An interview with John Misha Petkevich, the 1971 US National Figure Skating Champion, two-time Olympian, USFS Hall of Fame member, author of two skating books (“Figure Skating: Champion Techniques” and “The Skater’s Handbook”), and the creator of the fantastic Harvard-run show “An Evening With Champions.” He was also a commentator for NBC, CBS and ESPN. And if that wasn’t enough, after graduating from Harvard he attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar where he was awarded a Doctorate in Cell Biology, and went on to become a successful investment banker. We discuss his massive jumps, how he liberated mens’ costuming from the “monkey suit,” his opinion on the demise of compulsory figures, and his proudest moment in his skating career. 1 hour, 20 minutes, 50 seconds.
Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:
On his most embarrassing skating moment: That is a tough question. One of the things that I tell people now that I’m 64 years old is that there’s not a thing that could possibly embarrass me any more. So if it happened in the past it’s not happening now [laughs]. You remember the good things and block out the other things.
On starting skating: I was pigeon-toed, and the pediatrician in Great Falls, Montana, had two solutions. He said, I think you should buy cowboy boots for your son, and you should put him on the ice. Of course, when your toes are pointing toward each other and you’re gliding on the ice, it makes for a difficult situation. You have to straighten out or you’re going to find yourself falling quite frequently. So I started actually on a frozen pond, and then my mother took me indoors. But she forgot that it was warm inside, and so after a few months of being bundled up and then taken outdoors, I got pneumonia. So I had to be taken off the ice. The next solution to the problem was, well, you should do tumbling and that kind of stuff. And that led to tap dancing which I did for a couple of years. I felt embarrassed being the only guy in a class with 15 girls, and I regret this, but I said, I have to get out of this. I would never make that decision today. So my mother said, well, you gotta do something, because I don’t have enough time in the day to watch after you. So being in a rink all day sounded like a good idea to her. Hockey was big in Great Falls, but my father was a radiologist, and he was constantly looking at X-rays of guys who didn’t wear helmets and mouthguards, who had no teeth and fractured skulls, so there was no way I was playing hockey. He said, the only thing you’re going to do on ice is figure skate. So that’s what I did.
On being in an area not well known for skating: There were a couple of kids who were serious at a regional level, and a couple went on to sectionals. But I have to say, from the age of seven to 14, I viewed it just as a thing to do to have fun. So we would do all sorts of things on the ice. We’d roll marbles to each other during school figures practice — we were just goofing around all the time. But there was a guy who came along when I was 14 by the name of Arthur Bourke, who became my coach. Prior to him, the coaches who were there tried to be serious and did the best they could, and we more or less responded to them. I suppose prior to competitions we might get serious for a month or two, but the rest of the year we goofed around. I did ice dancing as well as singles at the time, but I was no threat to anybody. My partner’s brother made the 1968 US Olympic hockey team, but unfortunately he was killed in a car accident the summer before.
When Arthur came along, he was kind of serious because he had worked with Donald Jackson in Canada for a while. Arthur had some depression issues, and he came to Montana because he thought it would be a nice quiet place, away from the intensity of Ottawa and Ontario as far as skating was concerned. And he said to me, you know, I think you could make it to the Olympics. Now if I showed you a movie, trust me, you would not say that. I don’t know what he saw, and I’ve watched those movies [laughs]. But then I went, you know, that’s an interesting thought, so I got serious about it. And more people got serious about it as well. I had made it to nationals as a novice under another coach, but it was still pretty ugly. I kind of looked like a simian ice skater.
On making it to the Olympics four years after starting with Bourke: We worked really hard. I’d had seven years of goofing around [laughs], so it was probably time for payback. I thought, well, that might be fun to do, and once I’d made that decision — there were tense moments, I don’t remember them all, but we did what we had to do.
On his unusual jumps: The reverse double lutz, the lutz was such an interesting jump because you’re rotating with the edge on the entrance, and then you take off and counter-rotate against the edge. All the other jumps are on the same edge, on the same circle. And I thought, well, what if we made the lutz do what the other jumps do, and the only way to do that is to land forward. That was just experimenting. The Bourkey is really a flip with a position like a side stag, and it was taken from a picture I saw of Nureyev. I saw the position in the air and thought that would be fun to do.
