The 1981 Skate America Competition

Diana Ross and Lionel Richie's "Endless Love" topped the Billboard music charts, Ronald Reagan was America's new President and the latest fads were the Space Attackers watch and Monchhichi dolls. From October 5 to 11, 1981, some of the world's top figure skaters gathered at the Olympic Center Arena in Lake Placid, New York during the Columbus Day and Canadian Thanksgiving weekend vying for top honours at the 1981 Skate America competition.

Two years previous, Lake Placid had played host to Norton Skate, which historically has been considered 'the first Skate America'. After Norton Skate in 1979 and the Kennedy International Memorial Winter Games in 1970, the 1981 event was actually the third major international invitational event held in America, not counting the North American Championships. Prior to the event, there had been some talk about calling the event Flaming Leaves, but event publicity director Ed Lewi pushed for the name Skate America to give it more prestige.

Skaters from fifteen countries showed up in Lake Placid that October. Skate America posters and t-shirts were on sale in local stores and tickets ranged between four dollars and fifty cents and eight dollars and fifty cents. The Garden Club of Lake Placid took care of flowers, carefully recycling geraniums that had been used at a horse show and hospital dance that summer. Skaters from the North Country Council, which stretched from Watertown to Plattsburgh, came to help as runners and flower retrievers.

The Associated Press and United Press International newswires were in town, as were media representatives from Canada, Austria and Great Britain. A Russian-born skater from Lake Placid named Arthur Tripadush acted as an interpreter and escort to Soviet team. Despite an army of volunteers and excellent publicity, only half of the arena's eight thousand seats were filled for the pairs free skate and the attendance on the first day was far worse. The event was far from a flop though. The exhibition was nearly sold out and the USFSA's sale of rights to ABC for one hundred thousand dollars wiped out a deficit of at least forty thousand dollars. Let's take a look back at all the excitement!


Six pairs vied for gold in the pairs competition. In the short program, both Kitty and Peter Carruthers and Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini skated exceptionally well. All but one judge gave the nod to the Americans. Soviets Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev finished third and the second Canadian pair, seventeen year old Katherina Matousek and twenty three year old Eric Thomsen of New Westminster, British Columbia finished last after she fell on a required side-by-side double toe-loop.

The free skate, recently shortened from five to four and a half minutes by the ISU, was extremely well skated. Underhill and Martini and the Carruthers' again both skated near-flawless routines, but this time the scales tipped in favour of the Canadians, even though the Polish, Soviet and American judges had the Americans first. Valova and Vasiliev, skating to "Scheherazade", took the bronze. Lea-Ann Miller and Bill Fauver placed fourth, exciting the crowd with their trademark bucket lift and Axel/death spiral. Fifth place went to Maria DiDomenico and Burt Lancon, who skated to the soundtracks of recent films "Superman", "Other Side Of The Mountain" and "Raiders Of The Lost Ark". Matousek and Thomsen, unable to overcome their short program error, remained in sixth.


Twenty four year old Judy Blumberg and twenty one year old Michael Seibert were the heavy favourites in Lake Placid, but many thought Nathalie Hervé of Boulogne and Pierre Béchu of
Viry-Châtillon would be their biggest competition. The French couple, ranked eighth in the world, took themselves out of the running in the compulsory dances, which were won by Blumberg and Seibert. Twenty six year old Elena Garanina and twenty five year old Igor Zavozin of the Soviet Union were second ahead of the team ranked seventh in the world, Karen Barber and Nicky Slater of Altrincham.

In the Blues OSP, Blumberg and Seibert opted to restart their program after their music stopped early in their performance. Near the end of their second go at it, they took a nasty spill. At the time, Seibert was skating with torn ligaments in his left thumb and the fall only made matters worse. On the ice after their performance, Seibert took off the bandage on his thumb as it was turning blue from the pressure... and earned a standing ovation. Despite their uncharacteristic tumble, Blumberg and Seibert remained in first place entering the free dance. In fact, the standings barely moved an inch, as was the fashion in ice dance at the time.

In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On The Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves recalled, "In practice, Nicky Slater collided with Igor Zavozin from Leningrad, who towered over him. All of a sudden, they collided a second time. Igor patted Nicky on the head, and the two couples stayed at opposite ends of the rink."

