#Unearthed: I'm Just Going To Do My Best

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. This month's 'buried treasure' is an article called "I'm Just Going To Do My Best", which first appeared in the weekly "Canadian Magazine" on February 7, 1972. Penned by late journalist Douglas Sagi, the article chronicles the career of Karen Magnussen, who would win a silver medal at the Winter Olympic Games in Sapporo that year. Lots of interesting tidbits in this one!


The 16,750 seats in the Pacific Coliseum are empty. In the box where the visiting hockey team would sit, a girl's possum-skin coat is carelessly draped over the end of the bench. On the ice is the girl, Karen Magnussen, totally alone, chin down, tongue tight behind her teeth, willing her skates through the brackets, circles and loops of international figure skating.

She is an inch or so taller and much prettier than in 1968 when this magazine reported she was "short, moon-faced, cute but no knockout" in an article that also claimed she probably would become figure skating champion of the world. And 1972 is to be her year. First the Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, then, next month the world championships in Calgary. On April 4, Karen will be 20.

Dark blue eyes, blonde hair cut like a skull cap, a figure to draw double takes (and which she keeps formidable by skipping lunches despite a formidable daily expenditure of energy), muscular legs.

She has been skating in front of crowds since she was 7 and played a snowflake in a Vancouver winter carnival. Her father's parents are Norwegian and she remembers them telling her she was just like Sonja Henie, the Olympic skating and movie star. Karen never saw the late Miss Henie skate. She hasn't seen Barbara Ann Scott either. (Miss Scott won her Olympic title in 1948, four years before Karen was born.)

"I never looked at anyone and said, 'I wish I could skate like her'," says Karen. 'I've just gone out and skated my way."

Her mother Gloria, and coach Linda Brauckmann, have guided her, but never forced her. Mrs. Magnussen herself trained as a figure skating judge in the years Karen was becoming a world-class skater, but she has tried deliberately to avoid becoming a pushy skating mother. "So many of the mothers practically blow the kids' noses for them," says Karen. "Mine never has."

Gloria Magnussen has insisted that Karen, the eldest of three daughters, be something more than the family superstar. In the Magnussen house, this means Karen does practically all the cooking - pineapple chicken, homemade bread and exotic meatballs are specialities - and most of the grocery shopping. Mrs. Magnussen has also encouraged Karen to stay in school, and she has completed one term at Simon Fraser University. The university goal is a general arts degree, then a job in public relations.

An athlete needs something besides sport to provide balance in living, Karen says. Her housework and studies are a relief from the pressures and occasional boredom of the 30 hours a week she spends on the ice and additional time in jogging and physical training. A balanced athlete doesn't need to feel that the only goal is winning, she says.

"I believe it's wrong to go into a competition thinking you will win. The greatest ones who think they are the greatest don't win. I'm not expecting anything in the Olympics. I'm just going to do my best."

If skating were like other sports, Karen's best should be enough. But skating is a screwy complexity of athletics, art and human judgment. If skaters were judged simply on how well they skate, Karen might have been world champion in the Sixties. There were judges who thought she could outskate Petra Burka, the 1966 world champion. But skaters in international competition must also demonstrate that they can do the basic figure exercises that enable them to become expert skaters. Half the marks are given for free skating, the other half for doing compulsory figure movements - tracing repetitive patterns on ice with their skates. It's like insisting that pianists submit to judgment not only on how well they play, but also on how expertly they run through their scales and do their finger exercises.

In the world championships last year, the U.S. champion Janet Lynn and Karen both won more points for free skating that Austria's Beatrix Schuba and another American, Julie Holmes. Yet Miss Schuba won the title and Miss Holmes was second because they scored more heavily in the compulsory figures part of the judging.

The international judges have also been criticized for cliquishly ignoring skaters they haven't seen before - in order words, being prejudiced against newcomers, reasoning that experience at the world level is necessary to produce a true champion.

