The First Skate America, Part 2

by Alexandra Stevenson

A grand, vintage crop of ladies and a real life murder.

There were other skaters, in addition to Scott Hamilton competing in the Flaming Leaves Norton Skate event in 1979, which became the first Skate America, who went on to great success. Ten of the 17 competitors in the Ladies division of the Norton Skate returned five months later to compete in the Olympics, including six who were to finish in the top ten.

Katarina Witt, the only person since Sonja Henie to win more than one Ladies figure skating Olympic crown (1984 & 1988), was an unsophisticated 13-year-old when she charmed spectators in Lake Placid that September with her exuberant, lively free. It was Witt’s first time crossing the Atlantic, and first time outside Soviet dominated countries. She was still in that unsophisticated, delightful stage of childhood where almost everything is a new experience, life is a great adventure and any down moments disappear almost immediately with the tears. She was completely out of her depth in the figures, but still managed to place 15th out of 17 in this section, ahead of the 1979 Canadian champion Janet Morrissey and Bodil Olsson, who was the 1978 & ’80 Swedish champion.

Undeterred by her low start, Witt threw herself into the rest of the competition, gaining 6th in the Short Program and 4th in the free, pulling up to 8th overall, making a definite positive impression with the audience even though she finished over 13 points behind the winner, the glamorous blonde American, Lisa-Marie Allen.

Witt was the protégé of Jutta Mueller, who had guided her step-daughter, Gaby Seifert to the 1968 Olympic silver behind Peggy Fleming. Seifert’s 1969 & ’70 world titles were East Germany’s first. Witt, whose training in the city of Karl-Marx-Stadt was completely overseen and paid for by the government, would turn 14 that December 3. Her parents were never allowed to travel to the West and did not see their daughter compete internationally in person until after the fall of communism when the two Germanys reunited. They finally witnessed her live performance in Norway when Witt, 28, reinstated and became the sentimental crowd favorite at the 1994 Olympics, finishing 7th, just behind the (combined) German champion, Tanja Szewczenko, but ahead of the infamous Tonya Harding.

The young Witt was not on the team for the 1980 Olympics five months after the Norton Skate, in which her countrywoman, Anett Poetsch won gold over Frank Carroll’s pupil, 1977 & 1979 world champion Linda Fratianne, with the West German, Dagmar Lurz, gaining the bronze.

However, Witt made her world championship debut a few weeks after the Games, in Dortmund, West Germany, pulling up from 20th of the 33 competitors in the figures, to finish 10th overall with a 9th place in the Short Program and 7th in the Free. The following year, at Worlds in Hartford in 1981, she continued her rapid ascent, winning the Short Program and placing 3rd in the Free, but was held down to 5th overall by her, some said, "generous" 11th placing in the figures. She won four world titles, 1984 & ’85 and 1987 & 1988, although she was dethroned in 1986 by Debi Thomas.

Witt, of course, is perhaps most famous for winning the Battle of the Carmens in her final year as an amateur at the 1988 Calgary Olympics in which Thomas, who won the 1986 & ’88 US titles, lost out while skating to music from the same opera. Thomas finished a dispirited third with the extroverted Liz Manley of Canada a delighted 2nd to Witt.

At that time most Iron Curtain countries were famous for their very masculine looking sportswomen, a situation which was later exposed as attributable to use of strength-building steroids, a major factor in their success in swimming and athletics. Witt was the exception and Time magazine wrote that she was "the most beautiful face of socialism." Witt had a very successful professional career aided by her camera-friendly looks, obvious joy of living and the breakdown of communism which meant she could travel freely anywhere she pleased. She earned many accolades beginning with her TV specials with Brian Boitano. Carmen on Ice gained an Emmy.

Some might say Witt’s fame peaked when she posed naked for the cover of Playboy’s best selling issue ever, December 1998. In 2005, Ed Swift, the well-known writer for Sports Illustrated who created the wonderful My Sergei in 1997 with Ekaterina Gordeeva, also devised a book with Witt, Only with Passion, which, though not an autobiography, gives many details of her life.

This year, Witt accepted the position of chair of the 23-member bid committee for the Munich 2018 Winter Olympic Games. The German Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach called Witt an "excellent choice". Witt said, "I promise that we, in the board of trustees, will do everything so that the IOC can only say (in Durban in South Africa where the decision between the three finalists will be made in July 2011), ‘The Games must go to Munich.’"

