Interview With Jeri Campbell

Photograph of American figure skater Jeri CampbellPhotograph of American figure skater Jeri Campbell

Jeri Campbell's story isn't your cookie cutter one. First appearing on the scene at the U.S. Championships and winning the Novice silver medal in 1984, Jeri quickly climbed through the ranks, winning the 1987 U.S. Junior title and finishing just behind Debi Thomas, Jill Trenary and Caryn Kadavy on the Senior level at the 1988 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Denver, Colorado, becoming the Olympic alternate that year. Jeri pressed on and competed at three more U.S. Championships, turning professional at an unheard of young age and touring the world with Torvill and Dean, Dorothy Hamill and in countless other productions. She won the 1994 U.S. Open Challenge Cup and even toured in the role of Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz On Ice. Now a successful coach and choreographer, life has changed so much since her days of competing but Jeri was SO kind to share her story, talking in-depth about both her "amateur" and professional careers, coaching and choreography and even offering some words to Mirai Nagasu, the skater who like Jeri, just narrowly missed her Olympic dream. You're going to love this one!

Q: You competed at U.S. Nationals 8 years in a row, won international events like the Skate Electric competition in Zagreb and the Golden Spin Of Zagreb in addition to winning the 1987 U.S. Junior title and turned professional at the very young age of 20 in 1991, touring the world for 9 years with Dorothy Hamill's Cinderella: Frozen In Time tour, Willy Bietak, Torvill and Dean's tour and so many other events. What moments stand out for you as the most special times in your "amateur" and professional career?  

A: I remember being a young kid around 7 or 8 years old going to see Dorothy Hamill skate in a professional show. At the end of the show, she shook my hand as she skated by and I told my parents I was never going to wash my hand again because she touched it. Ironically my very first professional tour was with Dorothy Hamill. The show was called Cinderella: Frozen In Time. Dorothy was Cinderella and she also produced the show. Working with her was an amazing experience. She was a true pro: friendly, hard working, and pretty fearless when it came to skating. She was doing pairs in the show, learning lifts for the first time, and I just soaked it all in and appreciated the opportunity to work along side of her. Some of my favorite professional skating memories come from skating after the shows were over. We would skate from 9:30 PM to midnight sometimes just for fun. There was a camaraderie amongst the pros. We helped each other on jumps, spins, edge work, and movement simply because we all shared a love for it. We’d laugh out load, be crazy on the ice, and just hang out together. These are up there with my favorite skating memories. As for amateur skating, that for me was so long ago, but I remember the sense of accomplishment I would feel when I would have a good day at competition.  It didn’t matter how big or small the competition was, a good skate felt wonderful. When I do look back at my amateur skating, faces come to mind... Midori Ito, Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, Tonia Kwiatkowski, Holly Cook and so many other great skaters. It was an honor sharing the ice with them. I had a ton of respect for those girls then, and still do.

Q: Focusing on your "amateur" career for a minute, you sadly missed the 1988 Calgary Olympic team by one placement. How hard was that for you to deal with and what advice would you give to Mirai Nagasu, who this year had a similar experience after U.S. Figure Skating opted to send former National Champion Ashley Wagner instead? 

A: In 1988 we still had figures along with the short program and the free skate event. Being that it was an Olympic year and our event was televised live, they had an enormous amount of TV commercials in between each skater. Back then we didn’t have the IJS judging system, so there was no 5 minute re-warm up before you skated. You had to get out there after waiting around for an hour and try to lay down 4-6 triples in your program. Needless to say, I had never been through that before, and I was not mentally prepared for it. Sometimes you have to live through something to really know how crazy the pressure is, and I think I can safely say I experienced it once in my life. After all was said and done, I was 4th after figures, 4th after the short, and 5th after the free skate. My combined points put me in to 4th place overall. The top 3 finishers went on the Olympics, and I was the alternate. For me it was fair and square. I never expected any different outcome for the Olympic team. I look back and think it was an incredible life experience. As for Mirai Nagasu, I wish nothing but the best for her. She has done a lot in the last 4 years since she finished 4th place in the 2010 Olympic Games. She competed in 12 international competitions. She won ten top 4 finishes at those competitions. She has also competed in 4 U.S. National Championships, winning 2 bronze medals. She produced 2 strong programs at Nationals this year. She understood very well the pressure cooker that she was under, and she dealt with that pressure like a seasoned competitor. I think she should be very proud of her body of work. She has shown us that little girls who win medals early in life can grow up, change, go through struggles, evolve and come back fighting harder than ever. She has shown us what being an athlete looks like.  

