An interview with David Kirby, who knows everything there is to know about figure skating. His father show skated with Sonia Henie. His parents were Canadian champions. He’s been a Novice champion. He skated in Ice Capades. He owns ice rinks. He coaches. He was PSA President. He’s one of the first members of the IJS Technical Committee. He runs SkateRadio. He’s a consultant on skating movies. Did I miss anything? In other words, he is a very interesting interview subject! Hear about how he lived in a motor home with the Protopopovs, his opinion on how the mainstream media treats the television audience, and why Sonia Henie once gave him a quarter. 1 hour, 9 minutes, 18 seconds.
Win a copy of Michael Kirby’s Book!
One lucky winner can win a copy of the book written by David Kirby’s father Michael Kirby: “Figure Skating to Fancy Skating-Memoirs of the Life of Sonja Henie.” It’s a fascinating read about what it was like traveling the world with Sonia Henie and her shows, and thought on skating at the time. It’s a wonderful book for any skater’s library.
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Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:
On his most embarrassing skating-related moment: It was in Madison Square Gardens in 1977, when I was a principal performer with Ice Capades. The backstage area was literally an area where a curtain would open, and that would be where the ice started. Usually backstage there would be a little piece of ice where you could warm up before you went out to do your number, but in New York we didn’t have it. And I used to have to get a running start to open my number because I came in really fast through the curtain. So since we didn’t have ice, they built me a little ramp. And the opening night I forgot to take off my guards. I ran down my little ramp and jumped on the ice with both guards on my blades, as the curtains opened and the spotlights hit me. I glided on one guard for about 50 feet, which I think is a record, I’m not sure [laughs]. And in the very front row was Dick Button and Peggy Fleming. So I sort of slid to the middle of the rink, trying to keep my balance and not falling, and I got to the center of the ice and fell, and then took off my guards and put them right in front of Dick Button and Peggy Fleming. And Dick Button said something, I don’t remember his exact words, but I think he said something like “Nice start” [laughs].
On starting skating: I’m one of eight siblings, and my parents introduced skating to all of us at a young age because my father started a chain of skating schools in Chicago in the early 1950s. So most of us were born in Chicago, or in Toronto where he also had a chain of rinks. And we all were given the opportunity to skate, but my parents made it very clear to all of us that if we wanted to continue skating, it was our responsibility and what we wanted to do, not what they wanted us to do. So we were never forced upon it. I think I was one of the few that chose it, because I really was attracted immediately to the sport. I have four brothers, so I was the fifth, and all my brothers played hockey and were bigger than me, so I was the runt of the litter. And because of this I would get beat up pretty badly by my brothers. So I quickly migrated into the rink where there was figure skating going on, because I could skate fast and everyone appreciated me and no one was beating me up. And I really enjoyed it and all the girls were paying attention to me, so it was a lot of fun [laughs]. So I sort of made that transition myself.
On his childhood memories of skating: My dad never skated in Ice Capades, but he skated in Ice Follies when they first started, with my mother, and prior to those days he skated with Sonja Henie in a number of shows. He toured with the Sonja Henie Ice Revue, which was the first major touring show, and then he toured with Sonja in Europe and England, and made movies with Sonja as well. But I do remember Sonja when I was a little boy, because Sonja skated at Pickwick [Ice Rink in Los Angeles]. She had a house right off Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, and when we were children, occasionally my parents would take us on vacations, and one year they came to California and brought us. I had just started skating a little bit, and my dad was very close with Sonja, so we stayed at their house. Not in the house, but in the bungalow, the pool home [laughs]. I do remember this nice lady giving me a quarter if I could do a sit spin all the way down. She would demonstrate a sit spin for me, and of course this is in the 1960s, but I was quite impressed because this woman could do a sit spin ten times better than I could, and then she would give me a quarter if I could get my sit spin all the way down. You remember little things like that. I was probably only six, seven, eight at the time. And my dad was involved with other skaters as well. Barbara Ann Scott was a partner of his, so I recall stories with Barbara Ann and seeing them and stuff like that. It’s been a rich history and I’m very fortunate that my father had a lot of connections and a lot of great talented partners and colleagues in skating that I got to meet, which was cool.
