The First Skate America, Part 1

by Alexandra Stevenson

Far, far away in the Adirondack Universe, in the distant past when skaters did slow circles and were in awe of judges who sometimes would kneel on the ice with their noses close to the tracings left by the blade to check for a dreaded ‘flat" and 4.4 was considered an excellent score, there was a pivotal competition, which changed the skating calendar for ever.

For one of the best loved figures in the sport of figure skating, 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton, "It was easily one of the biggest, most unexpected, victories of my career. Without that triumph, Lord knows what would have become of my skating future."

When the USOC earned for Lake Placid the right to stage the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, the organizers’ responsibilities included holding tryout events for the facilities. The Norton Skate Flaming Leaves contest, held September 20-23, 1979, served that purpose for figure skating. It was created as a one-off competition. No one envisioned that seed would grow into Skate America, one of the world’s premier annual events. For the past 30 years, every top skater in the United States has taken part in this competition, which now, as part of the six Grand Prix series held around the world, commands enormous respect and popularity. Skate America 2009 will be held, November 12-15, back in its birthplace, Lake Placid.

Remarkably, although the USFSA had held the World Championships in 1930 (in New York City), and in Colorado Springs (1957, 1959, 1965, 1969 and 1975), plus the Olympic Games in 1932 (in Lake Placid); AND, alternating with the then-called Canadian Figure Skating Association, hosted the biennial North American Championships 1923-1971, the United States had previously organized only one lesser "international competition".

That was the little remembered Kennedy International Memorial Games in Lake Placid following the world championships in 1970 which attracted 30 competitors from 10 countries including the 21 year-old John Curry, who would become the 1976 Olympic champion. Curry, then 21, finished a disappointing ninth. John Baldwin, Sr., the 1969 US Junior champion, and Gordie McKellen Jr., who was to become the 1973-1975 US (Sr) champion, were first and second. Joanna Darakjy from New Jersey won the women’s event and Brunhilde Bassler & Eberhard Rauch from West Germany took the pairs gold. [Rare footage of a television commercial for this event is available through from the firm of MacDonald & Associates of Chicago.]

There was quite a fuss when the North American Championships were disbanded. Arrangements were already in progress for the 1973 event to be held in Rochester, NY, when, in a meeting of the two countries’ representatives, the Canadians, Don Gilchrist, George Blundun and John McKay, asked for the event to be cancelled. Ben Wright suggested, unsuccessfully, that, instead, the event morph into an international event with invitations to some of the world’s top competitors. Writing in his encyclopedic Skating in America produced to honor the 75th Anniversary of the USFSA, Wright revealed, "What was not known to the USFSA or its representatives at the time, was that the CFSA planned to establish their own International competition to be called Skate Canada. Sponsorship agreements were already in place." The Americans had been blind-sided.

The USFSA had entered Americans in internationals in Europe for some time. The first US winner of the Ladies-only Richmond Trophy in England was Dorothy Hamill in 1972, who would win the 1976 Olympic gold. Full US teams were sent to the back-to-back summer events in St. Gervais in France and Oberstdorf in West Germany. In 1973 Americans were entered in the Prague Skate event and, of course, to the inaugural Skate Canada.

In 1974, US skaters were entered for the Cup of Moscow, although Ben Wright, then President of the USFSA, wrote that questionably low results made it a competition, "to be avoided in the future". The Ennia Cup in the Netherlands, which originated in 1977, was another event to which the Americans were invited. By 1979, the Japanese were also organizing an annual contest, sponsored by the television company NHK. So, conditions were more than ripe for the USFSA to develop the Norton Skate Flaming Leaves into an annual event.

In 1979, 16 countries were represented, with most entrants using the contest to "get their feet used to Olympic ice". The indoor rink used for the 1932 Olympics, and a secondary ice surface later to be named after the great coach, Gus Lussi who taught Dick Button, were supplemented by two new ice surfaces built for the 1980 Games.

The new main rink was later to be named for Herb Brooks, the coach of the "miracle" US hockey team, who, against all odds, whipped and inspired the youthful, inexperienced amateur Americans into shape to trounce the odds-on favorite, a Soviet team, comprised of highly acclaimed, cosseted athletes, whom the west considered professionals, for the 1980 Olympic gold. The movie, Miracle on Ice, details that inspiring upset.

