Episode #61: Norbert Schramm

Norbert Schramm is a German Figure Skating Champion, two-time European Champion, twice the World Silver Medalist, and one of the more interesting skaters from an already interesting era in Men’s figure skating. His inventive choreography and spins are still fresh today. He has continued his figure skating career in television and show production, as well as choreography. He’s also run a marathon, been a parade marshall, and is a fantastic photographer. He talks about training in Germany in the 1970s, what it was like to compete against Scott Hamilton, and the 1984 Olympic experience. 50 minutes, 1 second.

Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On his most embarrassing skating moment: There is a few. In the career of an ice skater the most embarrassing is when you miss your number, like if you are in a show and they can’t stop the tape, and you don’t show up and your name is announced and nobody comes [laughs]. It only happened to me once but this was probably one of the most embarrassing moments, because I was just talking to somebody and I forgot completely that I had to go out. And the other moment is when you have a program on a bad day, and none of the elements work, and you fall and you fall and you fall. You would like to disappear, and this is very embarrassing.

On getting started in skating: I was about six years old, and my parents gave me some little gliders for the ice, and so I went on the ice that day and they said, oh, you look very talented on the ice. So I got some lessons and then I did compete. In my first competition I was about nine years old then, and I won. And I competed again and I won again. So slowly, you say, hey, this is a great sport and why shouldn’t I continue.  But then your parents always have to support you, or otherwise you can’t pay for your lessons and you can’t get to the ice rink and so on.

Lots of people told me I was talented, but I would see other people on the ice and say, hey, he is skating pretty good, who is he? And they would tell me he is a world champion. And I said, well, I will get that too one day. And, okay, I didn’t get world champion in this case, but at least I got silver medals in worlds, so pretty close [laughs].

On his coach, Erich Zeller: I took lessons from him for nine and a half years. It was a relationship of hate and love [laughs]. We went through some very serious fights, in a way. He was very powerful as a coach, and I was very powerful as a skater, so yes, we had our ups and downs in our relationship, but at least it lasted nine and a half years. And I was very successful with him, I learned a lot. He was very strict. If you came one minute late to the ice, you would really be in trouble with him. He had very good discipline. And he was very good in tactics. Like we prepared everything, we trained for every situation, and our training was really oriented to the competition. So I learned a lot from him and without him I never would have got that far.

On East and West German skating in the 1970s and 1980s: It was really separate. Like even in the dressing room when you tried to talk to [the East Germans], okay, if nobody was around they would be talking to you, but if the door opened, in the moment they would be quiet, no more conversation. This was a tough time, and you only rehearsed with them if you’ve been in the same competitions or been in the same practice groups at competitions. For some exhibition tours you would be traveling together, but it was really separate. We didn’t have too much contact. You see the talent and you appreciate them, people like Jan Hoffman were big stars for me. I was a little younger than him and I was very proud when I was the first time on the podium with him at the Pokal competition in East Berlin. He was first and I was third, and this for me was for something like, whew, with Jan Hoffman on the podium, this is something very special for me.

On his 11-minute free program: That was my longest free program I ever had [laughs]. It was at Nationals in Dortmund. I started my program and I had to stop after about three minutes. We had to skate at that time five minutes, which was really long. And they had to stop the tape, we had reel to reel tapes at that time and they started to rewind it. But I knew I had to continue skating because my program wasn’t finished yet. And then they realized from the music, oh, we made a mistake, and they started the music at that moment again where the tape was. But that was about one minute behind. So I continued skating my program like I was supposed to do, but it didn’t fit a bit to the music, at least that I thought. So I went back to the moment where the music was, so I had to skate a program of about six minutes. And then everybody noticed that this was a complete mess-up, and I went to the judges and the referee, and they said, take a deep breath and at the end of this group, do your program again. So I had two skaters in between, and then I did my complete program again. This was my 11-minute program [laughs].

Anything can happen, but these days, I wouldn’t do it again. I was very young, I think I was 17 or something like that. When you do programs later on like you do at Worlds or Europeans, they are so tough. When I did my program, with all the seven triples, I just made it. And when I did the same program, with the same expression, with doubles, that means seven rotations less but everything else the same, I was able to do it twice in a row. So with triples and quad-triples, they take so much power out of your body, so it’s not so easy to repeat a program again. So these days, if I would have had to do it at a higher level like Europeans or Worlds, I would not have been able to do 11 minutes of program.

