Beyond Ice Castles: Fascinating Tales Of Visually Impaired Skaters

"We forgot about the flowers." That memorable line is one that is often repeated by long-time fans of figure skating when reminiscing about the 1978 film "Ice Castles", which told the story of a inspiring young visually impaired skater. 

Did you know that the real-life history of visually impaired skaters dates back over a hundred years before the concept for "Ice Castles" was even developed? If you want to learn about the fascinating history of visually impaired skaters, look no further than this general timeline of highlights.

1838 - One of the earliest accounts of a visually impaired skater appeared in the January 21, 1838 issue of the "London Dispatch": "On Tuesday evening last, a youth residing at Bennethorpe, near [Doncaster], and who has been blind from infancy, astonished a number of persons in Spring-gardens, by using a pair of skates on the ice with tolerable dexterity; at all events, with safety, as regarded his movements. The only guide he had was his stick, and we question whether he is not the first blind skater who has introduced himself to public notice."

Photograph of British Member of Parliament Henry Fawcett
Henry Fawcett, M.P.

1870 - Reverend W.J. Bain of Wellingborough recalled that British Member of Parliament Henry Fawcett skated "with such swiftness and energy that few could keep up with him." The "Cambridge Chronicle and Journal" noted, "Owing to the frost happening during the Christmas holidays, large numbers have been able to indulge of the enjoyment of skating, to say nothing of sliding and walking on the Cam, or watching the fun from the banks. The spectacle of a blind man skating is necessarily a rare one, but Prof. Fawcett might be seen disporting himself on the outside edge, guided by a man holding the other end of a stick which he grasped in one hand."

Engraving of American journalist Marvin R. Clark
Marvin R. Clark

1888 - Marvin R. Clark, one of the first American journalists to write prolifically about figure skating, lost his sight. With the help of a sighted boy, he continued to write articles about the sport.

1890's-1900's - Though turn of the century accounts from journals dedicated to the education of the visually impaired note that students in Stockholm often skated on ice, many schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century included roller - not ice - skating as part of their recreational therapy programs. In the early 1890's, the Royal Normal College for the Blind in Hereford began teaching students how to roller skate in its Fawcett Memorial Gymnasium. In 1895, sixteen year old Nellie Adams, a student at the school, made history by becoming the first woman (visually impaired or otherwise) to pass the Second Class test of the National Skating Association in roller skating. Ten years later, the Western Pennsylvanian Institution For The Blind installed a roller skating rink in their gymnasium as well. In 1911, a roller rink specifically for the visually impaired open in Berlin.

1896 - A doctor from Glasgow claimed to have seen "dozens of blind men skating together and never coming into collision, which... is more than can be said for their sight-possessing brethren."

1909 - One of the first schools for the visually impaired in North America to teach its students to ice skate was the Perkins Institution For The Blind in Massachusetts, which coincidentally was one of the first schools to boast an impressive library of Dickens' books in braille. Discussions had been had amongst the trustees of the school as early as 1897 about creating a skating pond but the school didn't ultimately take on the project until around 1909. In 1913, teacher Mary Esther Sawyer recalled, "Our six pairs of skates were resurrected from a two years' sleep in the schoolhouse attic, four more pairs were purchased, letters were hurriedly sent home asking for skates, with the result that five fortunate girls now have pairs of their own... In the fall of 1911, we had six girls who could skate a little, besides two fairly good skaters - the entering class giving us four more... By February 1, thirty-two girls were willing and anxious to try skates, clinging with deep devotion to their willing helpers. About half of these girls could be persuaded to leave their companions and seek help from a chair - no box at the opera being more in demand than our relic which the attic produced; the next stage before going absolutely alone is the 'broom or brush stage' - equally popular. Besides the thirty-two mentioned, eleven more girls have given up any assistance and go alone... thirteen more skate fairly well and eight more are very good skaters. January 25, 1912, two of the teachers took twelve girls for Jamaica Pond for an afternoon of skating, returning just in time for tea, after having had a glorious time; in fact, the girls all begged to stay longer and go without any supper."

Photograph of two visually impaired British soldiers skating with attendants at Regent's Park

1919 - The Blinded Soldiers and Sailors Care Committee in London organized skating outings for British soldiers who lost their sight during The Great War.

Photograph of Ian Fraser, Baron Fraser of Lonsdale, Member of Parliament
Ian Fraser, Baron Fraser of Lonsdale, Member of Parliament 

1929 - British Member of Parliament Captain Sir Ian Fraser of Lonsdale took up skating at the Westminster Ice Club. In March of 1929, he led a skating parade of visually impaired skaters at Regent's Park in London. Mr. W. Tovell, the general sports instructor at St. Dunstan's, recalled, "Our muster was 70, including Capt. Ian Fraser, M.P. and we all had a most enjoyable time. A large number of the 70 skated like experts, and there were no casualties."

Rudolph Henning, a resident at Kitchener's Huronia Hall, skating at Victoria Park in 1954
Rudolph Henning, a resident at Kitchener's Huronia Hall, skating at Victoria Park in 1954. Photo courtesy University Of Waterloo Library, Special Collections And Archives.