I think my dad was really a pioneer in many fields. I know people think of him as just a skater, but he worked with Eunice Kennedy Shriver, for example, very closely on the Special Olympics. And I remember he had a connection with the Kennedy family because he got to know a lot of the Kennedys during the late 1950s and early 1960s. I think that he did know a lot of celebrities through that, but I was probably too young. I remember teaching Cary Grant’s grandchildren how to skate, and he came to the rink and somehow he knew my dad. I was just starting to be a teacher, and I was just a young skater, but Mr. Nicks was allowing us to teach at the Santa Monica rink, so I taught [Cary Grant’s] grandchildren and he came to the rink. And my mother taught the Dionne quintuplets out of Canada, and I knew some of them. I never really appreciated the type of people my father associated with because I didn’t really understand who they were at the time, because I was just young. But I do know that he did have several connections with Hollywood and the business community, he knew Ronald Reagan, and it was all through skating. And he told me that one of the things he loved about skating was the great amount of interesting people he met all around the world. And that was the reason he always used for me to continue skating — he said, you’ll meet the greatest people in your life. And he’s been right.
About the Michael Kirby Skating Schools: Skating in the 1950s was mostly in the cold states, and it wasn’t really something that was open to the general public. My father saw the opportunity to open up a series of places where he could teach skating to the general public. Prior to that, in the 1940s and the 1930s, really the only place to learn skating was through a skating club. Unfortunately clubs were very restrictive places. I can remember in Chicago, for example, certain races were not allowed membership to the Chicago Figure Skating Club, just because of their background or skin color, nothing else. There was a lot of discrimination in the sport, and my father started the schools in protest because our sport was too elitist, because he felt like it was something that should be taught to everybody. So he started the skating school concept through his talks with Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago, who shared his opinion. My father used to go around to pros and rinks in Chicago and give free lessons for the city of Chicago, and it was very successful, and they said, you should do that year round. So my father sort of got the idea from politics in Chicago to open the sport up to all people and try to run it not only during the winter months but also during the summer months. So he was the first pioneer to try and offer a summer program. In 1951 you could skate in a summer school in Chicago, which was unheard of. He didn’t call it a summer school because he wanted to avoid anything that sounded like an elite program — he called it skating for the recreational skater, or lessons for the beginner skater. He always believed that you had to build a base of new people, so that was his whole concept of the schools and how he did it. And it was very successful, and that’s what led to the creation of the Ice Skating Institute, which followed the same basic principles of recreational versus elitist, and inclusion versus exclusion. Unfortunately I don’t see today that same philosophy being carried forward, but that being said, the schools were really the impetus of the ISI and the skating programs that are now adopted around the world.
On skating pairs with Lynn Holly Johnson, and how they once beat Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner in a competition: Lynn was a great partner, and I fell in love with pairs skating in Chicago, but my father moved to California right after we started skating pairs, so that sort of broke up our skating. But she came out to California to work with Mr. Nicks when I first moved out there, so we had an opportunity to compete. Tai and Randy weren’t taking from Mr. Nicks at the time, which is probably why we beat them [laughs]. Unfortunately Lynn and I had to split up because of the distance, but we’ve stayed in touch to this day, and the last time I was in California a few months ago I was over at her house. She’s doing very well and she has a beautiful family.
I visited the set of Ice Castles one time, but it was really Don Pitts who put all that together for Lynn. Don Pitts was a big agent, and his daughter Dina married Peter Carruthers, so, you know, it’s a small world. My dad got Lynn connected with Mr. Pitts, and he got her some good acting jobs, of which this was one. But I can share with you that they are doing a remake of the movie, and I am involved with that. I’m working with Sandra Bezic, it’s kind of fun, she’s fabulous. I’m only consulting on the technical side.
On being US novice champion: I was very fortunate to move to California and start taking from Mr. Nicks. I really enjoyed skating and Mr. Nicks put together a good novice package. But that was a long time ago [laughs].
