By Liz Leamy
Don Laws has put a whole new twist on the concept of ‘golden years.’
The veteran coach has been guiding his student, 18-year-old Patrick Chan, the two-time Canadian champion and 2009 World silver medalist, toward the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
If Chan wins the Olympic title, it would be the second time the distinguished, Florida-based coach has led a student to the feat. Some 25 years ago, Laws coached Scott Hamilton when he clinched the Olympic title in Sarajevo.
"Can you believe it? Life certainly can be funny. Here I am with another wonderful skater; you just never know what can happen," said Laws, who was inducted into the Professional Skaters’ Association Hall of Fame in 2001. "Patrick is a terrific student and a good person all around. It’s been a lot of fun to work with him, much as it was to work with Scott."
Laws, a coach for 52 years, spans generations of expertise. As a protégé of the late Osborne Colson, a renowned Canadian men’s champion and coach, Laws has modeled much of his own work on that of his mentor’s. In the early 2000’s, he was one of the coaches who helped develop the International Judging System (IJS).
During his career, he has worked with several former top World and Olympic contenders, including Michael Weiss, the three-time U.S. champion who has been touring with Smucker’s Stars on Ice, for the past several years. He has also worked with many U.S. national competitors, including Lori Nichol, a former U.S. national novice competitor who has emerged as one of the sport’s premier choreographers.
For Laws, continued success is a result of staying open to the changes in this sport.
"To thine own self be true," he said, adding that this famous Shakespearean quote was taken from <i>Hamlet</i>, the tragic play that also happens to be one of his all-time favorite stories.
"It’s like a genesis of sorts, there are so many connections, which is interesting," he said.
In conversation, Laws often references literary quotes to explain much of his teaching philosophy. Several years ago, Laws ran into Nichol at an official skating party in Europe where she recited the aforementioned Hamlet quote to him, more than 25 years since they had stopped working together.
"She reached her arm through a partition with a glass of wine, handed it to me and said it," he said. "It was as if she knew I was there the whole time, even though she actually couldn’t see me. It was remarkable."
As a young boy, Laws took up skating, loved it and eventually wound up training with Colson in 1946 at the Washington Figure Skating Club, which was located in Maryland at the Chevy Chase Ice Palace on Connecticut Avenue.
As the story goes, Laws had seen Colson perform with the <i>Ice Follies</i> when the show passed through the club’s original location in Riverside, which was located close to where the Kennedy Center stands now, in the late 1930s. Several years later, when Colson joined the club’s coaching staff, the two started working together.
"He was fantastic. He had worked with Gus Lussi and I learned such a great deal from him," said Laws.
Laws experienced some serious success as a U.S. competitor during his time with Colson. In 1948, he won the bronze at the U.S. nationals in novice men and in 1950, he claimed the U.S. national junior men’s title. In 1951, he placed fifth in senior men at the U.S. nationals and seventh at that year’s World Championships.
During this time, Laws also became a leading U.S. ice dancer. In 1947, he and his partner, Nancy Miller (Law), were second in junior dance at the U.S. Championships and in1948, he and Mary Firth claimed the U.S. national junior dance gold-medal crown.
In the late 1950s, Laws took up teaching. By the 1960s, he had established himself as an up-and-coming coach. During this time, he worked with Richard Callaghan, whose highest finish was fifth at the 1965 U.S. Championships in senior men. Callaghan went on to coach six-time U.S. champion Todd Eldredge, as well as 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski.
By the 1970s, Laws had moved to the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society in Ardmore, Penn. where he developed a strong stable of competitive skaters. Among this group was Nichol, whom Laws taught through the U.S. national novice level. She, along with his other students, had a reputation for good edges, a sophisticated style and excellent jump technique.
Laws also began traveling around the country visiting rinks and participating in national training camps. There was one particular camp he recalled that was held in Farmingdale, New York, in the spring of 1978. There, he trained skaters with Peter Burrows, who coached 1982 world champion Elaine Zayak; and Carlo Fassi, the late coach of 1976 Olympic champions Dorothy Hamill and John Curry.
"That (camp) was a lot of fun, we worked with all kinds of skaters and Carlo and Peter were great," said Laws.
That same year, Laws began training Hamilton.
From the outset, the two had a great connection with one another that helped Hamilton achieve great success. Somehow, Laws’ serious and professorial demeanor served as the ideal complement to Hamilton’s mercurial persona. During their run together, much of it in Denver, the skater claimed the U.S. and world titles from 1981to 1984, in addition to the 1984 Olympic gold medal.
"Scott was a very good student. All I ever said to him was ‘keep your personal life separate from your training,’ and he did," said Laws. "Whenever he was out on the ice, he was always focused."
Laws also recalled how competitive the two were with one another off the ice.
"We were at Midwesterns one year and Scott, Carlo (Fassi) and I were out in the rink lobby playing a fierce game of Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac-Man. It was hilarious," he said, adding that the three had to cease playing when they "realized Scott’s group was about to be announced."
Hamilton, of course, went on to perhaps the most successful pro career ever. He co-founded and performed with <i>Stars on Ice</i> for more than a dozen years and remains its producer. For many years, he was a regular figure skating commentator for CBS, and has also worked for NBC, which will broadcast the 2010 Olympics.
By 2002, after leaving Denver, Laws started coaching Michael Weiss, the three-time U.S. National men’s titlist and two-time world bronze medalist. Weiss sought out Laws to help with his jumps. In addition, he thought Laws might help him with the then-new IJS.
"Mike was extremely hard working and is just such a nice guy," said Laws.
When Weiss retired from competition in 2006, Laws moved again, this time from Laurel, Md. to Orlando, Fla. There, he worked with all levels and kinds of skaters, including hockey players. In the mid-2000s, Laws gained yet another charmed situation when he was asked to teach Chan. Sadly, this arrangement developed because Colson, Chan’s longtime coach, was in failing health.
In July 2006, Colson passed. Initially, Chan worked with several coaches in Canada, including Doug Leigh in Barrie, Ontario and Shin Amano and Ellen Burka at Toronto’s Granite Club, but in February 2007 he decided to work with Laws on a more full-time basis and began regular trips to Orlando. In July 2007, almost a year to the day of Colson’s death, Chan won the Liberty Open, a popular U.S. non-qualifying event in Aston, Penn., where he landed his first-ever triple Axel in competition.
Since then, Chan has established himself as a gold-medal favorite going into the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He won the Canadian title in 2008 and 2009, as well as the 2009 world silver medal.
"Patrick is a wonderful student, but I also have to do my part," explained Laws. "There are days when he’ll come to the rink tired because he had been up late playing video games the night before, but once he’s on the ice, it’s all work.’"
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