An interview with Carol Heiss Jenkins, the 1960 Olympic Gold Medalist for ladies figure skating, as well as the Silver medalist in the 1956 Olympics, a 5 time World Champion, and of course US National Champion. In Part 1, she takes us through her early days of skating all the way through the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, with details about what it was like studying with famous ice skating coach Pierre Brunet, and how she developed those axels going in both directions. Don’t forget to check out Part 2! 1 hour, 14 minutes, 58 seconds.
Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:
On her most embarrassing skating moment: I don’t know, there are other things in life but not skating-wise that I can remember. Our competitions were pretty staid, we just came in and we competed and it was in the 50s and everything was always prim and proper. You wore white gloves, and when the president of the club, the Skating Club of New York, came in, you always did a little curtsey and extended your hand and said hello, good morning, good afternoon.
No wardrobe malfunctions, my mom in the early years knitted our skating costumes and everything was pretty much set. And then in later years, I always tried out my costumes. There was no way I wanted a seam to split or a zipper to come apart. And we competed outdoors and I had velvet dresses and then chiffon dresses because I wanted a little more freedom. And I couldn’t afford more than one costume a year, so that costume had to suffice for indoor competitions in the States as well as Worlds outdoors. And I had enough room in the chiffon costumes that I could go ahead and wear long underwear. Velvet was just way too warm in the indoor rinks.
On starting in skating: I’m the oldest, my sister and brother are younger, each about 2 ½ years apart. We skated outdoors — my parents were German and they came over in the 30s, and they loved winter sports. They skied and then skated, which is what you did in Europe, and in the summer they played tennis and went swimming. We went out to a small park in Long Island, Baisley Park, where they had a little frozen pond, and we would go out skating and it was a lot of fun and I loved it. And I didn’t know when the ice had gone, so when I was about four, as my mom told me, I would keep asking, couldn’t I just go skating, I want to go skating. And my mom said I was very persistent, and she found an indoor rink in Brooklyn, I lived in Queens, so we went to the Brooklyn Ice Palace. And someone said to my mom, your daughter seems to like skating so much, it’s spring, you should join the club, and as you know one thing led to another [laughs]. So I was a member of the Brooklyn Figure Skating Club until I was about six, and someone said to my mom, you should get in touch with the Brunets. And by the time we joined the Skating Club of New York, we were all skating.
I didn’t take from Mr. Brunet right away. I started with his wife Andrée, everyone had to start with her and you had to be just a little bit better. I do remember very clearly skating around him when he was giving lessons, I was probably a real pest, so he would see me and notice me because I wanted to take from him so badly. So finally after about a year of taking from Mrs. Brunet, my mom said I would get a tryout lesson with Mr. Brunet, and oh my gosh, I was just beside myself. And I had Mr. Brunet as my coach for all those years, from when I was six and a half, and he was the only coach I ever had, except during the summer when he didn’t teach and we would go away and take from someone else for a few weeks.
I was 73 in January, so I’ve been around rinks for 68 years now, and there’s something about walking into the rink — I can be tired and come in to teach, and I can remember feeling that way coming in to train, and just feeling all excited and thrilled and ready to go. I think now, gosh, maybe I should retire, maybe if we’re doing a lot and I think, oh, I’ve got to get to the rink because I’ve got lessons, but I’ll get there and I’ll just feel wonderful.
On being coached by the Brunets: Pierre was a second father to me, and I can say that now because as the years went by, my mother became ill, and he comforted me during my mother’s death. I trained six days a week, I didn’t always have a lesson every day, but he was always in the rink nearby. And as the years went by we had some heartaches and tragedies, his son being killed in 1948 at the age of 18, and then my mother’s death. And then the wonderful times, winning my first national championship, getting my axel, getting my double axel clean, winning the world championship, and of course the Olympics. As I got older and thought back to the lessons at the rink, he would talk about politics, he would talk about what was going on that day, and if you didn’t know what was going on, he told you to read the newspaper.