After the Games, a state authority was set up to help the village of Lake Placid maintain the Olympic facilities. The legacy of that occasion is still very much in evidence. Highly successful annual events in many sports including the world’s largest Ice Dance Championships, continue to thrive in this bucolic vacation hideaway. However, although the next two Skate America contests, in 1981 & 1982, took place in Lake Placid, this year marks the first time the event has returned to its birthplace since then.

The entry is now strictly limited. The 12 women scheduled to compete in Lake Placid this time include world champion Yu-na Kim from South Korea, who became the odds-on favorite for Olympic gold after her glorious, winning performances in this season’s first Grand Prix in Paris. Sasha Cohen was expected to make her return to ISU competition in Paris after an absence of nearly four years following her silver in the 2006 Olympic Games. She withdrew with tendonitis of the right calf, but, as of writing, is still entered for Skate America. Rachael Flatt and Alexe Gilles are also representing the US.

The 12 men include world champion Evan Lysacek with US teammates, Ryan Bradley and Brandon Mroz. Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto, five-times US champions and 2006 Olympic silver medalists lead the ice dance field, which also includes Americans Madison Chock & Greg Zuerlein and Kim Navarro & Brent Bommentre.  2008 World champions, Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoefelder from France were entered for both Skate America and Skate Canada but pulled out of both Grand Prix events. Delobel gave birth to a son, Lois, with her long-time skiing champion partner on October 1.

This Skate America may provide one of the last opportunities to see the legendary twice Olympic bronze medalists and three-time world champions (2002,3 & 7), Xue Shen, who turns 31 on November 13, & Hongbo Zao, who was 36 on September 22. The pair, who married in 2007 after they retired following their 2007 world victory, are currently scheduled to compete in the Chinese Grand Prix. Appropriately for their ages, they are using a Queen song for their Short Program, Who Wants to Live Forever? performed by Brian May and choreographed by Lori Nichol.

Also entered in the Skate America pairs event are twice US champions Keauna McLaughlin & Rocky Brubaker, who, in only their second season as seniors, won bronze in the recent Russian Grand Prix. Americans, Amanda Evora & Mark Ludwig and Brooke Castile & Ben Okolski are also scheduled to compete.

The event will take place in the now somewhat old-fashioned Herb Brooks Arena, on Main Street, which has a seating capacity that was far too small for the crowds that wanted to see the 1980 Olympic events. Practice will be in the refurbished this year "Sonja Henie" rink. The famed Norwegian won her 1932 gold, the middle of her three Olympic laurels, in the luxury of this indoor, artificial ice surface, with its limited seating. (Her other golds were won outdoors, in 1928 in St. Moritz, Switzerland and in 1936 in Garmisch Partenkirchen, Germany, where a huge crowd gathered including Adolf Hitler and many of his government officials.)

The try-out event in 1979 revealed that all was not perfect with the new facilities. The number of Ladies toilets was quite inadequate. This was fixed by the Games. The seating capacity, though fine for the pre-Games event, was obviously woefully inadequate for the demand for tickets for the actual Games. This unfortunate policy continued to future Games. It is a shame, that most of those who wish to witness the peak event in this sport, are denied the privilege of seeing it live.

But, in the previous September, all, who wished to attend, could be accommodated. Scott Hamilton admitted he came into the event, very apprehensively. "Before the Norton Skate, I certainly hoped to make the Olympic team but I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew the odds weren’t with me, but I did have an ace in my corner. My girlfriend (at that time) Kitty Carruthers was a huge supporter. When we met, she and her brother, Peter, and I forged a lifetime bond because we were all adopted.

"They cheered me on and I cheered for them in the pairs event. It was easily one of the biggest, most unexpected, victories of my career. Without that triumph, Lord knows what would have become of my skating future. Also, I had been coming to Lake Placid since I was 10 for summer events. It was a place where I felt comfortable.

"The history, the atmosphere and the quality of all the facilities are nothing short of Olympic. I only wish I could spend more time in this magical place. I had also learned a very good lesson in Lake Placid when I was at Intermediate level and finished second. I thought I should have won because I had doubles. One judge told my coach, the winner had better choreography and I had to learn that everything counts."Much to his own amazement, in 1979 Hamilton did well in the first of the three figures, the left (foot start) inside rockers. In his book Landing it – My Life On and Off the Ice, a New York Times bestseller produced by Pinnacle Books and Kensington Publishing in 1999, Hamilton revealed, "Jacques Favart, the President of the ISU, even remarked to my coach, Don Laws, how well I had done. That was a real confidence booster."

