Episode #10: David Santee

An interview with David Santee, two-time Olympian, World Silver Medalist, now Coach and Technical Specialist. 45 minutes, 28 seconds long.

Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On his most embarrassing skating moment: If you skate for as long as I have, there are many. I was at an ice show in Kansas City, and I had been there for several years as a featured skater, and it was right after I got the Rocky music, which of course became my signature. And we didn’t have time really to come up with a new costume, so we kind of made do, and created a costume of the proper colors based on Rocky I, which were red and white, from an old costume. And the old costume was from a Tony Orlando and Dawn number, for which I had white suspenders and a white bow tie and a straw hat and a red shirt. So we took off the suspenders and the bow tie, and had just the red shirt and the white pants. So I’m doing my number, and after you do a few ice shows you get a feel for what the audience is going to react [to], you know, like the death drop, and I had a pretty good death drop so I knew that the audience would react to that. So you’re used to that. And this one night in Kansas City, I started out, and I was landing jumps, and I wasn’t getting the normal reaction. It was kind of like, there was applause, but there was also a buzz. There was something that wasn’t right. So I finished the program with the death drop, got up, did a fast scratch spin, finished the program, and went to bow. And as I went to bow I noticed the zipper had broken, and the red shirt had come out through the white pants. So needless to say I didn’t stick around for the rest of the bows.

The funny part in retrospect is that the name of the show was That’s Entertainment, and the announcer on his script would say, “Now if you think that’s entertainment, let’s bring him back for more”. Well, by this time the crowd was completely in hysterics. And then they also decided that they were going to let people know that I was not coming out for an encore because of an “equipment problem” [which had been] very clearly noted by everyone in the audience [laughs]. And after the finale they let me come out and do my encore in black pants, which was just as embarrassing.

On some little-known facts about him: I played trumpet. And in 1975 I was Outstanding Teenager in Illinois, and I think I was top three in the country. That was pretty cool. They had an assembly at the end of the school year, and everybody else was getting these awards, and they announced this thing and it was almost an Emmy-like statue, so for one day I was like the king of this school with this statue [laughs].

David Santee with Agnes Zawadski

On being bullied in high school: One of the stories I like to tell is my freshman year, I was about 4’11”, 4’10”, and being a male figure skater, I used to get picked on by pretty much everybody, even the ones who were super small. They were small but I was even smaller, the smallest. So after my freshman year I grew about nine inches, and went back and found the guy who had really given me the hardest time. And I was now about five or six inches taller than him. I didn’t say anything other than “You remember me?” and he was like “Um, uh, yeah”. [And I said] “I’m the guy you picked on all last year, so don’t ever pick on me again”. No force, no nothing, but that was the end of that. The good part about that was maybe about five to six years ago, my older son was at the same school, and they asked me to speak for their homecoming. So I kind of gave that story in the speech, and I could see my son’s reaction –  he’s a late grower, too, he’s grown a bit in the last couple of years. He’s in college now but at that point he was one of the smaller ones in high school, and he thought that was great. And all of his friends thought it was great.

On what he learned about coaching from one of his earlier coaches: Rubin Huron, a very good coach, very good technically, but [he was] a very negative coach, which back in those days was more the norm. So a lot of things went on there, good and bad, which really formed my attitude in the way that I like to teach. I’m a very positive coach myself, because I feel like this is a hard enough sport that you don’t need to beat down people. And it should be fun. I think that most people that see our skaters at competitions say that these skaters are having fun, and that’s the way it should be.

On other skaters he admires: John Misha Petkevich was an idol of mine growing up, and he was a man’s man in figure skating, and to me, obviously with my younger son being a hockey player I tend to put things more in hockey terms, but he was the Bobby Hull of figure skating. He was a glamorous guy, his charisma was off the charts. To this day I think the he and Janet Lynn are the two people I have the ultimate respect for, and if I were to be in a room or at a cocktail party those would be the two people I would gravitate toward just because of what they meant not only to skating, but also to my personal skating.

