Figure Skating: From the Boards

Hidden Heroes – top 5 skating coaches September 18, 2010

Just pretend today’s Thursday…okay?

Okay. So, I know this is a terribly belated blog post, but as I mentioned on Twitter, I got hit pretty hard with a cold that has kept me pretty out of it since Wednesday. Thank you to those who expressed their concern. I’m getting there…it’s just taking me a while. But I finally feel like I can think clearly enough to write something intelligent, so I’m back. A few days late…but think of it this way – now you don’t have to wait so many days till the next post!

Oh, and I know I said I’d have a vlog with this post, but…this being sick thing has me all out of whack, so I promise, a video blog wouldn’t be my best idea tonight! So we’ll keep working on that for another post.

I have plenty of skating news to chat about, but before I get to that, I wanted to make a quick comment on an issue entirely unrelated to skating but directly related to my own sports broadcasting aspirations.

You may have heard this week about a situation with the New York Jets where a female reporter claimed she was treated poorly both on the field and in the locker room. This prompted an investigation that questioned the professionalism of the Jets players as well as of the reporter, Inez Sainz. If you’re not familiar with the story, the idea is, Sainz was treated inappropriately because she’s an attractive female who wasn’t taken seriously by the players.

Why am I talking about this reporter and a football team in a blog all about skating? Good question. I guess it matters to me, so I figure I’ll share it with you.

See, I have my own goals in the sports broadcasting world, and I’ve seen first hand how challenging it is to be taken seriously as a woman in the sports world – a “man’s world.” So when I started seeing the various reports and responses to this story with Sainz, naturally I formed my own opinion. I have to say, I was a little surprised by the reaction from some other female sports journalists/reporters, some claiming, essentially, that Sainz asked for it. Don’t get me wrong, the pictures on her website and the image she’s chosen to create for herself send a very different message than anything I’d choose for myself. However, she is still a media professional, and in a work situation, it’s unfortunate that she had to deal with inappropriate reactions to her presence.

That said, I also understand those who feel the story was blown out of proportion. I actually agree. I’m very much aware of the challenges I face as a woman in this industry, challenges that include occasionally uncomfortable situations. The fact is, it’s part of my job to figure out how to deal with those challenges, and to gain the respect of those I work with and for.

I won’t make a judgment about Sainz’s decision making as far as how she presents herself. I won’t make a judgment about what was done or said to her by the players (I wasn’t there…so that isn’t something I can decide). What I will say is, as females in this business, we have enough of a hill to climb that we don’t need to make it more difficult by establishing an image that contradicts the credibility we are trying to achieve. But we also should be afforded the respect any professional deserves, in the locker room, on the sideline or in the studio. Ladies – we can be more than a pretty face. Don’t let the stereotype keep you from pushing the boundary and respecting your self enough to demand the same respect from our peers.

No worries…that’s the end of my non-skating rant! Now on to the good stuff.

Since I finished my analysis of the skaters ranked on, I figured I’d change it up a bit and talk about the sometimes unsung heroes – the coaches. There are some amazing coaches in this business. Coaches in general are so inspirational to me. These are the people who take raw talent and turn it into greatness. They take physical skill and add mental strength.  They learn just the right thing to say to give their athletes confidence to succeed. And yet, when things go wrong, the coach is the first to go. They take on all that responsibility to help someone else win. So, here’s to all the great coaches out there, and here’s to a few specific coaches in skating. These are basically my top 5 – the coaches I think are making a big difference in skating right now. (This is in no way an exclusive list or the only top 5 there could be. It just happens to be my top 5.)

5. Tom Zakrajsek

The Broadmoor Skating Club coach in Colorado may not have reigning world or Olympic champs just yet, but he’s got quite the program going there in CO. He seems to have built up a great relationship not only between himself and his skaters, but between the skaters themselves. A lot of good things have come from the club in CO, and Zakrajsek has had a hand in several top U.S. skaters – formerly coaching Jeremy Abbott, now training Rachael Flatt, Ryan Bradley, Alexe Gilles, and Brandon Mroz…to name a few. He’s certainly got a good thing on his hands as those skaters move up the ranks.