On joining Ice Capades: I broke my leg severely, in eight places. I was asked to do a show and I had a knee injury, and I didn’t really want to do the show, but the doctor said, oh, we can shoot that knee up with cortisone and you won’t feel a thing. And I said, oh, great. So they did, and I was warming up for the show, and did a triple toe loop, and came down on the ice at full speed. And it was my left leg that they had shot up with cortisone, and it felt good, it hadn’t felt that good in weeks, so I was like, great! So I came flying down the ice, and everything just shattered. It was a terrible break, I had surgery and then I was in a cast for 14 months, and then I was in a wheelchair. I came back and won a silver medal in pairs in 1975, but never fully recovered. And then I was offered a job with Ice Capades, ironically because Ken Shelley, who did solo and pairs, broke his leg. He had just signed on as the lead, and they needed to fill the spot. And I also did solo and pairs, and I was always much more of a show skater. So Ice Capades offered me a position at a young age because they needed to fill a solo spot and a pairs spot. They found me a pair partner, and we went in to replace Kenny and Jojo [Starbuck], which opened a great opportunity for me. And that led to a seven-year career with Ice Capades. I learned how to perform, and I also learned how to teach, because I was always interested in teaching, and got to tour with a lot of great skaters like the Protopopovs. My wife and I had a motor home and they lived us with us literally from when they got off the boat, I’m not kidding, and I just learned so much about pairs skating and Russian skating from them. We had so many experiences getting to work with so many great people, and we really learned about the sport. It was like going to a university, and I graduated with a degree in ice skating. And I went off and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
On managing and owning skating rinks in Texas: My wife and I started a company in 1991, and we managed ice rinks as well as other retail properties, such as arcades and movie theatres. The company grew pretty big, and at our peak we had around 150 employees and $20 million in annual sales. So we built that from literally nothing. We still own it but we now own a parent company called Diamond Productions LLC. We’ve been married for 25 years but when we were young our goal was to be retired by the time we were 50, which was probably unrealistic, but we tried to stay true to that goal through our whole lives. When we did hit 50 our business was very successful, and we decided, OK, we’re going to sell a large portion of our assets, which we did, but I kept involved with the ice skating side of it. I’ve never given up the Dallas Galleria [rink] which I always considered my flagship business. But we’ve gone full circle, which allows me to get back to my real passion, which is teaching skating. As we were running our businesses, I was taken more and more into that and I couldn’t afford to teach any more.
It’s a wimpy way to tell you that I didn’t follow my passion, I followed my business side because I wanted security for my family when we started having children. I had an “aha” moment where I said, I love teaching skating but I’m not making a good living at it. If they were from 10 to 100 I would teach them, but my wife would say, well, what did you bring home today, and I would say, well, I got paid a chicken [laughs]. And that’s a true story, I taught a young girl whose parents had a chicken farm, and they couldn’t afford to pay us money so they paid us in chickens. So as we had young children, I realized that it didn’t matter what money I made, I just wanted to teach people who wanted to skate, but unfortunately those people usually wouldn’t have any money, although I would still teach them. So I had to get out of that into a world that sort of forced my hand into business decisions that were more conducive to my family. So we were lucky and successful, and now I have more time for teaching, and I’m really enjoying that again.
On coaching pairs skaters Ashley Cain and Joshua Reagan: Randy [Gardner]’s one of my closest and dearest friends, we’ve known each other since we were little boys, and I would love to get him involved with these kids, because it’s hard teaching pairs, but I think Randy recognizes how much they look like Mr. Nicks’ teams. And Mr. Nicks has a certain technique that if I was able to emulate in any way, I would take that as a compliment. When I put Ash and Josh together I had two talented young skaters, and I told them, you’re going to learn how to skate the way we did in the 1960s [laughs]. We’re going to skate the way Mr. Nicks made us skate in the 1960s and early 1970s, with all his stroking exercises and unison exercises. I think they’re working for Ashley and Josh because every competition they’ve skated in, they’ve had success, so that must mean our exercises are working to some degree.
On getting involved with the new judging system: At the 2002 Olympics, the ISU was really under the gun. We don’t need to go over the problems that were created at that Olympics, but our sport really took a bad hit, and it was a real sort of moment when the International Olympic Committee came to the ISU and said this: you guys need to figure how to measure your sport, or you need to get out of the Olympic arena and into a museum, you know, where the arts are. And it was literally said that tough to the ISU. And the ISU realized that skating is a very popular sport, but realistically, if you can’t measure, or compare, how can it be a sport. So there had to be a better way of measuring it. That’s where the impetus of IJS began.
Prior to that the ISU had already been experimenting with video replay, so what the ISU decided to do was to come up with a headhunting firm out of Europe to select former skaters from different countries with different backgrounds. And at the 2003 US national championships in Dallas, I had a good year that year, I had the novice and the junior pairs champions. For the exhibition I put together a little foursome number, and as we were rehearsing, I was approached by Louis Stong, who`s a coach from Canada and who was working for the ISU, and he told me what he was looking for. He had come to US Nationals to find a pair expert for this new judging system they were considering. So I met with them, and they gave me the rundown of what they wanted to do. And I said, okay, I’m interested but I’ll keep it quiet for now. And they sent me some material through US Figure Skating, which was kind of funny, because US Figure Skating called me and said, we’ve got some stuff for you from the ISU, but we want to know what’s going on. And I said, well, I don’t know what you know but I’ve been contacted by the ISU, and I called them and they said, we couldn’t find your address so we sent it to you through your federation [laughs].
