Interview With Jean Westwood

Photo courtesy "Canadian Skater" magazine

A member of the Canadian, U.S. and World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame, Jean Westwood is not only a two time British, two time European and four time World Champion but was also one half of the sport's very first team to win the World Figure Skating Championships in ice dancing at the 1952 event in Paris, France. She went on to a hugely successful professional career as a coach in North America, coaching national and international champions from both Canada and the U.S. She lost both former students and her former professional pairs partner Bill Kipp in the 1961 Sabena Crash that claimed the lives of the entire U.S. figure skating team, tackled judging controversy face to face and now lives in Canada where she is highly involved in dog showing and as President of the All Breed Dog Club administration. It was my absolute honor and privilege to talk in depth with Jean about her competitive and coaching careers and I guarantee you that you are going to just love reading this one.

Photos courtesy "Skating" magazine (left) and "Skating World" magazine (right)

Q: You and Lawrence Demmy won two European titles, two British titles and four World titles, including the very first official World title in ice dancing in 1952. Before all of this wonderful success though, you started at the very beginning like everyone else. How did you first get involved in skating?

A: I was born in Manchester, England in 1931 in a Scottish family. My father was a medical and dental doctor and my grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. I started skating at age six under duress as my sister wanted to skate so I had to give up my involvement with horses and entering Gymkhanas. I was fortunate in my individual coaches as they all believed my talent was beyond their capabilities or I was too troublesome to control and forwarded me on to a more senior coach.

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

Q: What can you share about your early years in skating?

A: My first coach was Peri Levitsky. I believe she was Czech. I became mascot of the hockey team to bring out the puck onto ice. I was a "brat" spoiled by all and Ms. Levitsky handed me over to the senior coach, Ellen Dallerup from Denmark, who was understood to be the first to do a one foot spin! I rapidly progressed and the senior area judge judging all my tests was actively interested in my progress - Ethel Muckelt who competed in the Olympics with Jack Page. She was my first mentor and judged most of my British tests in singles, pairs and dance... Phil and Megan Taylor also trained in Manchester. Phil was killed in the war but Megan, competing with Cecilia Colledge, won Worlds. The Manchester Ice Palace was closed during the war years and used for airplane repairs. I was fortunate to meet and watch both Megan and Cecilia and met them both later when I was coaching in the U.S. At eight years of age I gladly gave up skating and went back to horses. Occasionally a group of us went to Blackpool for the day to skate. I went back to skating after the war. My sister Ann was much more dedicated than me. In all of my singles events, my sister Ann finished first, Muriel Kay Fulton was second and third place went to yours truly. Quite happily, I might add. My competitive streak came later. Muriel Kay was chosen by Reginald Wilkie to exhibit ice-dancing across Europe. Mr. Wilkie (formerly partnered with Daphne Willis) invented the Paso Doble, Quickstep and Argentine Tango and was British Dance Champion as well. He was my second mentor.

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

Q: So after the war, you really gave a lot more focus and time to skating when you returned to the ice. Was that also when you turned your focus to ice dancing?

A: When the war was over with many bad memories best forgotten, skating resumed and Ann and I started ice dancing as well as singles. My sister became the youngest silver dance medallist (at twelve years old) at that time. She had much more talent than me. When I was fourteen and my sister was seventeen we were sent to Cheltenham Ladies College, which was a lost cause for me! My sister tragically died that summer. She was accidentally given a drug overdose by a doctor. I returned to skating during the holidays and Ellen Dallerup transferred me to Jack Wake, the rink manager. In 1950, most nations at this time held their Nationals AFTER Worlds and selected their next year's World Team. In England, all their dance couples had retired, split up or turned professional. It was decided to hold a trial and select a team to enter the International Dance Competition, the forerunner of the World Dance Championship in Milan during the World Figure Skating Championships. In October, I was involved in a serious car accident while attending Liverpool University and was hospitalized for a month then had to undergo physiotherapy. The new partnership of Lawrence Demmy and myself was formed and we decided to enter the trials. It was not judged but two couples were selected - ourselves and John Slater (my previous partner!) and Joan Dewhirst. So off we went to Milan where Lawrence and I won the first competition we entered - which just happened to be the equivalent of a World Championship. It was some way to start a career! Returning to England we did not win the National title, nor for the next two years even as reigning World Champions.

Photo courtesy Joan Noble
Q: You became the first official World Champions in ice dancing in 1952, a title you defended for the next three years. You also won two British and European titles as well. What changed during that time and how did you come to work with the legendary coach Gladys Hogg?

