Forbes' Patent Acme Skates, which would come to be known largely within Canada as Starr Skates, as they were manufactured by The Starr Manufacturing Company and abroad simply as Halifax Skates, because they (you guessed it) came from Halifax. Dartmouth if you want to get technical... but around these parts we don't like to give those folks across the harbour too much credit. I'm allowed to say that. I've lived over there.

Forbes' design was a variation and improvement of an all metal skate designed by one Alexander McMillan that was adopted in 1860 by the Skating Club of New York. McMillan's skate attached to the foot without the aid of straps or fastenings, with the heel fastening by means of an oval plate with a rectangular gripper. The toe part of the skate attached by clamp. In the case of Forbes' skates, no plates were needed and the skates could be easily adjusted to ones boot or removed with a single lever. The heel was actually fixed in length and the toe length was adjusted by means of a lever-clip mechanism. Simply put, for the time they were the best thing going... and they sold like hot cakes.


More than three million pairs were manufactured in Dartmouth and shipped all around the world from the most bustling harbour in Canada. Young's 1965 article further tells us that "governments ordered extra sizes for men on far-north expeditions who needed skates suitable for those wearing heavy boots large enough to fit over moccasins. In the year 1877 alone, some 100,000 pairs were marketed and the Forbes Acme pattern of 1871, with modifications, is still a favourite." Or was back then. More of those old pairs of Starr Skates like the ones I saw at Sherbrooke Village are still kicking around at antique stores and in dusty attics than you'd think though. Trust me.

Sadly, John Forbes passed away in 1915, but his revolutionary skates continued to be designed and marketed by The Starr Manufacturing Company well into the thirties. What I love about Forbes' story is that his revolutionary work in redesigning skates not only solved a problem (which is what every great invention should do) but it also made skating so much more accessible and enjoyable for so many people... and in the process put Nova Scotia on the map in the skating world. The best part? In just a few short months at the 2016 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships, the skating world will be returning its focus to this very area... and I can't wait to meet many of you in MY CITY! We'll have to take a trip to the Nova Scotia Sport Hall Of Fame where I can show you a pair of Forbes' skates in person. As Cicero once said, "To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?"  I don't know about you, but I refuse to be ignorant.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

The American Exhibition Ice Skaters Association


Picture it... Chicago, 1917. The city was recovering from the S.S. Eastland disaster only two years previous, World War I was raging overseas and professional figure skating was in its salad days in the city. Two of the city's hotels, the Hotel Sherman and Morrison Hotel, had installed tank ice shows that were proving enormously successful. With that success, skaters obviously wanted to be able to have some control as to the direction their careers were going. Enter the A.E.I.A.


The American Exhibition Ice Skaters Association was an organization that came together with the goal of nationally controlling the many hotel ice shows that were popping up throughout the U.S. at the time. The Chicago shows had paved the way for countless others and as professional skating enjoyed its first big boom in the U.S. from Los Angeles to Dallas to Kansas City, American professional skaters wanted assurance they'd be paid fairly for their work and that the market wouldn't be over saturated with skaters from abroad. They didn't come right out and say it, but seeing as Charlotte Oelschlägel's shows were in their heyday you have to put two and two together and empathize with where the American skaters were coming from at the time.

The A.E.I.A. was run by a board of directors with William Arlington as president, John A. Scully as vice president, J. Lewis Coath as secretary and general manager and Edward W. High as treasurer. A 1917 Variety magazine explained the gist of what the Association aimed to do: "A plan has been worked out. Instead of the cafe proprietor paying a stipulated sum for the skaters, he can elect instead to turn over to the Association the total amount in cover charges. From that the Association pays the skaters and it also defrays the expenses of installing the tanks, which the Association will supply in such cases. After the engagement the hotel people have the privilege of buying the tank. Where a rink is already installed or where the hotel people so elect, a salary, fixed by the Association, is paid. The various skaters have agreed that the Association put a price on their work. Should a larger figure be obtained, the skater agrees that one-half of the excess salary over the stipulated amount shall be turned into the Association for promotion work... Each skater has weekly dues, $2.50 being paid by those working (in lieu of commissions) and $1.00 weekly for those not working. The figure mentioned as contributed for advance publicity among hotel interests is $2,000 and it is claimed that out-of-town hotels have already asked for bookings from the new Association... The capital stock will be $100,000, subscriptions expected to come from lovers of the sport and ice fans, which number many wealthy persons. There is no salary paid any of the officers save that of secretary."