After the two other figures, the (right start) paragraph double threes and the left back change loops, Hamilton was in fourth place. "I thought this was a great start. It put me in medal contention." (Fortunately, for Hamilton, this was before the adoption of the proportional method of determining results, which was implemented for the 1981 season. In the proportional system, it was impossible for a contender who was fourth in the figures to win unless the early leader was lower than second in the free. The distance between say third and fourth place was proportionally given the same weight whether it had been a near tie with only one ordinal difference between the two skaters or a huge 10 points.)

Hamilton was very aware that, in figures, there was always a degree of political judging. Unlike the free skating where spectators can clearly see for themselves if someone fell and if they were musical, school figures were deceptive. From the other side of the barrier you could observe the general geometry of a figure and whether it was traced well but it was impossible to observe "flats" which generally occurred going into or out of a turn or when returning to center.

There were so many things that could go wrong in the slow moving figures. There were no set deductions and judges would have their own standards. One judge might penalize a badly closed center more strictly than another, while his colleague might feel the most important thing was perfect geometry, and yet another, that the depth of edges on the turns was a deciding factor.

Every skater was aware that past standings and "reputation" occasionally had a distinct influence on current marks. Those taking part in the 1979 Norton skate were very conscious that judges would remember how they had done in September when they were competing in February on the same ice in the Olympics. (Figures were discarded from international competition after the 1990 season.)

As expected, despite his figures being less immaculate than usual, Jan Hoffmann established a lead in this section. Hoffmann, who was approaching his 24th birthday (October 25), had many years of top level experience. He had entered the first of his four Olympics aged 12, finishing 26th. He had won the 1974 world championship, but meniscus problems kept him from matching that achievement until 1980. He was to win Olympic silver in Lake Placid, and, a few weeks later, reclaim the world title, beating the Olympic champion Robin Cousins in Dortmund that March.

As an elite athlete for the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (East Germany), Hoffmann lived a cloistered, privileged life with little privacy in Karl Marx Stadt (now Chemnitz) where all his needs were met, as long as he proved successful. He knew his time as an athlete was nearing the end and was studying very hard to become a doctor. That summer, he had hardly stepped on the ice, trying to catch up on his academics.

But, after the Norton Skate, his goal reverted to skating and he was in top shape by the Games. Many thought Hoffmann was a boring, staid performer, but he was technically very good. He was known for his triple Lutz and triple flip, jumps which the more flamboyant and musical Cousins never performed in competition. (Today, Dr. Hoffmann is married and has a daughter. He still officiates at skating competitions.)

Lying second and third after figures behind Hoffmann, were Scott’s arch rival Scott Cramer and the veteran David Santee. (Santee had won bronze in the 1973 nationals and was to win three more national bronzes and three silvers but never the title. In 1981, he was runner-up in the world championship. ) He is now a Technical Specialist.

"I tried to be friendly with Scott," said Hamilton about Cramer, "But our rivalry was so intense, it was at the point of no return." Cramer had been on the 1977 world championship team (finishing a promising ninth) while Hamilton, in his first nationals at senior level, had been buried in ninth place.

Hamilton explained, "I had displaced him on the 1978 world team but then he got to go to Worlds in (March) 1979 in Vienna while I sat home and watched the event on television. Nothing seemed to go right that season. First my coach (Carlo Fassi) took on Scott (Cramer, into his rink in Denver). Then I had ankle problems. Then it seemed Scott kept doing his double flip to triple toe in my face." This combination, which Cramer executed in his Short Programs, was considered more difficult than Hamilton’s triple toe to double toe. "I ripped my ankle to shreds trying to copy that darned combination," Hamilton admitted.

At the 1979 nationals in Cinncinnati, Hamilton was lying fourth after the figures which were won by Charlie Tickner, the defending titleholder who was also the world champion. Cramer was second and Santee third. Feeling the pressure, both Santee and Hamilton did double-double for their combination in the Short Program. The writing was on the wall.

"David skated brilliantly in nationals in the Free, getting a standing ovation. I skated my best landing all my triples including the triple Lutz and got the second standing ovation of the night. But I was only fifth in that section and fourth overall. Scott had not skated well. Yet, the judges held him up. I was upset. I was bitter but I did learn. You can skate great and lose. You can skate lousy and win. When I left Cinncinnati, I was emotionally spent and dejected."

In Worlds in Vienna in 1979, Tickner caught an edge in his loop figure and was forced to put his free foot down, a major fault. He lost his title, finishing only fourth overall. The problem was due to brittle ice, not to Tickner’s skill. The situation resulted in a change to the regulations reducing the required number of repeat tracings in paragraph loops to two instead of three. But that did not help the devastated Tickner. Cramer finished an excellent fifth and Santee eighth.

