1980 World Figure Skating Championships

Tracey Wainman finished 10th at the 1981 World Figure Skating Championships in Hartford, Connecticut, the first time a Canadian woman had placed in the top 10 since Lynn Nightingale in 1977. Tenth place was the goal she had set with her coach, Ellen Burka. It was also the goal of the Canadian Figure Skating Association, because they wanted to be able to send two women to the 1982 World Championships. Wainman has said that she felt pressure to finish in the top 10. So the competition was a triumph, and an improvement on her 14th place the previous year. But it was a nail-biter of a competition for her, and the first sign of trouble in her glowing career.

The trouble came in the form of the double axel. Until then, it had been her go-to jump: in the absence of multiple triples, she beefed up her technical content by including four double axels in her long program, and it was a beauty — and consistent. But sometime between the 1981 Canadians and the 1981 Worlds, in the space of six weeks or so, the jump seemed to desert her. In an interview she said that even before the 1981 Canadians, she was popping her double axel. In a high-pressure situation like the 1981 Worlds, the jump went AWOL.

She got off to a brilliant start by placing sixth in the compulsory figures, which was an unheard-of improvement — she had been 21st a year earlier at the previous Worlds in Dortmund. With her high placing in figures, officials hinted to the Globe and Mail that they hoped she might even finish in the top five. Skating in the final flight in the short program, among bigwigs like Swiss superstar Denise Biellman, and with all of Canada’s hopes on her shoulders, Wainman crumbled under the pressure, and fell on the double axel portion of her combination. She eked out her second double axel. She finished 15th in the short, and fell to 8th overall. Her long program, in which she placed 10th, was a great improvement. Her mother said that her warmup was terrible, and the whole arena was silent, they were so nervous for her. But she skated with fire, pulling off two beautiful triple salchows. Her double axel continued to trouble her, but she landed one at the beginning of her program, omitting the second and crashing spectacularly on the third, in a spill that made the whole arena gasp. It looked like she was trying to land the jump on the beat of the music; Debbi Wilkes said she rushed the takeoff; it was clear she was horribly outside the circle. Her fourth double axel attempt was aborted in mid-air and she did a two-foot single. But the program was strong, fast and exciting, with possibly one of the best laybacks of the 1980s, a gorgeous flying camel and that Wainman sense of urgency, attack and sparkle.

Wainman’s problems with the double axel were due to a growth spurt, Ellen Burka told the Toronto Star. She said Wainman had grown several inches in a year, and though it hadn’t affected the rotation of her jumps, it affected the timing of the takeoff on the double axel. Certainly at the Worlds you noticed she had changed her takeoff. Instead of skating at full speed and attacking it, she almost stopped before takeoff, a sign of hesitation.

There were certainly great expectations placed on her shoulders at this time. In the week before Worlds, she was deemed a future world and Olympic champion in a Toronto Star article by the respected journalist Jim Proudfoot, who predicted Wainman would be neck and neck with Elaine Zayak by the time of the 1984 Olympic Games in Sarajevo; for now, he wrote, she would try three or four triples in her long program, compared to Zayak’s seven. In the article, Burka cautioned against unrealistic expectations, saying 10th place was their goal, and she wanted to gently apply the brakes to her career before everyone got too carried away. She could perhaps sense trouble ahead. In another article in the Globe and Mail, it was revealed that Wainman’s boots had given out before Worlds, and they had to be repaired at the last minute. There was tension in the air.

The Globe article noted that Wainman had started landing triple loops in practice in the month before Worlds. Full disclosure here, I was taking skating lessons at the Cricket Club at the time, and I remember arriving one afternoon as the senior skaters were coming off their session to hear Ellen Burka excitedly telling Tracey’s mother, Gaye, that Tracey had landed three triple loops in practice. I also remember seeing Wainman attempting a triple toe loop in practice before Worlds, and landing on two feet.

After Worlds, I saw Wainman perform at the ISU World Tour stop at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. She tried a triple salchow and fell to one knee, and sort of hopped around on her double axel. At another exhibition, the Vicki Show, that spring, Wainman skated to Ben by Michael Jackson and squeaked out a scary-looking double axel. You could really sense the doubt in her confidence at that time. Wainman’s mother said that she heard someone at the Cricket Club say that Tracey was “finished without her double axel”. No pressure then.

Here are her 1981 Worlds SP and two versions of her LP, one without commentary and one from CTV.


Tracey Wainman stole the show at the 1980 World Figure Skating Championships in Dortmund, West Germany. Aged 12, she was the youngest competitor at the competition, and her sparkling long program (10th place) earned a thunderous standing ovation and marks as high as 5.6; she finished 14th overall, but won first place in terms of buzz in the skating world. Her performance prompted CTV’s Johnny Esaw to exclaim: “That’s the greatest debut I’ve seen by anyone, anywhere at any time”; the commentator compared it to the coming out of the elfin Russian gymnast Olga Korbut at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Robin Cousins, the 1980 Olympic Champion, told a reporter for The Toronto Star that “Canada has something special in its hands”; Wainman herself was mobbed by fans and reporters, and she was asked to perform with World and Olympic champions on the ISU international spring tour, a rare honour for non-medalists. And a British TV commentator said: “In Canada, they’re predicting big things from Tracey, hoping she’ll follow Barbara Ann Scott, Petra Burka and Karen Magnussen to the World title.”

Her long program was fast and furious, and featured a triple salchow and three double axels. She fell on a triple toe loop, the first time she had attempted it in competition, although she had been landing it in practice, according to the CTV commentator Debbi Wilkes. The most beautiful part of her program, however, was the slow section to Khatchaturian’s Lullaby from the Gayane Ballet. It was particularly expressive and mature for a 12-year-old; the combination of her heartfelt interpretation and the melancholy, dramatic music seemed to foreshadow turmoil to come in Wainman’s career, but there was a bit of comedy too, when Wainman sort of wiggled her bum at the judges in time with the music, and Johnny Esaw howled with laughter. He also exclaimed when Wainman’s mother, Gaye, waved to her daughter from the stands towards the end of the long. The applause at the end is rapturous and prolonged, with teddy bears and flowers strewn all over the ice; one can only imagine the complicated psychological consequences of having so much success, so fast. When your debut prompts mass adoration, how can you possibly top that feeling, and indeed live up to the expectations?

At this point in her career, Wainman’s free skating was pulling her up from low placements in figures. She finished 21st in the compulsories, and 17th in the short program after she stepped out of a double axel, so she stood 20th going into the long program. Her coach Ellen Burka had completely revamped Wainman’s short program after Canadians, changing the music and taking out the troublesome double axel-double loop combination; in Dortmund, Wainman performed a double lutz-double loop instead. In 1980, you could just about get away with doing an easier combination, but that innocent era was rapidly coming to an end. In fact, making their debut at the 1980 Worlds along with Wainman were Elaine Zayak, the American triple-jumping machine who would go on to win the 1982 Worlds, and Katarina Witt, the future East German superstar who, in those early days, was also a jumping bean.

Wainman’s success at Dortmund fuelled her celebrity, not that celebrity culture in 1980, or Canada, was particularly intense. As well as performing on the ISU tour, at venues such as Madison Square Gardens, she appeared on CTV’s Stars on Ice TV show (a weekly variety show, sort of a precursor to Dancing on Ice) and Front Page Challenge, and was on the cover of Canadian Skater magazine. See her 1980 Worlds and exhibition program below.

See what all the fuss was about, here’s her LP

And her SP

Queen’s Gala, London