On her sister Nancy and brother Bruce’s skating accomplishments: We never heard in our family, you have to win. If we had to do anything, it was to tell the truth about whether we wanted to do it any more. Every year, my mom and dad would sit us down and say, OK, we have to pay the bills for the ice for the year, pay to join the club, and is this what you really want to do? And the other thing was that once the bills were paid, you had to see it through. And it was our responsibility to use the ice and to work as hard as we could, just like school. And if you needed some help, that’s fine, but I never felt any pressure to win, and working hard was easy because I loved what I was doing. Mr. Brunet would tell someone if they came in looking sloppy, tomorrow you’re going to come in better dressed, because if you’re not organized in your mind, you’re not going to become a better skater. There were lots of lessons that came to pass in those lessons [laughs]. And it was fun for our family, because my sister and I were on teams together. The second year I won nationals my sister and Carol Wanek made the world team. And Mr. Brunet also had two French boys and Donnie Jackson. So he had all three girls that made the world team, along with Alain Calmet and Alain Giletti and Donnie.
[Nancy and Bruce] liked skating and they didn’t want to quit. My brother had probably the most natural talent but he didn’t work as hard as Nancy and I did [laugh]. But he was the baby of the family and the only boy, and he would just get things much easier than we could. And he stayed in the sport until 1961, I helped to pay for some of his lessons after I turned professional. We all enjoyed it, we had a trio, and they would skate as a pair, and she and I did similar pairs. I don’t even know if kids do [similar pairs] any more — with the new judging system, even entering local competitions is more expensive, because they have so many officials that come in. And now you’ve got choreographers, people who put the music together, moves in the field — they thought cutting out figures would cut the cost of skating. Well, it hasn’t, because you’ve got all sorts of different coaches and it’s so expensive, so they don’t sign up for the interesting fun things.
On her parents’ involvement in their skating: My father would only see us skate once a year. He was a baker and he had to be at the bakery very early in the morning. Mid-Atlantics which was always at the Skating Club of New York was when he would see us, and it would be fun, because he would say, oh, you’ve really improved. He didn’t know the jumps [laughs]. When I was working on my double axel, my mother would watch and say, I don’t know why you get so frustrated and upset with this jump, honey, it’s just one more turn in the air. And I said, Mom, it’s the one jump you need to know, and it’s very hard to do [laughs]. And even today, sometimes the senior ladies will do a triple flip easier than they do a double axel.
On figures: I didn’t enjoy them when I was younger. As a little kid I never sat still and was always trying to do something, I was always playing baseball or jumping rope or hopscotch outside. I enjoyed the figures later on because they were more of a challenge, but when I was younger I couldn’t wait until patch was over because I wanted to free skate, I wanted to jump. The kids today do too — they don’t even work on spins as much because they want to jump. But as I got older I loved making the patterns on the ice and I tried to make my patch as neat as I could. And when I was 17 or 18 I finally got up enough nerve to tell Mr. Brunet, because he wore skates when he taught, please don’t mess up my patch, could you go up and down the side? It always looks like a chicken has been on my patch when I’m through with my lesson [laughs].
And part of it is I knew that if I was going to be world or Olympic champion, when I was always in second place trying to work my way up the ladder, freeskating was only worth 40% and the figures were worth 60%. So when I finally won school figures and won my first Worlds, I thought, this is a much better position to be in [laughs]. From the time I was 17 I really spent a lot of time working on school figures.
On spinning one way and jumping the other way: It really didn’t matter. Mr. Brunet would never tell someone, and I would never tell someone, you’ve been taught wrong. I would say, oh, that’s really good, let’s keep that and work on it. I would never say anything against what someone had learned, because competing is so hard, it’s so difficult, and it’s so much work and training. So I wouldn’t look at someone who has trained for three or four years with another coach, and make them think, I have wasted the last four years of my life [laugh], when it isn’t true. One summer someone who was coaching me told me, you can never be champion with this, you have to jump the other way or spin the same direction you’re jumping, and spent the summer trying to change me. And I couldn’t spin the other way to save my soul. But my jumping was better the way I spun, and all the way through that summer I got as far as a double loop. And when I got back, Mr. Brunet said, what did you learn this summer, and so I told him, and I could tell by his face — and tears started to come to my eyes, and I said, I wasted my whole summer. And he said, no, no, it’s not a waste, show me the axels and the double salchows. And we’ll use the axels in the programs – that will be unique. It could be something that people remember you by, and that other kids will try to do. And that’s why the axels both ways were always in my programs, so that I didn’t feel my summer was wasted. Which was good psychology.
