Benoît Lavoie – Part 2
Last month we had the opportunity to listen in on the conversation between Skate Canada’s past President, Benoît Lavoie, and Olympic silver medallist Debbi Wilkes as they discussed Benoît’s early years in skating. This month it’s part two of the conversation when Benoît talks frankly about skating, its joys and its challenges and his role on the ISU Council.
A Magical Moment for a Canadian Ice Dance Couple – Joni Graham & Don Phillips
by Barry Soper
In just year six of its relatively new, ‘virtual’ existence, the Skate Canada BC/YK Section chose to induct into its Hall of Fame two accomplished Canadian Ice Dancers in the Athlete category, namely British Columbia’s Joni Graham & Don Phillips – Canada’s Ice Dance Champions in 1967 & 1968.
Although Don passed away in 1997 at only age 53, Joni, with her husband Ron Taylor and admiring family, did attend the annual BC/YK Section Awards & Hall of Fame Induction Gala on April 27, 2019 to accept the honour on behalf of this accomplished BC Ice Dance team. On hand to receive Don’s part of this honour was his son Ashton Phillips of Vancouver, who learned so much more about this exciting chapter in his father’s earlier life.
Besides the additional accomplishments as Canada’s Junior Ice Dance Champions in 1966 and, after moving up to the Senior level, achieving a Silver medal at the 1967 North American Figure Skating Championships, they managed two top 10 placements at the two World Championships in which they competed in 1967 & 1968.
With their 6th place finish at the 1967 World Figure Skating Championships in Vienna, Austria (the last World’s event held on outdoor ice), this qualified Joni and Don to be one of six Demonstrator Couples invited by the International Olympic Committee in conjunction with the ISU to demonstrate Ice Dance at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.
Why was this significant?
Ice Dance, historically the 4th of figure skating’s four disciplines and officially added to the World Figure Skating Championships in 1952 was not included as an Olympic discipline at that time. While the other three skating disciplines of Men, Ladies, plus Pair skating had been the mainstay of World level figure skating since its early roots in the late 1800’s (Pair skating was added in 1908), Ice Dancing did not become part of the World scene until 1936 after evolving from its initial ‘ballroom dancing on ice’ to greater movement over the ice. It was this transition to greater athleticism that eventually caused the International Olympic Committee to adopt Ice Dancing as an official Olympic figure skating discipline at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.
Thus, Joni and Don were part of that six Ice Dance team contingent in 1968, led by Great Britain’s World Ice Dance Champions, Diane Towler and Bernard Ford, to demonstrate to the ‘Olympic’ world that, indeed, Ice Dancing did belong as a Winter Olympics’ discipline.
The impact on the skating world, especially in the discipline of Ice Dancing, was significant. With the prospect of Ice Dancing being included as an Olympic sport, many more skaters were attracted to the discipline.
So how did Joni and Don find themselves in this enviable position at the 1968 Winter Olympics?
Joni was one of numerous aspiring single skaters who kept an open mind to exploring the Ice Dance discipline. Training under the capable guidance of long-time coach and mentor Hellmut May, and skating out of Vancouver’s Kerrisdale Figure Skating Club, Joni recognized that there was one major ‘roadblock’ to overcome: “I need an Ice Dance partner”!. It just so happened that long-time skating judge Florence Morgan tipped off Joni that a similarly aged male dancer was having tryouts for a partner at his home Capilano Winter Club in North Vancouver. As a result, Joni asked to be included to try out with the suave and dapper Don Phillips, who was training under club coach Alex Fulton. Joni’s audition at this tryout was a success, with Don deciding that he had found the ‘right partner’. It was then decided that both Alex Fulton and Hellmut May would coach the team and each skater would represent their own club.
Once the partnership was formed, it wasn’t long until the team gelled, and they set about proving it by qualifying to compete in Junior Dance at the 1965 Nationals in Calgary where they earned a silver medal. While this meant that Joni and Don were training at two clubs, it was clear that this Ice Dance team was on track to do something special with their opportunity. The next year they won Junior Dance (1966) and headed for Senior competition.
After this promising start, Joni and Don were advised to take notice of what was happening at a new skating club on the North Shore at West Vancouver’s Hollyburn Country Club where former 4-time World Ice Dance Champion Jean Westwood was coaching. Jean was making a significant impact in the Ice Dance coaching world by attracting top American Ice Dance teams and was looking for Canadian teams to round out her program. In 1966, Joni and Don became part of this very competitive training centre which was able to attract aspiring new competitive coaches. Names like Robin and Heather Jones assisted Jean in creating and guiding exciting, competitive Ice Dance teams vying for Canadian, American and World Ice Dance medals – at a time when interesting choreography and dance lifts elevated the quality and difficulty of the sport.
