by Alexandra Stevenson
Springboard for a Beloved US Pair
There was no doubt in most people’s minds that Sabine Baess and Tassilo Thierbach, the bronze medalists from the 1979 Worlds, would win the pairs event of the Flaming Leaves Norton Skate, an event which was used to try out the 1980 Olympic facilities in Lake Placid and was later elevated to the status of the first Skate America. In 1982 they would take the world title. But, in September 1979, they didn’t win in a unanimous decision.
Two of the seven judges, the Canadian, Frances Dafoe, and the American, Janet Griffiths, thought Peter and Kitty Carruthers were better than the East Germans, a fact that Peter Carruthers only discovered thirty years after that 1979 event on Thursday, November 12. Carruthers, now a well known sports broadcaster and expert analyst commentator for several television companies, took time between recording several interviews in Lake Placid, the day before this year’s Skate America was to start, to go through the site’s extremely interesting Olympic museum. He was shown a printout of those long-ago judges’ ordinals. The panel was refereed by West Germany’s Hermann Schiechtl with the US’s Ben Wright as his Assistant.
Carruthers explained, "They have our actual costumes on display. Then they showed me the ordinal chart. I was amazed. That event was really great for us. But I hadn’t realized we’d got two firsts. It was our break-through season. I can’t even remember where we had placed earlier that year at nationals, but it was somewhere with the also-rans." They were actually 7th of 12 pairs pulling up from 8th after the Short Program. He told the Baltimore Sun that, at the time of that nationals, "If we had been in a high school yearbook with a ‘most likely to succeed’ and ‘least likely to succeed,’ we would have been much closer to ‘least likely’. We were so green. Nothing was working. We were trying hard, but nothing was going particularly well."
At the end of that 1979 season, the USFSA selection committee decided that the pairs who had placed 2nd, 3rd and 4th at nationals would be sent to the pre-Olympic Norton Skate. But Tracy Prussack, who, with her brother, Scott, who was the 4th ranked pair at nationals, got injured at the start of the ’80 season and a replacement was in order.
Carruthers explained, "We were working really hard with Ron Ludington and had a great showing at the Sports Festival in Colorado Springs that July. (The late 1976 Olympic champion) John Curry, commentating on television, said that we had great flow over the ice and we landed up 2nd to the US and World champions, Tai (Babilonia) and Randy (Gardner). In August we went to Europe and won the Coupe des Alpes, which was two competitions, in France in St. Gervais and then in Germany, which was usually in Oberstdorf but that year that rink closed and it was in Garmisch. The momentum from these showings earned us a place in the pre-Olympics.
The silver and bronze medalists in that German event were two pairs they would meet and beat again just a month later in the pre-Olympics, the Soviets, Alexander Vlassov and his new partner, Zhanna Iljina, and the then Canadian junior champions, Becky Gough and Mark Rowsom. Vlassov was extremely experienced and had won the world bronze and silver medals in 1976 and 1977 with Irina Vorobieva. Vorobieva went on to win the 1981 world title with her new partner Igor Lisovsky. In a completely unforeseen future, with the fall of communism, Vlassov and Vorobieva would make their homes (separately) in the United States. Vlassov’s daughter, Julia, would represent the US in pair skating winning the world junior championship in 2006 with Drew Meekins.
Carruthers explained, "We’ve always had very good feelings about this rink in Lake Placid. In 1974 we skated in the Eastern Novice championships here and we were here for many ice dance events. One year we won the Fourteenstep and got to have the Dick Button Trophy for a whole year. We were very proud of that. So, you can imagine, we were extremely pleased with second place in 1979."
Spurred on by this success, the Carruthers went on to claim silver in the 1980 US championships and were 5th back in Lake Placid at the Olympics, ahead of Baess and Thierbach who were 6th. Carruthers confessed, "We didn’t do so well a little later at worlds. We were 7th in Gothenburg, but I think we were so tired by then. That season had been so long." They won the US title 1981-84. They were 5th in the 1981 worlds, 3rd in ’82, 4th in ’83 and then climaxed their career in 1984 with two splendid performances which gained them Olympic silver in Sarajevo and made them household names throughout the US. "But it was definitely that season 1979-80 which set us on our way," Carruthers said nodding his head smiling.
They performed in Ice Capades and Stars on Ice for 12 years. Kitty married Brett Conrad in 1990 and they have four children, BJ, Kyle, Kayla and Brooke. BJ competes in figure skating and Kitty still coaches in the Houston area. Peter and his wife, Dina, have just celebrated their 21st anniversary. They have two children, Kurt, 13, and Kenton, 10. In September, Peter was part of Dorothy Hamill’s Adult Fantasy camp in Nantucket. "She has a home there. We were there for five days. It’s a wonderful place with no traffic lights, a true village, and we all had fun working on true edges. You know I had forgotten what wonderful edges Dorothy has. The true beauty of skating is seeing someone really skim effortlessly over the ice. Unfortunately, you don’t see that quality as much anymore because the competitors have to fit in so much in their routines."