On her US novice and junior championships: I remember my first Nationals, I was fourth [in novice], and I thought, I want to come back next year and win. I was 10, I had big dreams [laughs]. The next year, my mother couldn’t afford to go, it was in Seattle and back then only the champions got their travel expenses paid. So my godmother went with me, and I was so excited when I won. It was also the first time I saw Hayes [Jenkins] skate, and Dick Button, and Yvonne Sherman, all these great skaters. And it was the year before the Olympics, so it was a wonderful nationals for me to win. Then in 1952, nationals were at Broadmoor [in Colorado Springs], and it was my first time dealing with the altitude. And I was third in school figures [in junior], and I remember thinking that I would have to work hard on them to get better. And I remember walking in and slamming the big arena doors on my finger [laughs]. Even today it’s a little crooked, so I must have broken it.
On her favorite element: The double axel [which she was the first to land in competition] but only because it made the difference. Nobody else had a clean one and I knew even if I wasn’t the first one I knew that I would need it. It was my favorite jump when I landed it, let’s put it that way [laughs]. I tried to be as consistent as I could, and thankfully I had Donnie Jackson when he skated for a few years at the Skating Club of New York. He had so much talent, he would do them in a row, and we would try to compete with each other. And I think that really helped me. The guys find the jumps so much easier than we girls do. And if you can do them two in a row, then one is just so much easier.
I was terrible on the ground. I could do an axel off-ice, but that’s about it. I have skaters that can do the triples off the ice. And the ones that can’t do it start to cry, and I look at them and say, welcome to the club. I couldn’t even do a double salchow off the ice. I did ballet, it was a wonderful thing, but I wasn’t very flexible. I couldn’t do a spread eagle to save my soul, and the spirals were hard for me, it was practicing them every day. For a while I took ballet for a minimum of three times a week.
On placing second to Tenley Albright at nationals for four years: In 1953 I was fourth in the world and in 1954 I was second at nationals, but in 1954 I was just grateful to be second because I was injured, and I missed the 1955 world championships. I really did nothing more than a double flip and a double loop, but I was so far ahead in figures, that helped me to stay second. So being second didn’t bother me at all. In 1955 I expected to be second because Tenley had won worlds that year, and I went from fourth in the world to second in the world. So I was delighted with that, and Tenley was world champion. And I was glad not to be beaten [at nationals], you always had to look a little bit behind you for somebody that might be coming up [laughs]. In 1956 we had the Olympics and Tenley was going in as twice world champion. So I was just hoping to be on the podium and to keep second place. But then after that, I thought, let’s see, if Tenley stays in, maybe I can inch my way and see if I could be world champion and national champion next year, even if Tenley stays in. And that was the first year where maybe I started to think I could beat Tenley if I worked hard. I worked hard on my school figures that year too because I wanted to be on the podium at my first Olympics. And then I went to worlds and won figures by a hair, a tenth or a hundredth of a point. And I started thinking, oh, I’ve never been in this position before [laughs], this is hard, because the only place I can go is down. I managed to skate very well that night and won Worlds. And that was the world championship where I had worked very hard to get the double axel. I didn’t quite have it at the Olympics — it was there but I just barely did it, it was one of those low ones. At Worlds I had more confidence, I put two in the program and landed both of them. And I’m convinced it was those clean double axels that gave me an edge over Tenley.
My mother died later that year, in October. She was very ill, but I think she just wanted to stay alive long enough [to see the win]. It was a very difficult year. I came into the rink in January and just started to cry and said, I hate my music, I hate my program. And God bless Mr. Brunet, he just looked at me and said, oh really? And I said, I just really don’t like my music, I hate it. And I don’t really use that word. So he said, okay, let’s start looking for new music. Come to the apartment, I’ll have my wife make dinner, and we’ll choose some music. So we changed the music, changed the program, and I think by the time we left for Worlds maybe three weeks later. Can you imagine? [laughs]. I tell my pupils now, when they want to change their music, I say, oh, that’s easy. We’ve got two months. Piece of cake [laughs].
