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#Unearthed: The 1979 Arnold Gerschwiler Interview

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. Today's gem comes to you from the December/January 1980/1981 edition of the "Canadian Skater" magazine. It's an interview that former British sportswriter John Hennessey conducted with the late, great Arnold Gerschwiler. A controversial and revered coach, Gerschwiler's dozens of champion pupils included Sjoukje Dijkstra, John Curry, Ája Vrzáňová, Daphne Walker, Valda Osborn, Michael Booker, Helmut Seibt and his own nephew Hans Gerschwiler. To this day, he is widely remembered as one of the foremost experts on school figure technique in skating history. At the time Hennessey's in-depth conversation with Gerschwiler, he was sixty six and still actively coaching.  Shared with you with the permission of the good folks at Skate Canada, I think you're going to be fascinated with this inside glimpse into the perspective of one of the most decorated coaches in history.

CS: To start the ball rolling, how do you think Canadian skaters are doing right now in compulsory figures?

AG: I don't think Canadian skaters are so bad at figures. The truth is that the standard of figures has gone down everywhere since they were cut to three and the short program introduced. They are now worth only 30 percent of the marks, so there is a tendency to neglect them and concentrate on the free. Perhaps Trixi Schuba was the last person to receive the marks and skated the figures to the value of 4.9 or 5.0. Nowadays you rarely see anything over 4.3. Professionals throughout the world are giving too little attention to figures, which is wrong. What a shocking example we had in Kovalev; that Kovalev could win the figures in a world championship with the body positions he produced and no running edge. He violated every rule in the book.

CS: Isn't that a case of bad judging?

AG: Is it bad judging or is the case that the other skaters didn't skate any better? Whatever the tracings are like, from the ankle up he was awful, and I can't see how that would not be reflected in tracings, because body position is a strong influence on the tracings.

CS: I assume then that you were opposed to the new format?

AG: Certainly. Mastery of the figures is the foundation on which all good skating depends. I read the other day that Carlo Fassi said that Robin Cousins had a bad day in figures. That doesn't exist for me in the figures. Either you can do it or you can't. And you don't have to have any special talent. You have to learn the right movements and if you do the right movements you get the right results. If you start learning when you are young and learn the right way you do not need to spend hour after hour on them later on when you have to master new jumps and spins.

CS: Is it not possible to have a bad day if the figures drawn are not among your favourites, on the wrong foot, the wrong edge or whatever?

AG: You are not allowed a weakness. If you have one you must work on it and master it long before you arrive at the top. A champion has to be good at everything. The same with tennis. We've just had a marvellous example at Wimbledon. If you have a weakness it deserves to be exploited.

CS: The readers of this magazine will be particularly interested in your overall view of Brian Pockar.

AG: Brian spent four summers with me and improved in the figures considerably. He skated really well here at Richmond in the Rotary competition last autumn in all three sections and I am surprised as anyone that he did not do better in the Olympics and world championships. Given a top mark of 4.4 for a figure these days, I would Brian's standard at 4.3, just a whisker below the very top flight. But even on present standards he has the potential to bring his figures up to 4.9, even 5.0.

CS: That would put him head and shoulders above every other skater in the amateur ranks today?

AG: Yes, and that's where he ought to be.

CS: I wonder if nerves played a part in Brian's disappointment? Even assuming complete mastery, what about the tension of the moment, the thought that your hopes, even your career as an amateur and later professional, your future livelihood may depend on these coming minutes?

AG: Tension doesn't come into it, because at that stage a champion who has been skating for eight or ten years should be above that. There's no way I'll take that excuse from anyone.

CS: But you will agree, wouldn't you, that even if properly trained you might be nervous and that would lead to inferior school figures?

AG: No, not if you're properly trained. Everyone is nervous. I read that Borg was nervous before he went out on centre court against McEnroe but it didn't stop him from playing wonderful tennis.

CS: At what age do you like to get a skater?

AG: I like to get a skater really early, but not submit her to heavily concentrated training so that everybody says: "Isn't she marvellous, isn't she terrific, isn't she wonderful?" That creates an exaggerated idea of what she will be, in, say eight years time. I like them to enjoy their youth and have varied pastimes - also schooling - but skating training should have first priority.

CS: What stage should they have reached before you take them for teaching?

AG: I like them to have reached the bronze test. I took Sjoukje Dijkstra, for instance, at about eight or nine. That's about the right age. Or I like to take them at about 16, at a much higher level of performance, from another teacher who perhaps has gone as far as she can. I look particularly then for someone with the potential to go to the top and the willingness to work.

CS: Is Brian Pockar an example of a skater who came to you at an advanced stage?

AG: Not really. Brian came to me for extra help with the agreement of his trainer at home. I was in no way a replacement for her. I have never poached a skater from another teacher. It's just that a teacher sometimes welcomes the second opinion that another teacher can give and the added expertise that he can provide. That's how Brian came to train with me. And he was not only an advanced skater, but also an intelligent one with a receptive mind.

CS: Would you say he's still got it in him to be world champion?

AG: Yes, certainly, provided he's still willing to work and be prepared to make the sacrifices involved in dedication to skating and to keeping fit.

CS: What if a skater doesn't seem to have the right kind of dedication?

AG: Once upon a time I would have accepted them in the hope of disciplining them, but I wouldn't do that now. If they do not show the right attitude from the word go I've no time for them. I'm too old for it. I've done my fair share of disciplining!

CS: You've made it clear that you regret the decline in figure skating. What about the free? Do you think there is too much emphasis on gymnastics and athleticism?

AG: No, I think it's finding the right balance between artistry and athletics.

