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culture

Historicist: “Room At The Top”

An Oshawa native scores the men's world figure skating championship by landing the sport's first triple lutz.

At centre ice, waiting for his music cue, Donald Jackson took a deep breath and mentally prepared himself for his figure skating routine. A standing-room-only crowd of over 18,000 spectators at Prague’s Julius Fučík Sports Hall looked on and ABC-TV cameras captured the action of the 1962 World Figure Skating Championships for a North American audience.

Going into this, the free skating program, the 22-year-old Oshawa native trailed 45.8 points behind the leader, hometown favourite and Olympic silver medallist Karol Divin. The Czechoslovakian had already skated that evening—March 15, 1962—and done well enough that his victory seemed all but assured.

As quoted in George Gross’ Donald Jackson: King of Blades (Queen City Publishing, 1977), sportscaster Jim McKay explained the situation to television viewers at home:

Karol Divin is leading. If Jackson can give one of the great performances, well, I should say of all time, he can win—otherwise he cannot. As a matter of fact, looking at our unofficial figures here, it looks as if Jackson would have to have marks of either 5.9 or 6.0, which is perfection, from almost every judge in order to have even a chance of catching Divin. It’s almost impossible.

Knowing that even a brilliant performance might not be enough to make up the deficit and become the first Canadian to win the men’s world figure skating title, Jackson planned to cap it with a perfectly executed triple lutz—a jump that had never been seen in a competition anywhere.

Shortly before, just after a warm-up skate, coach Sheldon Galbraith joined his skating star in the locker room. He found Jackson riveted to flickering images on the locker room wall from a miniature eight-millimetre projector, film of his previous performances of this day’s routine. Silently, he worked through the timing and movement of each element of the routine in his head. Today’s skate would be the culmination of all his years of experience as a competitive skater.

Donald Jackson had gotten interested in figure skating as a child after being impressed by Don Tobin, whom the family had seen star in the Barbara Ann Scott Skating Show at Maple Leaf Gardens. As an eight-year-old, he was enrolled in lessons at the Oshawa Skating Club. With group and private lessons, his talent was recognized early and fostered. Oshawa coach and former international champion for Hungary, Ede Király, who started working with a 10-year-old Jackson, was convinced his pupil could achieve international success. (Above left: cover image of George Gross’ Donald Jackson: King of Blades [Queen City Publishing, 1977].)

Jackson was precociously talented and a quick study. He would watch closely as the coach demonstrated a move, visualize it, and replicate the movement almost immediately. He quickly learned the jumps that Király taught him. Although his expressive talent and athleticism were undeniable, he struggled initially to pass school figures exams necessary to step up to national and international-level competitions. This forced him to concentrate on skating fundamentals.

Once, when the cost of summer tutoring proved too great for the blue-collar Jackson family, Király volunteered to donate his time to not lose his star pupil. In the 1950s, when Jackson was a teenager, his parents George and Pat made only $60 and $45 a week respectively. But elite competition meant travelling to competitions. At one point, Jackson’s mother’s entire salary went to covering skating expenses; then, they exceeded even that.

After Jackson was almost lured to Britain in 1954 to train under famed coach Arnold Gerschwiler, Canadian skating officials eager to keep a promising skater in his home country organized sponsors to ease the financial strain on the family. Jackson billeted with an Ottawa family during high school to receive world-class coaching from Otto Gold at the Ottawa Minto Club.

Gold drilled and drilled Jackson to improve his figures and footwork. And he stressed improving strength and conditioning to enable Jackson to skate faster and jump higher. “The devil-may-care attitude that [Jackson] projected also made his jumps appear even more spectacular,” Gross proclaimed. Always a hard-worker and driven to succeed, Jackson won the Canadian Junior Men’s Championship in January 1955, and his future promise seemed limitless. (Above: Jim Bishop of CKLB interviewing Don Jackson, ca. 1960. Photo from the Oshawa Community Museum and Archives.)

But the serious dedication to skating required sacrifice. Between training and competitions, plus summer camps in Cobourg, Stratford, and Lake Placid, Jackson rarely returned home to Oshawa for a month or more.

At 17, Jackson moved to New York City, living in the run-down Belvedere Hotel, to train under Pierre Brunet alongside other elite skaters like Alain Calmat and Alain Giletti, and members of the U.S. national team. Brunet drilled Jackson again and again so that he would have full control over his body movements at all time, and be able to execute each manoeuvre consistently each time. Brunet further tweaked Jackson’s skill-set according to his own area of expertise, as had each of Jackson’s coaches before. It is a credit to Jackson that he was able to integrate his predecessors’ guidance cohesively instead of leaving Jackson frustrated by a cacophony of conflicting directions.

