Monday, 17 June 2013

Return To Open Pro Competitions (Part 2: The Jaca World Professional Championships)


In part 1 of this article, I looked at the U.S. Open Professional Figure Skating Championships, one of a very small handful of professional figure skating competitions that was completely open and inclusive to any skater or team who wished to participate. With minimal rules, professional competitions such as these allowed skaters to express their music and program concepts without restrictions that impacted the presentation of the programs they were there to present to audiences. Part 2 takes a look at the World Professional Figure Skating Championships in Jaca, Spain. When people think of the name 'World Professional Figure Skating Championships', they think of Dick Button's iconic premiere professional event that hosted some of the biggest names in skating over three decades. But another event with the same name was widely televised on European television for years and it was completely contrasting in nature. Let's take a walk down memory lane and look at the importance, impact and relevance of the Jaca event:

WORLD PROFESSIONAL FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS (Campeonatos del Mundo de Patinaje Artístico Professional sobre Hielo)

In northeastern Spain, near the French border in the midst of the Pyrenees lies a town with ancient roots. Jaca, Spain was the fortied city out of which Aragon was developed. It was Aragon's capital until 1097 and its territory traces back to wars in the 1st century BC between Sertorious and Pompey. To this day, medieval walls and towers surround an 11th century Romanesque cathedral in the town and the city's 16th century citadel remains a popular tourist attraction. The history and mystery of this beautiful area provided a backdrop for an event that changed the historical path of professional figure skating. The Campeonatos del Mundo de Patinaje Artístico Professional Sobre Hielo, or World Professional Figure Skating Championships was an open professional figure skating competition held 16 times between 1974 and 1998 and featured skaters from a total of 31 countries in that time. Competitors over the years in this prestigious competition which was broadcast widely in Europe have included Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini, Denise Biellmann, Liz Manley, Gary Beacom, Anita Hartshorn and Frank Sweiding, Scott Williams, Paul McGrath, Lorna Brown, Doug Mattis, Petr Barna, Jozef Sabovcik, Charlene von Saher, Sandra and Val Bezic, Robert Wagenhoffer, Lori Nichol, Karen Preston, Brian Pockar, Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marval, Lisa-Marie Allen, Charlene Wong, Alexandr Fadeev and Sandra Garde. Prize money for this event was reportedly $2,500 for singles, and $3,000 to be split between both partners in a pairs or dance team.

Rosanna Tovi and Andrei Bannikov competing in the 1998 Jaca World Pro Championships

The precedessor of the Jaca event was a World Professional Figure Skating Championships competition held in Wembley, England. In 1931, the first "World Professional Competition" was established in Great Britain. Having organized a competition for male instructors of the sport earlier in the year, England's National Skating Association organized an open professional competition for men, ladies and pairs skaters, adding ice dancing at the 1939 event. These professional competitions continued through 1956. Mostly show skaters participated, and competitors at these events included Sonja Henie's coach, Howard Nicholson, Swiss brothers Jacques and Arnold Gerschwiler, 1936 Olympic Silver Medallist and 1937 World Champion Cecelia Colledge and 1953 World Pairs Champion Jennifer Nicks (who won the title with her brother John, who has coached many of skating's elite over the years including Peggy Fleming, Tai Babilonia, Randy Gardner and Ashley Wagner). Also competing were Herbert Aylward, Marilyn Hoskins, PSA founder Gladys Hogg, Ronald Baker, Len Liggett and Pamela Murray, among countless others. Roy Callaway, who joined the British Ice Teachers Association in 1950, served on the Association's Championship Committee from 1965-1969 with Joan Hawkins, Don Crosthwaite and Peggy Tomlins to organize the Wembley event. In the 1960's, this competition moved to Spain and was the forerunner to the Jaca event first held in 1974 which was organized by the Imperial Professional Figure Skating Association. Until last held in 1998, the Jaca world professional event was one of very few professional competitions historically that has offered ALL professional skaters an inclusive opportunity to participate.

Tracey Solomons and Ian Jenkins competing in the 1990 Jaca World Pro Championships

The first year the World Professional Figure Skating Championships was held in Jaca, Spain was 1974 and it was my absolute pleasure to speak with Lorna Brown, the first ladies champion ever at this event. Now I'm going to tell you something - what an absolute pleasure it was to speak with this amazing person. She first pointed out something I DIDN'T know. Jaca is actually pronounced 'Haca'. Who knew? She explained that the Jaca event developed from an earlier event held in Wembley, England and that in 1971, Australia's Reg Park and a man named Francesco worked to organize the event in Spain as an annual one and got the city's mayor involved and arranged volunteers and a rink to hold the event. Another big name in the organization of this event was Mari Carmen.