The organization purported that an estimated eighty percent of American professional skaters performing in these hotel shows were in support of the organization. Quoted members included Norval Baptie and Gladys Lamb, Kathleen Pope and George Kerner, Franz La Mar, Bunny Moore and Runcie Martin, Ed and Dottie Lamy, The Fink's, Mr. and Mrs. Orrin Markus, Bassett and Chappelle, Steele and Condon and Davis and Rodgers.

Although the A.E.I.A. probably had the best of intentions, it just wasn't a model that ultimately worked at the time. Skaters from Europe were flocking to North America by the dozens to make an honest living as professional skaters and the Association couldn't ultimately control the market in the way they aimed to at the time. Prohibition in 1920 didn't help either. It wouldn't be until 1938 that the Professional Skaters Association would be formed, but this early attempt to look out for the interests of professional skaters in America is one that shouldn't be relegated to the dusty boxes in the rink attic.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Darío Villalba Flores: Spain's First Olympic Figure Skater


Although the current European and World Champion in men's figure skating is from Spain, we all know that Javier Fernandez' overwhelming success has been the exception and not the rule for Spanish figure skaters. Sure, Spain has fielded some other superb skaters over the years including Yvonne Gomez, Sara Hurtado Martin and Adrian Diaz Bronchud and Marta Andrade, but Fernandez' rise to the top has truly been historic. Fernandez, however, was obviously not the first Spanish skater to compete at the World Figure Skating Championships. That distinction goes to a man named Dario Villalba Flores and I think you are going to find his story every little bit as fascinating as Javi's.

Born February 22, 1939 in San Sebastián which is on the Bay of Biscay near the French border, Villalba was the son of a diplomat and not just just any diplomat. His father was an Ambassador to Spain stationed at the consulate in Philadelphia, the city where Villalba learned to skate at the age of eleven. After winning a competition on the junior level in the city, the young skater returned to his country of birth but the rink there didn't offer facilities conducive to training. His parents sent him to Chamonix, France to train with Thea Frenssen, who had coached skaters like the late Gundi Busch and Ina Szenes-Bauer

In an interview with Hielo Espanol, Villalba offered some insight into his competitive career, which saw him become the first Spanish figure skater ever to compete at the Winter Olympics and World Championships, both in 1956: "The Championships of Spain had three or four skaters (who) came from roller skating and the level was very low. I did a double loop, double toe-loop, double salchow and double lutz. We also worked (on) double axel. Certainly nothing to do with the level of today where children perform quadruple jumps. I was very young, barely sixteen, when I competed in the Olympic Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo (1956). All my obsession was not to be the last and I did. I finished fourteenth, beating two competitors: Australian Charles Keeble and the Finn Kalle Tuulos. Later, I participated in the World Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen also in 1956 where I was fifteenth, beating a competitor, Australian Keeble again. In both cases, the winner was the great American skater, Hayes Alan Jenkins, who I greatly admired. It was an interesting experience because, at that time, being a Spanish skater was like being a bullfighter in a Nordic country." After his trips to the Olympic and World Championships, Villalba abruptly retired from skating. 


What makes his story so fascinating to me isn't his just the fact that he was Spain's first skater to compete in major "amateur" competitions, but what he has accomplished in life SINCE then. After studying law, philosophy and fine arts in Madrid, he gave his first exhibition as an artist at age eighteen. Today, Villalba considered one of his country's greatest artists. He won the National Prize For Plastic Arts in 1983 and twenty years later was given the Gold Medal For Merit In Fine Arts by the King Of Spain, who now in light of the Jian Ghomeshi scandal is most certainly not jamming with Moxy Fruvous anymore. All jest aside, Villalba's art is in fact so popular that it has been exhibited everywhere from Denmark to Japan to Miami, including in 1980 an exhibit with the Sonja Henie/Niels Onstad Foundation in Hovikooden, Norway.


Asked what he thought of Fernandez' skating in the Hielo Espanol interview, Villalba said "I was lucky to meet him when he came to my studio with a member of the Spanish Federation (Gloria Estefanell). I asked him to do a quadruple without skates and I was amazed at the height picked. I follow (him) closely and the rest of the Spanish skaters (we asked for them all, even junior). For me it's exciting to have been the beginning of what these guys are continuing." Things always do seem to come full circle, do they not?