Reprising their free dance from the year previous which began with "Big Noise From Winnetka", Blumberg and Seibert skated carefully but with precision and charm to glide to fold. Garanina and Zavozin's unique free dance made them favourites with a crowd, but they were penalized for separating half the width of the rink. In a three-two split of the judging panel, they earned the silver ahead of Barber and Slater. America's Elisa Spitz and Scott Gregory, France's Nathalie Hervé and Pierre Béchu, Canada's Joanne French and John Thomas, America's Nancy Berghoff and Jim Bowser, Canada's Donna Martini and John Coyne and Japan's Yumiko Kage and Yoshitaka Nakajima rounded out the nine team field.


Struggling on his third figure - the change loop - twenty three year old defending World Champion Scott Hamilton barely managed a win in the first phase of the men's event. He was suffering from tonsilitis at the time. West Germany's Rudi Cerne took second and Canada's Gary Beacom third. Three judges placed Beacom ahead of Hamilton in the change loop.

Robert Wagenhoffer and Brian Boitano, only eighth and seventh in figures, took the top two spots in the short program after Hamilton and Cerne fell on their flip combinations. However, after the marks were tallied neither was able to move up significantly in the overall standings. Scott Hamilton led the pack, Gary Beacom was second and Rudi Cerne and the Soviet Union's Konstantin Kokora were in a tie for third.

Scott Hamilton started to feel slightly better the afternoon before the free skate and delivered a creditable performance, missing two jumps but landing his triple Lutz. In contrast, Wagenhoffer and Boitano both skated brilliantly. In fact, Wagenhoffer received two 5.9's for artistic impression to Hamilton's one and earned a standing ovation. Based on his lead after the short, it was obvious to those in the know that he'd win the gold, but the silver and bronze were another story. Mary-Lucile Ager recalled, "The suspense was thick as the accountants struggled with the marks. It wasn't until the skaters took the podium the results were known. A thunderous cheer went up from the audience when Robert Wagenhoffer was announced as silver medallist and Boitano the bronze, giving the United States all three places." Rudi Cerne, Konstantin Kokora, Gary Beacom, Grzegorz Filipowski and Gordon Forbes rounded out the top eight. Forbes had been a last minute replacement for Brian Pockar, who had an appendectomy.


Ten days prior to the competition, seventeen year old Vikki de Vries of Colorado Springs had injured her knee in practice. She showed up in Lake Placid bruised and suffering from a cold, but you wouldn't have known it when she came out on the ice to skate her school figures. She placed a creditable second to unanimous winner Claudia Kristofics-Binder of Austria. The twenty year old from Vienna was ranked third in the world and was a specialist in figures. Reiko Kobayashi, a Japanese skater who was only ranked seventeenth in the world, finished third. Seventeen year old Kay Thomson of Toronto, the daughter of a foreman for an appliance manufacturer, was fourth. Sixteen year old Elaine Zayak, the reigning U.S. Champion and World Silver Medallist, finished fifth... one spot ahead of her future rival Rosalynn Sumners. Eighteen year old Kerry Smith of Calgary was eleventh out of fifteen entries.

Both Elaine Zayak and Vikki de Vries were successful at their attempts at the double flip/triple toe-loop combination in the short program. Of the variations possible for the required flip combination, it was the most difficult the women were attempting. Dinging Zayak for the quality of her footwork and spins, the judges gave the nod to de Vries. This moved her up to first entering the free skate, ahead of Kristofics-Binder and Zayak.

In practice, Elaine Zayak had been attempting the triple Axel. Vikki deVries told Beverley Smith, "I don't try it and it doesn't bother me that she does." While Zayak missed a triple Salchow and didn't perform as many triples as usual, she was the only woman in the event to the triple loop in the free skate, albeit shakily. Vikki de Vries skated a traditional program, but included an impressive three triple toe-loops, a triple Salchow and a double Axel. In only her second international competition, she took the gold medal. In the fight for silver, Zayak and Claudia Kristofics-Binder both had 5.8 points, but their tie was broken by the free skate where Kristofics-Binder had placed fourth. Rosalynn Sumners and Kay Thomson gave two of their best performances up to that point in the free skate, but settled for fourth and fifth. Kerry Smith remained in eleventh.

Nancie Battaglia photo of the women's medallists in Lake Placid from Christie Sausa's book "Lake Placid Figure Skating: A History". Used with permission.

At press conference, Zayak told reporters with a smile instead of a tear, "I know what I'm going to do... go home, really work on my figures and work very hard."

Scott Hamilton and the Soviets were the big hits in the exhibition gala. In a feisty performance, Valova threw her partner on the ice stomach first. Besides Hamilton, Garanina and Zavozin were the only skaters to perform three encores. In a bid to become the first skater in history to perform a quadruple jump, Wagenhoffer tried a toe-loop but fell.

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