Q: Being both a huge skating fan and a HUGE Annie Lennox fan, I absolutely loved your "Primitive" program that won you the U.S. Open Challenge Cup in 1994. What was the process of creating this program with Brian Wright like and what was the story behind it? 

A: Thank you for your nice words regarding this program. It was all Brian Wright, and I was lucky to work with him. I decided to do the US Open after a tour I was supposed to do that year fell apart. Meaning the tour funding fell through, so it never happened. Once I made the decision to compete, I had to decide on programs. I had been watching Brian Wright do work with a bunch of talented skaters, Scott Davis, Scott Williams, Michael Weiss, Rory Flack, Matt Kessinger, Jere Micheal to name a few, and I was always in awe of how different each program was, and how amazingly interesting each skater was that worked with him. He had a magic touch that used the body in ways that I had never seen in ice skating before. I called Brian one day and simply asked him if he would work with me for the U.S. Open and set a program. He was very receptive to my call and we made plans for me to go to Indianapolis to work together. The process of putting the program together was just that, a process. It was a life changing process for me. I walked in the doors to the Indiana World Skating Academy where I observed Brian going through the choreography to the song "Primitive". I watched him from behind the entrance door to the ice, and I started to get really excited about what he was doing. I put my skates on, met Brian officially for the first time, then we got started.  Brian would share little storylines with me as he put parts of the program together. He would say things like "this is the part where you are in bed rolling over to the other pillow" and then I would watch his choreography and see him pull his hands near his face and roll his body in a way that made sense to his story. At first I wasn’t sure if he was saying things for shock value, or if he was serious, but I later learned it was usually was both. The story of "Primitive" was in Brian’s head. I think it was personal for him. It dealt with relationships and the process of unwinding in bed and relaxing to the point of falling asleep. While working with Brian we had a few setbacks due to his health. He had HIV and was dealing with complications. He was sick one week and he needed to go to the hospital. This was really the first time that I learned about what he was coping with, and I was really concerned for him. The amazing thing about Brian was even though he was in the hospital for something really serious, he always had a crazy sense of humor that would make you laugh out loud in the scariest of times. He had multiple hospital visits during our time together working on "Primitive". We grew close as friends, and he really became a creative mentor to me whether he knew it or not throughout this process. This wasn't just a skating experience, this was much much more. I went on to compete at the U.S. Open and Brian met me there. He was there for all the practices as well as the competition. He sat in the kiss and cry area after the events. He told me funny stories to keep things light before and after I skated. It was a professional highlight for me. I look back and think what a ride it was from walking in to the Indiana World Skating Academy, to meeting Brian, learning the choreography, seeing him go through his health scares, becoming friends, laughing a lot, training the program and finally competing. It was a real journey that I treasure.

Q: Also in 1994, you won the Dorothy Hamill Crown Pro Competition. What can you share about this competition and experience?  

A: The Dorothy Hamill Crown Pro Competition was an in house competition, meaning it was all the performers in her 2 touring companies with Cinderella: Frozen in Time that participated in the competition.  
We only had a short time to prepare for the competition since we were in the middle of a tour doing shows all the time so it was a challenge to get ready for it. We all set our own programs, then the 2 touring companies met in one city for the competition. It was the first competition I did as a pro skater, so I was feeling a little nervous. I had a pretty good skate and was happy with the overall performance. The other skaters were fun to watch, and really the best part of the whole experience was the 2 touring companies came together for a night, and after the competition was over, we all got to hang out and let our hair down for a few hours and have a little fun.  

Q: You toured for 2 years playing Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz On Ice tour. How you would describe the experience of taking on an iconic role and skating to "Over The Rainbow"?  

