Interview With Elaine Hooper

Photograph of British Ice Skating Historian Elaine Hooper

One of the things I've always been fascinated with - in case you can't tell - is the history of figure skating. I believe that without learning about where you come from, you really have no clue where you're going. Many figure skating fans have really come to the sport after the 6.0 system and are largely or only familiar with the IJS/CoP system that's in place now. They know who Patrick Chan is, they know who Mao Asada and Yu Na Kim are, but they aren't as familiar with - or are maybe just detached from - the past and "the way things were". And there's nothing wrong with that. There is, however, incredible value in learning and incorporating the stories of skaters and competitions past into the way we view, coach, judge and enjoy the direction is going in now. I was thrilled when British skating historian Elaine Hooper took the time to speak with me  from her busy month, which has her not only researching but working on the British Solo Ice Dance Championships taking place in Sheffield and organizing the annual National Team Skating Challenge (NTC) the following week. I hope you'll enjoy her unique, educated and fascinating perspective on skating as much as I did:

Q: When and how did you first become involved with the sport and when did you fall in love with it?

A: When I was a small child, as a birthday treat, my parents took me to see “Puss in Boots” on Ice at the Gaumont Theatre in Southampton England. I still have the program. The skaters fascinated me and I decided there and then that I had to skate. I pestered my mother about it so much that a few days later she took me to the now demolished Southampton Ice Rink. I was very much a recreational skater and did not compete. I have always enjoyed skating but I really fell in love with it when watching John Curry perform, in the 1970’s . Before I had just been a fan. After I could not get enough of skating and began to follow the progress of particular skaters.

Q: Who are the three most compelling and interesting figure skaters of all time in your opinion?

A: I had always been in awe of the artistry of the late John Curry. He introduced a new dimension to men’s figure skating that previously had mostly been based on athleticism. He was wonderful to watch. For almost the opposite reason I would have include Midori Ito. Her triple-triple combinations and consecutive triple jumps were compelling and unseen in ladies competition before . She was very athletic and was often criticised for being a jumping machine but she really could skate. Her recent 2nd place in the Oberstdorf Adults Masters Class after such a long break from competing should inspire both current skaters and those retired from the sport that they can compete after an “amateur” career. It also endorses the case for a resurrection of professional competitions. My personal favourite, though, is Irina Slutskaya. Always with a smile on her face. She still holds the record for the most gold medals in the European Ladies Championship. Her interpretation of her music was spot on whilst still maintaining her technical skill. Her personality would shine through in her performance. I think that were Championships where she was under marked but at the time there were a number of other very talented ladies. And each one had to “up their game” to have a chance of winning.

Q: What can researching and studying the careers and stories of the sport and its skaters teach a new generation of skaters, coaches, judges and skating fans?

A: There are quite short memories amongst the skating fraternity. A few names will always be remembered and their stories pass into skating legend, but for most, when their involvement with skating is over their achievements quickly fade from public memory. Milestones that signal the change and the drive to move forward in our sport have been the result of someone or a group of people who have not been afraid to make unpopular but realistic decisions, sometimes earning censure from their own federations. I think it particularly important that the sport continues to evolve and move forward but that does not mean we cannot utilize the same skills and commitment to fulfil this as past generations did. They were striving for the same result and where they succeeded the next generation could do worse than be inspired by their dedication and commitment. The late Pamela Davis MBE persuaded me to become more involved with skating than being just a fan and a skating mum. I respected and admired her. Her judging career spanned 4 decades and she went from competing in the Worlds in 1949 to judging the Worlds by 1951. So much could be learned by anyone involved in the sport by taking a look at what she achieved and the many stories surrounding her. Also - look at the career of Joyce Hisey. I had the pleasure of working with her at the 1995 World Championships and 2001 Junior Grand Prix Final. I had not met anyone who knew so much about figure skating. I am sure she has many stories to tell that may inspire a new generation.

Q: Figure skating has enjoyed renewed success in Britain with events like Dancing On Ice and the tours that have resulted from the show. Do you think the fact that the upcoming season will be the final is really going to hurt skating's exposure in Britain?

