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A Legendary Night

by Dorothy Knoell

photos by Shirley McLaughlin

For sure, the P&G and Walmart Tribute to American Legends of the Ice lived up to its name.

Wherever you looked, there were legends of the ice. Look over there, and you might see Carol Heiss Jenkins (1956 Olympic silver, 1960 gold) and husband Hayes Allen Jenkins (1960 Olympic gold), chatting with Dick Button (1948, 1952 Olympic gold, Emmy winner). Maybe they were talking about double Axels, since Button is credited with the first double Axel in competition and Heiss is known as the first woman to land one in competition. Check in the opposite direction, and Doug Wilson (Emmy winning TV director of Olympic and other skating events), 1980 Olympic silver medalist Linda Fratianne and 1988 Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano might be catching up on old times, with Roz Sumners (1984 Olympic silver) tossing in a comment or two. Across the way, you could exchange a few words with the always-gracious 1956 Olympic gold medalist Tenley Albright, or take in the view as Scott Hamilton (1984 Olympic gold, Kristi Yamaguchi (1992 Olympic gold) and Kitty and Peter Carruthers (1984 Olympic silver) gabbed with Paul Wylie (1992 Olympic silver) and Nancy Kerrigan (1992 Olympic bronze, 1994 silver) – probably remembering old times on Stars on Ice, and maybe bragging a bit on what their children are doing now.

There were even legends from other ice sports – standing around a table, you might see Michael Weiss (world bronze 1999, 2000) chatting with Olympic gold medalist speedskaters Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair, and Jim Craig, the goalie on the 1980 Olympic gold medal winning hockey team. Among others on hand were 1978 and 1982 Olympic pair skater JoJo Starbuck, 1984 Olympic pair skater and choreographer Lea Ann Miller, world championship dancer Renee Roca (who directed this show) … all sorts of names and faces were present.

Everywhere you looked you could see (and if you were lucky, chat with) U.S. ice skating royalty during rehearsals and the after-show reception. It was hard to believe that so many Olympic and world championship medalists and other contributors to the sport were together in one room.

And it wasn’t just the veterans who were present – some of the more recently American champions, like Sarah Hughes (2002 Olympic gold), Tara Lipinski (1998 Olympic gold), Evan Lysacek (2010 Olympic gold), Sasha Cohen (2006 Olympic silver) and Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto (2006 Olympic silver), were also in the house – and many of them on the ice, too – for a dizzying array of ice skating talent and history in one place.

“It is pretty special said Carol Heiss Jenkins as she looked around at a great representation of U.S. skating royalty. “It’s so great to be able to have so many great skaters all in once place like this.”

She looked at her husband, then around at the other people who she said she holds very dear and added that this was something that needed to be done more often, mixing the sports generations in order to keep the legacy of the sport in America growing. She noted that having so many wonderful athletes who are also great people, who can share stories of the past and still help with the future, is a gift that shouldn’t be wasted.

“It’s extra special because there are so many of these wonderful champions still here, still alive. We need to do more of this, because she said, pausing and then adding with a smile, “frankly, we don’t know how long we’ll all be here, so these kinds of events are really needed..”

She was right – there was history in the building (the Izod Center at the Meadowlands, New Jersey), walking, talking history of a wonderful sport and a wonderful era that many new skaters and fans don’t know much about.

Which made the night even more special, because it was a chance for today’s skaters – aspiring world and Olympic champions, those who are aiming to continue the legacy of the veterans who were on hand – to share practice and performance ice time with the skaters they may have grown up idolizing – and some who they know by name only. And the skaters of today shared more than ice time with their predecessors – they shared words, as the different generations shared hopes, dreams, memories, joys, fears and advice with each other.

“I was so honored to be here, to be a part of this said 2013 U.S. men’s champion Max Aaron, just a month or so before he was headed to U.S. nationals, hoping to defend his title and earn a spot on the Olympic Team. “I learn so much from them. There are so many Olympic and world champions here, and they know what it takes (to get there). I’m really excited to be on the ice with them, and learn from them.”

Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold, Agnes Zawadzki, Adam Rippon, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Alissa Czisny rounded out the skating cast.

The show itself was a wonderful conglomeration of skating past, present and future, and the appreciative audience got a chance to see many of their long-time favorites take to the ice (still able to more than hold their own with the youngsters), as well as get a preview of the upcoming nationals and Olympic Winter Games. Of course, not all the top skaters aiming for the 2014 Olympics were able to be there, and neither were all the legendary and favorite skaters of the past. While those who were absent were missed, the knowledge that the lineup could have glittered even brighter made this gathering even more impressive.

