Sunday, 16 June 2013

Return To Open Professional Competitions (Part 1: The U.S. Open)


In this world, we are all in this massive hurry to go somewhere. Skaters are no different. Throughout their competitive careers, they are conditioned to the mindset of the necessity to achieve some lofty goal, some dream being the be all, end all. "If I pass my gold dances, that will be it...If I qualify for nationals, that will be the ticket... All I want is to make a world team... My dream is to go the Olympics... I need to win Olympic gold..." For the handful of skaters in the world who have won Olympic gold or a world title, there are thousands upon thousands of others who haven't. What the skaters who have achieved their ultimate goal and the skaters who haven't have in common is the experience. They have competed and become richer for the opportunity. They've learned that by entering competition and pushing themselves to be a better skater and competitor, rewards come, whether they be in the form of medals, opportunities or personal goals met. Many have come to love competing.  For decades, when a skater decided that their eligible career had come to a close, they had so many opportunities to continue bettering themselves as skaters as opposed to going down the fulfilling and rewarding road of coaching and choreography, or at least making that their sole focus. There were tours to choose from, countless shows, TV specials and there were competitions. I already touched a bit on professional competitions in my blog article Professional Figure Skating Competitions: What You Didn't Know, but what I have been dying to do is take a look at the history and stories of 2 professional competitions that changed the face of figure skating as we knew it, and are sadly no longer available for the current generation of professional figure skaters: the U.S. Open and the World Professional Figure Skating Championships in Jaca, Spain. Along with the Turtle Island Productions American Open event and the Jaca World Pro's British predecessors, these were the only competitions that allowed ANY professional skater who wished to participate to compete and showcase their creative skills in front of a live audience. Skaters had creative freedom, could use lyrics, props and creative license. They weren't restricted to ISU rules. They didn't have to worry about CoP footwork sequences or what level their spins were. They didn't have to be famous or asked. They could be even be infamous if they wanted to be. What made these two competitions so important is that we were inclusive, they fostered creativity and they allowed a future to skaters that might not have been afforded one based on the laurels of their amateur results. Your best finish as an amateur could be 4th as a novice at your national championships and you could go out and beat an Olympic medallist if you were good enough to. There was a fairness, an openness and an excitement about events like these that skating is missing today, and I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to revisit that world with the help of the people that were there living those memories.

PART ONE: U.S. OPEN CHALLENGE AND MASTERS CUP (U.S. OPEN PROFESSIONAL FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS)

In 1981, a new event debuted at the University Of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania called the U.S. Open Professional Figure Skating Championships. It was sponsored and produced by the PSGA (Professional Skaters Guild Of America) and chaired by David Lowery during it's first year. Featuring reigning World Professional Champion Scott Cramer, Olympians Stacey Smith and John Summers and Sheryl Franks and Michael Botticelli, the top three finishers were eligible to represent the U.S. at the World Professional Championships in Jaca, Spain that year if they chose. Former PSA (Professional Skaters Association) executive director and author Carole Shulman explained the "U.S. Open began as a result of the World Professional Championships being held annually in Jaca, Spain. For a couple of years skaters were hand picked but we decided a better process was to hold a competition and have the winners represent the U.S. It was enthusiastically received so in 1981 was held and quickly grew in stature."

Doug Mattis performing at the 1994 U.S. Open

This event developed into an annual event and was led by whomever was the current PSGA president. "It started very small as there was minimal prize money and a lot of expense for the skaters," explained Shulman. The U.S. Open consisted of a Challenge Cup and Masters Cup round of competition. Carole Shulman explained "the Challenge Cup was always a part of the U.S. Open. We had events for men, ladies, pairs and dance. It was open to any interested professional skater. The top 3 or 4 in each category would advance to the Master Cup and compete against titled international skaters in each respective category." Similar to one of the qualifying round formats used by the ISU, skaters who had been invited based on their merits, fame and/or resume pre-qualified for the Masters Cup round. In ISU competition, these skaters would have been seeded based on results the previous year as opposed to invited, but you get the idea. Top skaters from the Challenge Cup round moved on to the Masters Cup round (criteria varied from winning the Challenge Cup, placing in the top 3-5 and achieving a certain score from year to year). The judging was at times different than many other professional events out there in that judges were assigned a specific aspect to evaluate. A judge each was assigned to spins, jumps, moves, choreography, musicality and artistry, and 10 audience members worked together to represent a seventh 'public opinion' judge mark. Judges were invited by the PSGA. Some well known coaches who judged were Don Laws, Sandy Lamb, Ron Ludington, Kerry Leitch, Red Bainbridge, Barbara Roles Williams, Kathy Casey, Pieter Kollen, Walter Muehlbronner and Tom McGinnis. Skaters were scored out of 10.0. "Before 1984 I was a judge," explained Shulman. "When I became the executive director, it became my job to produce the event, find prize money, promote and grow the event... and try to get television coverage!"
       