A: There was a time when the major television channels broadcast ice skating in the UK. Sadly that has not been the case for many years. Major Championships are available on a sports channel for which we need to subscribe and also on the BBC on what we call the red button”. Only die hard fans would watch these or even know they exist for skating so the general public had not been exposed to skating for some time when “Dancing on Ice” hit our screens. There is evidence to suggest that the footfall in our rinks has increased by 40% since the first series and I have spoken to people in the rinks who tell that they only started skating because they saw it thought “I could do that” after watching the series. I do not think that interest will wain right away. I believe the rinks can ride the wave of the popularity of “Dancing on Ice” for a few years but after that, unless we produce another Robin Cousins or Torvill and Dean I think it will have an effect.

Q: I think it's incredible that Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean are not only still performing but are so relevant to a new generation of skating fans who weren't familiar with "Bolero", their amateur careers or even their 1994 comeback. What do you think is the secret to their longevity and continued success?

A: I think their secret is that they are truly amazing people. Very focused. By the time they “retired “ from skating together in 1998 they had been skating partners for over 20 years and in that time had developed a cohesion with each other and a charisma that exudes itself both on and off the ice. You cannot unlearn that and so it was no surprise that they have performed so well together from series 1 of “Dancing on Ice. “ The general public as well as the skating fans still want to watch them. There is nothing easy, simple and safe about the routines they now perform. They are so committed that they still that they still go for harder degrees of difficulty.

Q: Who are your favourite skaters competing today and who do you think (of today's skaters) will be remembered for years to come?

Now there’s a question. I have quite a few favourites. I really like Carolina Kostner. She is so friendly, polite and likable as well as a great skater. I am also a fan of Brian Joubert. At his best he was a joy to watch. Although he has suffered many injuries and inconsistent skating in recent years he is a real crowd pleaser. He has said that he will retire after Sochi. I will miss his contribution. I love to watch Davis and White and Virtue and Moir. Ice Dance has changed so much over the years and these couples exhibit what is good about it. It is difficult to quantify what makes a skaters name remembered but Evgeni Plushenko is a likely candidate for both the right and the wrong reasons. I watched his 2012 European Championship performance from a position very close to the barrier and observed that his footwork and other skating skills were still in evidence after the beak he took from competitive skating. Does the fact that the Winter Olympics are in Sochi have something to do with his desire to continue competing? Patrick Chan will surely be remembered. His ability is top notch, a great skater but I am sure the controversy surrounding his 2013 World Championship Gold will be discussed for years to come, not least as evidence in looking at ways to improve the IJS system.

Q: What is the secret to doing effective research and what advice would you give to someone interested in studying and writing or "vlogging" about skating's history?

A: As you know research takes a long time and it is important not rely on versions and interpretations of events that are not contemporary. Note any references used and try to access them yourself. You may interpret what you find differently. The internet is a very useful tool but unless you know where the material originated remember that it is not always entirely accurate so use as many different types of source material as possible. Collate as much information as possible. Organise it into a timeline and only use what is relevant to the task in hand. Then try to verify it. NEVER dispose of the material you have rejected. It may come in useful at a later date. Make the style of writing as interesting as possible. Just producing the facts is not entertaining so focus on one or two aspects. If the piece is too long you will lose the attention of the reader. If there is more to say keep it for another article or blog. Speak to older and retired skaters, judges, coaches and national federation officials whenever you get the chance. It is amazing what they remember and who they knew and skated with. Carry a note book or recording device and note everything they tell you. These can be some of your best primary sources even if it is years before you can use it. Do not underestimate the value of the World Figure Skating Museum in Colorado Springs. They have vast collections of skating historical material. I have a personal collection of magazines, programmes, photographs and books dating back to about 1900. I use these, as well as using external research . There are big gaps though and I am always on the lookout for additions to plug the gaps. Also, the British Library in London holds everything published in the UK and quite a lot from abroad. This includes books, newspapers, magazines, recordings etc. It has proved to be an invaluable research destination for me.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":