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Eva And Rudi Revisted: Bonus Material From Dr. Roman Seeliger

After sharing my latest blog on Eva Pawlik and Rudi Seeliger, I was fortunate enough to connect with their son, Dr. Roman Seeliger, who kindly shared with with me a wealth of additional material about his parents which he has graciously given me permission to share! Below, you'll find part of the e-mail from Dr. Seelinger which expands on some of the aspects of Eva and Rudi's story as well as clarifies one point in the blog. He also provided a treasure trove of additional information about his parents that I included separately! Grab yourself a cup of tea and get ready to learn even more about these incredible figure skating champions:

LETTER FROM DR. ROMAN SEELIGER

"I am always happy about the efforts of figure skating experts and journalists to keep history alive. So you can certainly share my information with readers.

Your article is wonderful. Thank you so much. Perhaps one could add that famous Austrian coach Edi Scholdan was one of my mother's coaches. After having won the Olympic silver medal, she starred in Scholdan's Broadmoor Ice Revue in Colorado Springs (in the summer of 1948). In addition to that it might be remarkable that Pawlik was the best European skater not only in 1949 when she won the European title but also at the 1948 Europeans. The European gold medal, however, was awarded to non-European Barbara Ann Scott from Canada.

Edi Scholdan and Eva Pawlik

One sentence in your article could be misunderstood: "Although Pawlik and Seeliger were reunited in 1949, Eva continued to focus on her singles career at the time with a World title not an unreachable goal by any stretch of the imagination." One could believe that Eva focussed on her single skating although she was already reunited with my father. That is not true. When turning pro in the summer of 1949 Eva Pawlik thought Rudi Seeliger had died. When Rudi came back in December 1949, she was already starring in the Vienna Ice Revue. So it was too late for an international pairs skating career for my parents in the then amateur rinks. My father won the 1950 Austrian pairs skating title with another girl, Susi Giebisch, beating the last year's European bronze medalists Ratzenhofer and Ratzenhofer after training only two weeks, and then turned pro. So my parents were reunited a number of months AFTER my mother had turned professional.

Why my grandparents (my mother's parents) needed financial support? That has to do with Austria's bad economic situation after WW2. There were enormous shortages. People did not have enough food.

As an amateur, my mother appeared in a small ice show in Vienna without getting money for it. Otherwise she would have lost her amateur status which would have prevented her from participating in the Olympics. But she got a box of lump sugar for her appearances. One of the officials said she had to give it back so as not to endanger her amateur status. She did so.

To compare the circumstances: The later Olympic Champion Barbara Ann Scott got a convertible from the City of Ottawa. Avery Brundage from the International Olympic Committee told her to give it back so as not to endanger her amateur status. She did so, won the European Gold Medal, the Olympic Crown and the Gold Medal at the Worlds and then got the car back again.

Here is a link to Eva Pawlik's free program from the movie "Traumrevue" (1959). The film was privately taken during the rehearsal by my father so I can publish it without infringing any property rights. The original music was Marchetti´s tune "Fascination". I added a piano piece that I have composed and played on the piano.


And this was my birthday video message to 1949 and 1950 World Champion Alena Vrzanova some years ago (Vrzanova was runner-up to my mother at the 1949 Europeans):


Best wishes,
Roman Seeliger"

ADDITIONAL WRITTEN MATERIAL BY DR. SEELIGER REPRODUCED WITH PERMISSION

"My mother was a very lively child. When going for a walk with my grandparents she seized my grandpa's hand on the left and my grandma's hand on the right to make a backwards somersault. That was in the summer of 1931 before her 4th birthday. The doctor said she should go in for sports. As the ice rink was not far (in the city of Vienna) my grandparents let her go to the Vienna ice rink. There a skating teacher took one boy or girl after the other to conduct him or her one round and then to take the next child while the first had the opportunity to have a rest. When the teacher came back to pick up Eva again she was not there. 'She must be somewhere in the crowd,' my grandma informed the teacher, who found her already able to skate alone without falling down. As she was watching the Viennese world-class figure skaters doing their training for the following championships she tried to imitate whatever they were doing. Eva was fascinated by all of them and only had one wish: she also wanted to become one of the great figure skaters. Within a few months, she was able to jump a single axel and do fast spins. That was in the early spring of 1932. Eva's coaches were Angela Hanka (silver medallist at the 1914 World Championships) in the free programme and Rudolf Kutzer in the compulsory figures. When she went to school, she got up early in the morning (at 4 o´clock) to rush to the Vienna Ice Rink to develop her skills on the ice before the beginning of school at 8.