Jackson won his first Canadian Senior Men’s Championship at Toronto’s Varsity Arena in 1959. He followed this up with the North American Championship the same winter and repeated as Canadian champ in February 1960 and January 1961. He took bronze at the Squaw Valley Olympics and finished a close second at the World Championships in 1959 and 1960.

It seemed that 1961 was destined to be the year he took the next step, atop the podium at the Worlds. But fate intervened in the form of a high fever just before he was to depart for the competition. Ordered to bed by doctors, Jackson had to miss his scheduled flight from New York City with the U.S. national team. That plane crashed near Brussels, killing all aboard. The 1961 World Championships were cancelled. And, now with no training partners, Jackson left New York for Toronto to train under Sheldon Galbraith.

On the eve of the free skating program at the 1962 World Championships in Prague, any observers would have to concede that, thus far, the competition had not gone well for Jackson. Although no longer part of mainstream figure skating competitions, school figures (or compulsory figures) were of great importance in 1962 and worth 60 per cent of total marks. Figures required each skater to carve specific loops and patterns in the ice as judges stood on the ice nearby, laboriously analyzing the movements’ form and dimensions. The first four would be skated on Wednesday March 14 with two more the following morning and then the five-minute free skating program—which captured the other 40 per cent of the marks—that same evening.

After sticking a close second to arch-rival and hometown favourite Karol Divin for the first three school figures, Jackson badly muffed the fourth. “I was moping. I was behaving like a baby, and showing poor sportsmanship,” Jackson later told Michael Prentice of the Ottawa Citizen (March 22, 1997). He was consoled by Calmat. “You know, Don,” his former training partner and friend said, “you’ve got another day. You can do it. You’ve got two more figures. You’ve got your free skating. Don’t worry.”

After a sleepless night, Jackson was joined on the bus to the rink the next morning by his coach. Seeking to distract his pupil from the previous day’s disappointment, Galbraith kept Jackson’s mind occupied with the mathematical scenarios that would enable him to win.

That morning, Jackson’s fifth and sixth figures were satisfactory but stood 45.8 points behind Divin, the leader. It seemed an insurmountable lead.

All week, Jackson and his coach had hummed and hawed about whether he needed the triple lutz to win, or whether a lesser jump should be substituted to avoid the risk of falling or injury. Now Jackson was certain he would include the jump in his program.

The triple lutz was, and remains, a difficult manoeuvre. Gliding backwards on the outside edge of one skate, the other’s toe-pick is planted to launch a jump of three full revolutions in counter-rotation to the skater’s direction of entry. To be perfect, it must be landed smoothly on a single foot. (At left, Globe and Mail; April 14, 1962.)

Jackson had been working on the difficult jump since his arrival in New York City at 17. Capable of great height in his jumps, thanks to Gold’s emphasis on strength and conditioning, Jackson began working enthusiastically on the triple lutz with Brunet, obsessively determined to be the first to attempt and to land one in competition. But the coach rightly recognized that a single trick, no matter how spectacular, could carry a whole five-minute performance, and wisely restrained Jackson’s single-minded pursuit by focusing on other aspects of his skating technique.

Jackson returned to the triple lutz in 1961 when he began training under Galbraith, who had been following the skater’s career for years. He further refined Jackson’s jumping technique and set about, Gross writes, developing “an explosive and unpredictable [free skating] routine that would keep judges and audiences alike on the edges of their seats.”

Like Brunet, Galbraith didn’t believe the triple lutz was essential to Jackson’s success, but he bent to the skater’s driving ambition and they worked on the jump throughout the summer of 1961—far enough away from the competitive season that if he injured himself, there’d be time to heal. Time and again, Jackson leapt and fell to the ice. But diligence paid off and he landed his first successful triple lutz and then three others before summer’s end. On the other hand, he also sprained his ankle a couple of times.

Toronto Star (February 20, 1962).

Through autumn and into early winter, he continued to practice until he landed smoothly almost every time—albeit by cheating on the landing by a quarter turn or landing on two feet. “I wasn’t falling when I tried it in practice,” he told the journalist Prentice, “and felt that, even if my landing was not perfect, I would not make a serious mistake.” He attempted a triple lutz at Varsity Arena for the Canadian Championship but again landed on two feet. He won the title anyway.

As the World Championships approached, the press hyped Jackson’s triple lutz ambition, referring to the jump as his “specialty” even though he’d only landed it five times out of several thousand attempts.

On the day of the free skate, Jackson had had a five-minute warm-up on the ice, stretching and loosening and getting a general sense of the condition of the ice. He casually attempted a triple lutz but shortened it in mid-air. But the texture of the ice felt good and later he claimed that he was entirely unworried about falling. “I figured I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying it in competition,” he later told the Star (April 3, 1962).