The opening was exciting and awe-inspiring, as the stage went dark before spotlights highlighted, in turn, 19 U.S. Olympic figure skating medalists in order, from most recent to most senior – Lysacek, Cohen, Agosto, Belbin, Hughes, Lipinski, Kerrigan, Yamaguchi, Wylie, Boitano, Hamilton, Peter and Kitty Carruthers, Sumners, Fratianne, Hayes Jenkins, Heiss Jenkins, Button and Albright. It truly was a stirring moment.

In rehearsal, there had been quite a bit of joking around with each other, taking selfies and the like, as the spotlights and voiceovers were practiced, but when it happened in the show, the audience and the skaters all appeared to be profoundly moved.

First up on skates, after a welcome and introduction from hosts Yamaguchi and Weiss, was two-time U.S. champion Wagner, who skated to The Trouble With Girls, sung live by American Idol 10th-season winner Scotty McCreery (who was standing in the audience, much to the delight of those sitting around him). She was upbeat and sharp with a triple flip and a double Axel. Defending national men’s champion Aaron followed, also to a McCreery song, this one See You Tonight. He hit a triple flip but had a few problems on other jumps that were fixed later, but was smiling and engaged the audience in his performance.

Wagner, just back from her bronze-medal performance at Grand Prix Final, said she was excited to be invited to do the show and had learned a lot just watching the veterans perform.

“I’ve been working so hard this year she said. “This is another great opportunity for me, to skate with all these great skaters and be able to talk to people who’ve been there, who’ve accomplished so much.”

Some of those folks who’ve “been there, done that” were next on the ice, as Fratianne and Sumners performed a lovely duet – which became a trio when Boitano joined them partway through – to American Dream. The two ladies performed spins and spirals, while Boitano tossed in a double Axel as he glided with them and around them in the lovely program.

“It’s a bit intimidating to get on skates anymore, especially with so many great skaters around Frantianne said. “But it was so nice to be together with all my friends again.”

Albright then took the stage to introduce a skater she has mentored at times, Hughes. The 2002 Olympic gold medalist performed with her 9-year-old niece, Alexandra, to River (Joni Mitchell). The young skater was wide-eyed as she demonstrated her pretty spiral, some spins and a single jump while her aunt glided with her.

“This was so special for Alexandra Hughes said. “I remember being so excited when I got to meet some of my idols, and to actually be on the ice with skaters like Brian and Linda and Nancy … she was so excited. I love seeing that in children. I love working with children because they just love skating.”

Hughes said she skates quite often, but spends most of her time since graduating from Yale working with various non-profits, mostly those that deal with children, physical fitness and health.

Next up were some of today’s championship aspirants, Chock and Bates, who went on to finish second at U.S. Nationals in Boston in January be named to the U.S. Olympic team. They presented their short dance (Hollywood, There’s No Business Like Show Business), and their lively, animated performance was well received by the audience.

Wylie followed with excerpts from his 1992 long program, Henry V and gave a performance that touched the hearts of the performer and the audience. The audience was by turn hushed and then wildly enthusiastic as Wylie skated the program with all the intensity of 1992.

“I am so grateful I got a chance to relive this Wylie said after the show. “It was a very special time in my life. This reminded me of how everything came together at that moment – it was something special, a time when I really felt God showed me that He had something for me to do, and He showed me that with Him, I could do anything.”

A wonderful introduction from Heiss Jenkins led to a charming performance from the Carruthers that was meant, they said, to “take us back to when we first skated, when we were skating on a backyard pond and just loved it.” Kitty, in a red little-girl skating outfit – one she used back in her competitive days -- started out on a bench, tying her skates, and then was joined by Peter and they performed -- very well, indeed -- to Best Friend (Fool Moon). Although they hardly ever practice together, being based in different cities, Kitty still had that old trust in her brother, as they performed a one-hand overhead lift and showed off their still-great death spiral.

“This was so much fun said Kitty after the show. “We practiced together just a few days. It was a little scary, but just great fun. I loved being here with everyone.”

The first half wrapped up with Castelli and Shnapir wowing the crowd to Lorde’s Royals, which was obviously well known and loved by most of the younger members of the audience. The 2013 national champions (who successfully defended their title in January and were named to the Olympic Team) had spot-on characterizations and a spot-on throw triple, as well.