Brown bested 5 other skaters to win the first title, and also had the experience of judging the competition 10 years later. She explained that she had to qualify within her own country to be eligible to participate. That year, skaters were not required to skate two programs. Lorna performed one program, set to "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" which was beautifully edited and ended with the words 'transcend, purify and glorious'. She described the program as "a feeling of entering into another dimension". After winning the competition, there was some drama as 2nd place finisher Jennie Walsh of the U.S. refused to put her skates on when announced as finishing in 2nd. "It kind of spoiled my experience of winning. She held up the presentation. A very, very bad sport. She was so sure she would win and was terrible to me because I beat her. Nothing much was made about it and we got over it. She eventually appeared with her shoes on and refused to stand on the rostrum on number 2." Shades of Surya Bonaly at the 1994 World Championships.

Lorna (like myself) is a firm believer that events such as these are IMPORTANT and can totally happen again. "The PSA is so brainwashed by the ISU system that it's really hard to get them to support it. If they aren't running it, it's really hard to get them to be supportive. It's all politics - political power," she acknowledged. "All you need is one rink." She made a really good point I agree with completely. She pointed out that with things like YAS (Young Artists Showcase) which are done online primarily with the exception of the final, a lot of the leg work in organizing an event like this can be done ahead of time. You can accept applications online, do biographies of the skaters online and have the skating at a live event in a rink donated for a week, for instance. "We would want people like Stephane Lambiel, Daisuke Takahashi - but they don't have to be champions," she said. She also explained that skaters participating in a revival of an event like this would have to be true professionals and not be competing in ISU events. In other words, this would not be a pro-am. She made another great point that "there are so many more skaters than there ever was. A lot won't do it unless they get paid a fortune. It should be more honor than money, to get it started at least". She explained that when she competed and won in 1974, she paid her own flight and that for something like reviving an open professional competition to work, at first the right thing to do would be to ask skaters to maybe pay their hotel expenses or get a rink donated for a week. It would have to start small. We talked more about the skaters that an event like this would need to attract. Names we both threw out there (in addition to Lambiel and Takahashi) including Jeffrey Buttle, Jeremy Abbott, Emanuel Sandhu, Joannie Rochette, Shawn Sawyer, Misha Ge, Nicole Bobek and Shae-Lynn Bourne. Lorna pointed out that professional competition shouldn't be about who lands a quad and that someone like Shae-Lynn Bourne "can skate an AMAZING program without a jump at all!" For the very first champion of this event to say how much she'd like to see something like this resurface and help the sport grow speaks volumes about the open mind that people need to have about the way the sport is developing artistically and that reviving professional competition is only a pipe dream if people accept it as one. "Anything you can imagine, you can make a reality," said Lorna Brown, a beautiful skater who toured the world with one of the most artistic skaters of all time, the legendary John Curry.

Vivian Dean and John Lane competing at the 1976 Jaca World Pro Championships

Ten years later in 1984, Romania's Simone Grigorescu-Alexander bested 13 other skaters from 7 other countries to win the World Professional Championships in Jaca, Spain. The year previous she unfortunately had to withdraw and before that, in her visit in 1982, she finished 2nd out of 20 competitors. Her fourth and final visit came during the last year the competition was held when it was revived for a final time in 1998 following the Nagano Olympics. "The last time I participated was years later and it was only for the joy of participation and not so much for the sake of the competition," explained Simone. "Jaca was a very special place and the championship was like no other I have ever taken place in. Very unique experience, very unique people and a wonderful feeling of collaboration and sharing rather than the elitist feeling lots of other pro championships have had. I miss it dearly and Pablo, its creator and driving force (he passed away much too early, years ago)." She elaborated on the feeling of comradery amongst the skaters participating. "In Jaca, though you were competing against one another, it felt like a team where everyone is pulling for everyone to skater their best performance and win the hearts of the judges and the crowd! Very special indeed!"