Scott Hamilton performing at the 1990 U.S. Open

The U.S. Open was first shown on ESPN in 1988 and continued to be picked up by major television networks until the 1994/1995 season on CBS, USA, and TBS. The 1988 event in Daytona Beach, Florida was hosted by skating legend Jojo Starbuck and was an open competition for any performing or teaching professional skater. Each winning skater or team won $5,000, with second prize being $3,000 and third place being worth $1,000 in 1988. Competitors over the years at this event included Dorothy Hamill, Liz Manley, Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini, Scott Hamilton, Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin, Kitty and Peter Carruthers, Rosalynn Sumners, Jozef Sabovcik, Anita Hartshorn and Frank Sweiding, Natalia Mishkutenoik and Artur Dmitriev, Paul Wylie, Brian Orser, Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, Caryn Kadavy, Maya Usova and Alexander Zhulin, Susanna Rahkhamo and Petri Kokko, Rudy Galindo and hundreds of other fabulous, fabulous skaters. Speaking of fabulous, Doug Mattis said of this event, "I did U.S. Open three times and loved each experience." Carole Shulman said that there were certainly some standout performances over the years: "Absolutely. In the Challenge Cup, it was the performance of Anita Hartshorn and Frank Sweiding that really launched their professional career and they went on to win the Master Cup. In the Master Cup the performance of Dorothy Hamill in Seattle really stands out."

Rosalynn Sumners performing at the 1991 U.S. Open

Funding and televising an event like this was no easy task. Funding in early years came exclusively from the PSGA and later the PSA, but "we did in later years work with various management companies that provided guaranteed income for the event," explained carole Shulman. In 1995, things started to change. The U.S. Open did not have a television contract for 1996 but with their partner, Sports Marketing Marque Group, the 1997 U.S. Open competition was broadcast on UPN in 1997 and NBC in 1998. There was no 1999 U.S. Open, as the Marque Group paid the PSA $100,000 and walked away, being bought by SFX for $100 million. Sadly, Dick Button sold Candid Productions to SFX as well. Candid Productions, Button's brand was responsible for events like the Landover World Professional Figure Skating Championships, Challenge Of Champions, Canadian Professional Figure Skating Championships and U.S. Professional Figure Skating Championships. SFX sold to Clear Channel, who did nothing with the brand. Clear Channel paid $3 billion to SFX skating and took on $1.1 billion in SFX debt. Things went downhill fast behind the scenes for professional skating. Since then, a U.S. Open competition has very sadly not been held.

Rory Flack Burghart performing at the 1994 U.S. Open

In 1980, Debi Gold started skating at the age of 9, late by competitive standards at the time. Her competitive background as an amateur was in showcase competitions, where she had moderate results. Her goal after finishing high school was to audition for the Ice Capades. Her parents insisted, however, that she go to college instead. "After I finished college at age 21, I could no longer compete with the 12-13 year olds in my category (novice), and had to be 25 to be an 'adult skater', so I turned pro, joined the Professional Skater's Association and began coaching," Debi explained. "I still enjoyed competing, and the local showcase competitions (Crystalline Classic in Santa Rosa, CA; Silver Skate Showcase in Stockton, CA; and Sacramento competitions at Iceland Ice Arena) began offering "Young Professional" categories in their competitions because there were several of us who were all of an age that wanted to play." Gold attended several PSA events as a demonstrator for her coach Jayne Throckmorton, as well as bringing skaters of her own. Someone from the PSA's local board of directors mentioned the U.S. Open as something she should consider, as it would beef up her skating resume. "I wasn't highly tested as a skater (the last test I passed was Intermediate Free in 1989, 2nd Figure around the same time), and I couldn't boast any high-level students at the time. I looked up the information and it looked like fun," explained Debi. Having never competed in anything larger than a local showcase competition, Gold had no concept of how large scale and fiercely competitive the event would be. "I had it in my head that it would be slightly bigger than I was used to, with all the girls hanging out in the dressing room chatting, sharing each other's eyeshadows, and cheering each other on. FOR REAL, that was my thought process. The naivete of a 22 year old". As Gold was young, newly married at the time and VERY poor (her words, not mine), she had to make a difficult choice of bringing either her husband or coach to the 1994 U.S. Open event, her first professional competition. Sophie's Choice resulted in her bringing her husband.