Although hockey, figure and speed skating events are scheduled to be held in Munich, the snow contests would be staged in three other sites, Garmish-Partenkirchen, which is where the 1936 Winter Olympics took place; in Oberammergau; and in Koenigsee. There are two other contenders, PyeongChang in South Korea, which was the runner-up to both Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014; and Annecy in the French Alpes. This is the lowest number of bids since Calgary won the 1988 Games competing against two others in 1981. If Witt and her committee’s bid is successful, Munich will be the first city, to host both summer (1972) and Winter Games.

Back in September 1979, the statuesque Lisa-Marie Allen, who hit the tabloids when she dated the muscle-y decathlete Bruce Jenner, was delighted to win gold. She established an immediate 3-point lead after the figures. The newly turned 19 year old, who was three-time (’78-’80) runner-up for the US title to the 1977-80 US champion Linda Fratianne, consolidated her position, winning by 5.50 points, although she was eclipsed in both the Short Program and the Free.

Allen had never been in the lead after figures in an important competition and that appeared to put pressure on her. Although she stayed on top with eight of the nine judges placing her first overall, she singled her double loop after the double Axel in her combination and was 3rd in the Short Program behind the winner of that section, Susanna Driano, an American who represented Italy, and American Jill Sawyer. Sawyer, the 1978 US and world junior champion, never made her mark at senior level and subsequently disappeared from the skating scene. Sawyer had been 10th in the figures and was 7th in the Free and overall in the Norton Skate. Denise Biellmann of Switzerland won the Free Skate, with Allen 2nd. Biellmann, however, had been 13th in the figures and 8th in the SP, and so finished 4th overall.

Driano, who had been 3rd in the figures, won the overall silver by virtue of her first place in the Short Program. She was only 5th in the Free. American Sandy Lenz won the bronze, climbing up from 9th in the figures, taking 4th in the SP and 3rd in the FS. In those days, "small" medals were given for the combined Short and Free Programs. Gold for this also went to Allen, despite her not winning either of these two sections. Lenz received the "small" silver and Driano the "small" bronze, a reverse of their overall placing.

Allen was to finish 5th in the Olympics. She made the world championship team three times, finishing 7th in 1978 & 1980 and 6th in 1979. She is now a Technical Specialist, based in Sherman Oaks. In November 2006, Alina Adams, a very experienced researcher for several television companies and author of five excellent who-done-it fictional figure skating mysteries, published an interview with Allen on her website:

Allen said, "I prefer to be introduced as an Olympian. It is the one privilege that is always honorable and something that I am proud to always be. Meeting the President of the United States was surely a highlight, along with being flown to DC on Air Force One. Back in my competitive days, if you didn’t get gold, you were pretty much ignored. This has changed in the last 20 years due to the commercial success of the Olympic Games.

"I retired from amateur skating in 1981. I made an effort to win the Ladies title that year but had an injury the week of competition and finished third. Not the best year of my life! I really had no preconceived notion as to a career in skating. I joined Ice Capades, traveling with them for three years. I followed that with marriage and the birth of my daughter. Then, I went back to skating and teaching and finally stopped performing in 1998, with the exception of the Salt Lake Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, where I was one of the choreographers."

Allen was also an associate choreographer on the feature film Blades of Glory starring Will Farrell. In 2006, she said, "My husband is very supportive in any challenge that I take on. We split our time between Los Angeles and Sun Valley. My daughter is an Honors student at Boston College and loving it. My two golden retrievers keep me honest with exercise. I still love to skate and do when I can. I had to retire the double Axel a few years ago, but did manage to get my senior moves in the field test in 2004. I may have never won the US title, but I have surely won in life."

Driano, dressed in a fiery mixture of shades of bright orange, performed an "open" double Lutz which helped her win the Free despite a fall on her triple Salchow. By the time Driano claimed the overall silver in the Norton Skate, she was a very experienced competitor. She made her world championship debut at 17 in 1975 finishing 9th. In the Olympics in Innsbruck in 1976, she was 7th. When Sports Illustrated described the intensive security conditions in those Games, the first since the deadly terrorist attack on the Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich in 1972, the writer detailed the 8-ft.-high chain-link fence surrounding the compound, electronically wired to set off an alarm at the slightest touch; a main gate guarded by submachine guns; and a gauntlet of identity checks by sentries, who aggressively "barked" at athletes, "Show me your pass."

