Skater in Residence Blog #1 – Don Jackson

I would like to thank Skate Ontario for this opportunity to be Skater in Residence for this month. It is a great honour and it’s nice to be remembered.

This past week, I was so happy to have been in the audience at Skate Canada International in Mississauga, enjoying live competitive skating again. The skating was incredible, with skaters from all over the world doing so many triples and quads with instant results. It made me think back about my competitive days and how different competing was then from how it is now. I’d like to share some memories of how competitive skating used to operate. Of course, I started skating 74 years ago!

Travelling to competitions in those days was both harder and easier in some ways. When I competed in Europe in the early days, I flew on propeller planes that would stop in Gander, Newfoundland, and Iceland to refuel as we crossed the ocean. We carried our skates on board with us. I had two pairs, one for compulsory figures and one for free skating, as well as an extra pair of blades and a honing stone for touching up the sharpening if needed. I had a wooden case with me that contained my skating music on a large 78 rpm record that would be played on a record player at the side of the rink. We walked to and from the planes across the tarmac at the airports. There were no indoor gates in those days.

On the ice, we didn’t have a short program, we had compulsory figures that were drawn from a pool of many figures at the competition, so we had to practice all of them ahead of time. In the competition, each figure drawn had to be skated with six push-offs. That’s where the mark 6.0 came from – one point for each tracing from the push-off. The figures were worth 60% of the final score. The skating order for the figures was done by random draw and the order for the free skate was a draw in two parts. One draw from the lower half of the figure results, and then another for the top half. There was no reverse order like today. It was the luck of the draw!

Free skate programs were longer. My music was 5 minutes and 12 seconds long. It was over the time limit by 2 seconds, but my coach said, “don’t worry, the audience will be applauding and no one will notice it.” There was no electronic timing in those days, and there was no limit on the number of jumps or spins you could include. I had 23 jumps in my program! Some with variations in the arm positions, some with delays, and axels in both directions. Variety is the spice of ice!

I competed at the World Championships five times, placing 7th, 4th, 2nd, 2nd and 1st. My last world championship was held in Prague, Czechoslovakia. This was the first time the skating would be broadcast live in North America. CTV Sports Director Johnny Esaw was bringing coverage of the competition to Canada for the first time in conjunction with ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Satellite technology was new and not as sophisticated in those days. The satellite had to be positioned in the right place to send the signal back to North America. At the competition, when the ice was to be resurfaced before my group skated, Johnny realized that the satellite wasn’t far enough over the ocean to get the signal and bounce it back to Canada. Nobody knew at the time that Johnny had gone down to the Zamboni drivers and paid them to take their time before our warmup to make sure the satellite was in the right place! It worked, and North America got to see live coverage of the group, including my performance.

Scoring was much different in those days too. During the competition all nine judges sat in chairs right on the ice surface at the side of the rink, each with a box that contained a set of scoring numbers up to 6.0 on their laps. After each performance, they would stand and hold their chosen score up over their heads when the referee blew the whistle. We would see our marks, but no one knew the final results until the top three skaters were called to the podium by the announcer, after the calculations were done by hand. No instant computer results!

There is one thing in skating that hasn’t changed: the very special friends that you make training and competing in the sport and keep for a lifetime.

While we were waiting for those final results to be announced in Prague, my good friend Karol Divin who was the Czech skater and who had won the figures was waiting with me. We had an idea that we were both going to be on the podium because we had both skated well. Karol said something that has become one of my most cherished memories from skating. Karol said to me, “You know I could win this championship, and if I do, I will give the gold medal to you because that was the greatest skating I have ever seen.” Such a kind and unselfish comment from a good friend. I would never have taken it, but the gesture was so touching. When they announced that I was first, he was the first one there to congratulate me and shake my hand. I would have done the same for him. This is the kind of friendship we all had. I get a lump in my throat every time I think of this story. Karol and I skated exhibitions together many times, and we stayed in touch for his whole life.

The kind of friendship that forms on the ice is unique, special, and timeless. In your life, wherever you go in the skating world, you always find friends, make new friends, and feel at home at a skating event.I hope that you have enjoyed my memories of what it was like to compete in the old days. See you at the rink!