Waiting in the locker room, Jackson wasn’t interested in Divin’s free skate, nor in the front-runner’s scores, in order to not upset his mental preparation. A short time later, as Jackson awaited the imminent signal to take the ice, Jackson turned to his coach—who had watched Divin’s performance.

“Mr. Galbraith,” he asked, “is there a chance that I could pull up?” as Gross later described the scene. Knowing Jackson would need near flawless marks from the judges, Galbraith quietly responded: “Don, there’s room at the top.”

At centre ice, Jackson took a deep breath and composed himself. Then the first strains of music from the opera Carmen played, and his performance was underway. With spectators and TV commentators on the edge of their seats, Jackson landed a perfect triple lutz in the first 20 seconds of his routine. Gliding backward on his right foot in a counter-clockwise arc, Jackson launched off his left toe-pick, spun with height to spare.

His mother, sitting in the arena, had closed her eyes as he leapt. Then, as soon as his left foot touched down cleanly, the hushed arena crowd roared in a boisterous standing ovation, drowning out the music.

But there were still four and half minutes to go. In that time, he gracefully strung together 22 jumps along with spins and dazzling footwork—starting and stopping in time with the music. Czechoslovakian fans showed their appreciation of the flawless performance with a thunderous, 15-minute ovation—perhaps sensing, as Gross put it, “that what they had seen had been the greatest performance in skating history.”

When the judges’ marks were shown, Jackson scored an unprecedented seven perfect 6.0s. Once again the crowd erupted. But, out of respect for the skaters left to perform, he declined to return to the ice. Without the aid of modern computers, it was another half-hour before all the marks were calculated. In this interim—as Jackson told Mark Kearney of the Globe and Mail (March 13, 1982)—Divin told him: “Don, that’s the best skating I’ve ever seen and if I end up winning I’m going to give you the medal.”

Finally, it was announced that Jackson had indeed prevailed—with 2,277.1 points to Divin’s 2,205. He took his place atop the podium, the first Canadian crowned as men’s world champion. Then, he grinned for the press, posing on-ice with Divin and Calmat, the second and third-place finishers. Oshawa radio station CKLB called long distance to the hotel for an interview with the new champ—interrupted by Divin shouting praises into the telephone—and later called back so Jackson could speak with his father and brother back home.

Globe and Mail (March 16, 1962).

He finally arrived home in late March, after a brief exhibition tour of Europe with other champions. Seated atop a shiny convertible, Jackson was parade down Simcoe Street to City Hall before a crowd 15,000-strong. The Star (March 29, 1962) called it the “biggest celebration Oshawa ever has staged.” He was offered the car as a gift but, still an amateur, he had to refuse. He was awarded the Lou Marsh Award as the country’s top athlete, and was named the world sportsman of the year by the BBC.

An offer quickly arrived for Jackson to turn professional with Shipstad and Johnson’s Ice Follies. Jackson initially asserted: “I’d like stay on until the next Olympics in 1964.” But, given how expensive top-flight amateur figure skating had been for his family, the offer was impossible to refuse. He later explained to Prentice that some advisers felt that he would hurt his earning potential as a professional if he could never again match his 1962 World Championship performance. “I could have, and should have, stayed an amateur and gone to the Olympics,” he would admit to Prentice much later.

For the next seven years, he toured extensively as a professional, meeting his wife in the process. And later still, after being the subject of an NFB documentary, he became a coach and administrator at the Ottawa Minto Club and around the country well into his 70s.

Beverley Smith argued in the Globe and Mail (March 9, 1993), Jackson “did not land another [triple lutz] so perfectly again” because the arenas used for Ice Follies exhibitions were too small for him to gather the necessary speed. Nevertheless, the move was so identified with Jackson that Gross’ biography of the skater included a flip-book of his iconic jump in 1962.

Had he continued competitively, Jackson likely could have been an era-defining skater. His 1962 performance was so far ahead of its time that no one landed a triple lutz in international competition again for 12 years. Moreover, Galbraith had ambitious plans. “Four revolutions are next for Don,” the coach promised the Star (March 16, 1962) immediately after the 1962 event in anticipation of the 1964 Olympics. “We begin work on quadruple jumps as soon as he resumes training this summer.” Watching the 1962 lutz, Jackson certainly had height to spare. In his absence, no one would complete a quad in competition until the hey-day of Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko in the 1990s.

Additional sources consulted: Edmonton Journal (February 22, 1996); Globe and Mail (March 3, 1984); Ottawa Citizen (October 28, 2010); and Toronto Star (March 12, 1987).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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