The writer quoted Driano as saying, "I was shocked when I arrived. It looked like a Prisoner of War camp." But, inside the compound, the athletes found a pleasant residence. Security was not as "in your face" in the Games in Lake Placid four years later, where Driano finished 8th, but the housing was far more cramped. Most of the athletes were placed in buildings which were to become a prison, with the inmate density far less than that which the athletes had to bear. (1980 British ice dance Olympic roommates, Jayne Torvill and Karen Barber said that in order to go to bed each night, they had to place some luggage outside the door.)

Driano, who was initially taught by her mother, ended her skating career after the 1980 Games. She had planned to compete in the following world championships but had to withdraw. Her successes included the 1978 world bronze in Ottawa and two bronzes from the European championships. At that time, she explained, "There was just so much talent in Ladies skating in the US, that there were quite a few of us, like Diane de Leeuw, who explored the possibility of skating for our parents’ countries. I think it was Carlo Fassi who suggested it to my parents. But that wasn’t whole-heartedly approved of by some Americans. At my first Worlds in Colorado Springs in 1975, which Diane won skating for Holland and Dorothy Hamill was second, there were signs in the audience calling Dorothy the Good Witch and Diane the Bad Witch."

For Norton Skate bronze medalist Sandy Lenz, who was the 1977 US Junior champion training out of Wagon Wheels in Rockford, Illinois, that 1980 season was to be her best. She won bronze in the US (Sr) championship and made the Olympic team. However, there was much controversy in the US and Canada over their Association’s choice for the world championship team in Germany a few weeks later.

For Heather Kemkaran 10th place in the Norton Skate had been a positive sign. The Canadian had taken the runner-up spot in the national championships in 1977 to Lynn Nightingale, and then won the title the following year. That meant she was sent to Worlds twice, finishing 13th & 12th. But she was dethroned in the Canadian championships by Janet Morrissey early in 1979. Kemkaran gained confidence from beating Morrissey in the Norton Skate. Morrissey had finished only 19th at the 1979 Worlds and so there was only one spot for Canada for the 1980 Olympics and Worlds.

Kemkaran, who was a 21-year-old when she skated in the pre-Olympic event, was back as Canadian champion in January 1980 and expected to go to both the Olympics and Worlds. Both the US and Canada played the Olympic selection by the book, with Canada entering Kemkaran, the champion, who placed 15th in the Games, and the US their three national medalists, Fratianne, Allen and Lenz, who finished 2nd, 5th and 9th respectively in February in Lake Placid.

But officials in both countries were aware that a proposed age limit for Worlds was on the ISU’s agenda, possibly going as high as 16. Both countries had very talented youngsters in the pipeline, and they wanted to get those athletes into world competition in case that restriction was implemented. There was a clause which would allow skaters to compete even if they were below the minimum age, if they had already competed in the event.

So, for the 1980 world team, Elaine Zayak, then 14, who had risen from 9th after the initial round to finish 4th in US nationals, was substituted for Lenz, the third ranked American, and Tracey Wainman, a 12-year-old, cuter-than-a puppy, 4’7", 72 lb. mop-haired brunette, who had placed third in the 1980 Canadian championships, went as the sole Canadian "lady" to Worlds, instead of Kemkaran, the champion, or Morrissey, the runner-up. Naturally, there were many who felt this was unfair. Morrissey went on to pursue a career in broadcasting, no doubt presenting more insight into the uncertainties of other sports figures because of her own up-and-downs.

Today, Kemkaran-Antymniuk is a successful lawyer specializing in divorce. She and her husband since 1990, Ross, run a law firm in Winnipeg, where she was brought up. They have two girls, Sarah, 17, and Laura, 15. Caught working hard at her desk one recent Monday morning, Kemkaran had no problem remembering the Flaming Leaves event of September 1979. "I had lost my national title that year so my performance in Lake Placid (beating Morrissey by a large margin of 11.72 points) gave me hope that I might get my title back. I did, and going to the Olympics was wonderful. However, when I was not sent to Worlds I had to consider whether I could go any further in the sport. My parents were pushing me to consider my education. I had moved to Denver and to Toronto to pursue skating and they felt that with all the hours that you had to spend on the figures then, that the time had come to move on. I had to make that decision."