My father was already a schoolboy at age 7 or 8 when he began to skate. Some companions such as Karl Jungbauer, a very talented single skater who was destined to die in World War II, suggested that my father, too, should try to skate. That was approximately at the same time when my mother began to skate. My father was also originally trained as a singles skater.

My parents met on the skating rink of the Wiener Eislaufverein (Vienna Skating Association) when they were children (before World War II). Originally, they were both single skaters. In 1936, Pawlik and Seeliger (my mother was 8 years old, my father was 12) imitated the 1936 Olympic Champions, Maxi and Ernst Baier. Pawlik and Seeliger had a great deal of success with this improvised parody and then decided also to become pair skaters. Within only a few months they were already considered the couple that could become the successors of the 1936 Olympic runner-ups Ilse and Erik Pausin.

However, the inhuman Nazi regime and World War II destroyed the lives of generations, including the careers of many sportsmen and sportswomen. Unfortunately, Austria ceased to exist in 1938 because it was integrated into Germany in the so-called Anschluss. There were German championships on the one hand and 'Ostmark' championships instead of Austrian championships on the other. ('Ostmark' was the name the area of Austria had after the Anschluss). Eva Pawlik and Rudi Seeliger became German Youth Champions, both individually and as a couple. In 1942, they became 'Ostmark' Champions as a couple.

Rudi Seeliger, however, could not continue his training as a skater, as he had to serve in the German Army. If he had refused, he would have been killed immediately. My mother unsuccessfully tried to get an exemption from the compulsory military service for him. Some sportsmen got such an exemption. But the young girl Eva Pawlik did not have connections to the people who had the Nazi regime's authority to give such an exemption. So my father had no chance to escape the war.

In 1943 Rudi Seeliger was captured by the Soviets at the Eastern front and had to work as a coal miner in the Donetsk Basin in the Ukraine. He had a terrible time there but did not give up hope. In his dreams, he was thinking about skating with Eva. Finally, the Soviets let him go in December 1949. He belonged to the group of soldiers known as the 'late homecomers'. (He was 26 years of age at that time.) It was by no means easy for him to accept that his youth and his amateur career as a figure skater had been destroyed by World War II and by the inhuman Nazi regime. On the other hand, he confessed that there had been moments in which he could no longer believe that he would survive and that he was thankful that he finally did.

Meanwhile Eva Pawlik could only compete as a single skater. She did not give up. Despite the fact that Austria no longer existed and was part of Nazi Germany, she always chose Viennese music (especially Viennese waltzes) for her free programmes. That was a young woman's careful signal of believing in Austria's resurrection. When Vienna was bombed in 1945, the figure skating training on the ice rink had to be interrupted for some hours to give everyone the chance to run into a bunker. The skaters returned to find bomb shrapnel on the ice, which they cleared away before returning to their compulsory figures training.

In 1947, when the first European and World Championships after World War II were held, Austrians in general were not admitted, for political reasons. Eva Pawlik was allowed to watch the Championships - from the stands, but not as a competitor. It was one of the most difficult moments in her life as an amateur skater to know that she was probably the best European skater with good chances of winning a medal at the World´s but to be barred from participating.

In 1948, Austrians were admitted again to international skating competitions. Eva Pawlik proved to be Europe's best skater at the European, Olympics and World Championships. Again it was hard for her to accept that the European crown was not awarded to her, but to a non-European skater. It goes without saying that Barbara Ann Scott from Canada was a wonderful and glamorous skater. But that did not change the fact that Eva Pawlik was the best-ranked European lady figure skater at the 1948 European Championship but was awarded only the silver medal.

One also has to take into account the circumstances under which Eva Pawlik had to develop her skating. There were hardly any indoor skating halls in Austria. So the training was mainly restricted to the time from October to March. The competitors from the United States and from Canada had the chance to do their training during the whole year.