Debi Gold performing at the 1994 U.S. Open Challenge Cup

Of the practice sessions, she recalled: "My jumps were better than they were as an amateur. I finally was landing a double salchow and double loop pretty consistently, but that week in Worchester, I fell apart and was crashing on everything on the practice ice sessions. My poor husband could only watch, video it, and play it back for me to analyze; but he was no help on fixing anything. Doug Mattis and Paul Wylie were in the arena during one of my disastrous sessions, and Paul called me over at one point and told me, 'Honey, you're dropping your whole left side in your jumps.' Thank goodness I had some help! I ended up pulling the doubles out of the program at the very last minute, I decided to showcase my axel instead of crashing on everything else and ruining the flow of the number. That hurt me points-wise; I probably would have inched up a point or two on difficulty - but my coach wasn't there for the last-minute prep/pep talk."

Anita Hartshorn and Frank Sweiding performing at the 1990 U.S. Open

Regarding the backstage atmosphere, she remarked "I found all the girls in the competition to be friendly, but standoffish; I made a couple friends based on the fact that my choreographer, Jon Johnson (who passed away in January 2012) worked with them in the Ice Capades and other shows - Lisa Ware and Rory Flack Burghart (and I'm still friends with Rory and have done several local shows with her)." Compared to the World Professional Championships in Jaca, Spain, which she won in 1984, Simone Grigorescu-Alexander echoed the feeling Debi Gold had expressed about the atmosphere at the U.S. Open event: "Though it was a very good competition and offered the viewers a lot of great skating, I can say it did not create the same feeling of coming together to share talent and the performance (as in Jaca). It felt like any other elite competition where everyone (and their agent) was there for themselves."

Charlene Wong performing at the 1990 U.S. Open

Gold recalls being given two passes to watch the Masters Cup competition in Boston as part of her entrance competition and appreciating that perk. Her memories of the Challenge Cup process are much like many competition when it comes to the application process. "I had to apply and pay a fee (I don't remember how much it was); I got a package in the mail with hotel, practice, and local information. At the competition we were placed in 4 or 5 skater heats based on random draw; we had a 5 minute warmup before our heat, and a 15 second intro while we were announced so we could take a partial lap and take a breath before we had to be in place for our music. I did a lot of pacing around the backstage area and only saw two or three skaters before my warmup," remembers Gold. Only limited spots from the Challenge Cup moved on to the actual Masters Cup competition and competed against the more well known professional stars. Of the overall experience, Debi remarked that "for skaters of my caliber, this was the only pro competition that wasn't invitation only - and I would never have been invited to the others since I was such a small fish. I was hoping to place and have it look good on my resume - I placed 12th (out of 14? 15?) and was WAY out of my depth. But the experience of even trying to compete at that level was helpful to me. I got to practice with some of the top skaters of the time - Paul Wylie, Urbanski and Marval - and I got to meet other pro skaters who were coaching and still competing." Now a mother of 2 and a reinstated amateur who returned to skating in 2009, Gold continues to perform in shows and compete in adult competition. She said "social media is really the mechanism that brought me back to skating, and I'm glad to be back!"

Susie Wynne and Russ Witherby performing at the 1994 U.S. Open

I asked Carole Shulman if she thought we'd ever see an event like this again. "Sadly, I don't think so." she replied. "It was enormously expensive to produce. The finances were dependent upon a strong sponsor and to some degree a full house. The other factor was that after the judging scandal in Salt Lake City, skating lost a bit of its luster that it is still trying to regain today." That's not to say that it can't. What made this event so special was that it was INCLUSIVE. If you wanted to skate to opera, you could. If you wanted to do Broadway music, you could. If you wanted to be completely avant garde, you could. You didn't have to do triple axels, awkward footwork sequences or conform to the masses. You could be the best version of yourself. Carole Shulman said it best when she said "the U.S. Open provided a platform for professional skaters to perform and compete during a time that ice shows were downsizing or folding. The Challenge Cup was very exciting because back in the days of figures, many great freestyle skaters never made it to the top and with the U.S. Open they were able to make a name and a career for themselves. Also, it provided yet another medium for professional skaters to perform and to be seen. It was truly an extraordinary event." An extraordinary event it indeed was.

Micheline Sally and John Coyne at the 1988 U.S. Open

Stay tuned over the coming days for Part 2 of Return To Open Professional Competitions - a look at the World Professional Figure Skating Championships in Jaca, Spain! 

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2 comments:

  1. Wonderful! Can't wait for part 2 :-)

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  2. Wonderful! I was the first Lady Skater to win The World Professional Championships in Jaca. I would very much love to help promote another World Professional Championships which would be open to every country who would send selected skaters to represent them. Great website!!!

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