Episode #17: Charlene Wong

JULY 2008
An interview with Charlene Wong, former Olympian from Canada, and coach of elite skaters including Amber Corwin and Mirai Nagasu. Still one of the smartest people and coaches I’ve ever met. 43 minutes, 18 seconds.

Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On her most embarrassing skating moment: In the warmup for the Calgary Olympics, long program. In those days [1988] we wore very low-cut neck dresses with the nude in the front. And my cookie, or the padding in my dress, was detached. And in full view of everybody to see that I had padding in my dress [laughs] — it had slid over. So I got off the ice and we snipped both of them out. So that was pretty embarrassing, for my undergarments to be showing like that completely to the world in probably my most important performance.

On how she started skating: I’m from Pierrefonds, it’s a suburb of Montreal, and most Canadians grow up skating. We had a park down the street from my house, and in the winter time it would freeze over. And my brother and sister would put my skates on for me at the house, and we’d literally skate down the street to the park. In the suburbs at that time, they would seldom get the salt trucks or the rock trucks out to do the roads, and so after snow or after freezing rain the road was pretty slippery. And we would literally skate along the street to the park and then skate in the park, which was made to be a little ice rink. And that’s how I originally learned how to skate.

On her double axel: It was very easy to get for me. I was landing clean double axels at nine [years old]. And when you think that in those days the emphasis was more on figures, that was pretty good. But at the same time it wasn’t a good thing, because living where I was living in Montreal, in a smaller area, they didn’t feel there was a need to learn triple jumps. So even though I had my double axel at a very young age, I didn’t really think anybody knew that — not to take anything away from the coaches I was working with at the time, but we didn’t really understand the technique of jumping the way we do today. And so there was no urgency to start me on triple jumps or even on perfecting my double jump technique. So I didn’t really start learning triples until five or six years later.

On figures: I loved figures. I wasn’t particularly great at them in competition. Well, I was strong when I was younger, I won nationals in my first year in junior ladies in figures. But then I went through a spell when I was very nervous under pressure. I remember one year at Skate Canada I got last in figures, and I was devastated. And I called home to my mother and said, “Mom, I got last in the figures.” And she was like “Oh, Charlene, stop pulling my leg, what did you really get?” And I’m like, “No, Mom, really, I placed last” [laughs]. And then towards the end of my career I got it together again and ended up winning Canadian nationals in figures. Not overall, in figures. And then doing pretty well at the Olympics and World championships in figures.

On her experiences at the 1988 Olympics: For me, the biggest excitement was by far the process of making it. Because I was training with my good friend at the time, Elizabeth Manley, and another girl, from Great Britain, Gina Fulton. Mr. and Mrs. Dunfield, Sonya and Peter, were coaching me, and they’re just phenomenal people, great human beings, and they made it a lot of fun for us. So the process was great, and that combined with the fact that my parents got to go and watch, and see — it was like a celebration of all their hard work as well. And the fact that Elizabeth won a medal, she’s a very giving person and so she would share all the excitement of her success with all of us. So it was really fun.

Hindsight being 20/20, I wish that as a young girl I had set my sights a little higher than just participating.

Because I think you get what you aim for. I remember attending a national training camp when I was around 10, and I was sitting on the floor in the room at wherever we were staying with Elizabeth Manley and Tracey Wainman, who was another strong Canadian skater. And we were talking about what we wanted to do with skating. And Tracey was just like, oh, I want to be Canadian champion, and Elizabeth’s like, I want to win a medal at Olympics, and I said, “I just want to make it to Olympics!” And this was like ten years before. And we all got exactly what we wanted. Not more, but not less. It’s kind of interesting.

On what she learned from the coaches she worked with as a skater: From my first coach, Helen Ann Shields, I learned how to train effectively and the importance of family. And then Louis Stong was great at packaging, and he introduced me to Sandra Bezic who introduced me to the importance of choreography. The Dunfields just really instilled — started to get to the nitty-gritty of my technique both in figures and free skating, and again the emphasis on life outside of skating, to use skating as a tool to develop yourself as a person.

On the challenges of coaching compared to competing: For all the challenges I faced as a competitive skater, an eligible and a professional, I think the challenges just become different. It’s more physically demanding as a skater, but [coaching] is more demanding on your emotional resilience. Because there are many more factors that are beyond your control. When you’re a skater you go out there and on a day to day basis you have total control over how you train your body, how you train your mind, whose guidance you choose to accept or to ignore. As a coach you can gather up all the resources, and you can have tremendous resources, and a tremendous amount of confidence in your skater, and a sincere desire to help from your deepest of desires and without ego. But at the end of the day, the skater and whoever is closest to them in their circle, usually their parents, are only going to choose to work with maybe one-tenth of what you have to offer. And then you have to detach as a coach. And that’s a really hard thing, because sometimes you have to watch your skaters make mistakes that you can foresee and that could have been prevented. And that’s a really hard thing, but at the same time you have to respect that that’s part of their process, and still get up at the start of the next day and do your best and keep putting the information on the table…If you hold the reins too tight, it’s not good for anybody.

On coaching Amber Corwin: Amber to this day remains one of the — I’ve been coaching for 20 years now, and she is probably one of the hardest working individuals I’ve ever come across. And unstoppable in her desire to be her personal best. She’s incredibly driven. What I love about Amber is her stick-to-it-iveness. She may not have been the most beautiful skater or the best at any one thing, but she did the best that she could do with each thing, and carved out a pretty fine career for herself, all things considered. She has a lot to be proud of.

On coaching Mirai Nagasu: [At first] I never really watched her skate that much. So I knew Mirai was out there, but I just knew her as another talented skater. So when her mother asked me to come on board as her primary coach, I called her coach, and she was a little sad, but it was like passing the torch. And when I started paying attention to what she was doing, it was like, “Oh, this girl is really talented” [laughs].

[After her last competition with her former coach] I saw the DVD and thought, “Hmm. Well, if I’m going to be this girl’s coach then I’m going to treat her like she’s going all the way”. So the first two things I did was emailing Lori Nichol and see if she would work with her, and secondly putting her on YouTube so that people could see her, and sending out as many emails as I could to generate some buzz around her.

Honestly, my role with her is to oversee everything. And yes, I do coach her, and I do help her with her jumps and her spins and her choreography, but I look at Mirai like a business, and I’m the president of the business. And each department has someone in charge. And so when it goes well we all celebrate, but when it goes down I’m to blame.

On coaching more than 40 skaters of different abilities: It’s like food on my plate. I don’t like to have too much dessert, you know? And I think it makes me a better coach, working with a wide variety of skaters. A variety of abilities and personalities, and different parents and different socio-economic circumstances. It just helps me in every way and it helps me make my coaching experience more rewarding.

I envisioned myself as a mom in a mini-van [laughs] and what gets me up in the morning is not so much having a skater as a national champion or an Olympic champion, but how can I help the skaters that I’m going to teach that day. And if helping them leads to that kind of success, then so be it. And if helping them leads them to get their flip jump clean, or pass their pre-pre moves test after three tries, God forbid [laughs], then that’s why I do it.

On being a vegetarian: I’m not as strict as I used to be. I used to be vegan, for many years, but wearing leather skates obviously. I don’t cook meat or fish in the house. I do have dairy products now. Occasionally if I go out with people I don’t know very well I’ll eat meat or fish if it’s more practical, but I feel bad doing that.

I had a lot of issues with food as a teenager, but being the perfectionist I am, I was trying to find out if there was any kind of connection with the ingredients of the food causing these issues. So I eliminated everything that was refined from my diet and all the meats and stuff. And I slowly added things back and that’s how I figured out what works for me.

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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