A: We started dance instruction from Len Liggett in Liverpool. He and Mr. Wilkie were both wonderful dancers with soft syncopated knees. Mr. Liggett partnered me through my dance tests stating Lawrence was not good enough. Lawrence as World Champion was NOT impressed. Jack Wake did an extraordinary thing. He explained to my parents that my talent was such that it deserved coaching from a top level coach in London. I was to select the coach from three names then explain to him the reason for my choice. I was only to observe their methods. I chose Dame Gladys Hogg as she taught all students in their own style. At this time, I was on my gold figure test. Len Liggett joined an ice show in 1953 so it was natural that we asked Miss Hogg to also train us in dance. Mr. Liggett taught me syncopated rhythm and soft knees like Reginald Wilkie. Jack Wake taught me to place the future of the pupil ahead of his credit of my talent. Dame Gladys Hogg taught me to teach myself and do the choreography for the pair. This also taught me choreography to give my students. Nowadays coaches also have a choreographer or trainer. That is the reason so many of her pupils became top international coaches in North America as she trained us to do it all. I even did embroidery on my students costumes. Some of her previous students becoming top coaches - John Nicks, Doreen Denny, myself, Bernie Ford and Joan Dewhirst Slater to name a few. The biggest gift she gave to all of her students was to teach ourselves. A great lady. In 1965, she congratulated me on my pupils winning silver and bronze. I replied that she had trained the top five couples.

Q: What are some memories that really stand out from the competitions themselves during that period when you and Lawrence were literally 'on top the world'?

A: I can't remember which year but Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier (who were European and World Champions from Austria) presented us with a bouquet of liquor filled chocolates. We were in awe as they were legends. In 1951, we were novices and our only concern to beat the other British couple and we were unaware we had won. We heard our names called as we were leaving the arena! After my accident, I was still walking with a cane. In 1952, I remember standing center ice with the Union Jack flying and the anthem playing. It made up for not going to Olympics. In 1953, Gladys Hogg had forbidden us and the Nicks' to ski. So we luged down instead! Guess who met us at the bottom? The media took a wonderful photo of us to remember. At the 1954 Europeans in Budapest, for accommodations we were put on an island with tunnel access only.As the only World Champions there we had special privileges. Our friends Laszlo and Marianne Nagy were permitted to drive us around. Everyone else was confined to the hotel. It was horrifying to see such poverty... people sweeping in the streets for pennies. At the Worlds in Oslo, I remember smiling in the mirror to freeze the expression before skating outside in twenty six below weather and balancing on a small metal podium with two other couples with awards and protecting our skates.

Silent footage of Westwood and Demmy included around 3:14

Q: After your "amateur" career ended, you became an elite level coach (coaching skaters like Otto and Maria Jelinek, John and Donna Lee Mitchell, John and Betty Ann McKilligan, Don Phillips and Joni Graham and Victor Kraatz) and acted as Head Coach of CFSA's National Dance Seminars for almost fifteen years. Can you tell me about your early transition to coaching?

A: In 1955, I turned pro to teach in Lake Placid that summer (and the next four) and Arctic Blades in California for two winters. Coaches also have mentors as they start teaching. Again, I was luckier than most. In my first job at Lake Placid, I was guided and advised by Otto Gold, Howard Nicholson and later by Gus Lussi. He insisted I attend all of his lessons with Ronnie Robertson. This was in 1956 in California. How lucky could I be! Among many pupils (I was fully booked) were Maribel Vinson Owen and Ron Ludington (to learn the Rumba!) and more notably Otto and Maria Jelinek. Gus Lussi recommended them to work with me after seeing the lifts I did in free dance. Otto did his first overhead lift with me. I continued working with them for many years. I also took the U.S. Dance Tests with Bill Kipp. When I went to California, fate took a hand that placed me as a successful coach. My pupils won the Senior and Junior (Gold and Silver) Ice Dance titles. Roland Junso and Joan Zamboni successfully unseated the Bodel's going on to fourth in Worlds. Chuck Phillips and Margie Ackles were a couple I paired together who three yrs later won Seniors. I was also teaching Pat and Bobby Dineen and Rhode Lee Michelson who all perished in the tragic Air crash in 1961. Bill Kipp joined me in California to form our professional partnership and also perished in this crash. Bill and I had done some skating together in shows and tried out for Ice Follies but turned down their offer.

Photo courtesy "Ice Skate" magazine

Q: I don't think I can really imagine how hard losing not only your former students but your former partner Bill Kipp in the 1961 Sabena tragedy must have been. Can you share a bit more about what your coaching career in the late fifties leading up to that tragic turn of events?