Sebastien Britten competing in the 1998 World Pro Championships in Jaca

Simone Grigorescu-Alexander offered some insight into the way the Jaca event was judged. "We had to skate a short and a long program. I think the short did have some requirements that were modeled after the competitive system of those times, like: one solo jump, one two jump combination, one Axel type jump, solo spin, combination spin and footwork sequence...perhaps three spins. Too long ago to remember. Rules, but very loose ones. The long program was whatever you wanted it to be! As far as I can remember, we were judged on various elements such as jumps and spins, choreography, musicality, interpretation, footwork and such. I do not remember how many exactly. Robin Cousins was a judge one year and may remember. Then, the last mark consisted of a group of 10 local people who were not knowledgeable about skating and their vote made up the popular vote. If you were able to entertain the locals, you could get a perfect 10 even if you performed no jumps or spins. The great thing about Jaca is that entertainment was the name of the game. We had no requirements that boxed the performer into a rigid and strict format. We had total freedom to create whatever we as artists felt would entertain the crowd. Yes, if you wanted to get decent marks in jumps and spins and in footwork and such you needed to show those elements but you knew that those were only a couple of marks... I have seen beautiful and engaging performances without any jumps and I have seen performances that had me roaring with laughter! These did not perhaps win but the prize money was minimal, thus you went to Jaca for the experience and perhaps to get a title... Mostly for the experience and as a creative outlet. Most performances that won combined all aspects of skating entertainment to win the judges and the public: jumps, spins, footwork, great musicality and musical interpretation of the piece, great choreography and were able to create a character that the public would enjoy! So much fun! I still have video from my last competition, of the men's event as I was already done. I am amazed at the quality of entertainment even to this day!"

Scott Williams competing in the 1990 World Pro Championships

When asked what figure skating is missing by not having open professional competitions like the U.S. Open and Jaca World Pro available to skaters of the current generation, the answers were RESOUNDING. Author and CBC Sports commentator P.J. Kwong explained that "the thing that I always liked about the old pro-ams and even just the pro competitions is that it gives us a way to see our favourite skaters perform in a way that isn’t simply show skating. I think that bringing a legitimate pro competition to life would give skaters the chance to train with a goal in mind without having to commit for additional seasons. Good for the skaters who want to do it and great for the fans (like us) who would love one more chance to see them compete.” Debi Gold said "There are a lot of chorus and understudy skaters in Disney On Ice and Holiday On Ice that would love to do competitions like this. It would only help lift them to higher ranks in their touring companies. They have only their amateur laurels to rest on. Touring companies could send scouts to check out the competitions for new talent! Plus, having application only (rather than invitation only) pro competitions gives other pro skaters (not just high level pros) a chance to compete again - especially when they are medium-size fishes in small ponds like I was." Anita Hartshorn, who with partner Frank Sweiding won the pairs title at the 1988 U.S. Open and 1990 Jaca event, said "in my opinion, the lack of pro competitions has really hurt the popularity of our sport. Most of the skaters who are ready to leave the 'eligible ranks' but still would like to compete have nowhere to go. All professional skaters have less possibilities to expand their untapped potential of theatrically slanted competitive programs. Now that the ISU has approved the pro-am Japan Open, there is at least one competition for the audience to see their favorite skaters like Kurt Browning and Surya Bonaly compete. It doesn't matter how many shows you do, the feeling of doing a competition is different and everyone prepares harder for an event where you get judged." Former Jaca and U.S. Open competitor Craig Heath said, "I think there is a huge void. I was so fortunate to be able to participate. I have some of the best memories of my life from these competitions. I feel sad that the current skaters are not able to have that experience." Former Jaca competitor and U.S. Open Challenge Cup champion Doug Mattis said of professional competitions, "Absolutely there should be more pro skating competitions! I would love to see more that are specifically focused on artistic achievement... as well as some that would be specifically about jumps — like a skating version of golf’s "skins game." You land that triple axel the most times? You get the money. I think that kind of format would be fun—back-to-back with an artistic event."... And the message continued to come through loud and clear from every skater I've asked this question of. The figure skating world is ready for professional figure skating competitions to make a comeback and you're crazy if people think otherwise.

Very special thanks to P.J. Kwong, Doug Mattis, Carole Shulman, Simone Grigorescu-Alexander, Lorna Brown, Anita Hartshorn, Debi Gold, Craig Heath, Georgene Troseth, Pedro Lamelas from Hielo Español, Peter Morrissey from British Ice Teachers Association, Naya Zamborain Mason and others who made these articles and research possible!

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