Episode #15: John Nicks

MAY 2008
An interview with John Nicks, world class coach of many top-notch skaters, including Tai Babilonia/Randy Gardner, Sasha Cohen, and Jojo Starbuck/Ken Shelley. And don’t think of calling him anything but “Mr. Nicks.” 48 minutes long.

Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On his most embarrassing skating moment: It’s very clear. [It was in 1953] and I had just won a world championship in Davos [in Switzerland] in pairs skating, and returned to London, and was giving an exhibition at an ice hockey game in Wembley Stadium, in the intermission, with my sister. And I stepped onto the ice in front of about 10,000 people, and fell over immediately, and got up and fell over again — and then realized I’d still got my skate guards on [laughs]. And then I took them off and joined in the laughter that about 10,000 people were indulging in [laughs]. And I’ve never forgotten that, ever. My sister was the only one not laughing. She said I was a damn fool, or words to that effect.

On how he began skating: [My father] had some sports stores in the south of England, and one of them was in Brighton, which is on the south coast of England. And when I was about 10 or 11 years old, a large swimming pool in Brighton, they changed this swimming pool into an ice rink, which was a real novelty in those days. This must have been, gosh, in the late 1930s. And he wanted to stock ice skating  equipment and didn’t know anything about it. So he took my sister and myself down to the ice rink, and for two or three years we were guinea pigs, trying out all different makes of boots and skates, and having lessons from different teachers. It was a long time ago but I can still remember it pretty clearly.

On competing in pairs with his sister Jennifer:  We were singles for about a year, and then the same old story as with other pairs happened with me. The coach that my sister and I had just suggested, well, you’re related, you’re the right size — she was shorter than I was and a better skater than I was, but I was older, so that sort of evened out [laughs].  Of course, you know, pairs skating in England then was not a popular discipline, and there weren’t a lot of pairs. And when you start, it’s often easier to be successful in pairs skating than in solo skating. Once you improve your ability and get into a high level of competition, then that’s different and you have to be good, but in the early stages, it’s easier to be successful as a pairs skater.

On his military service: In those days the British army had a two-year conscription period, and I was conscripted into the Royal Middlesex Regiment — signals, actually. And after training I was sent out to Hong Kong. I think there were problems between the British government and the Communistic government. Now what the hell 10,000 guys were going to be doing in Hong Kong, I have no idea [laughs]. It was really ridiculous. But I was sent out there and had some really interesting times there.

I was a corporal and after I’d been there about a month, I was summoned to the commanding officer, I think he was a colonel, and he was very keen to have something recreationally. And he said he’d heard I was a champion skater, and he’d arranged an exhibition for me to do, in a hangar. And I said, “Well, I didn’t know they had ice here.” And he said, “No, they don’t have ice here. It’s roller skating. You can do it in roller skates.” So I regretfully refused, and I wasn’t too popular there any more [laughs]. Anyway, I was fortunate. I was only there about eight months and the British Olympic Association petitioned for me to come home and train for the British championships, so I got transferred back earlier than I normally would have done.

On touring with an ice show in South Africa in the 1950s: [Skating] wasn’t very popular. There were only about three ice rinks in the country. But for some reason, although there weren’t a lot of people participating, there was a lot of interest in the show. In fact, in South Africa at that time, there was a lot of interest in anything that was coming from England or from Europe. I think they were starved of entertainment, and any show that was imported always did well.  So I did the show in Johannesburg, and I think a year after that I had a business partner and we formed a company and we took shows firstly down to Durban, and then we invested in a touring company with a portable ice rink that we toured all over South Africa.

That was the time of apartheid, which I didn’t understand too well coming from England, but I can remember that we had to segregate the audience. And not only that, but we had a promotion that allowed after the shows, during the day, for skaters to come and rent skates and try and skate. And that fascinated a lot of the people over there, whites and blacks and Indians, and I know we had to keep two different sections of rental boots, one for whites and one for coloreds. It was very different for me.