The very high standard of that 1979 first Skate America was witnessed by the tough fight for the bronze medal with the US national silver medalists, Vicki Heasley & Robert Wagenhoffer, claiming the medal by overtaking Iljina & Vlassov, who stood third after the Short Program. Heasley & Wagenhoffer had been 6th in their debut in worlds in March that year but their partnership dissolved so that he could concentrate on his singles career.
Sheryl Franks & Michael Botticelli, who were 4-times US bronze medalists, 1977-80, lost out in a challenging fight with Gough & Rowsom with the Canadians holding onto 5th place although the Americans beat them in the Free Skate. Franks & Botticelli were 9th three times in the world championships 1977-79, and retired after finishing 7th in the Olympics and 10th in the 1980 worlds. Gough & Rowson went on to win bronze in the 1980-82 Canadian championships. Rowson then competed with Cynthia Coull. They won the Canadian championship 1986-7 and bronze in the 1986 Worlds.
A further perusal of the 1979 Skate America results revealed that Part 1 of this 4-part series failed to mention two very notable mens competitors, Canadians Gary Beacom and Brian Pockar. Beacom, then 19 and Canada’s bronze medalist, was a very talented skater with controversial views. In ’79 in Lake Placid he finished 5th, (6th in figures, 8th in the Short Program and 5th in the Free), while Pockar was 7th behind the graceful Rudi Cerne of West Germany. Shinji Someya of Japan finished 8th and Thomaz Oberg of Sweden 9th.
Pockar, who won 3 silvers and 3 golds in the Canadian championships, 1977-82, took part in Worlds six times, finishing with the bronze in 1982. He was 12th in the 1980 Olympics. He died of complications due to AIDS at the age of 32 on April 28, 1992.
Beacom was lauded for his unique skating moves and discussed widely for his unorthodox views off the ice. At the top of his career, he taught himself, declaring that he had been told everything there was to tell and it was now up to him to put it all together. He was 3rd in the Canadian championships in 1979 and 2nd in 1983 & 1984. He finished 13th & 10th in the world championships in 1983 & 1984, and 12th in the 1984 Olympics where, disgruntled after receiving low marks for one of his figures, he kicked the boards in disgust as he left the ice.
He had a very successful performing career which began when he played the devil in the Torvill & Dean touring show. Many still praise his exhibition to I’m Your Man. But, while enjoying the good life in Sun Valley, Idaho, he formed the opinion that the US tax structure was unconstitutional and didn’t stopped paying them. He lost his court case and, in 1998, was sentenced to 21 months in a Federal prison. After serving his time, he was deported from the US and banned from re-entry. Broke, and unable to take advantage of many lucrative offers for performing in the United States, he wrote an autobiography, Apology, detailing his experiences. (The book’s name does not mean he apologies for any of his actions.) A second book followed, Vade Mecum. Both can be obtained through his website: garybeacom.com He now lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and has a wife, Deena, and two children.
PLANS TO RETURN
The pre-Olympic event was so successful Ardelle Sanderson, a bronze medalist in the 1938 US pairs and ice dance championships, became Chair person of a committee which politicked to organize the first competition to actually bear the name Skate America, which was held in 1981. It became the first permanent international in the United States since the demise of the North America Championships and was a companion event to Skate Canada. However, it did not become an annual happening until 1988. It was not held in 1984 nor in 1987. The absence in 1987 occurred to avoid any conflicts with Skate Canada, which was used as the try-out event for the 1988 Calgary Olympics and the USFSA wanted their top skaters to have an opportunity to check out the Olympic facilities.
In 1981, the first so-named Skate America attracted all the reigning US champions. Hamilton won again with Wagenhoffer 2nd, zooming up from 8th after figures, and Brian Boitano, 7th in figures, rising to take bronze. Vikki deVries, 1980 US Junior champion, pulled a surprise victory over national champion Elaine Zayak, leading in all 3 parts of the competition. Zayak finished 2nd with Roz Sumners fourth behind Austria’s Kristofics-Binder, who had competed in 1979 along with her brother Helmut, who had been last in the 10-strong mens field.
Canadians Barb Underhill & Paul Martini won the 1981 pairs by overtaking the Carruthers who finished 2nd with the Soviet Union’s Elena Valova & Oleg Vasiliev third. Blumberg & Seibert won dance with the Soviets, Elena Garanina & Igor Zavozin, 2nd. They also ended up in the US. Their son, Max, formerly represented the US with Morgan Matthews, but competed last season for Hungary with Nora Hoffmann. In 3rd place in 1981 were the Britons, Karen Barber & Nicky Slater.
The 1982 Skate America returned to Lake Placid. Skate America in 1983 was held in Rochester, NY, and the event did not return to its birthplace until this year.
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