The results from Joni and Don’s search and commitment to making the most of their opportunity gave proof to the importance of skating in a competitive training environment led by accomplished and motivated coaches.
The other Ice Dancing force that was emerging, at that time, was the arrival of Russian Ice Dance teams and their emphasis on speed and drama. By 1969, Liudmila Pakhomova and Alexander Gorshkov were already on the podium – just ahead of their run of World Ice Dance titles beginning in 1970.
In terms of a denouement to Joni and Don’s Ice Dance career, the team was invited to join Ice Follies in 1968, an attractive and lucrative way to end a skating career. Other priorities then took over and Joni and Don went their separate ways, with Joni having met her future husband while touring with Ice Follies and settling in the United States, while Don chose to begin his coaching career in Peterborough. Not long after, Joni left the USA as a single mother to begin her coaching career at the Royal Glenora Club in Edmonton, Alberta, while Don returned to BC to pick up his life where he left off, marrying his first wife. However, there were new chapters to unfold for both partners.
Don found very interesting work as a coach in Santa Rosa, California, in a rink built by famous American cartoonist Charles Schulz (of Snoopy fame). It was here that he met and married his second wife with whom he had two children. Unfortunately, Don’s life was cut short in 1997 when he died at the age of 53.
North of the border, Joni returned to BC when her boys were finished school and found coaching work at Coquitlam FSC in Greater Vancouver. Not long after, Joni met and married her second husband, Ron Taylor, in Dec. 1996 – complete with special wedding singer Michael Buble, a good friend of Joni’s two sons. Joni and Ron are now kept busy with nine grandchildren plus Ron’s 101-yr. old mother and Joni’s 103-yr. old uncle.
Congratulations to Joni Graham and Don Phillips, a BC team who made Ice Dance history, honoured by their induction into the BC/YK Section’s Virtual Hall of Fame.
Memories of Moscow (1978)
by Robert McCall
It all seems unrealistic to me now, like a fantastic dream. We were actually on our way to the Soviet Union to participate in Moscow Skate.
Only two weeks earlier I had been lying in hospital bed in Darmouth, Nova Scotia with huge red blossoms all over my body and a tube stuck in my arm. Few people believed that I would be well enough for Moscow Skate, but I was determined that nothing was going to prevent me from skating with the world’s best ice dancers. Not even scarlet fever!
Luckily, I was well enough by the time our departure day arrived. My partner Marie McNeil, our coach Janet Dunnet Purdy and I boarded the jet in Halifax and flew to Toronto where we were to meet Billie Mitchell of Vancouver and Toronto international judge Suzi Francis. The five of us then flew to London, England where we were supposed to board a connecting flight to Moscow.
However, London had other plans for us! When we arrived at London airport the fog was so dense that we had to detour to Scotland and land in Preswick. After a two hour delay, we were able to fly back to London and land.
Memories of Mrs. Mitchell bustling about London airport will remain with me forever. Her energy is phenomenal, and I was exhausted just watching her. While the rest of us melted into and available chair, Mrs. Mitchell made record time organizing the rest of our flight schedule to Moscow.
Since we had to stay overnight in London, we took the scenic route to our hotel, and were able to see that great city in the brilliance of its Christmas lighting.
The next morning, we flew to Frankfurt, Germany and boarded a Russian airliner. When we landed in Moscow, we had little trouble clearing customs and were whisked to our hotel, the Hotel Russia.
Our hotel room was very similar to a Canadian or an American one but remembering the story about a Canadian woman who found a strange lump under the bedroom carpet of her Moscow hotel, I was cautious not to tamper with any screws or fixtures. Apparently, this visitor was afraid that the screw under the carpet held some sort of listening device, so she took a screwdriver and loosened it – only to hear that a chandelier crashed to the floor in the room below!
As we entered the hotel restaurant for our first meal, we were surprised to see the British skaters Carol Long and John Philpott, and coach Bobby Thompson. Marie and I had become good friends of Carol and John in Lake Placid, New York and had also worked with Mr. Thompson at that time. After a gossip session we were escorted to our table and found a familiar Canadian flag as the centrepiece.