The judges may be right, but Karen was competing against her fellow Canadian, world champion Petra Burka in 1966 and showing well. Only 14, Karen placed fourth in Canada that year and came close to upsetting Miss Burka in free skating. But in the 1967 world championships in Vienna, she was just a kid from North Vancouver, somewhere in Canada. She placed twelfth.

Jim Proudfoot, sports columnist for the Toronto Daily Star, was not surprised: "Karen's due for disappointment, of course," Proudfoot had written before she competed internationally. "She's unknown at the international level and that means that the judges won't be taking her seriously. What she's got to do in these... competitions is not to win or even come close but to establish herself as one of the world's finest female skaters."

Proudfoot worried that Karen would find the international competitions unpleasant or discouraging. He needn't have. When Miss Schuba won at [Lyon], France last year, Karen went to the Austrian team's victory party, took Miss Schuba across the hall to where the rest of the Canadian skating contingent was grumbling about the judging, and declared: "Now, you are going to applaud the world champion."

Miss Schuba had been booed by skating fans at the [Lyon] Palais des Sports when the victory medal was presented to her. The fans thought that Karen or Miss Lynn, clearly the better free skaters, should have won.

"When they started booing I almost died," Karen says. "It was terrible sportsmanship. Trixi Schuba deserved to win. She'd done her best and won by the rules."

The rules were change in favour of free skaters like Karen, but not until the world championships of 1973. Then the classical figure exercises will be worth only 20 per cent of a skater's total marks instead of the present 50 per cent. Basic free skating exercises - some of the elementary jumps and spins - will be worth another 20 per cent. The remaining 60 per cent will be based on free skating - what people who watch skating go to see, and what skaters like to do best.

The changes will make it easier for Karen, but she wants to win this year, to prove that even under the old rules a skating artist is better than a technician.

At 9 a.m., an hour after her workout begins in the Pacific Coliseum, Karen has covered half the hockey rink with the classical figures. She pauses from time to time, head down, hands on hips, gliding backwards, searching for the flaws that judges might spot.

The figures must be done on one edge of one skate blade. The judges will get down on their hands and knees in competitions and check each line to make sure that it is single (a double line means the skater has slipped on to the bottom of the skate blade). Each figure must be traced at least three times - some are traced six times - and perfection is only one line on the ice.

Linda Brauckmann, Karen's coach, appears for the second hour of the work-out. Mrs. Brauckmann sticks with her pupil, making her go over and over the figures. A slender autocrat who chain-smokes cigarettes, Mrs. Brauckmann has been concentrating on building up a sense of self-discipline in Karen.

Mrs. Brauckmann is regarded by some skating coaches as a revolutionary - a designer of unique skating programs for the four-minute period of free skating in competitions. She admits she tries to be less rigid than other coaches. "I like to get close to the purity of skating. A lot of edges simply means skating - no stunts and tricks, just lots of long flowy movements."

Each world skater brings along to competitions her own music on a specially cut four-minute recording. Over the years, the music has tended to be heavily classical with full orchestration. Mrs. Brauckmann was among the first to select piano music for her skaters. "I used piano music because I liked it," she says. This year Karen will skate to four minutes of Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F.

"I love it," she says. "It's really gutsy. I have to be turned on by music. When I'm skating I listen to the power in it, and it moves me."

Not all skaters are good athletes, but Mrs. Brauckmann thinks they should be. A four-minute free skating routine does not require the exceptional endurance of an Olympic long-distance runner, and the compulsory figures part of skating requires little physical effort once the skills are mastered. But Linda Brauckmann thinks skaters owuld be much better equipped for the intense concentration that is necessary for both skating and figure routines if they were in better condition. "It's only a four-minute skate in competition, but there's no reason why it shouldn't be an all-out run like a four-minute mile. Karen should be in the same shape as a four-minute miler."

Quick to agree is Tom Walker, Simon Fraser football coach and a specialist in physical training. He's been helping Karen - specifically helping her to learn how to breathe more efficiently.

Endurance athletes can use more oxygen than sprinters. They can keep going longer than the others because they have trained their hearts and lungs to get more oxygen out of each breath of air. This training involves regularly stressing the heart and lungs to the limits of endurance, virtually to the point of exhaustion, recovering, and then repeating the stress.

