Episode #27: Charlie Tickner

MAY 2009
An interview with Charlie Tickner, 4-time US National Champion, World Champion and Olympic bronze medalist. 58 minutes, 30 seconds.

Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On his most embarrassing skating moment: I don’t remember what year it was, I was still competing so it had to be in the late ‘70s, and I was training in Colorado. And I had gone home to Southern California to do a show. And I was in an exhibition and I had a fly problem. It wasn’t so bad but there was a big deal about it, like the show stopped and yeah . . . that was about it. Nothing that embarrassing. I’ve fallen in competition but it happens to everybody.

On his first skating experience: I was in a pair of really good rental skates and my ankles were dragging, and I think I hit my head two or three times. And it was kind of weird because I was pretty athletic, I thought. So why is this ice skating thing so hard? I always assumed that hitting your head is not a good indicator of what your skating ability is [laughs]. I don’t know what it was but I went back there a few times after that to see if I could be better than that. But that was it. It wasn’t like I fell in love with skating. It took a while.

On getting serious about skating:  I passed my eighth [figure] test when I was 16, and honestly, I was going to spend another year in junior mens. But I was summer skating in Squaw Valley, at the old original Olympic rink,  and my coach, Jimmy Grogan, said, just work on some eighth test figures, because I was getting bored with the other ones, even though my figures weren’t very good then [laughs]. So then Jimmy said, why don’t you take your eighth test? And I thought, no, I’m not going to pass it. So I worked on it for six weeks, which wasn’t very long, and I passed it [laughs]. So now what I do? I had to go up to senior mens. I enjoyed the freeskating, but even then I was just learning the double axel.

That year, I was out of high school, and I thought, OK, I’m going to go to Squaw Valley and live up there year round and train. But the back of the rink was open, and if it was five degrees outside, it was five degrees in the rink. And I was living in the rink. I worked at the rink, and the old hockey room teams were turned into dorms for the people who worked there, so I lived there. And I would come out of the dorm and look out the back and go, yeah, a lot of snow, I’m going skiing today [laughs]. It was a year but it was really kind of a waste of time. My father was the one who said, I know you’re having fun and everything, but you’re not doing this anymore up there. And through our club he contacted Carlo Fassi, who didn’t know who I was so he wouldn’t take me [laughs]. Then he heard about Norma and Wally Sahlin who were in the same area, and they said, yeah, come back and try. And I was thinking just for the summer, same thing, and I got out there and it was a rude awakening, because that was when I realized I liked skating.  I’m out there in my first freeskate session and I’m yacking to everyone, meeting new girls, and Norma kicked me off the ice. And I look back and realize that’s what I would want, because skating was fun for me, but they were serious about it. And that one summer turned into eight years.

On the 1974 US national championships: That was an interesting competition. In 1973 I made it back to nationals, that was my first year after I went to Colorado, and I was sixth and I skated well. I had never made it [to nationals] as a novice man, one year in juniors, never even close to a medal. So in 1974 I go, and ended up third overall, which was a little mind-boggling to me. And I didn’t have a good freeskate because my blade was cracked. But I learned.  I learned to be more aware of what my equipment was doing, and to take care of my equipment.

And I went back to the hotel, feeling pretty good, third best senior man in the country, and I was watching TV and Dick Button was talking about Charlie Tickner and what a sore loser he was. And I was, what are you talking about? And then they mentioned that the senior men were doing their awards at that moment. And people thought I had left in disgust because I didn’t get higher on the podium or something. But I just didn’t know, I was just lying on the bed in my hotel room watching the TV. So I quickly got up and got out of there, so things worked out, but I just didn’t know.

On not making the 1976 Olympic team: In 1975 Gordie McKellen won and Terry Kubicka was second, so that’s kind of how the ladder was at that time. And Gordie retired because Terry beat him at Worlds and I don’t think he wanted to go through that again. So now everyone moves up, we’re taking two skaters [to the Olympics], so, hey, it looks good. And Nationals was in the old Broadmoor arena which had no ventilation in it, the air was bad, and Broadmoor was how high in the mountains? So I was in first place going into the freeskate, and I was thinking about the Olympic team, you think about these things, and maybe it was premature about the celebration or whatever. And I fell twice, on a triple lutz and then on a double axel which was like a waltz jump for me. So not only did I drop, but I dropped to fourth so I wasn’t even an alternate. And I look back on it and I think things happen for a reason. I was 22 years old, at the time I was the old man in skating, and if I’d made the Olympics in 1976, when I’d never been to worlds, I probably wouldn’t have done that well and I probably would have retired.