On how he started coaching in the United States: I’d taught for a year in Canada, and in those days and in that location, it was purely a winter season, like starting in September or October and finishing in March. And then if you were lucky as a coach you went to what they called summer school for two months, which I did. But it was not a year-round job, and I was married at the time and had one son, and, really, the abbreviated season wasn’t very good. I didn’t like to take six-week holidays a few times a year. So I advertised in the United States skating magazine, and had a lot of replies from a lot of places, but one of them was from Paramount in California, who had just lost their number one coach, a fellow called Bill Kipp who had died in the crash [of the plane carrying the 1961 US figure skating team]. And looking at all of the offers I had decided for a couple of reasons that was where I wanted to go — firstly because at Paramount, where he was, was the Arctic Blades figure skating club, which at that point was one of the premier clubs in the United States. And secondly, and I made a mistake here, my wife and I imagined that Long Beach was just a mass of wonderful white sands, and it wasn’t until we got down here that we saw the oil wells [laughs]. Not as many white sands as we thought. But I was very lucky because southern California is a wonderful place to go, with so many athletically inclined youngsters, the  population, and so many parents that are interested in their children excelling in one thing or the other.

On working with Frank Zamboni at Paramount:  One of the most influential people in my life. He taught me so many things. He taught me mostly about the business of figure skating. You know, I came there as a teacher, thinking, well, where’s your right hip going into an axel, and when you turn a three-turn, where’s your rotation, and that was about it. And he taught me about how to be a businessman, how to understand the workings of an ice rink, how to work with management — because if you don’t, you’re not going to be very successful — and taught me how to relate to the community, which he did there. He taught me a lot of things. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for him. [But] I knew if I learned how to drive the Zamboni, I would be asked to do that. So I didn’t [laughs].

On coaching JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley:  I taught them when they were quite young, and they stayed together, which as you know is an important aspect of pairs skating these days, with so many people split up. They stayed together throughout their working years. Pairs skating was very different then, and they were a very different pair from what you see today physically. Their differential in height was only about an inch or two — that doesn’t work today. They were really a wonderful pair with great unison and great skating ability. And her mother was a secretary at one of the local airplane manufacturers, Douglas, and his father worked for Raytheon, and things were not easy for them. But both families really stuck it out and at the end, of course, they were well rewarded.

On coaching Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner: They had come together at a young age and were very successful. They were a little more classical in presentation [than Starbuck and Shelley] but they had the same physicality and the same ability. They had a special quality. Basically, they were both very nice people. They negated that ‘nice guys finished last’. They were nice people, and it came through that they cared a lot about each other, for anybody that wasn’t related. And they were not connected in any sexual way at all. They just had a..[like] a brother and sister and yet almost closer than that. And they had a relationship that was almost obvious to everybody. And some of the pairs that I’ve taught, the good ones, particularly them, seem to have a sixth sense of what the other partner is doing, so that if the other partner gets into trouble, they cover for them. They’re not looking at their partner but they know what they’re doing and where they are, and I think that comes through from skating for so long together.

They were very musical and artistic. I had a wonderful ballet teacher who worked with them that improved them so much, and I’ve always been sorry that she hasn’t gotten much of the credit there — a lady by the name of Terry Rudolph, who worked with them wonderfully.

On his experience with Babilonia and Gardner at the 1980 Olympics: I do remember that immediately after the pairs competition, I was asked to attend a press conference, and I think there were about 200 to 300 in this big ballroom where the conference was. And I can remember being very very upset and telling my team leader that I would not go in there unless I had the team doctor to accompany. Because there was a medical situation there and I’m not a medical man — I worked under the advice of the medical practitioners there. I remember that Tai and Randy were so upset that they did not attend the press conference, but I did.

I remember talking to them perhaps about an hour after that, when I think they were in a hotel, at the team hotel — they always have a team hotel with a couple of safe rooms. And talking to them was similar to talking to zombies. They were not crying, not laughing, not doing anything, speaking in a monotone almost as if they couldn’t believe what had happened in the previous few hours. The next day, I met with them and things were better. They were unhappy, but they were surviving. And then the next day things started to change, because I think over the next two weeks there was a total of about 6,000 pieces of mail that they received, all very supportive, all sending them, like, wooden gold medals, and pictures. And it was very obvious to them that the competition had not been a failure for them. It had been an unfortunate occurrence that wasn’t really their fault, but they were so happy that so many people thought well of them. And of course, as it turned out, although they regretted very much not being able to compete and possibly — in my opinion, they were about even money for a gold medal , it would have been close either way — it really did not hurt their professional career at all.