Hamilton came into the Norton Skate aware that his future career almost certainly depended on him beating Cramer. By that time, Hamilton had been dumped by Fassi and was being trained by Don Laws, a more satisfactory arrangement. "We both (Hamilton and Cramer) had our eyes on a place on the US 1980 Olympic team and we both realized that probably only one of us would make it. David and Charlie had been around a lot longer than we had."

Hamilton, who had turned 21 the month before, won the Short Program in the Norton Skate hitting his triple Salchow to double loop combo. "No one expected that, not even I. I was daunted at the thought of beating a veteran like Jan. The trouble was, I wasn’t used to being chased. I was always the chaser. I thought, ‘I’m not supposed to be beating these guys.’" Hamilton told these thoughts to Bruce Ogilvy, a sports psychologist working with the US team. Ogilvy told him it wasn’t his job to be thinking about the other competitors. All he could influence was himself!

In the Free Skate, Cramer skated after Hoffmann. He and Fassi were delighted that Cramer’s marks put him above Hoffmann, who had not skated well. Hamilton heard their remarks. "While I was getting ready to skate, I could hear them celebrating. They were not taking me seriously as a threat. That provided the last bit of motivation I needed. I attacked the program, starting with the triple Lutz. I also hit three triple toe loops and two triple Salchows, and I won. Scott was as shocked by the outcome as I was. That victory set me up for the rest of the season. In my mind, that spot on the Olympic team was now mine to lose."

In the Norton Skate, Hamilton finished with 183.54 marks. Cramer took the silver with 181.74. Hoffmann received the bronze with 180.16 and Santee was fourth with 175.98.

In the nationals in Atlanta in 1980, Hamilton now full of confidence, beat Cramer in all three sections, albeit by tiny margins. He gained the bronze medal behind Tickner and Santee, leaving Cramer in that terribly frustrating fourth place, still there, as the first reserve, but looking at the Olympic preparations from the outside. Cramer and Hamilton didn’t meet again for four years when Cramer had opened a successful practice as a chiropractor and Hamilton was performing an exhibition in Cramer’s hometown of Colorado Springs.

Hamilton, an extremely popular competitor, with an inspiring story of overcoming childhood illness which stunted his growth, was chosen by his fellow athletes to carry the US flag at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. He finished fifth in that event. Tickner got the bronze and Santee was fourth. The trio gained the same standings at the world championships a few weeks later.

It was the beginning of the greatest part of Hamilton’s competitive life. He was unbeaten for following four years, and built an extremely successful professional life in the sport which continues to this day – all due, he says, to that win in the Norton Skate. In 1986 he founded the touring show Stars on Ice. It got off to a rocky start, but became a huge success.

In 1997, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and in 2004 with a noncancerous brain tumor. But he’s still going strong. He turned 51 on August 21. He’s currently an NBC commentator and will do his sixth Olympics in that position in Vancouver. This year, he appeared in Celebrity Apprentice and produced his second book, The Great Eight: How to Be Happy (Even When You Have Every Reason to be Miserable) published by Thomas Nelson Books.

On November 7, he plans to perform at the Quicken Loans Arena in the 10th year of his annual benefit for the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute, Scott Hamilton CARES Initiative, which has helped raise more than $2 million for research projects. This year will feature live music by Cheap Trick and Hamilton plans to actually skate in the event for the first time in five years, not just make an appearance.

On November 16, he will appear with Kristi Yamaguchi, Dorothy Hamill, Nancy Kerrigan and singer Olivia Newton-John and David Foster in a show, Kaleidoscope, at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. It will then air nationally on FOX, on Thanksgiving Day, November 26 at 4 PM EST. (Hamilton, Hamill and Newton-John are all cancer survivors.)

Hamilton said, "This whole last year, I’ve been putting in time in the gym and at the rink, working as hard as I could. I really enjoyed the process. It’s the best decision I made since I got married (to Tracie in 2002). I want to show my sons (Aiden McIntosh Hamilton, who turned 6 on September 16, and Maxx Thomas Hamilton, born January 21, 2008) the importance of meeting a challenge. I’ve performed in every state in the USA, except South Dakota. I want to remedy that. And, if that’s not possible, I’ll look forward to taking my sons to Mt. Rushmore."

Next week, Part 2, for the rest of the competition.

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