Lucky Socks And Unlucky Frocks: The Strange History Of Skating Superstitions

Photo courtesy New York Public Library

"If you allow yourself to become the victim of superstition, every single thing is a sign indicating a positive or negative result." - Toller Cranston, "Toronto Star", Friday, February 13, 1987

A black cat crossing your path, spilling salt, walking under a ladder, opening an umbrella indoors and breaking a mirror are are all sure signs of bad luck to the superstitious among us. Those in search of good luck rarely walk down the aisle without something old, new, borrowed and blue. They have lucky rabbit's foots, horseshoes and pennies, break bottles over the bows of new ships as they are launched and cut the hair from a dog that bit them.

Not all superstitions are as 'simple' as the signs of good and bad luck. There are those who make the trek to Ireland to kiss the Blarney Stone, in hopes of earning the gift of eloquence. There are shopkeepers that refuse to sweep the sidewalk in front of their stores before the end of the day, lest they sweep away the day's trade. Centuries ago in Ireland, many believed that if you didn't make the sign of the cross and close your baby's mouth before they yawned, the Devil could rush into their body. According to old English lore, stirring your tea 'widdershins' (from right to left) foretold a fight, and if two women drank tea from the same pot, one of them would become pregnant.

Many actors refuse to use real flowers on stage or peek through the curtain at an audience before a play. They say "break a leg!" instead of good luck and never mention the exact number of lines they have, for fear they'll forget some. They never refer to the play "Macbeth" by its name, opting to call it "The Scottish Play" instead... for fear of death. Though actors have historically earned a reputation for being some of the most superstitious folks out there, they really have nothing on figure skaters!

Long before figure skating competitions were 'a thing', residents of Utah always placed their skates on top of something solid after carving out fancy figures on a pond. They feared that if their skates were hung from a hook, they would fall through the ice and drown the next time they skated. Not long after skaters began competing, the superstitions really began. Tropes like "a poor practice means a good competition to come" and "it's bad luck to draw first in the starting order" have been around since the days of Ulrich Salchow and Gillis Grafström.

Sonja Henie

Three time Olympic Gold Medallist Sonja Henie once claimed a paper cutter, with a blade as sharp as her skates - brought her the good luck to win her first World title in Oslo, Norway in 1928. During her competitive career, the media went bananas with stories about how - although she brought many pairs with her - she just had to wear her 'lucky skates'. In reality, they were simply the pair she was using at the time. In her autobiography "Wings On My Feet", she lamented, "Much more was said about the fact that father took special care of them for me than was mentioned about my technique or skating background." Later, during her professional career, she refused to wear new laces in her skates when she started working on a new film. She once quipped, "Superstitions give your courage such a nice fake boost."

Cecilia Colledge and her 'lucky zoo'

One of Sonja Henie's rivals, Cecilia Colledge, wanted to wear a green satin dress for her free skating performance at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Though she always felt she skated best in the green dress, her mother insisted she wear silver. Not even her 'lucky zoo' of stuff animals saved her from finishing the event in second place. One of Cecilia's successors, Daphne Walker, started wearing a green elephant talisman at the age of eight for good luck and collected over three hundred elephant ornaments. Like Cecilia, she often wore green dresses in competition, flying in the face of the superstition that green was an unlucky colour.

Jack Dunn and Sonja Henie. Photo courtesy Minneapolis Historical Society.

Interestingly, two of Great Britain's top men's skaters during the thirties tragically passed away in their twenties... their deaths both linked to 'cursed' objects. Freddie Tomlins was killed over the English Channel while serving with the Royal Air Force in 1943. In 1937, he had been presented with an eighteen carat gold watch by Adolf Hitler. It was inscribed with the words, "To our dear Freddie Tomlins in remembrance of his skating in the Berliner Sports Palast, March 29 to April 4, 1937". Jackie Dunn, a 1936 Olympian who had gone to America in hopes of finding success on the silver screen, contracted tularemia, a rare disease spread by rabbits, and passed away after wearing a supposedly cursed ring once owned by Rudolph Valentino. He had been set to play Valentino in a film.

The professional skating boom during World War II wasn't without its superstitious skaters. Canadian Champion Norah McCarthy, who toured with the Ice Follies, wouldn't take the ice unless she was wearing her lucky yellow anklets. Backstage at the Center Theatre, coffee was nowhere to be found. Freddie Trenkler, one of the ice clowns who starred in the show, recalled drinking coffee the first time he took a nasty spill and insisted that only tea was drank by the cast. Joan Hyldoft, who skated with Freddie at the Center Theatre, had a bad habit of whistling in the dressing room. Her Irish dresser, Kitty, would send her outside and make her say two curse words before she would let her back in... to drive away the bad luck.