On being in a competition that started at midnight: It was at Easter time, in English it is called Good Friday, and you’re not allowed to play music. So that day they had all the compulsory figure competitions. And being seniors we had the last competition that day. So I had already had dinner in the evening and I came in the ice rink, and our competition was supposed to start at seven o’clock in the evening. But there was no chance, it got a delay and a delay and a delay, and I think the compulsories started at something like one o’clock in the night. And this was, like, hilarious. Normally you would be gone to bed at that time and be deep asleep. But this is when the competition started, and there only were two competitors, but I think I was finished at half-past two or something like that [laughs]. Now these days you have rules in ISU so every competition has to be finished by 11 o’clock, so we wouldn’t even have been allowed to start at that time.

On being creative in his style of skating: I started classical as well, I skated for a few years to Carmen and classical music, but I didn’t really like it. Everybody skated in that classical way at that time more or less. I was inspired by a few skaters like Gary Beacom, Allen Schramm, Igor Bobrin, and Ron Shaver, so I thought, like, what are they doing, why do I like it, what is different? They skated to different music, they did different movements. So I tried to find my own style, doing something different, but also skating to more modern music. At that time there was a lot of Saturday Night Fever music, things like that, a mix of contemporary music. So I was much more happy skating to this kind of music, and I got very successful with it.

On his spin variations: I had been looking for possibilities to do some things slightly different, and with the jumps in the air you can’t do much. You can lift your arms up but you take a hell of a risk that the jump doesn’t work. So it was only in steps and movements in between and in the spins that you can express yourself in a different way. So that’s why I started to fiddle around with what kind of positions I could do and how I could change my arms and things like that. So at that time we started doing different things within the spin. When you look at the spins today they are on a different level, because ice skating developed again on a different level, and it will always go to the next level.

On wearing red outfits in competition: My long programs at the time, I did nearly always skate in red, and in the short programs mostly in blue. So, yes, I tried to bring some color in. It was a pretty good contrast on the ice. Black is pretty good as well, and many of the skaters today skate in black, although it’s getting a bit boring and I wish they would have a bit more color in again.

On competing against Scott Hamilton and having a similar sense of humor on the ice: In competitions, everybody tries to win, and Scott at that time he always won [laughs]. He was in unbelievable shape at that time, and he had a very good technique. He was a bit lighter and smaller than me, but you still have to do all these elements, and he did an amazing job. And being second behind him was still a big honor, to be beaten by somebody like him. And he was so entertaining, usually in exhibitions. And after a few world championships we had tours at that time, 1982, 1983, and I was on an American tour with him. And we always tried to fight to see who gets a better hand with the audience. We really pushed it to a certain level, it was unbelievable. We had a lot of fun doing it, but we had a lot of respect as well.

On comparing men’s figure skating today to when he was competing: We just tried quad-triples in training, and only a few could do them, like Robert Wagenhoffer or Jean-Christophe Simond or Heiko Fischer, who did four triples and landed them. These days if you don’t jump quad-triple it’s very difficult to win a competition any more. And with the new judging system you have so many elements and so many boxes, it is very limited of showing your own personality. It is possible, but if you miss your elements, or if you fool around with them and you don’t get the maximum of points out of them, you can’t win. Not just out of expression — if you have a nice dress and nice music and you interpret the music in a very nice way, you will not win because you don’t have these elements. That’s something I miss a bit of our time, because you could get the attention if you did something different or if you interpreted the music in a nice way. Hopefully, because it’s supposed to be part of the judging system these days, I hope it will come back and we will have great and entertaining competitions. The competitions are entertaining for the people who know the difficulties of what they do, but for somebody sitting at home and eating some potato chips and having a beer or some wine or whatever [laughs], lots of them don’t know the real difficulties. The commentators try to bring it across, but you can’t grab it, like why is somebody now better than the other one, because obviously it looks very similar and the programs look very similar. I wish it would develop again more in the direction that some skaters take the risk to go in a different direction, but I don’t see it at the moment.