So we met in Vancouver, and I was sitting there with Alexei Urmanov on one side of me, and Sergei Ponomarenko, and a bunch of other Olympic and world champions, and high-end coaches that I’d known for years, and I was like, what am I doing in this room [laughs]. So they put us through a very extensive testing process and whittled us down to a smaller group. We were at the preliminary stages of the whole concept, and there were lots of opinions and ideas and egos, and I was amazed at how well the ISU handled all of that. So I made the final cut and that sort of put me into their plan. And they asked me to start being a moderator or teacher to teach the system in other countries, so I traveled to several countries and gave seminars on behalf of the ISU. So I became more than just an official, I was the first technical official that was certified by the ISU, and the first Olympic technical specialist.
But really, the activity I got more involved with was spreading the word. The one component that attracted me from the very first moment was — Louis Stong said to me, we want coaches involved with assessing skaters at competitions. My jaw hit the ground, and I said, you want what?! My dad was trying to do that from the first day I skated — he told me, judges should judge you as a coach. So I was very attracted to the concept and believed in the coaches’ involvement. And then I became the networking coach with my colleagues, I started sharing with them, this is what they want from us. They want to know what is hard, what’s not hard, what we should be teaching. So it really offered coaches for the first time to get a voice, and that’s where I really took off and got involved.
On making technical calls at competitions: There’s three decisions to make, and it’s majority rules. If you’re in the minority, you have to have thick skin and you have to move on. But unfortunately in the real world, sometimes I will be in the minority on a technical panel, and I`ll sort of feel bummed, like, what do you mean, you don’t even want to listen to my argument. But there is no argument once the decision’s made and you move on, and I think that works quite well. And the way the process works, the technical controller, who comes from more of a judging background, supervises the two technical specialists, who comes more from a coaching or professional skating background. The technical controller allows the two technical specialists to do their job, so if the two technical specialists agree, the decision is made quite easily. When the two technical specialists disagree, then the technical controller becomes the tiebreaker. But the technical controller will quite often ask our opinion again, and will have to decide which one is right or which has the better argument. But we have to train people on that and on the dynamics of how to make a better decision that is fair. That’s why training is so important. Even your voice fluctuation can distract the flow and timing of a good technical panel. A good technical panel never takes more than a minute and a half between skaters, and that`s a fact. We`re allowed more than that, two and a half minutes, but a good technical panel is done very quickly.
On the IJS: I prefer the new system, but I think it still has a long way to go. I think the general concept of measuring elements and of technology has to grow even more into a real measurement field. And these are not anyone else’s opinions but my own, but we have the technology right now where we can put a bar code on a skater’s heel and measure every jump’s distance and height in real time while they`re skating. The technology exists and the sport has to take the next step. I don’t want to lose the artistic side of it but I think we have to make that leap forward in measuring the athletic side. Who skates the fastest, jumps the highest, and has the most flow, those are very important aspects of our sport that can be more accurately measured using technology as it develops. So I think IJS points our sport in a direction where we can offer both components which measure the artistic side, but with very accurate measurement on the technical side. The technical panel of the future should be a machine that`s measuring, and not people with judgemental opinions. But our sport must and should always have that artistic flair that no other sport really has.
On how the media reports on IJS and its results: In Vancouver, my job was to do not only to do presentations to the media on the IJS system, but I also had the opportunity to do a live broadcast called Axel Radio, where I was able to connect directly with the live audience in the area. They would have one earpiece, and it was like a radio show format, live. And every media outlet in the arena was listening to us by the end of the competition. It started out with one or two, and then by the end of the Olympic Games, every single media that was in the building had requested a direct line to our feed. And the feedback that I got from these people was tremendously educational to me, because they were flabbergasted at the information I was providing. They had no clue as to what was going on, on the ice. I was doing a play by play call, I was pointing out where points had been left out and where the skater was gaining and losing points, and in real time I was pointing out the features that raised the level of difficulty. And I was just shocked at the amount of media that had no clue that`s how it was being judged. My good friend Scott Hamilton told me he wore one of my earpieces even when he was commentating.
I do feel that the media is getting better, but I don’t think the average Joe cares about how we arrive at a winner. I think the average public out there wants something they can understand, and that’s what I think we have to do a better job of, educating how the winner is picked. And we have not done a good job of that, and that’s probably — the media has a hard time understanding our system, and they just have interpreted it their way. I think they have done a fairly good job when you think about how the original concept was made, but the future TV contract is going to get more involved with the officials, with the communication and the scoreboards. I know the ISU is spending lots of energy and time and money on improving the experience for the average fan, and I’ve seen some really cool plans coming down the pike.