The second half opened with Sumners introducing Scott Hamilton, who chatted with the crowd, recalling his days as a competitor and his long professional career as a skater a commentator (“I remember when I was so honored and awestruck to have a legend like Dick Button talking about me … and now, I’m that guy!”), and thanking those in the audience for all their support over the years. It was obvious the audience still loves Hamilton, as they cheered long and loud as he said that, as a pro, he was always “skating for you and he couldn’t wait to get out on the ice to do just that.

McCreery returned to sing Watertown while Czisny skated, and the two-time U.S. champion, who just weeks before had announced she was abandoning her try for her first Olympic Team because she hadn’t recovered enough from hip surgery, included a lovely double Axel in a pretty performance. Lipinski and Cohen then introduced Belbin and Agosto, who looked like they could be competing for an Olympic spot in a breathtaking performance to A Thousand Years.

“We were trying to come up with something that the younger people would like, but we’re not younger anymore said Belbin with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Kids like ‘Twilight,’ don’t they?’ and we loved this piece of music, so that’s what we chose.”

The duo that earned silver at the Torino Olympics and won the U.S. title five times was fluid and fast with understated power and intense emotion in a program that mesmerized the audience. Agosto said he and Belbin, who haven’t skated together much since a short pro career after they retired from eligible competition, have decided to work together again and are hoping to find places to perform.

“We just decided we wanted to skate together again, and we’ve done a few things Agosto said. “We’ve really enjoyed it, and hope to do more.”

Rippon followed with an outstanding performance to A Song For You (Elliott Yamin), a program that included a “Rippon Lutz” (triple Lutz with both arms over head), a triple toe, and some outstanding spins. He looked ready to challenge for an Olympic spot as he showed off tremendous speed and emotion. Zawadzki also looked very good and competition ready to Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You, which included a triple Lutz.

Gold debuted a new short program, to Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, which she would go on to use at U.S. Nationals, where she won the national title. She was graceful and elegant and mature, and included a triple Lutz combination (the second jump was a 2 ˝ toe) and a triple Salchow.

“It’s so inspiring, and educational, to be on the ice with all these champion, to be able to talk with so many wonderful champions she said. “I’m really honored to be here.”

After Gold’s beautiful performance, it was time for some off-ice chatting, as Weiss and Yamaguchi interviewed three beloved Olympic champions from other ice sports – Blair, Jansen and Craig. The audience was obviously thrilled to have these great champions in the building, and each talked about how they prepared for the pressures of the Olympics and what their experiences meant to them.

Kerrigan was next, and, like Wylie, pulled from her silver-medal winning programs for her performance. She skated her 1994 short program Desperate Love, and, just as with Wylie, the audience recognized some moments in the performance and cheered extra loud at those times. Kerrigan was emotional and really into the performance that included a double Lutz and double flip.

Afterward, she admitted it was a bit pressure-packed to try to do something from her competitive days, especially something as special and recognizable as an Olympic program. She smiled as she noted that, “Actually, I think everyone was pretty much asked to do something from their Olympic programs, and then I get here and it’s like, really, just me and Paul? I wasn’t so sure it was a good idea, but oh, well, it was fun to do it as well as I did. I really enjoyed this night.”

Next up were four U.S. men’s Olympic champions on the stage – Button, Jenkins, Lysacek and Hamilton – to introduce a fifth champion, Boitano, who was on the ice, ready to perform. In rehearsal, as the four on the stage alternated with various scripts and extemporaneous ways to talk up their sport and introduce Boitano, the 1988 Olympic winner offered his suggestion – “Hey, just say my name and let it go at that.”

Having all those great skaters saying really, really nice things about him was a bit disconcerting. 

“Yeah Boitano said after the show, rolling his eyes. “Like I needed that kind of pressure – Dick, Hayes, Scott and Evan introducing me? That’s a lot of pressure. It was really nice and I really appreciated all the nice things they said, but it would have been a lot easier to just have them announce my name and let me skate.”

Not to worry, the 50-year-old Boitano managed, as usual, to live up to the stirring introduction with a gorgeous performance to Franc D’Ambrosio’s Bring Him Home.  He had a triple toe-double toe and double Axel, signature spread eagles -- which are still just as deep and extended as ever -- beautiful spins, an emotional connection with the crowd – and still that speed and power.

McCreery returned with the rest of the cast for the finale to America the Beautiful, with Hamilton, Yamaguchi, Lysacek, Lipinski and Cohen donning skates to join the final circuit or two of the ice with the rest of the skating cast, while those who didn’t put on skates waved from the stage. A few retakes by some of the performers fixed up some errors, and the audience then bid goodbye to a fantastic group of performers and champions.