On why he likes the music from Rocky so much: When the movie came out [in 1977] I didn’t watch it that much originally. I was at a competition in Milwaukee and seven or eight skaters went to watch it and I just went along. And at that point I had just had kind of battles with my own self-confidence. I just had never given myself credit for having the talent and stuff that I should have. And the light went on because the message of the first movie was that you don’t have to be first place to be a champion. He didn’t win the fight but he was a winner. And he was the underdog and he came from very humble beginnings to achieve greatness. I just really latched on to that. It was something that at that point in my skating career I needed something to really hang on it, and I found it. I find it very difficult to watch the movies, because it is very emotional for me.

Why he retired from competitive skating in 1982, in between Olympics: I was 24, and I’d had seven years on the world team, and seven years of being under the spotlight, under the microscope all the time. And I think after a while there’s only so much you can handle, and then it’s time to go on. It was not a done deal as far as being able to stay on past 1981. Even in 1980 the opportunity was there with me being fourth at Olympics and the top three all retired, so then it was, let’s try to win a world championship. And then in 1981 to be second and to be so close, to take one more year, it was worth it. But there was not much left in the tank emotionally. I had given so much in 1981 and 1980 both to achieve whatever goals I could achieve, to be the best skater I could be. But there just wasn’t much. It wasn’t like I didn’t train, but the intensity and the passion and stuff that had been there just wasn’t there. There’s no way I could have done two more years.

On being in John Curry’s skating company: It was a tremendous experience that I think I fell into. In 1981 Kenneth Feld [ice show producer] called me up, and he pretty much said, take it or leave it, this is the offer. Ice Capades, same thing. And I made the same decision in both situations. I didn’t feel like 50 weeks a year, different city each week. And I may have made the mistake of youth of saying I didn’t want to dress up in a Mickey Mouse costume [laughs]. In 1982, the John Curry company came about, and I remember thinking this isn’t something I would normally do. And as it turned out it was probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me, because it really taught me such a different side of skating. At the beginning I don’t think [John] knew what to make of me. I’m pretty sure that when they hired me, they hired me because of my name – I certainly didn’t fit into a dance company on ice with my style being Rocky on ice. So at the beginning I wasn’t really involved too much in group numbers. I was always just kind of standing around on the outside and did a couple of things but not too much. And we were supposed to do an exhibition and a couple of skaters came up sick. And John says, oh, we’re going to have to teach you the numbers. And I said, “I know them.” And he said, “What do you mean, you know them?” And I said,” I’ve been watching them the whole time. Put the music on.” And they put the music on and I did the number, and ever since then, we got on great. He always used to joke that I was like the batteries of the show, because I would come out and do these fast aggressive numbers like the Russian sailors dance, and then everybody else could be beautiful and graceful and all that [laughs].

On working as a TV commentator in the 1980s: At one point it was enjoyable, but it’s probably a little over my head, as cutthroat a business as it is. And I’m probably a little bit too sensitive for it. My biggest mistake was reading USA Today and listening to comments instead of just saying, do your job. That was the biggest problem I had. My knowledge was there [but] in a lot of cases, like the Calgary Olympics, I was put in as an interviewer, which was certainly not where my expertise is. I would be more like an analyst, but they had Dick Button, so they put me as an interviewer and that was really not my thing. But other times I did pro competitions as a commentator and that was much more successful.

On being appreciative: I look back at a lot of things like the highs and lows of my own competitive career, and I think it really gave me a very humble look at what I was able to do, [and] yet I really appreciate a lot of things. I think one thing I’m really good at is I don’t ever take things for granted. I just feel that you gotta just keep plugging away, and if you do the right thing, you earn what you get. I’ve had a lot of good things happen, and some not so good things, but I certainly wouldn’t have changed it. I wouldn’t change anything I did as an amateur except maybe believe in myself a little bit more.

On being a technical specialist: That has been a very fulfilling job. When they came to a lot of us former skaters and asked us, because they wanted to put some credibility into this new system, I just felt like I wanted to be part of this new wave. I love the technical side of skating. And just to hear and to be around a whole different atmosphere, now you’re on the judging side and you hear what the judges are thinking and what they do, and I have a greater appreciation for the judges and for what they offer. And it’s a lot of fun, it really is. It’s fun to be in the hot seat. I’m a competitor so I get up for these things just as much as when I skated.

About the Author
Yup, I’m a skating fan. But I’m a skater too. I compete nearly every year in the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships, and am always thrilled to see my other skating buddies there. In my real life I work in marketing for brands that make positive changes in the world, and a mom of two rambunctious boys.

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