The 1969 U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Schedule of events for the 1969 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Seattle, Washington
Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Tunics and polyester pants were all the rage, Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" topped the music charts and the very first Wendy's Restaurant opened in Columbus Ohio. With "one giant leap for mankind", 1969 was also the year of the Moon Landing, "Abbey Road" by The Beatles and the very first Woodstock festival.

Yet, from January 29 to February 1 at the Seattle Center Arena on 4th and Mercer in Seattle, Washington, the only thing any self-respecting American cared about were the results of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. The city had played host to the U.S. Championships twice previously at that point. In 1951, Dick Button had claimed his sixth U.S. title in Seattle and in 1960, Carol Heiss and David Jenkins each took their fourth. The faces may have been different in 1969, but the level of skating couldn't have been higher. Let's take a look back at how things played out!


Newspaper clipping from the 1969 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Seattle, Washington

Blizzard conditions caused poor attendance on the first days of the competition, when many of the novice and junior events were held. Eleven young men vied for the novice men's title, and two of the smallest prevailed. Los Angeles' Jimmy Demogines and Boston's Mahlon Bradley held the first two places in the school figures and managed to retain them overall after giving impressive free skating performances. In the novice women's event, a young Dorothy Hamill rose from sixth after figures to claim gold ahead of Juli McKinstry and the early leader, Sheri Thrapp of Burbank. In the junior men's event, Richard Ewell III landed a triple Salchow and Atoy Wilson attempted a rare double Walley, but it was John Baldwin of the Broadmoor Skating Club who came out on top despite two missed jumps in his free skate. The star of the junior women's event was Audrey King, who vaulted from eighth to third with a delightful free skating performance. However, it was Louise Vacca of Long Island's impressive free skate that clinched the title. The junior pairs event wasn't particularly well skated, but John Baldwin managed to win his second gold medal in Seattle with partner Jannat Thompson. Ten couples entered the Silver Dance competition. After six were eliminated in the initial round, it was Candace Johnstone and Bruce Bowland of the Essex Skating Club who were the unanimous winners of the title.


American figure skating champions Cynthia and Ron Kauffman
Cynthia and Ron Kauffman. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

"We are going to make this year one of our best performances," Cynthia Kauffman told Jane Tarbox. Cynthia and her brother Ron's commitment to skating was a challenge in the months leading up to the Nationals in Seattle. She'd been attending Griffin Murrfy Business College; he'd been on GI duty. Yet, they'd still found time to work with coach Ron Ludington as much as possible. When the Kauffman's missed their side-by-side double toe-loops in the compulsory program, JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley surprised many by taking the lead.

Video courtesy Frazer Ormondroyd

The tables turned in the free skate when Starbuck and Shelley dropped to second with two falls and the Kauffman's delivered a conservative but classy performance on their way to their fourth and final U.S. title in front of a hometown crowd. In "Skating" magazine, Lynn Thomas noted, "One bystander remarked that the Kauffman's performance was too beautiful to be interrupted by applause. That is the supreme compliment." Melissa and Mark Militano moved up from fifth after the compulsory program to take the bronze with an exciting free skate that featured a throw Axel and double Salchow.


American ice dancers Judy Schwomeyer and James Sladky
Judy Schwomeyer and James Sladky in Seattle. Photo courtesy Judy Sladky.

Eleven talented teams weaved their way through the Westminster Waltz, Quickstep, Blues and OSP but Judy Schwomeyer and James Sladky were in a class of their own. Though they were somewhat upstaged in the free dance by Anne and Harvey Millier, they decisively took their second U.S. Gold Dance title with unanimous first place marks from the five judges. Though they were third in the free dance, the Millier's remained in fifth place, behind Joan Bitterman and Brad Hislop, Debbie Gerken and Raymond Tiedemann and Debbie Ganson and Rollie Arthur. Bitterman, Hislop and Ganson all represented the host Seattle Skating Club, thus receiving generous applause from the large crowd who attended the free dance.

American ice dancers Judy Schwomeyer and James Sladky
Judy Schwomeyer and James Sladky. Photo courtesy Judy Sladky.

Recalling the rink in Seattle, Judy Sladky said, "I'm 4'10" and the board was so high I could barely see over it. I kept thinking, 'How could the judges possibly see your feet if they can't even see your head?'"


World Figure Skating Champion Tim Wood
Tim Wood

Tim Wood dominated the senior men's school figures from start to finish, even earning a 5.8 from one judge for his back paragraph bracket. In the free skate, Wood was pitted against John 'Misha' Petkevich, Gary Visconti and Kenneth Shelley. All four men had stellar reputations as outstanding free skaters, so needless to say, the audience in Seattle were riveted as each man came out and tried to outdo each other. In "Skating" magazine, Lynn Thomas recalled, "Tim... won the free skating, but the majority was not so clear. His program was excellently conceived with varied, imaginative footwork. The jumps were woven into the fabric of the routine, and Tim generated more excitement than he has in the past. As usual, five minutes seemed like a short time when J. Misha Petkevich was skating. His music and huge jumps generate excitement throughout, but his program may suffer from familiarity. His footwork was not as creative as Wood's; some steps were too repetitive. Gary Visconti skated with his usual energy, but his jumps were small compared to Wood's and Petkevich's. He seemed to be spending so much time selling the performance to the audience that he forgot about the actual skating. Kenneth Shelley and Roger Bass were the only other men to skate particularly well." Wood's victory in Seattle was unanimous. Petkevich defeated Visconti for the silver in the narrowest of three-two judging panel splits, and Shelley vaulted from seventh to fourth.


Everyone in Seattle was curious to see who Peggy Fleming's successor would be. Dawn Glab of the Arctic Blades Figure Skating Club managed a narrow lead over Tina Noyes, Julie Lynn Holmes and Janet Lynn in the senior women's school figures. Though she skated one of her best performances in the free skate, it simply didn't have the same technical content of the other three contenders. Noyes attempted a triple toe-loop - the same jump she'd missed the year prior at the Nationals in Philadelphia - and again floundered. Holmes skated beautifully, landing a rare double inside Axel, but was unable to best the ethereal Janet Lynn, who was competing for the first time in ten months.

U.S. Figure Skating Champion Janet Lynn Janet Lynn in Seattle
Janet Lynn in Seattle. Photo courtesy "Peace And Love" by Janet Lynn.

Janet Lynn had some small errors - a missed combination and a touch down on her triple toe-loop, but the overall package she presented drew well-deserved rave reviews. She took the gold medal, earning first place ordinals from three of the five judges. Judge E. Newbold Black IV gave his first place ordinal to Noyes, and the wife of former USFSA President John Shoemaker gave hers to Holmes. Dawn Glab finished fourth; Jennie Walsh of the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club ninth.

After the competition, a heartbroken Tina Noyes told a reporter, "Halfway through I started to get tight. I knew I had to relax, but my legs felt stiff. The music would fade inside me. I was blowing it, and I couldn't do anything about it... Skating has been everything for seven years. Oh, why did I let this get away?"

American skaters had an outstanding showing at that year's World Championships in Colorado Springs. Every single member of the team finished in the top ten at Worlds that year - an achievement that was truly a testament to the depth and talent in U.S. figure skating at that point in time.

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