A: In 1956, I was persuaded to leave California and start teaching in Toronto at their new club which was just opening. I was thrilled to join Sheldon Galbraith on staff and meet his pupils and study his teaching and training methods to add to what I had observed with Gus Lussi. Here I coached Bill McLachlan and Geraldine Fenton after starting with them in the summer at Lake Placid. They danced their way (with my help) to be the first North Americans to win a silver medal. They held that the next year and a bronze in 1959 before Gerrie retired. In 1959, I coached the entire Canadian team for Worlds and North Americans. Bill and Gerrie won North Americans and were third in Worlds. Ann Martin (Shaw) with Eddie Collins were third in North Americans and fifth in Worlds. I also coached Eddie in Singles at Worlds that year. At this time I was approached by Ice Follies to be Skating Director and Assistant Choreographer. After much soul searching, I accepted to further my knowledge. This it did. It helped me produce club shows in the future at the Broadmoor and in Victoria especially in lighting, props, group production and costumes. The cast of the show welcomed me to instruct them. Richard Dwyer learned overheads and death spirals. Also I managed to sign up without an audition Frank Carroll. They took my word he had the talent. He is still one of my closest friends. My three reminders from Follies are my mink stole, my first Chihuahua and a corvette. As a coach, I was always wanting to change and improve thus keeping students alert. This was not possible in a show due to cues for lighting and props. So frustrated, I returned to coaching in 1960. I drove west to teach in Vancouver and coached John and Donna Lee Mitchell, became good friends with Dr. Hellmut May and renewed my close friendship with Linda Braukmann. In the winter of 1960, The Mitchell's made the North American and World teams for 1961. However, after North Americans I decided to take my pupils for R&R to my parents house in Manchester, England. The very next day we were informed of the tragic air crash and the loss of the entire U.S. team. Several days later my pupils and I went to Brussels and joined Mr. and Mrs. Kendall Kelley for the memorial service to represent the skating fraternity.

Q: As tragic as those events were, life and skating went on and your coaching career flourished in the 1960's both in Canada and the U.S. What can you share about this important time of your life?

A: In the summer of 1961, I taught in Victoria and started my association with Lorna Dyer with her first partner King Cole. They placed third in the U.S. and made the world team that year. The Mitchells were second in Canada and also made the World Team. In 1963, I stayed teaching in Victoria, travelling to Vancouver two days a week to work with the Mitchell's and they came to work in Victoria as well placing second in Canada and North Americans. Lorna Dyer now had teamed with John Carrell and trained with me at the same time placing third in the U.S. but not in North Americans. They came eighth in Worlds in their first year thus being ranked the top U.S. team. The Mitchell's retired in 1964 but John and Lorna still trained in Victoria coming third in the U.S. and fifth in Worlds. 1965 was an exciting year as a coach for me. A new partnership was formed - Dennis Sveum and Kristin Fortune. With John and Lorna, the four of them stayed with me to train in Victoria. A good battle began and they all improved. At this time, Thayer Tutt of the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs contacted me offering to sponsor the two teams. I had two other offers but decided it was better to be in the U.S. so off we all went including my two singles students working on their gold figure tests.

Q: So at this point you and your top teams have all relocated to the Broadmoor but you also have two top teams who are huge rivals and would both go on to win U.S. dance titles. How difficult was that experience? 

A: I played neutral (like Gladys Hogg and Marina Zoueva) training each couple in their own style but both teams were very strong. At Nationals, Dennis and Kris were first and John and Lorna second, at North Americans they reversed placements and at Worlds John and Lorna were third and Dennis and Kris finished fourth. Davos in 1966 I will never forget. I was approached by an ISU official to see if I could arrange either of the North American judges to place Carrell and Dyer in first as the Eastern bloc was behind them. I refused. I have never played politics and never will. I would not favor one of my couples over the other and I would never approach either of the two judges involved even though’ I knew one did favor Carrell and Dyer. Also, in every practice with Carrell and Dyer, we were observed by Russian judges, skaters and coaches. It was a very high compliment. So the games began and there was a fierce battle between the judges! In the first and second compulsory dances, there was the same result: Towler and Ford first, Sveum and Fortune second and Carrell and Dyer third. There was chaos in the third dance when Towler and Ford fell so going into the fourth dance, Carrell and Dyer were first, Sveum and Fortune were second and Towler and Ford were third. All 3 three couples were that close, By the time the free dance was over the judges battle was finished, the first dance result held up. Gladys Hogg congratulated me on my two teams and I replied that she had been the coach of the top five teams!

