Sunday, January 25, 2015

Farewell, Skate God :(

I was watching the Canadian figure skating championships on Saturday afternoon and glancing at my laptop as the broadcast resumed from a commercial break, when I heard veteran Canadian sports broadcaster Brian Williams utter the words "Toller Cranston... died... heart attack." Almost simultaneously, dh said, "Did you hear that? Toller Cranston's died."

I gasped & my hands flew to my mouth. It was a blow I wasn't prepared for.

Like millions of other little Canadian girls, I took figure skating lessons myself, from the time I was about 5 until I was about 13, and I started watching it on television (on the one TV channel we got, until about the time I was 14) around the time of the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. I've been an avid figure skating fan ever since then, for more than 40 years now. 

And while I loved Karen Magnussen, Canada's skating queen of the time, I was absolutely entranced by Toller Cranston, who was Canadian champion from 1971 to 1976, but whose impact on the sport extended well beyond Canada and well beyond his own skating days.  He was a revolutionary, an iconoclast, an artist, a true original. Viewed by today's standards, he mostly looks like any other figure skater (without the arsenal of triple and quadruple jumps), but at the time, the way he moved on the ice was entirely unique.  His influence can't be understated.

At the world level, he only ever won bronze in 1974 and a bronze at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria -- but (at a time when school figures were an important part of the overall mark -- and bloc judging was not unheard of) he won the free skating portion of the competition four times.

I saw Cranston skate live several times in his prime, including a champions tour after the 1975 world championships (in which he brought down the house and, for his final encore, did 10 consecutive soaring Russian split jumps) and, after his retirement from amateur competition in 1976, a memorable evening of theatre on ice with a handpicked company of fellow elite skaters, as well as a couple of other times with various skating shows in the 1980s & 1990s.

After he retired, he stayed active in the skating world as a choreographer & commentator, but focused increasingly on his other great love, painting. He was also the author of several books, including tell-all memoirs with titles that included "Zero Tollerance" and "When Hell Freezes Over, Shall I Bring My Skates?"  

Kurt Browning (another big favourite of mine) used to refer to his personal idol, Scott Hamilton, as "Skate God for Life." With apologies to Kurt & Scotty (whom I also loved as a skater), for me, there only ever was or will be one Skate God. In a dark, spangled bodysuit with a plunging neckline, long hair flowing in the breeze, running across the ice on his toe picks, vaulting into the air with a series of split jumps that out-Russianed the Russians, Toller Cranston was a commanding, mesmerizing, unfortgettable presence.

He was only 65.  :(  RIP.

Thankfully, some of Toller's programs have been enshrined on YouTube.  Below, his short and long programs from the 1976 Olympics, with commentary by Dick Button of ABC. "Kalynka," the folk music used midway through the long program, was a piece he often skated to & to me, is quintessential Toller.


  1. I'm surprised I don't remember him because he was cute!!

  2. Figure skating always seemed terribly exotic down in this part of the world. So I was entranced to hear you learned to skate - though of course, when I think about it I shouldn't really be surprised. I'm sorry you lost your Skate God, but glad there was someone who gave you such pleasure.

    It was however a nasty shock to realise that all those people I followed in the '72 and '76 Olympics (the first ones I was really aware of) are now in their 50s and 60s or older.

  3. @doubleme: He was also gay (or bisexual, at any rate). ;) But yes, he cut quite a figure out there.

    @Mali: I learned to skate on the proverbial backyard rink that my dad made for me -- wearing a pair of the neighbour boy's hockey skates and pushing a TV tray to help me keep my balance. I never advanced very far in figure skating, never did any competitions, just group lessons, but we always had fun doing a big group routine for the annual carnival. Sadly, I have not been on skates in more than 30 years. I feel like I could still do it, given the chance (& they do offer adult lessons at the local rink) -- but the fear of broken bones is much greater these days than I was in my teens & 20s...! Maybe some knee & elbow pads and a helmet...??

  4. I am not a big fan of figure skating, but I LOVE his art work! I have a limited edition print in my living room. So sad.