CS: Would you attribute that to people like Curry and Cranston?

AG: No. We've had skaters like that in the past, Belita Jepson-Turner, for example, and Jackie Dunn, and Hayes Jenkins and especially pair skating, the Protopopovs are a fine example. Naturally we've moved on to more intricate jumps, but I see nothing wrong in that - progress is progress in any sport - provided the rest of the program does not suffer. So far as I can see there is an equivalent effort in improving spins, steps, etc. Watching the Olympics and world championships at home on television I was impressed by the high standards.

CS: Did anyone particularly impress you?

AG: I liked Hoffmann very much at Lake Placid and I am glad I was not asked to make the decision.

CS: As a compatriot of Cousins, would you allow me to pass quickly on to another subject? Another fundamental change in the last decade or two has been the use of indoor rinks for the main championships. What kind of effect do you think that has had?

AG: It has helped the free skaters, of course, but figure skaters have suffered. In the old days you had to get into the figure, you had to feel the circle. You had to contend with slower ice and possible wind changes, so you had to push off harder and use your body weight, which means you had to work harder. Nowadays they hardly have to push at all and the body doesn't draw the figure enough. There's no flow in it.

CS: We seem to be on the verge of the first quadruple jump. Would you regard that as a healthy development?

AG: Certainly, as long as nothing else suffers in order to accommodate it. There must be right preparation and the right build-up and it must fit correctly into the program. I would never force a skater to try a jump merely for effect before he is ready for it and sure of it. One newspaper the other day, referring to tennis, talked about the surgeon and the butcher. Similarly, I say that a skater should use the skate like a surgeon doing a heart operation and not like a butcher hacking at a piece of beef!

CS: In skating parlance who would you identify as the surgeons and who the butchers?

AG: The surgeons would include Curry, Cousins, Cranston and Hoffmann. Many people would disagree with me about Hoffmann but that's because he is less artistic and has not the same feeling for music, but he uses his skates very well. I would also include Rodnina and all the top dancers. I wouldn't want to be unkind and identify the butchers. Must you press me? Then I would have to include Cramer and of course, Kovalev, who for me just doesn't exist as a skater.

CS: Many teachers, in skating as well as other sports, complain about interference by parents. How do you handle that one?

AG: It is perfectly natural that parents should want their children to do as well as they can, get as far as they can. But they musn't come between the coach and skater at vital times. I always explain to parents that they will have the chance to sit down with me and criticize after a competition but until then, the responsibility is mine alone. Nor do I want them to interfere during training and lessons, because that's when the pupil and I really have to concentrate.

CS: Do you look for a special physique among skaters?

AG: Physical attributes mean nothing if you haven't the basic talent and are not ready to dedicate yourself. There's no doubt though that a good physique and a pretty face help to create a favourable overall impression. A good personality on the ice is important too. All these things come together in the final analysis. Skating is the one sporting area where everything counts: talent, looks, physique, musical interpretation. In tennis you can pull all kinds of faces and your face look like a traffic accident, but it doesn't matter as long as you score the points! In skating you have got to be able to present yourself and project yourself.

CS: Are you in favour of the short program?

AG: I don't like it. I don't see why a skater should benefit because he does a particular jump better than another one and has the luck of the draw. All the various aspects of free skating will be revealed in the long program, either by the inclusion of certain elements or their omission. And on top of that it has devalued the figures. Television is the real villain. They want the best free skater to be the champion and as the skating authorities want the revenue they have to bow down.

CS: Another topic of never-ending interest in this sport is the judging. Do you share the general cynicism.

AG: No, I don't. I think the judges are trying to do a good job and I do not believe in the idea of conspiracies among them. But I wish they didn't feel the need to keep in line all the time. They should feel free to mark as they see, but of course they might face suspension. The blame lies with the ISU for not encouraging independence of thought among the judges. It would be much better to make an honest mistake occasionally than feel the need to tow the line. And they should not be allowed to compare notes before the first marks are made public. The judges should be encouraged to have the guts to mark what they see. One judge was barred for giving Kovalev low marks in the figures and I couldn't have agreed with her more.

CS: Some people maintain that there is a distinct East versus West favour about judging. Would you go along with that?

AG: No.

CS: Are in favour of the present system of reaching a result, from a majority of five?

AG: Yes.

CS: The Canadians are understandably excited about little Tracey Wainman. Have you seen her skate?

AG: I saw her skate at Queen's during the Jubilee Gala. She's a very talented little girl with lots of personality. Now let's see what they can do with her. There's no reason why she should not go right to the top under a teacher like Ellen Burka. But there are problems to face as she goes through adolescence, both in physical terms and in her perhaps wanting to pursue other interests. Beyond that, the main worry would be a temptation to push her too far too fast. They need to have the patience to build the girl up properly and let the results come in their own good time. By all means pick up the glory on the way but don't try to force it in a year or two. There is always a temptation in a case like this to look for quick rewards too soon. She won't reach her full potential until she's about 16 or 17.

CS: Would it be wrong to expose her too much to the public at her present age?

AG: Not if they do it in the right way. They should let her have all the success she can, provided it's understood that it's a means to an end. Ellen Burka will have to decide how much the child can take without it going to her head and she will have to resist any pressure by the Canadian association to overstretch the child. A glaring example of how things can go wrong is provided by Denise Biellmann, who was pushed too much by the Swiss association against the wishes of Otto Hugin, her teacher. The association interfered too much and has destroyed her chance of becoming world champion. If she had been left to Otto I think she might have already won the title. She still can, of course, but they should have left the one man in charge. They can shoot him afterwards, not before! Let that be a lesson for the Canadians!

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":