There was a time, call it the Peggy Fleming era, when folks were a bit wary about calling figure skating a sport, what with all those balletic moves and gentle jumps off the ice. But no more. The new breed of skater is upon us, and many of them give the distinct impression that they have been secretly training for the high hurdles or on the trampoline. Nowhere was this more evident than at the national championships in Hartford, Conn. last weekend, where more than 100 young skaters fought it out and a few threatened to jump right out of the city's elegant new 9,100-seat Civic Center.
There was, at the top level, 16-year-old Linda Fratianne of Northridge, Calif., who won the Senior Ladies' title by doing all the old stuff as well as a couple of triple Salchows and double toe loops. And at the other extreme, the Novice Ladies' class, there were such comers as Jill Sawyer, 14, of Tacoma, Wash., who is not at all embarrassed when the spotlights reflect off the braces on her teeth and who is known as Hotdog Sawyer. A figure skater nicknamed Hotdog? That's what the sport has come to.
The meet did more than determine the new U.S. champions and, in effect, a successor to Dorothy Hamill, who has turned professional. The first three finishers in the principal classes made the U.S. team that will compete in the world championships in Tokyo next month. But, no matter how high the U.S. champs jump, they will be hard pressed to knock off the Europeans in Japan. For one thing, the Europeans also are on to the new athleticism and. for another, it is a fact of figure-skating life that world championships are passed around.
But a new U.S. style is abuilding right down the line to 60-pound, 9-year-old Kelly Webster of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, who had toted her good-luck charm—a big stuffed bear—to the nationals. Hotdog Sawyer needed the bear more, having twisted her right ankle before leaving Tacoma, just as she was poised to become the first woman competitor. Novice or otherwise, to uncork a triple lutz in national competition—a jump which calls for three revolutions in midair. Her coach, Kathy Casey, sent Sawyer from Hartford to Boston for treatment by Dr. Tenley Albright, the 1956 Olympic gold medalist, on the theory that nobody would know more about skating injuries. "Heaven help us all if the ankle is serious," said Casey, pointing out that Hotdog feels deprived if she can't jump out of her skin at least four hours a day. "I have to discipline her something fierce to get her to do her school figures," said Casey, "and a simple arm movement sometimes takes a month."
Meanwhile, in the more rarefied atmosphere surrounding the Senior Ladies, Fratianne, second in the nationals last year, was a strong favorite to take the title. But the Californian has about the same regard for the compulsory figures as Hotdog, and when that event was over, she had finished second to Barbie Smith, 18, of Denver, who beat her again in the short program.
"But don't count anybody out because of what happens in the early going," said Casey. "Short programs are confining—just required moves." She paused to watch as Sawyer's ankle was being taped by Dr. Albright, who had returned from Boston with her patient. "Fratianne is the best disciplined and conditioned," Casey said. "They all do triples nowadays, but Fratianne's are the best." Now Hotdog was ready and she skated gingerly onto the rink.
"Don't you baby that ankle," Casey warned. "Go ahead and try a double axel." Hotdog flew across the rink and leaped, whirled and landed perfectly. She grinned widely, braces shining. "That one didn't hurt at all," she said, and she was off again like a steeplechaser over the jumps.
Coach Carlo Fassi, the starmaker of the sport ( Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill, among others), stopped by to watch Hotdog tearing around the rink. He applauded her flying sit spin, noted the elevation of her jumps and told Casey, "She is very good. She should go on television, go to the European championships. She is ready for Senior Ladies right now." Fassi is ubiquitous, a man with clout; and he is celebrated for his ability to spot an Olympic and world champ at the first scratch of a blade on ice. And the fact that he had spotted Hotdog was not lost on Casey.
She has no illusions about the loyalty of skaters. "It goes on all the time," she said. "Sometimes a skater will be offered free lessons, or a skating club will offer to be a sponsor. Frequently, someone will offer to foot the bill if a skater will switch to a chosen coach; it's hard for up-and-coming skaters to resist such offers. It hurts a lot when it happens." Casey is well aware that Hotdog is special, but her family can't afford many of the extras that Casey would like the girl to have, more ballet training, for example. "I say to myself, 'Should I pay for her ballet? Should I teach her for nothing?' " Casey said. "And then I think, three years from now I may never see her again. Should I take a chance on that? You never know when you're going to get kicked in the teeth."
Casey thinks one reason so many people were pulling for Fratianne was that she had stuck with her original coach, Frank Carroll, turning aside a flood of offers. " Carroll is a super coach," said Casey.