A: I loved touring with the Wizard of Oz On Ice show. It was the hardest job I ever had as a show skater, but I look back and think what an opportunity I was given. I had to interview with Kenneth Feld personally before getting the role. Kenneth Feld owns Disney on Ice, so this was a big moment for me. Luckily it all worked out and I got the job. Playing Dorothy was a real challenge. I had to learn how to act on the ice, memorize 2 hours of dialogue, and carry Toto while doing so. Oh, and we had a dog trainer to work with as well. During rehearsals I really had no idea what I was in for, but I learned quickly. I would say it took me 4 months to really settle in to the role of Dorothy. After that, I felt much more comfortable trying to act and do dialogue while skating. I learned what it meant to react by watching other skaters in the show who were great at doing character work. Robin Cousins and Cindy Stuart choreographed the show. They did incredible things like set a number with skaters doing everything going backwards, including their outfits. It was very creative and original. Robin had done choreography for me before as an amateur skater in Lake Arrowhead, and it was great to work with him again as a professional skater on this show. One of my favourite memories of skating in The Wizard Of Oz On Ice show is the sound effects guys doing special sounds when Toto would do funny things. He would race across the ice and then slide in to the header boards. There would be this sound of a skidding car and then a loud crash effect... it was so funny. The audience would laugh every time. There were lots of moments like that that made the tour special. The little details. The moments with the other cast  and crew members on ice and back stage, the funny cat fights between me and the Witch (played by Nancy Barber)... those are the memories I have, and they are all good.

Q: You've coached and done choreography for over 15 years, working with grassroots level skaters to national champions like Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn. What makes a great coach or choreographer in your opinion? 

A: Karl Kurtz was Phil and Tiffany’s head coach when they won Nationals and went to the Olympic Games.  He did an amazing job with them. He asked me to do a show program for them, and I was honored to do it.  Phil and Tiffany used the program when they did the World tour and it was a really fun process to work with them on it. They were really hard workers, and it was great to see them rise to the top of their field. What makes a great choreographer? To me, the best choreographers can seam a program together from beginning to end that never loses your attention. They take you on a ride, tell you a story, and leave you wanting more. They can hide someone’s weaknesses and highlight their strengths without you noticing anything has been hidden. What makes a great coach? For me, I think a great coach is someone who is not intimidated by a student's talent. They are motivated to take it to the highest level. They are willing to sacrifice their own personal life, because that’s what it takes to manage an elite skater. It not only takes a lot of work for the skater to get to the highest level, but a great coach, I think, works just a hard, if not harder, to get them to the top. A great coach understands the process of high intensity training and down time. When to have down time, when to come back up, how long to stay up, when to peak, what to do if you are peaking early, what to do if you aren’t peaking at all...They also understand how to manage a skaters weaknesses. Hire specific choreographers, trainers, etc. A great coach can work through all of that with patience because they understand the process. I also think a coach on this high level understands there will be failures, sometimes many failures before a skater can find their rhythm. I have a ton of respect for coaches who teach elite skaters. It's hard work all around. 

Q: If someone was coming to your home for dinner and you were making them your absolute favourite meal, what would they be having? 

A: Mexican, Thai or Italian!

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why? 

A: I would have to say Brian Boitano, Michelle Kwan and Dorothy Hamill. Brian because he was a rock star under pressure, Michelle for her passion, and Dorothy because she was and still is an incredible champion for the sport.

Q: What's one thing about you most people don't know? 

A: I went to school with a concentration in graphic design. I'm an art lover at heart and I like the challenge of acrylic paints. I enjoy getting lost in a painting and obsessing over colors. My Mom was a sketch artist in her spare time when I was growing up and I think I was inspired by her talents. That's where my love of art started, and it grew from there.

Q: Looking back on your life, would you change anything?   

A: Yes, I wish I had more time with my mother. She left us way too soon. I was gone a lot growing up due to skating. That is the one thing I wish I could do is rewind time and pause it so we could laugh together one more time. She had a great laugh and it made me happy to see her happy. My family and I miss her dearly.

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