On why she stayed in amateur competition after the 1956 Olympics: My mother would have wanted me to stay in only if I wanted to. My dad would have loved if I had turned pro because — my mother did some graphic design and helped to pay for skating lessons, but it was getting expensive. It’s always been an expensive sport and in my day you had to belong to a private club. Things sort of fell into place. I remember John Harris from Ice Capades coming in, and my mom was still alive but she was bedridden and very ill, and in those days you couldn’t even be seen with someone from a show because gossip would go around and you would lose your amateur status because they would think you had an unwritten contract or something. But Mr. Harris came to the house in his limousine, I remember that created a lot of excitement in our neighborhood because no one had seen a black limousine before [laughs]. And my mother did listen to what I said, and it was my mantra, I don’t know why, but I would say, I don’t want to be 40 years old and look back and think, why didn’t I stay in? And I felt that about school, about friends, about projects. So I said to my mom, I think I want to stay in, and that’s when she looked at me and said, that would be my wish for you too, if that’s what you want. So I listened from behind closed doors, sitting on the stairs, when John Harris came in, and [what he offered was] was a lot of money then, $100,000 a year, [I] could be the star of the show, and he knew that Sonja Henie and Barbara Ann Scott were retiring — just think of what it could do. And my mom, I’ll never forget her answer, it really put things in perspective at the age of 16. She said, my daughter’s dream is to be Olympic champion, and that would be my wish for her, to make her happy, to at least try. It may not happen but at least she’ll have no regrets. And then he said to her, but you’ll have comfort knowing that your husband and your children are taken care of. And she said, look at me, Mr. Harris, look how I look today. I’m not going to get better. Can you, with all your money, can you give me my good health back and make me better? And he said, no, of course not. And she said, well, then, my daughter’s dream, I want her to have that. We’ll find a way. And that was it.
And I always thought about that, even when I was 18, 19, when I had children, and now with grandchildren. I tell them, my mom had it so together. She wanted her children to be happy. She wanted us to know the work ethic. She wanted us to understand perseverance, dedication, determination, the old-fashioned values. And I think if my mother gave me anything, or all three of us, that’s what she gave us. And my sister and brother and I have talked about that in later years. It was a wonderful legacy.
On being an optimist: I’m very optimistic. You don’t know that about yourself, but Hayes has told me. We’ve been married 52 ½ years, and he always says, oh, your eternal optimism [laughs]. He even said that the other day.
On the 1960 Olympics: I felt more confident in the 1956 Olympics than I did in 1960. In 1956 it was walking in with the whole US team and having the whole Olympic experience, I was on such a high. Squaw Valley [in 1960] was, and I’m sure David [Jenkins] felt the same way, I know he felt the same way — first of all, you’re expected to win the gold medal. There’s Sports Illustrated, and Time magazine, and Life magazine, and there’s television that now has come into it for the first time, CBS is now televising it live. And I had won four world titles. So your expectations, you can’t let them get away from you. And that was Mr. Brunet’s perspective always, you have to earn it. You have to earn your title. There’s no entitlement, and I was always told that, you’re not entitled to anything, you have to earn it and you have to work for it. And the Olympics was no different. You still had to skate for it. And so I was much more nervous than I was in 1954, because each year from then it got harder. First of all, you are older, and you realize that you have an investment in it and you’re giving up so much more for it. When I was 15, 16, I wasn’t really giving up anything, but when you’re 18, 19, in college — it’s a job, and I figured this is just one of my happy jobs [laughs], I loved doing it. But you realize the time commitment and the effort that’s gone into it, and you realize the financial burden that you’ve put on your family. I mean, I never really knew what the bills were. But I did housekeeping and the cooking after my mother died, and there’s real life things that get involved in it that you don’t realize so much when you’re younger. So it’s a different kind of pressure.