The personalities of the skaters — to me they are like a big army. Everybody looks very similar, like they do the same elements, the same set-up, more or less the same steps these days. There is hardly any difference in style. In former years, a skater like Toller Cranston or Gary Beacom or Allen Schramm, or like me in between, we had all completely different styles of skating and a different philosophy of what we thought about skating. And that was exciting for the audience, to see the different types of skaters and to see who’s going to win today.

On changing coaches to Carlo Fassi two months before the 1984 Olympics: As I said, we always had major fights, my coach and me, and that season he was very ill, he had big problems with his heart, and it wasn’t sure if he could go to all the competitions that year. And so it was a mix of both, his health and that we had our fights. But it was stupid, these days I would say I shouldn’t have done it. My coach was okay, he was fine, and we probably would have been more successful that year than I was at the end of my time with Carlo Fassi. He was a very good coach as well, but it was stupid to change.

I wanted always to work more on details, to get the maximum out. And my coach, he was very good at tactics, but technical-wise, I couldn’t get on a higher level that I wanted to get. I wanted to improve, at the Olympic level, at the top, and you have to get the maximum out of your body and out of your movements and out of your program. So I tried to push it to this limit and I couldn’t. We came to an end in our way of training at that time.

Then also, when I changed, it got a little bit political as well from our side. I had been competing national-wise against Rudi Cerne and Heiko Fischer, and in the moment I decided to change, they decided to use it political-wise for their benefits. And also our association decided then to push Rudi in this season, and — ice skating is not only like entertainment, and you can do certain elements and you’re good, it is also politics behind. You can’t measure our sport, even with the new judging system, sometimes results come out and you don’t know why certain skaters win that day and why some others didn’t. And it was the same in our time, it’s all human beings. It’s like whom they would like to have as the top skaters. But I always tried to entertain the audience and have a good time on the ice, and try to have the audience going.  Because I thought, well, judges are audiences at the end of the day, and if the audiences like what I am doing, then probably the judges will do the same.

On winning the 1982 and 1983 European championships: 1983 was probably my most difficult competition I’ve ever done. I was European champion the year before and I competed in my own country, so everybody expected me to win again. And this is really tough pressure, not only that you know that you want to win and show what you could do, but you know more or less that you have to win and that everything has to work out. And this is very very tough competition. The arena was full, it was covered to the last seat, and they all were expecting me to do a great job. You have to do it, you can’t say to anybody else, oh, go out and skate for me [laughs], you have to go out and skate yourself. You have a hell of a pressure, and I was more than happy and more than released after everything was done, and it worked out how I planned to do it.

On winning the silver medal at Worlds in 1982 and 1983: The first time, to be honest, I was not even expected to get silver at Worlds. It went very well and all of a sudden I was second in the world, so I was like, wow, great, fantastic, I was not even winning at the time, so getting on the podium, if I could get that, it would be really great. And at the second, in 1983, I was sick, I had the flu, so my condition wasn’t on the very top. I was weak going into the competition, so I was more or less happy that I could finish my program and stay in the competition. But this was also putting me under pressure for the Olympic season, and some other skaters at that time, like Brian Orser, who got third, he was already in the line going up. So I knew next season I was very much under pressure. And I had problems with my groin all through the 1983 season. I was on a skating tour through the States and I couldn’t do all the shows.

On the 1984 Olympics and World championships: The day before our Olympic competition started, the vice-president of the Olympic committee, Willi Daume, he was a German, he came in the German house and we were all there. And he met my parents and he said to them, I have just heard from a Russian official that your son is going to be ninth tomorrow in the competition, so what’s going on there? And my parents tried to explain that there are certain things going on, and I had changed coaches, and there were certain politics in a way [laughs]. And the next day, in compulsory figures, I got ninth. And I got ninth overall as well. So if you know this story, and when you hear something like that before you even go into competition- they didn’t tell me, they told me afterwards — you know, this has not only to do with how you skate that day, it is a little bit more than that.

And again I went to Worlds in Ottawa after the Olympics, and I thought, like, okay, I could change the wheel and I could get back up again to the top, but when I got 11th and 14th in the first two compulsory figures, I knew, my time is over, I will never ever be up in the top of the skaters again. So I decided to quit right in the competition, and I didn’t do my loops that time. At least I got one more time a standing ovation for that. This was something unbelievable, for a school figure I never did I got a standing ovation, so I guess a lot of people at that time realized what was going on behind the scene. These days, I’m a bit unhappy about this situation at that time, but on the other hand it was the right decision, and I continued on my own way.

