Episode #14: Frank Carroll

APRIL 2008
An interview with Frank Carroll, world class coach of many fantastic skaters, including Michelle Kwan, Linda Fratianne, Evan Lysacek and Christopher Bowman. 1 hour, 1 minute, 35 seconds.

Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On his most embarrassing skating moment: I was appearing on television when I was in Ice Follies, and it was on a show very similar to Merv Griffin or the Donahue show, except it was from Cleveland and the host was a man who at the time was very famous. It was the 1960s and he had this show on national television. So we came and did a thing from Ice Follies, I was skating in a pair, and…I noticed that people were laughing and kind of smirking. And I remember thinking, oh boy, I must be skating really well, gosh, I’m bringing a smile to their face. And then as I finished the routine, I noticed that the fly on my costume in the front had completely broken open, so basically my underwear and the whole front of me was exposed on national television for about three and a half minutes.

On becoming interested in skating as a child: I really started in the wintertime, outdoors. In Worcester [Massachusetts] there was no artificial rink. But I would see – at the movies, they would have movie caps, like a movie reel with news, and I saw the different skaters doing well, like Barbara Ann Scott winning the Olympic Games, and Dick Button winning [his] first Olympics. And there would be all of these things on TV and I’d get very excited and I’d want to do that very much, and I wanted to learn how to skate like that. And also there were the movies with people like Sonja Henie and Belita. And I got very very excited about seeing skating on that level, and people that could really figure skate.

On taking lessons from Maribel Vinson Owen: It was very interesting to me, because my father was a professor in a university, and also in the school department in Worcester, he held various positions, and he was a very intelligent man. And I was very very good in school, and schoolwork appealed to me. And I had various teachers before Maribel who told me “this feels like that” and would press on my leg and tell me what the feeling was, but I really didn’t feel much. But Maribel taught it like school. She said, you learn this principle, this axiom of movement, how the weight is on the blade when you’re going forward, how the weight is when you’re going backward, what the outside edges are, how you held your hip and your body and what that position was called. So it was step-by-step progression, one axiom building on another axiom of movement. And that really appealed to me because I could think of it like school, I could learn the lesson and go on to the next one.

On being encouraged by Tenley Albright: When I was competing on the national level, she was always saying wonderful things to me like, “Frank, Frank, how do you jump so high? What’s your secret?” And of course, really, I didn’t jump that high, but Tenley always made me feel good about myself. She made me feel like I was special and that I was a good freeskater. And it meant a lot to me and it was very encouraging. Whether she really meant it or not, it was very sweet of her to take time out to encourage other people.

On seeing Sonja Henie at the rink when he moved to Los Angeles: She would drive up in a midnight blue Rolls Royce and she’d have two Norwegian elkhounds on a leash, and she’d let them out of the car to do their business, and then she’d put them in the car and tell them to be good. And then – I remember one day when she had on a yellow leotard, she never wore a skirt, and she had on a yellow chiffon kind of scarf around her waist, like a tie, and she had on her finger a yellow canary diamond ring that looked like the knob that boys back in the 1950s used to put on their steering wheels to turn their wheels. I’ve never seen a rock as big as that. And the rock matched the yellow scarf and it matched the yellow leotard. And she had full makeup on, like she was going to do a performance. And I thought, oh my God, this is only 9:30 or 10 in the morning and she’s fully made up [laughs].

On being in Ice Follies: My experience in Ice Follies, it was kind of like a hate-love relationship. I honestly don’t think Ice Follies was for me. For one thing, doing the same number night after night, week after week after week for a whole year was not very creative for me. Also, I was hired in the show as a principal male skater, and then after me they hired David Jenkins [1960 Olympic gold medalist]. So that kind of put me in limbo, it was like, oh, now we’ve got Frank, what do we do with him? So I ended up skating a pair, which I knew I was going to do so that was fine, but I kind of became everybody’s understudy, and in a trio here, and now you’re going to be the understudy for the Indian number. And one very funny story is one time Lee Carroll was the Indian princess, and one time I was doing this number, and standing on this drum with my arms folded and some sort of Indian costume on, and they announced, “And now the Indian princess is……Frank Carroll!” And of course I started laughing and all the kids in the show burst out laughing. It was very funny but I was mad as hell and told the technicians in the back, “What are you doing? I’m not the Indian princess!! I’m an Indian warrior!!” [laughs]