4. Brian Orser

Despite the off-season drama surrounding Orser and Yu-Na Kim, there’s no denying he was the perfect coach for her leading up to her Olympic victory. His ability to communicate with his athletes and inspire confidence in them is such a powerful quality. Now that Kim has moved to LA, Orser still has some top prospects that can continue his growing legacy – Adam Rippon and Christina Gao (who just won the silver medal at the Junior Grand Prix in Austria this weekend!). I think Orser will rebound from the recent drama and I know I’m looking forward to what his skaters bring to the ice under his guidance.

3. Igor Shpilband

I believe it is thanks to Shpilband’s coaching team and the American duo of Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto that ice dance is what it is in N. American today. He has taken the new scoring system and run with it, taking his top skaters with him. Belbin and Agosto left him a few seasons back, but he still had the top two teams in the world in Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and Meryl Davis and Charlie White. There’s no denying that Shpilband made those two teams into the magnificent competitors they are. He’s pushed ice dance to the next level, and is creating something of a dynasty that’s looking to live on for a while to come.

2. Yao Bin

If we want to talk about single-handedly altering the course of a nations figure skating future, this is the man to talk about. His story is one for the history books – literally. From finishing dead last as a competitor to his determination to never let another Chinese pairs team feel that same embarrassment, he is the stuff of legends. Now, not only is his most beloved team the reigning Olympic champs, but his pairs program has pushed the discipline to whole new heights…literally. The technical elements are superior among all international teams, and now we’re starting to see new emotional and lyrical improvements as well. His teams may not win every event, but they’ll always be challenging for the top spot. And when they win, he wins. And it’s wonderful.

1. Frank Carroll

I suppose there is a slight chance this pick is a little bit biased. So many of my own personal favorite skaters have been coached by Carroll, but even without that fact in play, I think Frank is one of the greatest coaches of all time. He only has 1 Olympic champion, but the legacy he leaves with his athletes is far greater than even that 1 notorious win. Whether he was settling Michelle Kwan with words like “Undaunted courage” or teaching Mirai Nagasu by telling her she’s not allowed to cry at a competition, he, as Evan Lysacek has said, always knows the perfect thing to say to give his athletes the courage and the confidence to succeed. But not only does he teach them to succeed, he teaches them to do it right. He teaches sportsmanship, he teaches class. He makes sure his skaters understand the value of their fans, and the value of hard work. He love the sport and inspires the same love in his athletes. Mirai Nagasu has said she thinks he’s the best coach in the world…Mirai, I completely agree.

So, what do you think? Who’s your pick for best coach in the world? Comment here or tweet your response @fromtheboards. I’d love to know!

Maybe next time we’ll talk choreographers.

Until then…


6 Responses to “Hidden Heroes – top 5 skating coaches”

  1. Mary Crispin Says:

    Fun read! And all bias aside, I totally agree about Frank Carroll being the best of the best. He absolutely does teach his skaters how to be champions!

    Also agree with your initial premise re: women in a “man’s realm!” It’s not an easy hill to climb. I think you are honing your skills well. Go get ’em!!

  2. Ellen Says:

    ITA! Frank Carroll is a legendary coach, even BEFORE one of his prized athletes won the Olympic Gold medal!

    I’d also put on that list John Nicks and Carlo Fassi, who together, rebuilt the US figure skating team after the devastating loss from the 1961 crash.

    • You know, I had John Nicks in mind for this…but I decided that I was thinking more about the coaches who are most influential right now in skating. But you’re absolutely right, they deserve tons of credit for the work they’ve done for US skating!

  3. rinksidecafe Says:

    I’d leave out Tom Z from this list just because of the monstrosity called Rachael Flatt. In his place, I’d put Tatiana Tarasova, diva coach extraordinaire, who has put more people on World and Olympic podiums than anyone else. Tamara Moscovina should also be included or at least mentioned for coaching some of the most famous classic Russian pairs. Her choreography is lovely as well. Other honourable mentions: Machiko Yamada, Hiroshi Nagakubo and Shae-Lynne Bourne.

  4. […] was inspired by this post by From the Boards and thought that I’d compile my own list of top 5 coaches (and I’ll […]

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