On becoming world champion in 1978 without placing first in any segment of the competition: It was a surprise. After winning nationals in 1977, I went to worlds, it was my first worlds, and I was fifth, which was good. But I had been competing internationally and doing well so I wasn’t a total stranger to people at that level.  So then in 1978, at nationals, defending my title was hard, but I felt good, I made that step. So then at worlds, I was near the top, and I was, this is kind of cool, this is intense [laughs]. But I won, and I think people look at that and go, consistency.  And it’s the same today in the new system. If you’re near the top, you can win.

On his relationship with his coaches: We had battles. We fought. When you’re 14 or 15 and your coach is telling you to go do this, do that, you kind of say. But in those years, 1978, 1980, I was 24, 25, and I was a young man who’s feeling grrr, and I’m having a bad day, and you tell me to do my program, and I’m like, I’m outta here. And I would, I would leave. I remember a time I had to drive over to their house and say, I’m not really quitting [laughs].

On program content during his competitive years: The five-minute [long] program allowed us a little more content, and we had no restrictions. And my students now, with the Youtube thing, they see my 1978 Worlds program, and they come and say, you had five double axels in that program. And I say, yeah, you could do whatever you want. And they say, you did two at the very end. And I say, yeah, that’s because I used to run it three times in a row [laughs]. It was hard, I didn’t start doing it all the first time, I didn’t even start by doing five minutes. You do a minute, and you’re like whoo, and then you build up. And my coaches made me stroke, and all of their students, stroke hard for the length of the program, with your hands up. And it helped.

Skating gets a rap because a lot of other people say, that’s not a sport, you don’t even look tired. Well, that’s because we work hard, and we can’t look tired. If you look tired at the end of the program, now you get minus GOEs and before that you would get lower in the second mark. And we still have to go around and land on that little piece of steel and make it look easy and not look tired. So it’s more of a sport in a lot of ways.

On how the sport has evolved: When I first started skating, the triples, they were doing a few here and there, and in the 16 years I competed — when I left people were doing triple lutz, not that common, but all the triples were being done. But I saw that whole thing. In the beginning, people weren’t working on triple axels, so what did we work on? We worked on delayed axels, we worked on delayed double toes. I tell the kids today and they’re like, what’s that? And I say, you don’t have the time now to learn that. You really don’t.

On the pressure of competing in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid:  Awful [laughs]. Skating’s a solo sport, and I think the home ice thing is great for team sports. But for an individual sport it’s tougher. I would have loved to be in the Olympics almost anywhere else. Don’t get me wrong, I love Lake Placid, but when I went back there for adult nationals in 1996 it was the first time I’d been back there since then.  At the time it was hard.  But I watched the Miracle on Ice [the American hockey team winning gold]. David Santee was sitting right next to me. We were trading pins with the ushers to let us change seats, and they let us go down to sit right behind the glass. It was fantastic.

On using many different kinds of music for his competitive programs: You try different things. I think skaters kind of get stuck in a rut with what they like and what the coach is good at, and I think they don’t go anywhere, they don’t grow. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. I remember a couple of programs where I skated OK, but the music — like that space-themed one, it just didn’t flow. I think one of the really interesting things I did, Moonlight Sonata, Norma had a nephew who was a classical guitarist, he played it and we recorded it and used that, rather than the piano version, which was kind of cool. I liked that.

On retiring from competition: Honestly, the competitive part of me was done in 1978. You train, it’s so long, and such a hard schedule, and you think, I want to do this Olympic thing — but it’s not tomorrow, it’s two years from now. That was a hard time.  After I stopped in 1980, I was kind of done with skating. You could have asked me who was at worlds and I wouldn’t know. I didn’t follow it at all.

On becoming a coach: I was still liking to perform, still coaching a little bit, but I didn’t like coaching very much. So I thought real estate would be a way to go, and I had a couple of friends in the business, who were like, come work with us, you know the area, people know who you are. So I was successful in it, but I didn’t like the people in it. I was making pretty good money but I didn’t feel comfortable doing it. So I still liked skating and performing, but the work was dwindling a little bit, and then this tour came along called World Cup Champions on Ice. And they said, would you like to come do a tour for four or five months? And I was 40. And I had one son at home, and the rink where I was teaching a little bit, Tammy Gambill was going to LA, and she said, can I give you my students until I come back? And  I did, but at first I didn’t have the patience. Jump, pull in, land, it’s not that hard! [laughs].