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Q: It was actually after this event that Kristin Fortune and Dennis Sveum retired from competition but your students Lorna Dyer and John Carrell continued on for a year. Is that correct?

A: Yes. In 1967, Sveum and Fortune retired and I returned to Canada to teach at Hollyburn with Carrell and Dyer. I also commenced teaching Graham and Phillips and John and Betty McKilligan in pairs. Carrell and Dyer won U.S. Nationals and went on to win North Americans and finish second in Worlds. Graham and Phillips won Canadian Nationals and were second in North Americans and fourth in Worlds that year. The McKilligan's won pairs at Canadian Nationals and competed in North.Americans and Worlds. Carrell and Dyer then retired.

Q: What came next after both of your two top U.S teams had retired from competition?

A: The McKilligan's successfully defended their national title and were on the Olympic team in 1968. Phillips and Graham also successfully defended their title and were invited by the ISU to demonstrate dancing at the Olympics. They also came fourth in Worlds that year. In 1969, my four Canadian Champions retired. I still taught at HCC but travelled to Seattle to teach Brad Hislop and Joan Bitterman who placed second in the U.S. and competed in Worlds and North Americans. I also started training Kevin Cottam and Linda Roe who came to Vancouver to work with me. In 1970, I returned to teach in Victoria but continued to travel to Seattle to teach Brad Hislop with his new partner Debbie Ganson who placed third in the U.S. and made the World Team. In 1971, they placed fourth in the U.S. and in 1972 retired. In 1970, Kevin and Linda won Canadian Junior Dance and I felt they had excellent potential for the future. Unfortunately in 1971, entering Seniors for the first time they skated excellently and well deserved to make the North American team. They had always placed how they deserved but this time they came across politics and placed fourth. This result devastated them and they concluded the other couple must have been better so they had no future. I could not make them see reason and they decided to retire. During the next year both of them wanted to still compete and asked me to look for new partners. I explained that it was better to contact another coach to see if they had one available, then the two of them decide where and with whom they train. Linda successfully contacted Bernie Ford and teamed up with Michael Bradley who she eventually happily married. Kevin was contacted and went to tryout with a new partner and her coach for a month. They decided to team up and came to Victoria to work with me and the girl decided to train with me. Although Kevin worked hard in 1974, they were only able to place fourth in Canadians so retired. I had a long discussion with Kevin to forego looking for another partner and advised looking elsewhere with his talent in skating. He went to coach in Australia but returned and successfully turned to choreography. I did not coach or have competitors at Worlds but for the next fourteen years was a Head Coach at the National Dance Seminar and also attended the National Singles Seminar with two of my students.

Q: What is your philosophy when it comes to coaching?

A: My belief is that there are no dumb champions. Education is vital for essential quick reaction. Champions are born, not made. A top coach may help them to achieve earlier while a lesser coach may inadvertently prevent their success. A good coach puts their pupils wishes ahead of their own ambitions, for example attending national and international events. A true champion will eventually make it regardless. I am a strong believer in fate and destiny for competitors and coaches: the destiny of being in the right place at the right time with the right pupil or adversary. I hold myself more fortunate than most future coaches due to ALL of the coaches I was exposed to. I successfully competed in all three disciplines which set me up to coach successfully in these three disciplines.

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

A: I was presented to Queen Elizabeth II and curtsied without falling down. I was British Junior Pairs Champion and North of England Singles Champion. We also skated in the Olympic pair trials and although placing second were not selected for the team in case we endangered our dance title! We were not impressed - politics again! When I retired, the British Association requested my father to refund the expenses they had forwarded. This was third class rail fare to each of the venues of our World titles. They never had supported us and backed the other British team who were British Champions in 1951 and 1952. Mind you, of the two titles we preferred the Worlds! My father refunded the requested amount.

Photo courtesy "Canadian Skater" magazine

Q: What is life like today for you?

A: In 1970, I became a permanent resident of Canada. I am now a citizen. I still reside in Victoria with my successful show dogs. I am busy with my dogs' training, showing and going to vets. I am also President of All Breed Dog Club administration and that takes a lot of time. Many of my former students keep in contact and I watch skating on television. I am very glad I neither compete nor coach or choreograph the current skaters. I would not know where to start!

Q: If you could offer one piece of advice to any skater today, what would it be?

A: My lesson to all skaters and coaches is to have the balance between confidence and humility. Never forget how and where and who helped you achieve your goals and confidently fulfill their trust.

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