On starting as a coach: I did some movie things, I came to LA because I had some friends in show business. They said, come, come to LA and do shows. So I did some terrible, terrible movies – I ended up being in movies basically with a surfboard under my arm – and I’d go to the beach, and basically I got very bored. I knew I wasn’t going to be a successful actor because I wasn’t trained, and I’d go to these interviews with two dozen extremely handsome men who were trained in New York, and had done theatre majors in college. So I started teaching skating in a little tiny rink, Iceland in Van Nuys, California. But I quickly grasped the fact that most of the people teaching skating didn’t have a very good background and didn’t have a formidable teacher like I did in Maribel. And in just a few lessons I could get kids to do things that they had been struggling months to do. And so my teaching sort of snowballed from one month to the other and I developed quite a little league of very fine developing skaters.

On meeting Linda Fratianne: I saw this little girl with little spindly legs, and she could jump over the moon. And she absolutely was fabulous. The talent was oozing out of her ears. And I thought to myself when I first laid eyes on her and watched her do this, that this could be a world champion.  That’s only happened to me three times in my life. The other two were Christopher Bowman and Michelle Kwan.

On coaching Christopher Bowman: He had the greatest talent of anyone I’ve ever seen on skates. He was the most talented I’ve ever taught. And he had wonderful natural ability in figures. His problem with figures was that he was very naughty and wouldn’t practice with any kind of dedication.  But he had real figure talent. He had beautiful turns, And he had wonderful placements at Worlds and Nationals with about a third of the practice that other people did to reach that level and have success.

On coaching Michelle Kwan: When I took her to Nationals and she didn’t do well in juniors, because she really didn’t know how to go about it, I remember Mary Scotvold [coach] coming up to me and saying, “Frank, you have the most talented girl in this entire competition. I have a girl in juniors against her, I’ve watched the senior ladies, and your little girl is the most talented one here.” And I said, “You know what, Mary? Thank you for saying that. I agree with you completely” [laughs].  But you know, what was interesting about Michelle was, the talent and the determination, she was the one who could put the package together. And after that nationals, when I didn’t even know her very well, she skated that competition with filthy dirty boots, and just, you know, not groomed very well. But she didn’t know that that was all part of the shtick. And she said to me – I remember it so well, the conversation one on one – she said to me, “What did I do wrong? What is wrong? What do I have to do to crack this? What do I have to do to be successful at Nationals?” And I explained to her about training, about dedication, about never stopping in your program, about how to train to be one of the best in the world, about how to present yourself and what she had to look like, and how she had to play the game. And she shook her head and said, “Yeah”, and took this in, and right from then this little girl started with a vengeance about how to go about this, because she wanted to be better. She wanted to be a success and she wanted to be one of the best in the country and one of the best in the world. And it was amazing to hear somebody say, “Tell me how to go about it.”

On who he coaches: I have some of the most dreadful skaters the world has ever seen, but they like to skate and they like to have a lesson and they try. And I teach adults, and I like that. I don’t like teaching just the high tests and the championship levels, because they’re very intense and there’s lots of tension in it. And there needs to be a time for every teacher to hone their skills, and to teach somebody from the start, and how to begin to skate. I love watching the people who teach the beginner classes at our rink, and how they get these little kids to move, whether it’s blowing bubbles or bouncing a ball or whatever. That’s a whole different art.

On managing skaters’ emotions: It’s something you have to address. I think first of all that a coach has to be very calm and in control. They can’t become emotional and they can’t show weakness. And even though I’m a very very nervous person, I’ve always tried to stay a little away from the skater instead of being in their face and saying, do this, do that. Because I think that shows that you’re nervous, and I think you have to mask it in some fashion. And if there’s disappointment, you have to be calm even if the parents are starting to scream, and I think you have to explain to them that, you know, we will discuss this at a later time and put it in perspective. Or with a child that’s really sobbing away, you have to say, you know, look, sweetheart, you will live to skate another day. It’s not the end of the world, this is not the Olympic games here. You didn’t have a lot of success, but you’ll live, and life is filled with ups and downs, not just in skating, but life in general. You know, I try to be a little philosophical about it and I think I’m good at that.

On the most significant change in the sport: I think the biggest thing that’s come into figure skating is that money has ruled the sport now. I think that figures were taken out because of money. I think that the media have a lot more now to do with how the competitions are run because of money. I think that the athletes are doing endorsements because of money. And I think that money has crept in and ruined our sport, and I think that’s the major change that’s taken place. It’s not a sport like it used to be. It’s now a financial sport.



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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