It is not good enough if an athlete simply gets his heart beating fast and then stops, as sprinters do. Walker says the heart must be kept going hard - say 150 beats a minute - for several minutes before the heart musicle gets any value from the training. So, instead of her daily training program with a four-minute run-through of her free-skating program, Karen rests for a moment, then goes back on the ice for at least half an hour of hard endurance skating.

She goes to a laboratory at Simon Fraser four times a week for endurance runs on an Ergometer, which is a contraption something like an exercise bicycle with attachments to measure heart beat and breathing rate. She breathes into a mouthpiece connected to a box so researchers can measure the amount of oxygen she consumes with each breath. In figures, it is 47.6 millilitres of oxygen per minute for each kilogram of body weight, about 12 millilitres more than an average girl.

"That's not bad," says Walker. "An average Olympic athlete is in that range. A long-distance runner could be as high as 70 to 74 millilitres, maybe more. We're shooting for 60 millitres for Karen. That's about the same as a cross-country skier. She'll be up there in time for the Olympics, if she keeps following her program."

Karen's present physical condition is already quite pleasing to most observers, including, late in the morning, Babe Pratt, assistant to the vice-president of the National Hockey League Vancouver Canucks. He has emerged from the Canuck offices officially to check the ice before a team practice, but actually to watch Karen end her workout with a few minutes of free skating.

"Hi, Mr. Pratt. I'll be done in a minute."

"Take all the time you need - we're gonna be late getting on the ice anyway," says Pratt. "And the way this team's been going they should give up all their ice time for you." (That day, the Canucks were in the cellar.)

The Magnussen house on a crescent cut into a mountain on the north shore of Burrard Inlet is a happy place headed by a balding real estate agent named Alf. He is a man surrounded by women, and he enjoys it.

Gloria Magnussen admits she is more of a secretary to Karen than a mother, but her idea of raising daughters is to have them learn housework by doing it. Mrs. Magnussen therefore looks after Karen's mail - as many as 20 letters a day during skating season - Karen cooks; and her sisters, Lori, 16 and Judy, 14, do the other chores.

The younger girls both figure skated, much like Karen, says their mother, but they gave up competing and training. Lori and Judy were both as talented as Karen, Mrs. Magnussen says, but they lacked the determination to concentrate on the compulsory figures. She says Karen's drive, a combination of a desire to win and please her coaches and parents, is what sets her apart on the ice.

Alf Magnussen is a quiet man, successful in real estate, happy that he has been able to afford the maintenance of an international ice skater. (Most of the expense is in coaching lessons and travel expenses for Karen and Mrs. Brauckmann, and it has totalled thousands of dollars since 1967, the year Karen started international competitions.) He is concerned that there are girls of talent in less fortunate homes who will not get the chance that Karen has unless governments increase financial aid to amateur sports.

Karen is receiving some help. At the urging of the National Fitness and Amateur Spoirts Council in Ottawa, the Pacific National Exhibition has donated the use of the Coliseum - it means the cost of lighting the place for a couple of hours and flooding the ice when she's finished - but her training conditions are still not ideal.

"Hockey ice is hard - it's kept at a temperature lower than good figure skating ice," she says. "I can tell the difference. It's like being on concrete instead of a trampoline. It really is."

Apart from the bills, Karen's parents have been affected in other ways, particularly in 1969 when doctors discovered that severe pain in both of Karen's legs was caused by stress fractures - tiny hairline breaks - in the bones below her knees, the result of too much strain on bones that were too young to take it. Had the Magnussen's pushed Karen too hard? They concluded that they hadn't. Karen was skating because Karen wanted to skate. She sat out three months of competition in a wheel chair, both legs in casts. The decision to resume skating was hers and there was no doubt in her mind that she would be back.

Karen Magnussen at the 1970 World Championships

"There were rumours that I was giving up, that I couldn't take it any more, but I was skating again a few months later." And in 1970, a year after the mishap, she recaptured the Canadian championship she had first won in 1968.

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": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.