Allison, you would be great on the show [on Skate Radio at US nationals]. I want to get different perspectives, and utilize other experts in the field, or people like you that have perspective and insight. You’re an educated listener, but really this concept is designed for the guy who didn’t like skating and was dragged there, or to make it more fun, or to try to make the sport easier to understand. The same thing happened at the Olympics, we were just flabbergasted at how many coaches and officials were listening to us. That really blew me away. But it’s a fun program and I think there’s more opportunities for it. From day one, I said, let’s educate the casual fan, and if we can educate the casual fan, then we’re going to have more success.
This is the line I say to my media friends, and I say, please take this the right way, it’s not intended to insult you, but I think the media treats skating audiences like they’re idiots. And if you treated them with more intelligence, you would get better ratings.
On the Ice Skating Institute today: About 10 years ago, the ISI made a choice to focus more on rink managers, and to get more involved in rink management education. Up to that point they had been focused more on the recreational skaters. And in my opinion that changed the dynamics of the sport drastically for the two organizations [ISI and USFS] because what that allowed USFS was to improve their basic figure skating programs, and that took off huge. That used to be monopolized by the ISI, because their expertise was conducting competitions and programs really designed around the recreational skater. And then the ISI focused more on managers and training rink managers, which was a much smaller market, and sort of lost focus on the recreational skater. So I think they lost a huge market share to USFS, and today I don’t think the two organizations are anywhere near close in comparison.
I think the ISI is still a very good program, although I think they need to get focused back on the recreational skater, because if they don’t I’m concerned about their future. And this is just my opinion, but the Professional Skaters Association is about 500 times the size of the ISI, so that gives you an idea of comparative sizes. And this year, if you compared the balance sheets, the PSA is 500 times the value of them. That gives you an idea of where they are, and unfortunately — like I said, I think there’s a real need for ice rink management, but it’s a very small market and it’s hard to create a repeat customer base. In the past my father developed the ISI principles on the cycle of skaters. He believed that the cycle of a recreational skater is about seven to nine years, and if they’re having fun, then their family members will skate a cycle of seven to nine years. So he was always very in tune with the cycle of our sport, based on what a recreational skater’s timing was, and he learned that through all of his schools. So that recreational skater brought ISI business for about eight years, and then brought repeat business. And when the ISI changed course and put more emphasis on rink managers, they lost that cycle, and the cycle was broken. So I think they’ve had a hard time since then.
It’s very discouraging for me to see this, because this is an organization that my father started, and 20 years ago it could have been considered a replacement for USFS, and now that can’t even be considered, there’s just no comparison any more. So part of me is discouraged and disappointed, and I hope they find their way and get back into the sport, because there’s a lot of great people in that organization and it means a lot of me. But they’ve got to get their house in order and become a healthy organization. Otherwise I don’t see how they can have a long-term future.
On being involved with USFS, the ISU, the PSA, and ISI: I think it gives me a global perspective. I like to consider myself as a unifier, and I want everyone to work together. We have a common goal, which is to improve and increase the popularity of our sport. And we can get there together, unifying our resources. So I’m hoping that with the PSA partnering with ISI, and having a conference together in Dallas which was ISI`s most profitable conference in over 10 years — I feel very good that they got together and our working together. Christine Brennan from USA Today was at the conference, I invited her to talk about the media’s response to our sport. And the first thing Christine said when she got up there was, you all need to understand that you’re an individual sport, like tennis or golf or sailing, and you are the envy of all those sports. They would love to have your ratings, they would love to have your talent, they would love to have your exposure. So you all think you’re a bad sport, but let me tell you, when I talk to all these other Olympic sports, you are the cat’s meow. So she was very helpful to talk about the media and how they had challenges with the system.
I love this sport, and I love you too, Allison, for what you do for it and because you love it too. You epitomize what my father always said. He was into adult skaters because at the Michael Kirby Skating School he would do these adult classes, and everyone always told him he was a fool. And he said, I can teach anyone at any age how to have fun with ice skating. And he proved it with the adult community, and you think of all the things that spun out from what he did, the Special Olympics, wheelchair races on ice, skating lessons for blind people. For me, I have tremendous-sized shoes to follow. I don’t think I’m ever going to fit the shoe, but I’m working as hard as I can to try to. But what my dad taught me is, if we don’t have a crew of adult skaters, we don’t have a sport. I still teach adults to this day, because they want it, and that’s what I want.