An all-female band entertained us while we ate. Most of us had a little appetite at this point. Marie and Janet stared into space while Mrs. Mitchell and Dr. Francis politely ate a little food. I, however, attacked my food with all the grace and elegance of a professional wrestler.
When we woke the following morning, a light snowfall greeted us. From my window I could see a Greek orthodox church with its towering mosques. We took a bus ride through the city en route to the famous Palace of Sports for our first practice session. The streets were remarkably clean, and the snow was white. Not like the brownish sludge at home! We passed the Czar’s Palace, the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Church, all reminders of the elegance and grandeur of a by-gone age.
At the rink the Russians were already practicing. The workout sessions were divided into two groups, seven Russians teams in one session and all the other nations (six including Canada) in the second group. All the top Russian ice dancing teams competed except for the World Champions, Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov who were to give exhibitions.
The first evening of competition included the pair’s short and compulsory dances. All the pairs, except one East German team, were Russian. I was awed by the Russians precision and skill.
Performing before audiences of 18, 000 people against former world champions after only one compulsory practice almost overwhelmed me. Fortunately, Marie was composed enough to support the team. Under the circumstances, our dances were not of historical significance, with the exception of the Yankee Polka. At the end of the first night’s competition we were in 12th place.
The Russian audiences were extremely receptive and supportive of all the skaters. Every seat was occupied for the entire competition.
After the first night of competition, we attended the Bolshoi Ballet in the great opera hall. Our host, Natalia Linichuk, picked us up at our hotel. It was a memorable experience. The hall was packed, and the dancers were acclaimed like national heroes.
The next day we were invited to lunch with the Canadian ambassador, Dr. D. Ford. Despite the fact that I spilt tomato juice all over an expensive white carpet, the luncheon went smoothly, and His Excellency joined the cheering section of the audience for the exhibition performances on the final day, throwing bouquets of roses to Marie and I as we completed our number.
The second phase of the dance competition was the Original Set Pattern (waltz). We were pleased with our showing in the waltz, although we knew that it was almost impossible for us to move up in the standings after the compulsory dance.
The competition ended Saturday afternoon. Overall it was of extremely high calibre. In the ladies’ singles, Teresa Foy of Great Britain shone in the long and short free-style programs yet dropped in placement after figures. The final winner was Carola Weissenberg of West Germany. For a country that has produced world champions in men’s, pair’s and dance, Russia has yet to produce a world champion in the women’s event.
The pair’s and men’s event were spectacular, but it was really the ice dancing that captured the audiences. Andrei Minenkov and Irina Moisseva skated with the poise and confidence of world champions, and all the Russian teams skated imaginative and creative programs.
Following the final competition, the Russian officials hosted a reception for all the guest skaters, judges and officials. The competitors received commemorative medals to remind them of Moscow and the competition. And remember we will!
Competing with the excellent Russian teams, experiencing the history and splendour of Moscow, renewing old friendships… All of these memories of Moscow will remain with us for a long time.
Kurt Browning receives Order of Canada
The Order of Canada is one of our country’s highest civilian honours. Its Companions, Officers and Members take to heart the motto of the Order: DESIDERANTES MELIOREM PATRIAM (“They desire a better country”).
Kurt Browning was one of twenty one recipients to receive the Order of Canada in a ceremony at the Residence of the Governor General at the Citadelle in Quebec on July 4, 2019.
Described below is a brief biography of Kurt Browning by the Governor General.
World figure skating champion of 1989, this easy-going Albertan is admired for his skilled and disciplined performances. His fresh outlook and engaging personality make him an excellent role model for the youth of this country and an impressive ambassador for figure skating as he embodies the ideals of Canadian amateur sport.
Olympic Champion, Eric Radford marries Luis Fenero in Spain!
After a two year engagement, 3 time Olympic medalist Eric Radford married ice dancer Luis Fenero this month in a beautiful outdoor wedding ceremony in Spain.
In a recent social media post, Eric expresses his feelings about his special day.
“Words can never explain how incredible the last days have been. An amount of love I could’ve never imagined and a wedding day I could’ve never dreamed. Thank you to the amazing Victor Lax for capturing the best moments of my life so beautifully and making them into art.”
Best wishes on this wonderful journey, as you build your new lives together.
Wedding Bells Ring for Siobhan Karam!
Siobhan Karam, Canadian junior national champion and ISU Grand Prix competitor in Ice Dance, had her dream wedding on July 20th when she married singer-songwriter Mike Godwin at Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Congratulations on finding each other! Your greatest adventure has just begun.
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