By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – My sister, JoAnne, and I didn’t know squat about figure skating until she brought home from school this little paperback. amp”Golden Skates,amp” it was called, amp”The Story of Carol Heiss, Teenage Champion.amp”
We lived in the Florida Panhandle, after all, not Boston or Colorado Springs, and Hell would have frozen over before a pond for ice-skating did. We’d never even seen figure skating on the television; hadn’t had one long. None of that mattered once we discovered blond ice goddess Carol Heiss.
The book was full of black and white, growing-up photos of Olympic gold medalist Carol and her younger sister, Nancy. Their age difference was the same as ours, two and a half years, and it was easy to pretend we were Nancy and Carol, skating our way into America’s hearts. They had a brother on skates as well, but we didn’t bother with him.
Carol’s story was wonderful; she might have gone professional after a silver medal in 1957, but her mother, who had cancer, elicited a promise that Carol would keep competing until she won the gold.
Round and round the pink patio – that’s another story – JoAnne and I would glide, not an easy sport in socks, on concrete. We’d describe in infinite detail to one another our imaginary costumes: amp”I’m wearing a solid blue velvet dress with sequin buttons and a white fur collar.amp” It was 90 degrees in the shade, if there’d been any, but always we wore velvet with fur trim. Only our color schemes changed.
So immersed were we in pretend skating, our parents bought us skirts. Mine was a pleated brown wool plaid; JoAnne’s was black with red satin lining and bejeweled mock gloves as pockets. I was jealous for years.
I noticed a sign for the World Figure Skating Museum and Hall of Fame near the famous Broadmoor Hotel here. I had to go look for Carol. The museum was full of stars, but I knew the one I wanted to see. I paid scant attention to the Andy Warhol painting of Dorothy Hamill and big displays for Dick Button and Michelle Kwan.
I stopped for Sonja Henie only because she’s the vamp who liberated female skaters from those long, restricting dresses they wore before she swished onto the scene in the 1930s, liberator in white skates and short costumes. Sonja went on to a movie career, flashing her teeth and skates to great advantage.
It was 50 years ago last month that an airplane crashed in Belgium, killing 72 people, including 18 members of the U.S. figure skating team. The museum here remembered the tragedy with a tribute display and by adding all the skaters killed to its Hall of Fame.
Carol Heiss had retired the year before, in 1960, after winning Olympic gold in her mother’s memory. By then she had won five consecutive world titles. In 1961, when the plane with her friends and colleagues went down, she heard about it in a phone call late at night. That year she was appearing as the lead in her first and only Hollywood venture, amp”Snow White and the Three Stooges.amp”
When I got back to my computer, I searched for current photographs of Carol Heiss, a skating coach in Ohio. She’s still beautiful, if a photograph in USA Today can be believed. I’m so glad.
I’m not sure any of her proteges practiced any harder or were more devoted to her legend than a couple of skinny Panhandle urchins slicing through humidity and reality near Pensacola Bay.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.