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Tracey Wainman

Wainman was the favourite going into the competition, as she was by then something of a Canadian superstar. She appeared on the cover of Broadcast Week magazine on the weekend of the competition, and Beverley Smith of the Globe and Mail wrote she “is being pointed at a world medal” after winning two international competitions this year. And she had a realistic chance, given the poor performances at the 1982 Worlds in Cophenhagen, Denmark. Alas, it was not to be.

Wainman lost her title to Kay Thomson, a consistent but unexciting skater who was known for her excellent spins. Elizabeth Manley won the silver medal with some superlative free skating — she won both short and long programs, and her flawless long included a triple toe and salchow. Wainman flamed out spectacularly. She started off by winning the figures, but fell ill, and skated the short program while suffering from the stomach flu. She appeared deathly pale, and failed to smile: it looked as if she wasn’t even intending to attempt her double axel, just doing a wide-open single. She finished 4th in the short, dropping to second overall. In the long program, she appeared to be back to her perky, smiley self: she started brilliantly with a double axel and Johnny Esaw said, “This is the Tracey we know!” He spoke too soon though. She went on to fall on a triple salchow, a double axel (in a painful ‘waxel’-style fall) and again on a second triple salchow. Nearing the end of her program, she had very little technical content to show, so, in possibly the bravest move of her career, she threw in two double axels in a row, with only seconds to spare. It was particularly gutsy, considering this jump was her nemesis, and that she had already fallen three times. Her mother later said that the fact that she could pull two double axels out of a hat when she needed to proved that her problem with that jump was psychological, and had nothing to do with a growth spurt. Wainman said she added the second one “to prove that I could do it”. She also noted that she had been training well leading up to Nationals, and thought that her bad long program was due to fatigue following her illness.

After finishing 3rd, Wainman was left off the World team. It was a shocking turn of events. In hindsight, it isn’t surprising: Manley was a superb jumper and thoroughly deserved to go to the Worlds, and Thomson had won fair and square, even though she didn’t attempt any triples. But at the time Wainman was a bit of a rock star in the skating world, deemed a future world champion, and seemed to be adored by judges and fans alike. She cried behind a curtain before the medal ceremony and said “I’ll have to fight that much harder to get my title back”. She later admitted she found it very hard to have to stay at home and watch Worlds on TV, after training hard for it, and then suddenly finding her season was over prematurely.

I saw her perform once more that season, at a Bursary Awards exhibition that was televised. She skated to Ben by Michael Jackson and landed a double axel. Everyone was hoping she was on the verge of a comeback — she had been selected to appear at St Ivel and Ennia Challenge Cup in the fall — but she was about to enter a very dark period.

Here’s her LP:

Tracey Wainman completed one of the most remarkable comebacks in Canadian figure skating history when she captured the national title in North Bay in February 1986. At the age of 18, she recaptured the title she had won in 1981 at the age of 13, when she became the youngest champion in history, a record that still stands. The victory also set a record for the longest gap between titles, five years. And she upset Elizabeth Manley, then ranked 9th in the World, and about to make a name for herself as one of the world’s best free skaters. What is more, her performances were flawless and emotional.

She won the figures, and then skated a clean short program to Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Wainman looked relaxed indeed — you could tell she loved skating to rebellious (for skating), edgy music. Her double axel-double loop was effortless, and the jazz hands were fabulous, as was the funky-chicken dance on the tips of her toes. It was so satisfying to see Wainman mature into a brilliant artist but also a powerful athlete — the trademark speed was still enthralling audiences, who lapped up this program. She finished 2nd in the short to Manley, who landed a triple salchow-double loop combination, but was still in 2nd place overall.

In the long program, Manley skated well but had flaws in all three of her triples: lutz, toe and salchow. She put her hand down or stepped out of all of them. The door was open for Wainman, but nobody in her entourage told her. She later said they stayed silent — a wise move. Wainman’s long program was one of the great performances of Canadian ladies skating. I don’t mean jump-wise, I mean performance-wise. It just sang. The flow, the steps, the interpretation, the hand movements, the footwork, the charisma, the comedy, the sadness. It brought everyone in the building into the performance, as Brian Pockar remarked. The choreographer David Wilson later said “she gave herself to the audience”, and she really did: this was Judy Garland on skates.

She landed two big double axels, and one triple salchow. Towards the end, anxious to skate a clean program, she changed a third planned double axel into a double flip. Wainman later said that Ellen Burka had put about six double axels into her practice routine to get her over the psychological block about the jump (she also sent her to a self-hypnotist). The audience reaction was ecstatic, and the commentators were all choked up too. But the marks for technical merit were in the 5.4-5.5 range. The artistic marks, however, were in the 5.8s and 5.9s, and Wainman won the long and the title, in a 5-4 split.

Afterwards, Elizabeth Manley’s people were less than gracious, saying they thought she should have won, and sniping that Wainman’s “one triple salchow won’t go very far at the Worlds”. But this victory was fair. Wainman’s technical marks were lower than Manley’s, even though Manley didn’t land any clean triples. Where Wainman won was on the artistic portion, and that was correct. True, Manley went on to become a legend, with her 1988 Olympic silver, and while she was a wonderful, complete skater — possibly Canada’s best ever woman free skater, with the whole package — Wainman was stronger artistically. In a way, Wainman’s victory here did Manley a favour — it prompted her to work even harder, and Manley skated one of the great long programs in figure skating history at the 1986 Worlds in Geneva the following month.

Here are her SP and LP

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

Wainman burst onto the skating scene in 1978, at the age of 10, when she won the long program in the Novice ladies division at the Canadian Figure Skating Championships in Victoria, BC, and finished 4th overall, climbing from 8th or 9th in figures. She appeared on the front page of The Globe and Mail sports section, and was chosen to represent Canada at the 1978 World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Megeve, France. The CFSA were impressed with her powerful stroking, soft knees, speed and sparkle: she skated with the maturity of a senior woman, yet was only 4ft tall. One reporter wrote that her double axel was “shaky”, and that she was working on a triple salchow. Articles appeared in The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star. One journalist wrote something like, “She’s short and sassy, but only time will tell if she’s the next Dorothy Hamill.”

In March, at the 1978 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, Wainman finished 6th. Her placements, from memory, were 14th in figures, and 5th in the short and long programs. The competition was won by Jill Sawyer of the United States (a big junior star who was one of the first female skaters to land a triple lutz), the silver medalist was Russia’s Kira Ivanova, who would go on to win the Olympic bronze medal in Sarajevo in 1984 and silver at the 1985 Worlds in Tokyo. Kevin Marshall, a British men’s skater who competed at this event, once told me that Wainman was the first skater he ever saw do a double lutz-double lutz sequence.