In 1946, Patricia Molony, the first Australian woman to compete at the World Championships, wouldn't take the ice unless she was wearing a bracelet of Australian charms and a New Zealand tiki. She always wore the same red socks (inside out) in her boots and - like Cecilia Colledge and Daphne Walker nearly a decade prior - considered green her lucky colour, wearing it for both figures and free skating when she competed.

Barbara Ann Scott and Sheldon Galbraith. Photo courtesy Library And Archives Canada.

Some believed that Barbara Ann Scott's appearance on the cover of "Time" magazine on February 2, 1948 would 'jinx' the young skater's chances at the Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, but the Canadian darling proved them wrong when she won Canada's first Olympic gold medal in figure skating. Barbara Ann was one of the most superstitious skaters in history. She thought it was bad luck to whistle in the dressing room and to place skates anywhere but on the floor when they were not in use. She had a lucky stuffed koala bear named Junior and some ivory elephant figurines she took everywhere with her. Her mother also bought her a good luck gnome in Stockholm, which she described as a "little carved wooden man, the ugliest little man I've ever seen, with a great long nose and a funny little hat on." She too considered green her lucky colour. In her book "Skate With Me", she recalled, "I have, I think some reason for being superstitious about the number five, because several times when I was growing up I came in fifth in a competition the first year I entered and then, the next time the competition was held, went back and came in first. And I like to draw the number thirteen, because I think that is lucky for me. My armband at the Olympic Games was Number 13 and I skated on Friday the 13th in the World Championships in '48."

Two time Olympic Gold Medallist Dick Button had a miniature gold skate pin that he wore in every competition. It was given to him after he won the U.S. novice title in 1944 and every time he achieved a new milestone in his career, his father had a diamond added. Olympic Silver Medallists Karol and Peter Kennedy became superstitious after a black cat crossed their path on the way to their rink when they won the 1951 World Championships. Olympic Gold Medallist Barbara Wagner was superstitious about the number thirteen. An article that appeared in "Imperial Oil" magazine in October 1957 noted, "When she started school, she came home with a 13 for her mother to sew inside her coat and she graduated from St. Clement's girls' school last June 13. In most competitions she manages to find a 13 either on a hotel room or a street number. Always on the watch for her lucky number, Barbara was happy when she found out she had been assigned no. 58 in the World Championships in Colorado Springs. 'After all,' she points out, 'eight and five make 13, don't they?'"

Maribel Vinson Owen's daughter 'Little Maribel' won the U.S. pairs title in 1961 with Dudley Richards and perished in the Sabena Crash shortly thereafter. She carried a silver four leaf clover with her wherever she went.

Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill

Olympic Gold Medallists Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill had more than the same coach in common. They both tied their left skate first. One of Dorothy's competition rituals involved setting up a collection of stuffed animals on the boards when she competed in school figures - a koala, a troll and a monkey. After the figures at 1976 World Championships, her good luck charms disappeared. She took it as a sign her childhood was over.

Toller Cranston. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library.

During his competitive career, Toller Cranston was obsessed with numbers, believing for instance that if the went through a ticket wicket at an airport numbered five, he'd end up fifth at his next competition. In his book "When Hell Freezes Over", he recalled, "Throughout my skating life, I was haunted by the frightening sense that everything I did - how I got on the ice, my numerical starting position, the colour of my costume, the way I laced my skates - was fraught with earth-shattering importance. If I made the wrong choice, everything would blow up in my face. I was tap dancing on a volcano. One wrong tap might activate the lava flow." In 1986, he changed hotel rooms in Paris because the first room number "didn't add up to the right number." He also had a lucky costume he used for ten years and once quipped, "In a pinch, I will always go to that costume. I swear it jumps by itself and never falls down."

Robin Cousins had a four leaf cover sellotaped to his skate bag, given to him by a fan at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. John Curry and Dorothy Hamill were also both given one at the same time. Tai Babilonia has long worn a lucky crescent moon pendant given to her by Stevie Nicks. She received it in the mail a month before the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, and wore it every day leading up to the pairs competition. Concerned it may become unfastened during her performance with Randy Gardner, coach John Nicks asked her to take it off. That same day, bad luck befell the pair and they were forced to withdraw due to Randy's groin injury.

Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean

For years, Jayne Torvill always wore the same pair of socks in every major competition. After they became so disintegrated she couldn't wear them anymore, she continued to carry them around with her. Christopher Dean had a pair of lucky pants... and a thing about skate guards. He always placed he and Jayne's guards parallel on the boards and would keep watch to make sure no one disturbed them.

Katarina Witt needed Jutta Müller to pat her on the back of the hand before she skated. She also had three stuffed animals given to her by friends that she carried in her skate bag for good luck. One was an angel. In her book "Only With Passion", she explained, "The angel always had to lose both of its wings every season. One of the wings had to come off at the European Championships, and the other wing had to come off at Worlds. Believe me, in an Olympic year we had a dilemma: three competitions and only two years. Then every year I sent the angel to be repaired so the wings could be ready to fall off the next year. It was tricky, because my therapist wasn't allowed to pull the wings off. They had to fall off by themselves, with a little encouragement. She had to be rough on the angel, to loosen the wings, but not too rough."

Liz Manley always had a superstition about cleaning and organizing before any competition. Even at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, when she was sick as a dog, she did all of her laundry and tidied her room as if she'd never been there before going out to perform the free skate of her life.
Brian Boitano would carry a bent nail from the stage at the San Francisco in his skate bag for good luck. Brian Orser wouldn't allow family members attending his competitions to sit together. He would always put his left skate on first and had to have a walk before he competed. He kept a certain stuffed animal in his skate bag for ten years, given to him by a skater who he helped pass a dance test. He also believed it was a good omen if a friend from Orillia showed up at the last minute and let him know he was in town.

Kurt Browning carrying the Canadian flag. Photo courtesy Library And Archives Canada.

There was a superstition in the nineties that Canadian athletes who served as flag bearers at the Olympic Games were jinxing themselves in their quest for medals. In 1992, decathlete Michael Smith was forced to withdraw from the Summer Olympics in Barcelona due to injury, and Kurt Browning - who was flag bearer at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer  - finished off the podium. At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Charmaine Crooks placed a disappointing eighteenth in the 800 meters. Ironically, Kurt was actually the only Canadian figure skater in history who served as flag bearer at the Olympics and didn't win a medal. The honour proved to be a good luck charm for Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Brian Orser, Karen Magnussen, Bob Paul and Norris Bowden.

Michelle Kwan wearing her lucky necklace

Kurt Browning's good luck charm was a pair of skate guard covers. Elvis Stojko's was a necklace given to him by his mother, with a charm added by his aunt and uncle. On one side of the charm was the Olympic logo, on the other it read "Elvis, you're number one!" Fellow nineties stars Michelle Kwan and Jennifer Robinson also had lucky necklaces. Jennifer's had a photo of her future husband inside, and Michelle's was a dragon necklace with special family significance. Tara Lipinski always would step on ice with right foot first; Oksana Baiul her left. Both skaters won gold medals in the nineties in their first trips to the Winter Olympics. Oksana claimed her lucky number was three, and that was the number she drew in her group's starting order in the women's free skate at the 1994 Winter Olympics.

Since 2000, skaters haven't let up a bit in their superstitions. Evgeni Plushenko never shaved on the days he competed. Irina Lobacheva had a doll she'd put on the boards while competing. Joannie Rochette's mother would always put a prayer necklace in her skate bag. Jamie Salé put her left skate on first and would take off her lucky necklace, touch it and say a little prayer before she competed. Sasha Cohen had to be first on the ice for every warm-up. Marina Anissina wouldn't take the ice without a cross made by partner Gwendal Peizerat's grandmother around her neck. Yuna Kim always wore a rosary ring. She forgot to bring it to the 2010 World Championships, and went out and bought one just for the competition. Scott Moir often wore new socks for every event and Tessa Virtue would always sit her water bottle on the same place on the boards. Barbara Fusar-Poli always put her blades in the same position in the dressing room to dry. In a March 23, 2001 article in "The Province", Maurizio Margaglio was vague about his superstitions, only revealing he always tied his skates the same way before every performance. He joked, "We have [superstitions], of course - every skater has... I think it's psychological, and in Italy, we have a little bit of superstitions. But I'm not taking red peppers in my pocket or anything like that."

Skaters competing today aren't any less superstitious. Nathan and Karen Chen are both members of the 'left skate first' club, Kaetlyn Osmond has to have a glass of orange juice before she takes the ice and Yuzuru Hanyu's famous lucky Pooh Bear almost pales in comparison to his elaborate pre-competition rituals. Whether an attempt to ward off bad luck or bring good luck from the Skate Gods, the rituals of skaters serve as reminders that no matter how hard you train, the ice is slippery... and a little bit of superstition isn't always a bad thing.

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