On coaching Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudy Galindo, who jumped in opposite directions: The difficulty really was in the judges’ perception that the unison issue was not as easy to judge. On the other hand, it did make a pair look different, which I’ve always enjoyed, and it also enabled me to create different patterns, and I quite enjoyed it. But in essence the unison side of pairs skating was absent in a lot of their moves. But [the different directions] is a handicap. I’ve seen a lot of wonderful pairs skaters skating in opposite directions that really haven’t received the credit they should.

On coaching Naomi Nari Nam and Sasha Cohen at the same time: With great difficulty [laughs]. Well, not so much at the beginning. When I first taught them, Naomi was one division ahead. So everything was fine up to that point [when they both became seniors]. Then of course when you have two talented skaters skating against each other with the same coach at the same rink, you are going to get some issues. And I can remember that there were some.

On coaching Sasha Cohen in two different Olympics under two different judging systems: It was fine because Sasha’s so talented, and very demanding. And directly the new system came about, she wanted to know everything about it, got all the written work she could, and we talked to a lot of people. As you probably know, she’s a very intense young lady, and really wanted to get into it very strongly — and at times was telling me what was best to do with the new system. Now and again she was wrong [laughs] but we had a good dialogue.

On being a judge on the Skating With Celebrities television show: It was wonderful. It was relaxing, and I had a good time and a lot of fun. I was supposed to be the bad guy there and that was pretty easy for me [laughs]. And for me, being used to — I think I’ve coached in 11 Olympics and 30-something nationals, and so it was quite relaxing and enjoyable and different. Bruce Jenner, he was a wonderful athlete but couldn’t skate at all. And although he didn’t win it, I think he was third or fourth, he was the one who improved the most, because of his athletic history and determination. I think you could see he was an Olympic gold medalist, and you could see the character and that he was determined to do well. But he took the most amazing falls — I think he had stitches over his eyes. I really admired him. He really improved and he was really into it.

On how he coaches in street shoes and stands in the centre of the ice: I haven’t worn skates in 30 years, ever. [After hurting his foot while skating in South Africa] in those tight lace-up boots there was some pain. And [when coaching figures] I felt that skating all over the patch and obscuring the tracings was not a very good idea. And I didn’t move very much off the patch, so I could teach just as well with boots on and not mess the ice up. And then when I got older, I began to understand that my demonstration ability was declining [laughs]. And the American youth are not very forgiving sometimes, and when I tried to demonstrate something [laughs] it didn’t go down too well. There were some laughs. So I decided the advantages of teaching in boots outweighed the disadvantages of not teaching in them. I haven’t owned a pair of skates for 30 years.

[And if someone runs into him] they will only crash into me once [laughs]. I tell them, I’m standing in one square foot of an ice rink that’s got 1800 square feet, so they should be able to miss me.

On his hobby of deep-sea fishing:  I go boating for fun. I go down to Mexico and go deep-sea fishing, that’s my fun. I caught a 220-pound marlin off La Paz, down in Baja. It took about an hour and three-quarters to get on the boat, with two gaffs and three guys.

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.

2 comments on “Episode #15: John Nicks

  1. Gary van der Merwe says:

    Hi Allison.

    Something that you may be intresed in. I’m a skater from South Africa. My coach, Brian O’Shea, was one the skaters Mr. Nick coached when he was is South Africa. Brian and his sister, Glenda, went on to skate in the 1968 World Championships in pairs. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_World_Figure_Skating_Championships#Pairs

    This is a wonderfull interview. I’ll make sure Brian and Glenda hear it.



  2. allison says:

    Wonderful Gary! Thanks for writing in, and thanks for sharing the interview. 🙂

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