I did not see my parents before the [Olympic] competition, but they talked to my coach about this, and Carlo Fassi said already at that time, Norbert, forget it, they don’t want you any more at the Olympics. But it was my biggest aim to compete at the Olympics, and I wanted to finish the competition, I didn’t want to start and stop. I wanted to continue and have a good time, and to see what it was like to skate at the Olympics and if I can do all my elements as I tried to prepare it. I had a very difficult and hard program, and pretty well it worked, but this was probably my hardest and most difficult program I ever skated. Not all elements worked like I wished they would have worked, but still it was a very powerful and strong program and I’m very happy that I finished the competition.

I was one of the first skaters ever who got a standing ovation for a school figure, and I did not even do it [laughs]. I think it was a great honor from the audience in Canada and from all the people there. And Gary Beacom, he was the very first, he came with his skate guards on, he slid back onto the ice and congratulated me for my decision to do that. I had a bit of shaky legs at that moment, to be honest, but later I definitely did think I did the right thing. I had to leave that same night as I was no longer on the national team, and thank God my parents were there so I could sleep in their hotel room [laughs]. They threw me out from the team and I had to fly back home right away. So this was something quite tough, but I did it and I can’t change it any more. Probably these days I would do it a different way, but that was me at that time.

On competitive skating compared to professional skating: If I did not like competitive skating, I would not have got that far, so yes, I did like competitive skating, absolutely. But later on in show business and show skating I could show what I really loved to do on the ice. To be one with the audience, you give something and you get something back in the form of applause and a good hand, it’s something like, this is really exciting and that kept me going for many years. Every audience is different, and when I went out with Holiday on Ice and they announce your name, and you hear the wave of applause that comes back, you know exactly what kind of audience you have that day and how to work with them, how to do your performance and what kind of timing you need to get them going. This is something I was always very fascinated with, you hear in the way they clap how to skate that day. And when it works out at the end of the day, it’s really great.

On still being a popular skater in Germany: The shows are not organized by the association [laughs], they are organized by people who like to see my ice skating. Also these days in Germany I don’t say anything more about what had happened at that time, and I can’t change it anyhow. So I have worked with the national junior team for a few years now, and I try to support the association as much as possible. But now I live in the States, in Hoboken next to New York City. So it’s great to get all these honors, for what I have done in former years, and lots of great things are happening here and I feel at home these days.

On his current activities, such as photography, filmmaking, and reality shows: I definitely have a very good time with all these things. I’m very happy with all these possibilities that I was able to. One day if I am not here any more on this planet, or when it’s time to go, I can really say I had a good life and I had lots of fun and lots of experiences. I’ve done a lot of things and seen a lot on this planet, and I have a great daughter. And I’m very happy about lots of things.

On the current state of German skating: It is always individuals, it wasn’t a team as in my time. When we went to Worlds and Europeans we had one of the biggest teams. In all four disciplines we had fantastic skaters. I think it was the result of the very good work our association had done before. Peter Krick was our sports director, and now he is in the ISU and he is at the events where he runs everything. So, yes, I would say it was his benefit that we had such a good team and very good officials.

On being a technical specialist: I took the course and I did one competition, an international junior Grand Prix. But to be honest I didn’t like it, and since that time I didn’t do any more and I think now I am not allowed to because I didn’t do follow-ups.

On the state of skating today: I watch it, but I have to force myself to watch it, to be honest. Yes, I try to follow it, but if you were to ask me the names of who is in it or who is winning or who is in the Grand Prix, I wouldn’t be able to answer this question right now. I love it when I see great skaters and when I see great performances, but it’s a bit rare, for me, what I like in ice skating. If there’s some good ice shows, like professionally done, I prefer it in these days to the competitive skating.

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.

1 comment on “Episode #61: Norbert Schramm

  1. Sahdia Khalid says:

    I was fascinated by Schramm’s remarks about the personality of skaters, the relationship between skaters from East and West Germany and figure skating politics. 1984 was quite heartbreaking. Thank you very much for this interview. As usual, you get the best info from the interviewees.

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