Now I’m very patient, maybe too patient. Maybe now I’m thinking, if it’s your thing, why are you not working at it? Either do it or don’t do it. I’m here to work with you, and I will work with you, but you have to show me that you want to do it.

On performing an exhibition program at the 2000 US Adult Nationals:  It was fun, but it was hard. That’s a big rink and there were some announcers there, and I hadn’t really trained, but it was fun. Although it was one of those times when you think, I wish I’d worked a little harder [laughs].

On the removal of figures from competition: I feel it was a big mistake. I understand the reasons why, but at the world level, why is everybody doing a flutz now? Why do most people not do it right? You hardly ever saw that before. We did inside edges on flip jumps, we did outside edges on lutz jumps, we had control on the three-turns going in, and it’s because we had figures and that’s where we learned how to do that.

On why he likes coaching adults:  When I teach, I don’t feel it’s my job to put your skates on you, or push you out the door or get you on the ice. You have to want to do it. And the thing that I noticed the first time I came to Adult Nationals, it’s just that. Most people are here to get a medal, but it’s not that important. They want to skate well and have fun. And you don’t see that with the kids. In Lake Placid, I think when I first came in I saw a lady on the ice, and when she got off she hugged the next skater, sincerely, and then sat right down and applauded all the way through the program. That was very healthy to see that. You guys skate because you want to skate. And the social part is great. It’s just a different sport, different camaraderie. It’s a different animal and I really enjoy it. And there’s some phenomenal skating. I was watching the championship ladies practice this morning, and there were some double axels out there that the girls at Nationals would be proud to have.

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.

4 comments on “Episode #27: Charlie Tickner

  1. joe thola says:


  2. vicki atchison wheeler says:

    Hi Charlie, I was messing around the internet looking for people that were in the Ice Capades with me 1978-1981 and saw your name. I have no idea if you will remember me, but I thought I would say Hi anyway. Everyone called me Miss Vicki and I skated in the line. I think you married Cathy (I can’t think of her last name) or maybe just dated, I don’t know. I remember seeing you first on that crazy 8 seater flight to Atlantic City and then you walked me home one night for some reason, I guess because it was late. Anyway, it’s been fun remembering the past, and I would love to hear how you’re doing.

  3. Christy Probst says:

    Hello Charlie,

    I am working for the CA State Fair this year helping with the exhibits and the first one I was assigned to was “Olympic Heritage”. When reviewing the research, your name was prominent especially since I am working with Carlie Cairns, one of your ex-students. I am writing as the coordinator to see if you can help us. See the my letter below:

    This year the California State Fair is creating an exhibit titled “Olympic Heritage” that will feature local Olympic athletes from the Sacramento and the bay area. The booth will provide a brief history accompanied with photos for each individual. We want to draw attention to the group of diverse individuals that made Olympic history, the unique stories that each Olympian has to share and the accomplishments and contributions the Olympian brings to the community, the country and the world.

    We would be honored to have your participation in this year’s “Olympic Heritage” event. The Fair dates this year are July 8-24. We would like the Olympians to be available for autographs and photo opportunities with fairgoers. There will be a tabletop available for flyers, handouts or any other information/advertisements that you can bring to communicate programs or organizations that you support or are affiliated with.

    If your schedule prohibits you from attending, is it possible for you to provide photos, Olympic memorabilia such as news clippings, buttons or biographies? We will be setting up a locked acrylic case that will feature interesting Olympic items. We will provide a loan agreement for the use of your items and also will return your items the week of July 24.

    Please let us know if we can book you for an hour or two on any one of the days from July 8-24 and we can send a detailed schedule and supply you with the pertinent information you will need. Any special arrangements you require will be supplied.

    Thank you for your consideration,

    Christy Probst
    Exhibit Coordinator

    Debbie Hardesty
    Celebrating the best of the best!

  4. Marilyn Thomas says:

    Charlie, I am still skating…now in WI and I still hear your voice in my head when I attempt even a bas9c toe loop, which is much improved thanks to you. Yes, I loved having lessons under your tutelage for the reason you cited in this interview. You know we older folks want to get better , want to support one another, and so you are patient., oh, so patient. And as you reminded me: I am not slow. I am determined. That is still true, no matter my age in years.

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