Kemkaran taught her daughters to skate, but they also pursue other activities. "I’m 5’0" but my husband is 6’1", Kemkaran explained. "One year, Sarah had a huge growth spurt. It actually got dangerous for her to skate so now she’s into soccer."

Contacted a couple of years ago, Lenz, who is now Lenz-Jackson, a long-time coach in Charleston, SC, said that, of course, she had been disappointed and had initially vowed to keep competing. However, she was hit by injuries and, after winning the St. Ivel international in Richmond in England in the fall of 1980, had to retire. She said she would always have that experience of competing in the Olympics, and her official jacket was still one of her prized possessions.

While Witt and Zayak went on to win world titles, Wainman was unable to develop her full potential although she became the youngest ever Canadian champion in 1981. She did not win that title again until1986.

After Zayak won the 1982 world title with many triple toe loops executed in combination with other jumps, a "Zayak rule" was adopted restricting the repetition of triple jumps. In the 1984 Olympics, Zayak finished 6th but took bronze in Worlds a few weeks later. In 1994, she returned to eligible competition, finishing fourth at nationals. Zayak is married and has a son, Jack

Both she and Wainman now teach the sport. Wainman married and divorced Slovak skater Jozef Sabovcik. They have a son, Blade. Wainman, and her long-time partner, Polish skater Gregor Filipowski, coach in the Toronto area. They currently instruct Alexandra Najarro, who has competed on the Junior Grand Prix circuit for the past two seasons. Many felt Wainman was pushed too young and, because of that, burned out. Her coach, Ellen Burka, blamed a growth spurt for her problems. Wainman said later that it was her mind not her body which was the problem. She also says if she hadn’t had the chance to go to Worlds at that very early age, possibly, she would never have accomplished what she did.

For the then 16-year-old Biellmann, 4th place in the Norton Skate, despite winning the Long Program, was a reflection of the state of the sport. In the warm-up, she landed two beautiful triple Lutzes but wasn’t able to bring off this difficult jump in the actual event. As usual, she had taken herself out of medal contention by placing low in the figures.

The Swiss skater had made her world championship debut as a 13 year-old in 1976. In the 1978 European championship, she became the first woman the ISU credited with landing the triple Lutz jump. British judge Pauline Borajo was so impressed, she presented Biellmann with a 6.0, for Technical Merit. A six, then the maximum mark, was rarely given, and, when bestowed, it was generally for the other category, Artistic Impression. Biellmann, a woman born before her time, rose from 12th in the figures, to 4th overall in that 1978 event, the position as she was to take in the 1980 Olympics.

Even at that stage, she was already famous for the spin named after her. Today, the Biellmann spin is a necessary part of every top skater’s routine and cursed by those competitors who now have to ice their painful backs caused by straining to achieve the necessary extreme flexibility.

After winning the 1981 world championship, Biellmann retired from eligible competition. "Figures are such a part of the sport," she said at that time. "I just couldn’t face doing them anymore." Biellmann joined Holiday on Ice and won the World Professional title 11 times. She is still a very active, very fit celebrity who is in demand for multiple "appearances". In 1995 she was named the "Swiss Sports Personality of the Century". The Japanese TV company NHK filmed a documentary on her life earlier this year. Her diary is packed. She is an ambassador for the Laureus Foundation. "It still fills me with great pleasure to be able to play an active role in helping under-privileged children," she said recently. The latest published entry in her diary was October 24 when she appeared at the Zurich Main Station where a modern glass apartment had been assembled. "My job was to publicize how to save energy."

The pre-Olympic field also included Kristiina "Tinti" Wegelius of Finland, who had finished 10th in the 1979 Worlds. She was 2nd in the figures in that first Skate America, but dropped to 5th overall with a 7th place in the SP and 6th in the Free. Her teammate, Susan "Zsu-zsu" Broman, finished 16th. Both returned to Lake Placid for the Olympics where they gained 10th and 17th places. Wegelius and Broman benefited from a Finnish Olympic fund which enabled them to travel to the United States for training with Carlo Fassi. At Worlds in that 1980 season, Wegelius was 8th and Broman 17th out of 33. The very graceful Wegelius’ best world placement was 6th in both 1981 & 1983. She was 4th three times in the European championships, ’79, ’80 & ’81, frustratingly, just off the podium.