In the summer of 1948, when Barbara Ann Scott had turned professional, my mother was celebrated as the world´s highest ranking amateur skating queen in the United States. She did some training in Colorado Springs with Edi Scholdan, who was destined to die in 1961 (in an air crash involving the US figure skating team). In the Broadmoor Ice Revue produced by Scholdan, she appeared together with famous US Champion Gretchen Merrill. Pawlik's 21st birthday was celebrated in Hollywood, where a figure skating exhibition took place. MGM offered Eva Pawlik the opportunity to star in a Hollywood movie. Gene Kelly´s dancing should be combined with Eva Pawlik's skating. Billy Wilder should be the director, Helen Rose should design the costumes. Although this offer was a chance to become a Hollywood star, Eva Pawlik declined in order to keep her amateur status for the next year. She was said to have the best chance of winning the 1949 European and World titles.

At the 1949 European Championships in Milan, Eva Pawlik suffered from acute appendicitis. Nevertheless she beat her first competitor, Alena Vrzanová, both in compulsory figures and in the free programme. After her free programme, she had to go to hospital immediately. Nevertheless, it was perhaps the most wonderful day of her amateur career. To be first despite the illness proved her to be Europe´s best figure skater by far. As there was no dangerous competitor for Pawlik from outside Europe, that meant she was also the world´s best figure skater by far in 1949.

In the World Championships, Eva Pawlik ranked only second after school figures. But the difference in points between Pawlik and Vrzanová was narrow, so Pawlik was still the favourite. Her strength had always lain in the free programme. At the 1948 Olympics, for instance, she had been 3rd after the school figures. It was the free programme that earned her the Olympic silver medal.

When Eva Pawlik and her competitors were warming up at the 1949 Worlds, one of her heels broke. The judges did not allow her to try the shoes of a companion to get familiar with a new feeling of skating. Sabotage was supposed but not proved. As a result of the shortages in Austria, Pawlik unfortunately had no second pair of skates, so she could not compete in the free programme. That was the greatest disappointment in Eva Pawlik's career. Vrzanová went on to win.

It is true that Karl Schäfer implored her not to turn professional but to take part in the 1950 European and World Championships. In the 1990's, the ISU Historian, Mr. Benjamin T. Wright, wrote in a retrospective letter to me that Pawlik was for sure a better skater than Vrzanová.

If Eva Pawlik had known that Rudi Seeliger would come back at the end of 1949, she would have heeded Schäfer's advice. She had known that she would keep her chances alive not only as a single skater but also as a pairs skater. The chances in pair skating were as good as in single skating because the international standard in pair skating was not extremely high at that time. Besides, there were no school figures in the pairs´ competitions, which would have made things easier for Eva.

As a matter of fact: Eva did not know that Rudi was still alive. She wanted to give financial support to her parents, whom she loved very intensely. That was the psychological reason for her decision to turn pro in the summer of 1949.

When Rudi Seeliger came back to Vienna in December 1949, he went to the skating rink immediately to find out if he was still able to skate. Some steps on the ice - and he knew that he could still do it. One of the first things Rudi wanted to tell Eva was that he had not forgotten skating. As Eva was already a professional skater, it was too late for her and Rudi to compete together. So Rudi competed at the 1950 Austrian Championships with another partner (Susi Giebisch). After only a fortnight´s training, Seeliger and Giebisch won the gold medal, ranking ahead of Staerk/Gareis and Ratzenhofer/Ratzenhofer. It is worth mentioning that Ratzenhofer/Ratzenhofer had already been internationally successful, having been the 1949 European bronze medallists.

After this success, Rudi turned pro and joined the Vienna Ice Revue. First he was skating together with Emmy Puzinger (at that time Eva Pawlik was skating with Hellmut May, who had finished 8th at the 1948 Olympics). Within a year, it was clear also to the management of the ice revue that Eva and Rudi artistically belonged together. Their first vaudeville number was 'a little flirt' (music: "Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps").

My parents married on February 12th, 1957. They had fallen in love during the time they were starring in the Vienna Ice Revue. In 1957, however, they were starring in the German Scala Eisrevue (as the successors of Ilse and Erik Pausin and as the predecessors of Sissy Schwarz and Kurt Oppelt). Having evolved into one of the world´s best professional couples on the ice, they returned to the Vienna Ice Revue in 1958.

I realized that my parents were famous when I was rather young (6 or 7 years). As my parents had retired from professional skating shortly before my birth (I was born on August 9th, 1962), my impression that my mother was a famous woman did not have to do so much with her skating but with the fact that my mother was the first female sportscaster in German-speaking countries.

