Tracey Wainman is one of the Canadian skating greats. She never won a world or Olympic title, she may no longer be a household name on a par with Kurt Browning, Joannie Rochette or Brian Orser, but she is a skater’s skater, a legend in her time and a true survivor. Twice Canadian champion, in 1981 and 1986, she holds the record as the youngest ever titlist: at the age of 13, she won the 1981 crown in Halifax. The previous year, at the age of 12, she stole the show at the 1980 World Figure Skating Championships in Dortmund, West Germany, where she finished 10th in the free skating, 14th overall, and earned a prolonged standing ovation from an adoring crowd – it was the stuff of A Star is Born. In 1981, she finished 10th at the World Championships, 1st at St Ivel Ice International, 1st at Skate Canada and was awarded the Athlete of the Year prize by the Canadian Press. Then came one of skating’s great downfalls, followed by a storybook comeback. After a five-year absence from the world stage, she regained her Canadian title at the 1986 Canadian Championships with an emotional, gripping performance to upset Elizabeth Manley, the defending champion, and capped her career with a 9th place finish at the 1986 World Championships in Geneva.
But titles and statistics and are not what made Tracey Wainman a star. It was the magical quality of her skating. She had flow, expressiveness and musicality, a sense of showmanship and ability to wear her heart on her sleeve. She radiated both joy and sadness, but showed a sense of humour too, rolling her eyes at the camera and wiggling her bum at the judges. David Wilson, the skating choreographer, once told me she had a “Judy Garland” charisma, an ability to “give herself to the audience”; he calls her one of his great inspirations. She was described as “Canada’s Janet Lynn” by Joanne McLeod, a prominent Canadian skating coach (Lynn was an ethereal American skater from the early 1970s who mesmerised audiences with her grace, serenity and artistry, but never won a World or Olympic title). “Some skaters smile with their face, Tracey has an ability to smile with her whole body,” said the choreographer Uschi Keszler in 1983. Toller Cranston, who used to skate with Wainman at the Toronto Cricket Skating & Curling Club, dubbed her “the Canadian diamond in the sky”. Ellen Burka, who coached both of them, once compared her to Margot Fonteyn.
Her forte was not triple jumps, although she did have a beautiful double axel and triple salchow, when they worked. Her technical prowess came from her speed, flow, attack and the quality of her edges. She jumped with a pointed toe in the air, had one of the best layback spins of the day (see YouTube of 1981 Worlds for an example) and possessed a “terrier-like energy”, according to one scribe. Like Toller Cranston, she had a very distinctive, tipped-forward entry to her triple salchow (her current pupil Alexandra Najarro shares the same trait) and had a flying camel that Dorothy Hamill would envy. She could express more with one hand-gesture or flick of the finger than many skaters could with their entire body. And her deep, flowing edges were a result of her expertise in compulsory figures: Ellen Burka said she was the best skater of figures she had ever seen (she finished 6th at the 1981 Worlds in figures at 13; at 18, she finished 5th at Worlds in figures but actually placed second in two of them).
That she retired at the relatively early age of 18 was disappointing for skating fans, but understandable for Wainman, who had endured a rollercoaster of a career, and had to re-learn her jumps at the age of 17. It was the classic child-star trajectory. Debbi Wilkes, the skating commentator, later said she had been a “sacrificial lamb”, after the Canadian Figure Skating Association (CFSA) sent her to the World Championships at the age of 12 and made her the sport’s poster child, heaping pressure and unrealistic expectations on her rather than nurturing her talent gradually; the media even declared her a favourite for the 1984 Olympic gold four years prematurely. “The CFSA took one of the best skaters this country has ever produced and destroyed her,” wrote Wilkes in her 1996 book, Ice Time. As her body changed, Wainman started to have trouble with her jumps, and lost her confidence. The CFSA withdrew her from international competitions and her motivation dropped. Her comeback, from 1984-1986, was a joy to watch, and one can only wish her career had gone on longer. Thankfully, she has gone on to success as a coach, so is continuing to contribute to the sport. These pages are designed to record the details of an incredible career, and pay tribute to a remarkable athlete, one who David Wilson once called “the unsung hero” of Canadian skating.
Material on this website © Hugh Graham