"Taking part in the Olympics was the fulfillment of a dream," Wegelius said. "Taking part in my first Europeans in my home country (in 1977 where she finished 7th) changed my life completely. I remember most fondly my last Worlds, also in Helsinki, in 1983 (where she was 6th). The presence of a home audience was simply amazing. It was a warm and memorable experience. I also am proud of winning gold in the 1981 NHK event (where American Vikki de Vries was 2nd and Charlene Wong of Canada 3rd).

"Then I went to Disney on Ice. Figure skating has remained part of my life. It is still my passion. I now live in Quebec City, with my husband and daughter. I have coached and created choreography for the past for the past 16 years." She says, "The new evaluation system is a step in the right direction because it forces the skater’s coach to find a balance between technology and skating skills." 

Sixth in the Norton Skate was the 1975-1979 British champion, Karena Richardson, who also trained in her last years as a competitor with Carlo Fassi. Richardson finished 15th in the 1976 Olympics and 12th in 1980. She married Zdenek Pazdirek, the twice Czech champion who also competed in the 1976 Olympics, where he finished 12th. They are now associated with Coquitlam Skating Club in British Columbia.

1982 European champion, Claudia Kristofics-Binder, who won bronze medals in the 1981 & 1982 world championships, represented Austria in the Norton pre-Olympic event. Kristofics-Binder, who would turn 18 shortly after that event on October 5, placed 4th in the figures but was only 10th in the Short Program and 9th in the Free. She finished 9th overall, one and a half points behind Witt. She had finished 16th in the 1976 Olympics and would earn 7th place in the 1980 Games.

This October, Kristofics-Binder was an honored guest at the Exhibitions which honored the top performers of the Graz international and on November 1, she was part of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Vienna Ice Club. She is still a well-known figure in that beautiful city and runs her own "event" agency.  

Anne-Sophie de Kristoffy, the French 1978, ’79 & ’80 champion, who was 11th in the Flaming Leaves Norton Skate, did not compete in the Olympics, although she took part in the 1980 Worlds where she finished 18th. She subsequently became a journalist and then went into television. In 2008, she became the first female Director of Sports for the French Television station, TF1.

Reiko Kobayashi of Japan, was 12th in the Norton Skate. Having been runner-up to Emi Watanabe for four years, Kobayashi finally won the Japanese senior championship in 1981. She finished 17th of 31 in the 1981 Worlds and is still involved in skating. She was at the French Grand Prix this season and expected to attend Skate Canada.

The saddest story of the first Skate America was provided by Kira Ivanova of the Soviet Union. Born in Moscow, the pupil of Elena Tchaikovskaya was 16 in 1979, just beginning a promising career with a 10th place in the World Junior Championships and 18th in World Srs. In the pre-Olympic event in September she finished 14th, and in the actual Lake Placid Olympics, she was 16th.

She started to advance in 1981, but did not make the Soviet team in 1982 & 1983. In 1984 she was the first from the Soviet Union to win an Olympic medal in Ladies figure skating when she claimed the bronze, but was fourth at Worlds that season when her teammate Anna Kondrashova, won silver. Ivanova racked up four silvers at the European championships 1985-’88, plus a silver in the 1985 Worlds, all behind Katarina Witt. However, her place in Worlds subsequently began to drop and, in her last competition, the ’88 Olympics, she finished 7th, although she had won the figures.

Ivanova subsequently performed in ice shows, including the Theatre of Ice Miniatures founded by Igor Bobrin. In 1991 she became a children’s coach at the Dynamo stadium, but, according to Valentin Piseev, head of the Russian Skating Federation, had lost that and other positions, due to her unsuccessful battles to combat alcoholism and was not employed at the time of her death.

On December 21, 2001, she was found by neighbors in her apartment where she had lain, dead, for several days. She had been viciously stabbed many times with a butcher’s knife. She would have turned 39 the following January 10. The murder was never reported as solved.

Elena Valova, the 1983, ’85 & ’88 world pairs champion and 1984 Olympic gold medalist with Oleg Vasiliev, trained with Ivanova when they were both 11. "We were best friends," Valova revealed. "I knew she eventually would get a medal because she was very determined and eager. She was a little bit sexy and very confident. That’s the way she skated and that’s the way, I think, she lived her life."

Part III The First Skate America – A Premonition of Disaster

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