1940s - During World War II, there were several ice carnivals organized to raise funds for soldiers returning home who had lost their sight. One 1944 carnival in Australia - "Fantasy on Ice" - was organized by a blind man, Mr. John Murphy of St. Kilda, who worked with the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind. Mrs. Murray Fahnestock, a member of the Pittsburgh Figure Skating Club, organized a wartime skating program for a group of six visually impaired girl scouts who attended the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind. Though five of the young skaters were aided by guides, one determined young woman, Hilma Hawk, preferred to go solo.

Andra McLaughlin Kelly working with visually impaired skater Paul Legare in 1975
Andra McLaughlin Kelly and Paul Legare in 1975. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library.

1950s-1970s - Andra McLaughlin Kelly started teaching visually impaired skaters in 1959. In 1975, Andra, her daughter Casey and Pat Soanes began donating their time to teach skaters as part of the North York Parks and Recreation Department's blind skating program, then the only program for visually impaired skaters in Canada. 1957 U.S. Bronze Medallist Claralynn (Lewis) Barnes ran a similar program at the St. Petersburg Figure Skating Club in Florida in the sixties.

Margaret (Mitchell) Deering worked with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind to organize a similar program for students at the Jericho Hill School for the Blind at the Kerrisdale, Connaught, Capilano and Burnaby Figure Skating Clubs in British Columbia. The December 1970 issue of "Skating" magazine noted, "The course was so popular that now the classes have been incorporated into the physical education program of the Jericho Hill School. The attendance has grown to eighty-five, with more learning each year. The South-West Vancouver Optimists Club, of which [Henry] Deering is a charter member, supplies most of the transportation, all of the skates, laces, sharpening and pays for the ice time as well at the University of British Columbia Thunderbird Arena." Margaret Deering noted, "I had to forget my former methods of teaching and conceive an original approach. I started by letting them feel the skates and the picks and by putting their hands on the ice. They could tell it was cold and slippery and the youngest ones shivered. Instead of saying 'Watch me', I used their hands and moved them on the ice the way their feet should go, at the same time telling them, 'Your right foot does this. Your left foot does this.' I skated with my eyes closed to get the feel of their problems and found it hard to do! I showed them how to sit down on the ice, to stand up and how to fall relaxed. They gradually lost their feel of falling." Unlike many early teachers, McLaughlin Kelly and Deering didn't skate close to their students or hold their hand. They gave visually impaired skaters space and allowed them to use their senses of balance and sound to help guide their ways.

Margaret Deering skating with two of her students
Margaret Deering and two of her students. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

1968 - Visually impaired Stash Serafin took up figure skating in Pennsylvania. Working with coach Uschi Keszler during the 70s, Serafin developed into an excellent skater. For many years, he performed in The Vickie shows in Ontario produced by Andra McLaughlin Kelly. Vickie was an acronym for 'Visually Impaired Children's (Kids) Ice Extravaganza'.

1971 - The Blind Outdoor Leisure Development (BOLD) program in Aspen, Colorado organized a skating program. In conjunction with the Aspen Skating Club, visually impaired people of all ages learned the finer points of figure skating and ice dancing. Ron Barnett and Arthur Preusch Jr., the club's President, were among those who taught BOLD skaters.

Charles 'Lefty' Brinkman, John Eyemer and Arthur Preusch, Jr. skating at the Aspen Skating Club
Charles 'Lefty' Brinkman, John Eyemer and Arthur Preusch, Jr. at the Aspen Skating Club. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

1977 - Professional figure skater Elizabeth O'Donnell founded the Skating Association For The Blind And Handicapped/Spirited Athletes Bold At Heart (SABAH) in Buffalo, New York. Ten years later, the Hampshire Association of the Blind took to the ice during public sessions at England's new ice rink in Aldershot. Each skater was assigned their own seeing helper and a group of instructors were on hand to provide guidance. 

Movie poster for "Ice Castles"

1978 - "Ice Castles" is released, drawing considerable attention to programs for visually impaired skaters.

1980s - Though many visually skaters managed to succeed despite the odds, one skating judge wasn't so lucky. In her 1984 book "The BBC Book Of Skating", British journalist Sandra Stevenson recalled, "One long-serving West German judge was discovered to be almost blind. The revelation came when he was turned down for a driving license after failing his eye-test even wearing glasses." In this case, the old saying "the judges must be blind" was in fact true.

1988 - Three-time West German Champion Ferdinand Becherer was perhaps the first visually impaired skater to compete in the Winter Olympic Games. He placed ninth in the dance event at the 1988 Games in Calgary with his sister Antonia. Becherer had a glass eye, after suffering a serious injury in a car accident.

2010 - A remake of "Ice Castles", filmed in Halifax, was released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, introducing the story to a new generation of figure skaters.

2014 - Zoltán Kelemen, the eight time Romanian Champion, competed at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He lost sight in his right eye at the age of seven after an accident with an aerosol can. Doctors advised him against skating competitively as they were of the belief that it could endanger the sight in his left eye as well. He had to sign a waiver each season stating he was competing "on his own responsibility".

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