My father had become the manager of an advertising enterprise; my mother looked after me year round. The Vienna Ice Revue offered her an enormous fee for a comeback. She said no because she did not want to leave me alone. This is worth mentioning, I think, because it does not go without saying that a show star abstains from a great deal of money and from continued success in an Ice Revue in order to take care of a child.

Only for some weeks (the time of the European and World Championships and every four years when the Olympics were taking place) I lived with my grandmother (my father worked during the day). I was allowed to watch TV by my grandma and my father to hear my mother´s voice before going to bed.

As a sportscaster, my mother remained popular in Austria for one more decade (from 1963 to 1972). People in Austria were still interested in figure skating at that time as there were many Austrian skaters winning medals in international competetions (European Champion and Olympic runner-up Regine Heitzer, World Champion Emmerich Danzer, Olympic Champion Wolfgang Schwarz, Olympic Champion Trixi Schuba). The figure skating competitions with my mother´s commentary were often broadcast at prime time.

Pawlik's commentary on TV was by no means euphemistic. She articulated her opinion and sometimes criticized the judges. At the 1968 Olympics, for example, she pointed out that Emmerich Danzer - who had been far behind after the school figures and who finished 4th despite an extraordinary free programme - should at any rate have won the Olympic bronze medal. Pawlik also expressed her opinion clearly when she was in favour of a non-Austrian skater. When Trixi Schuba of Austria won the 1971 and 1972 World Championships and the 1972 Olympics, Pawlik appreciated Trixi Schuba's enormous abilities in the compulsory figures on the one hand, but pointed out Janet Lynn's superiority in free skating again and again on the other. You can certainly imagine that some people in Austria were not happy with Pawlik's proposition to push back (though not to eliminate) the value of the figures to avoid the disproportion between the final ranking and the ranking in the free programme in the future.

As Paul Sibley from California (who was starring in the Vienna Ice Revue in the 1960's together with Regine Heitzer) put it in a letter to me, my mother was a "superstar before the word was invented". She was, however, a star without any airs and graces. A stage hand of the Vienna Ice Revue whom I met in the museum where the exhibit about the Vienna Ice Revue took place said to me: "It is true that your mother was Europe´s top professional star on the ice for years, besides being the only female one who had earned a doctorate. But when talking to others she never gave the impression to anyone that he or she was speaking with a 'star'."

As far as her programmes as a professional skater are concerned, there are three vaudeville numbers that I like best. The first is to be seen in the movie  'Frühling auf dem Eis' (Spring On The Ice, 1950): Eva Pawlik is a sultan's slave. This programme not only shows her abilities as a skater (axel performed with a landing on the outside edge and on the inside edge, and very good edging) but also as far as her pantomime as a slave is concerned. The second is to be seen in the movie 'Traumrevue' ('Revue Of Dreams', 1959) (in a blond wig to the instrumental version of the song 'Fascination' by Marchetti). The third is in my private archive showing Pawlik's last vaudeville number in 1961. As far as the vaudeville numbers of my parents are concerned, I love their interpretation of the Viennese Waltz best. Their acrobatics, however, are more spectacular.

My parents died in the same year. My father died of a sudden heart attack; my mother became severely ill in 1979. It took the doctors a long time to find out the real diagnosis: she suffered from collagenosis, an infrequent and (at least in 1983) incurable auto-immune disease. From 1973 until 1982, my mother was a teacher in German and English in a secondary school (pupils from 10 to 18)."

I can only offer my sincerest thanks to Dr. Seeliger for his permission to share this wonderful material giving us even more of an insight into the trials and tribulations of Eva Pawlik and Rudi Seeliger! In my opinion, their story just speaks volumes about not only the passion to skate but the passion to persevere.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Trials And Tribulations: The Storied Lives Of Eva Pawlik And Rudi Seeliger


A skater's life has rarely been considered an easy one, whether in present day or the distant past. Early morning practices, injuries, exhaustion and pressure up the wazoo hardly always make the lives of the sport's elite the cakewalks an outsider of the sport might suppose. That's nothing we as those who endear themselves to the sport don't know though. That said, some have really had a rough go of it along the way... and two that certainly come to mind are 1948 Olympic Silver Medallist Eva Pawlik and her pairs partner and husband Rudi Seeliger. I must credit Esther Pierce for the idea of writing about these two for after sharing some great video of the 1949 World Championships I'd stumbled upon it was her that directed me to some wonderful material that talked in detail about Pawlik and Seeliger's careers... and trials and tribulations.