I enjoyed the Olympics, and I was honored to give the oath for all the athletes. And I was nervous about that [laughs]. And then once that was over it was more businesslike. But it was fun. Barbara Roles, Laurence Owen and I roomed together, and I think that eased things. Laurence was funny, but she was younger, and Barbara and I were pretty much the same age and had competed against each other for the last couple of years, and we were good friends. And we still are. We roomed together at Nationals a few years ago, and we roomed together at a friend’s birthday in Kansas City.
And once the Olympics were over, I was relieved, like, wow, you won for your country, and it’s a great feeling to be up on that podium. To be competing in your own country, on one hand, the expectations are very high, but the crowd is so for you. They clapped for all the US skaters, the skiers, the hockey team, that was fabulous. And we got off the ice, and what a difference, Walter Cronkite interviewed you, it was such a news thing. They weren’t going to have so much coverage of the Olympics, but after the first couple of days, the public wanted to see more and more, so it grew each day. So by the time I got to skate, the country was really into the Olympics, and that was so much fun.
And I went on [to Worlds] in Vancouver a few weeks later, because it was on the west coast, and it was like my mom used to say, and Mr. Brunet used to say, you finish your job, you finish your career. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I couldn’t stay in another four years because of the expense. And I also knew, I had fallen in love with Hayes and I knew we were going to get married because I was secretly engaged. He had asked me in August, we had been dating since I was 16 ½, he asked me up at Mr. Brunet’s cabin under a full moon at the end of the dock. He had already asked my father for my hand, and he asked my coach as well [laughs]. And I said obviously we’re going to wait until after Olympics and Worlds, and he said, absolutely, whenever. So I knew that any decision I made professionally was going to involve Hayes.
So Worlds was a very hard competition, because you’re so excited from the Olympics, and there’s an exhaustion that sets in. And I don’t think there’s an Olympic gold medal winner who doesn’t say that. There’s such excitement winning the gold medal, and the interviews, and the crowds, even back then. It was sort of a whirlwind and it was hard to keep training, even though Mr. Brunet was very good about trying to keep me on the ice and keep me training. And then going to Worlds for the fifth world title — I never went in for the record, that never dawned on me [laughs]. It was just finishing my career. And I probably would have gone on to nationals, but that was the first year that they put nationals before Worlds and Olympics, and it’s stayed that way ever since. And after that, I just wanted to get married, and there was a ticker tape parade in New York. They just couldn’t have treated me better. Carol Heiss Day, the key to the city, and then Long Island did the same thing. But then the offers came in and there were decisions. The first decision was, I said, I want to get married and make the decisions together. So we managed with good friends and my dad and the Brunets to put my wedding together in six weeks.
On explaining the difference to her students between skating then and skating now: I’ll tell them, you can watch on YouTube. They’ll go, oh, it’s so hard to do a double axel, and I’ll say, you weren’t anywhere near a twinkle in your parents’ eye because your parents weren’t even born then, but go on YouTube and watch my brother-in-law in 1957 do the triple axel. And they don’t say anything any more. And that’s where I think I can help them — to say, oh, you think it’s so monumental, but you put your mind to it, you persevere, you have to have patience. And I tell the kids now, the reason you get frustrated is because you can Google anything. You go on Google and you can get your answers instantaneously. And to be honest with you, I’m the same way, I’ve fallen into the same trap. But I also realize that for anything to be worthwhile, you have to be patient. You can’t Google a double axel or an Olympic gold medal, it doesn’t work that way. And they like that, they like it to be put in their terms. But also I think my age has helped me. They know how long ago it was that I skated, and yes, it was different then, I didn’t have the triple jumps. But the sport hasn’t changed. The double axel hasn’t changed. And I tell them the story about my mom and me, about my having tears over learning the double axel, I had the biggest cheat on it, it was so hard learning to stand up on it, and how my mom couldn’t understand getting upset over one more turn in the air. And I got to thinking about it, and I thought, you know, my mom’s right. Just keep your arms in a little longer, stand up a little straighter, jump up a little higher. And the kids will say, but, but, but, but, but, and I say, oh, I know, I did the buts, buts, buts too, but in reality that’s what it is [laughs].