Monday, 26 January 2015

What becomes a legend...

There is a stereotype of Canadians that we are born wearing skates.

Obviously, this isn't true; but for those of us from the "real" north of this country, we generally learn to skate as soon as we learn to walk.  It's an important skill when the snow is around for 6 months of the year, sometimes 7 (or more, depending on just how far north you're going).

Today, girls and boys both play hockey - but when I was a child, girls were automatically stuck into figure skating.  It was a sport I participated in until I was almost 30.

The earliest winter Olympics I remember took place in 1968.  Like thousands of other young girls in North America, I idolized the American skater Peggy Fleming, though I, of course, rooted for Karen Magnusson.

It was a year later that Toller Cranston made his appearance on the national stage.

For the better part of the next decade, this one skater changed the face of the sport, bringing dance moves and his own, inimitable style to the ice.  He influenced so many other skaters:  his artistic rival British champion John Curry, Russian ice dancers Moiseeva & Minenkov and Bestemianova & Bukin, American Brian Boitano, and fellow Canadians Kurt Browning and Patrick Chan, plus the Canadian brother and sister duo of Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay who represented France on the world stage.

After his retirement from skating (though he did perform in professional competitions from time to time), Toller retreated to his downtown Toronto home to indulge in his other passion - painting.  His bold and colourful works were fanciful and wonderful and beautiful - much like he was.

It was here that my path crossed his - both literally and figuratively.

I moved to my bachelorette pad in the summer of 1984.  A few months later, a friend from university mentioned to me that there were adult skating lessons at the Moss Park arena a short walk from my home.  She and I had skated together at the University of Toronto.  We signed up and spent two evenings a week on the ice, year round.

It was almost a year later that Toller appeared at the rink on a night when the senior skaters were on the ice.  I knew that he sometimes skated there, the arena manager had a photo of himself and Toller on the wall in his office and he mentioned that this might happen.

As difficult as it was, we tried to be cool, not stare, and concentrate on our own skating.

Not an easy task by any means!  How do you ignore your childhood idol, live and in person, sharing the ice with you????

I am right-handed, but when skating, my spins and jumps skewed left - this piece of data is very important to this narrative.  I was trying to make my creaky 25-year-old knees lift me into double rotations, and my coach thought I would be able to do it.

It might have been the third or fourth time that Toller joined us... I was paying attention to my coach, turn, step, pick, leap - crash; or pop the jump and single out.  Which is what happened next...

I stuck the landing, free leg extended behind me in a perfect arc to hold my balance...

When I crashed into another skater doing the same in the opposite direction!

We each whirled around to grab and steady the other and both of us blurted out "sorry" at the same moment.  And to my utmost horror, I found myself holding on to the six time Canadian men's champion - not one of my friends!

I skated over to my coach, who had her mouth hanging open watching the entire exchange, and sat down on the ice beside her, saying "lesson's over!"  She didn't argue.

I carefully avoided Toller whenever he skated with us from that time on.

A couple of months later, I found myself voted onto the board of directors of the skating club as the Carnival chairperson.  Over the next five months, I planned numbers with the teaching staff, found sponsors, wrote advertising materials, designed costumes and the program, and ran around doing all those little things that need to be done to bring a show of 100 skaters together.

The parents had seen Toller coming and going from the arena and they wanted me to ask him to be the guest artist in the show.  Every week at the progress meeting, the rest of the board would quiz me, "did you ask him yet?"  But I was the world's biggest chicken - replaying the accident over and over again in my head.

Shortly after the new year, the arena manager mentioned to me that Toller had asked him about the Carnival - he had seen some of the information posted around the building.  He had hinted that he would be open to appearing in the show if he was asked - it was time to swallow my pride.

Two days later, I got my chance.  I got to the arena early to watch the children's groups rehearsing their numbers, and Toller was standing there rink side (in a giant fur coat) watching them.

"Um, Mr. Cranston...."

He turned to me with a smile and held out his hand and said, "Toller, please".

As we shook hands, I continued: "Brian mentioned to me that you were asking about the show."

His smile got bigger and he said, "I'd be delighted to do a number in your show.  You shouldn't have been afraid to ask me, accidents always happen when you've got groups of skaters on the ice.  Why don't you write down the details for me and we'll work it out?"

Two months later, I stood on the side of the rink and watched Toller Cranston skate yet another mezmerizing performance for a packed house.  Thanks to him, every ticket was sold and we made a profit on the enterprise - we even got press coverage!

As he took his bows to a standing ovation, one of our little soloists skated out to present him with a bouquet of flowers almost as big as she was.  She gave a little curtsey as she handed them over and he gave her a hug to the awwwws of the crowd in attendance.

After the show, he stayed behind until every child who asked got an autograph and/or a photograph with him.  When he was leaving, I went to thank him, and he kissed my hand and said "good job with the show".

I never did get the nerve to speak to him again over the next couple of years, smiles and nods were as close as I got - and I stopped skating after that to pursue music instead.

Toller Cranston died today, too young, too soon.  I'm sure that he had much art yet to be created.

But the indelible image will be of a man gliding across the ice in a pose of striking grace leading into a spin of such breathless speed and elegance that you wanted it to go on forever.

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