Viennese skater Eva Pawlik was widely known as somewhat of a child prodigy. She was landing an axel at age four and performing in shows as part of a touring act called "The Fairy Tale Of The Steady Tin Soldier" with two time World Champion Felix Kaspar as a mere child. Following in the footsteps of other great Austrian ladies skaters like Fritzi Burger and Herma Szabo, Pawlik was Austria's new rising skating star and everyone was certainly paying attention.


Right off the bat, things didn't go as planned. The Anschluss Österreichs in 1938 where Austria was basically absorbed into Nazi Germany meant a change of career trajectory for Pawlik and her pairs partner Rudi Seeliger. There was no Austria so there were no Austrian Championships. Instead, skaters competed in 'the Ostmark Championships', which Pawlik and Seeliger won in 1942. With the 1940 Olympics cancelled and no European or World Championships to advance to that year, both Pawlik and Seeliger's pairs career and Pawlik's singles skating were basically put on a forced hiatus. The international gold medals would simply have to wait for both promising young skaters.

As if that wasn't enough to take the wind out of anyone's sails, Seeliger was drafted into the German army. While in service, he was captured by the Red Workers' and Peasants' Army and was forced to work as a slave in a coal mine until he returned to Austria in 1949. In the meantime, Eva was partnerless and left to pick up the pieces of her skating career and carry on. While her pairs partner toiled as a slave of war, she returned to competition after World War II ended, winning four consecutive Austrian titles ahead of rivals like Inge Solar and Hilde Appeltauer (future coach to 1972 Olympic Gold Medallist Trixi Schuba). In 1948, she returned to international competition, winning the silver medal at the European Championships, Winter Olympics and World Championships that year. Sandra Stevenson's 1984 book "The BBC Book Of Skating" states that "when Eva Pawlik of Austria unsuccessfully challenged Barbara Ann Scott in 1948 one reason given for her failure was that she skated with dirty boots and holes in her tights. The boots were so old that they no longer responded to cleaning and the holes were darned. It was the best she could manage with all the shortages in her country."


Although Pawlik and Seeliger were reunited in 1949, Eva continued to focus on her singles career at the time with a World title not an unreachable goal by any stretch of the imagination. Bad luck again befell the young star though. She suffered a serious bout of acute appendicitis that almost forced her to withdraw from the 1949 European Championships but still managed to defeat Ája Vrzáňová to take her first and only European title. That year at the World Championships, things again did not go in her favour. A close second to Vrzáňová after the school figures, Pawlik (who had defeated the Czech star by three places at the World Championships in 1948) was in very real contention to snatch the gold. However, one of the heels on her skates mysteriously broke at those World Championships in Paris prior to the free skate. She was not allowed to continue using borrowed skates, which seems so silly now considering what happened at the 2008 Worlds with Brent Bommentre's lost luggage. I've always believed in the old theatre adage "the show must go on" personally. But I digress... Pawlik was forced to withdraw and decided to instead turn professional and make some money as her family certainly could have used some financial support after going through... I don't know... a war?! I think that's a pretty good reason. I don't know about you.


It was certainly a tragic end to an "amateur" career: for a skater who had faced so many challenges through her career because of World War II to end a career with a big old slap in the face when a title was within her grasp. Things drastically improved after 1949 for Pawlik and Seeliger though. They'd reunited both on and off the ice, teaming up again to skate together in shows with the Vienna Ice Revue and Scala Eisrevue for a good decade after Rudi made his own brief return to ISU competition to win the 1950 Austrian pairs title with Susi Giebisch. Seeliger and Pawlik didn't just reunite as a pairs team, they also got married! After their professional careers ended, Pawlik worked as a skating commentator for television and later as a schoolteacher. Both husband and wife passed away in 1983.

I feel like I'd be remiss not to direct you to the wonderful website that Esther directed me to that provided much of the background and source material for this article - an Eva Pawlik fanpage maintained by the couple's son Dr. Roman Seeliger brimming with amazing photographs and quotes about primarily Eva's career but also offering some great material regarding her pairs career with Seeliger. You really have to check it out! That said, I have to be close by saying in this instance how happy it makes me that these two found each other again and were able to rekindle that magic on and off the ice. It's really a wonderful story of perseverance and obvious love of skating that brought them back together and if that doesn't warm your heart, maybe another cocktail is in order.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.