Those jumps have now all fallen out of favor, because everyone’s so focused on the difficulty of their routines that they really haven’t paid attention to unusual things that might not be considered technically difficulty.
On the height of his jumps: This is pure speculation on my part, because I don’t think there’s been any rigorous scientific study that would prove my point, but I have read and observed that it’s possible that the height of the calf, the longer the distance from the heel to where the calf becomes defined, may have something to do with spring. There are a couple of people whom I know who have that feature. I’m half Lithuanian, and there are some members of that Slavic group up there who became ballet dancers, like Nureyev, and who could really leap. And it turns out that I have that feature on my calves, and there are some African-Americans that have it as well. Like Michael Jordan, he can move through the air. So that’s it, I’m pretty much the same as everyone else. I did jumps in place, for stamina and quad strength and all that, but it might be related to a physiological feature.
[My knees] are really pretty good. I have some stiff hips, but as everyone does as you get older, you need to work out and stretch because it can tighten up pretty quickly as you age. So I spend a lot of time doing that. I did rupture a disk in my lower back which may have been weakened from all those years, but it’s healed itself so it’s fine. The knees and the hips are holding up so far. I’m pretty diligent about exercising.
On why he doesn’t skate now: After the 1972 Worlds, when I stopped amateur skating, I was doing a Ph.D. in biology at Oxford. And I thought it was really important to decouple the life I had had as a reasonably well-known skater from what I was doing in the lab. Because it would have no impact on whether or not I did things well in that particular profession, they were completely unrelated. I did a few professional things, but after a while I said, I gotta focus on what I’m doing here and do this properly. And the other thing was that, gosh, it’s no fun getting bad at something, it’s fun to get better. And I just knew that I couldn’t maintain that same level that had existed when I was skating every day and for many hours. So it wouldn’t have been fun for me. I can remember — the sensation of being in the air for a long time, it’s really a thrill and it really is fun to float in the air. But that wasn’t going to happen, and I wasn’t interested in going through that pain.
On his figures: They weren’t that bad. They weren’t great, but I was no Trixi Schuba, that’s for sure. I’m sure people think this is heretical, but I’m a firm believer that figures have nothing to do with free skating. Trixi Schuba was by far one of the great school figure practitioners of all time, and she was by far not one of the best freeskaters. If she could be that good on school figures and it had an impact on free skating, she should have been better. I think they’re two separate disciplines, and one of the things that Arthur and I devised, we did a lot of training of high-speed crossovers and stroking. And that’s what produced my pretty strong edges, the freeskating. Trust me, it wasn’t from the figures.
At the USFSA annual meeting, I think it was in Cleveland, in 1972, they asked me to give a speech. Big mistake [laughs]. One of my points during the speech was just what I told you. I said, I think it’s ridiculous, either you separate them and make them two different disciplines, and if you want to have a combined medal, fine, or get rid of figures. One or the other.
On the 1968 US Nationals, at which his long program got him onto the Olympic team: [The long program] was a great sensation. Everything clicked. There are two parts to any skating performance, as you know, the mental part and the physical part. You’re going to have good days and bad days, and the good days will be the result of the mental and the physical part. And not every day is like that. You’re not loose, you don’t feel physically perfect, and skating is a precision sport, so you have to be right on to make that performance happen. And it happened on that occasion. I don’t think any of my other competitive performances were quite as perfect as that. I still occasionally meet people from Philadelphia who say, oh, I remember seeing you there. That’s kind of sweet.
On the 1968 Olympics: It was great. I obviously didn’t do the kind of job at Grenoble that I did at Philadelphia, but it is what it was. Some of the stuff worked really well but some of the things didn’t come out the way I wanted them to, but it was a wonderful experience. I loved Grenoble, I loved France, I loved being there. One of the great things about the Olympics to me is that it breaks down all the political barriers in the world, and that for me was fabulous. [The competitors] were just like me, they were skating because they loved it. I don’t think there was any animosity to the guys from the Eastern bloc because of the shenanigans that the adults who should know better were involved in. It was particularly interesting then because the Iron Curtain was really the Iron Curtain, and a lot of those kids, you knew they wished they lived on the other side. They wanted the same things we wanted and had, and they couldn’t. So we were friends with all of them. There’s probably more fierce competition at the national level than at the international level.
On the start of his Olympic program, where he stood for several seconds after the music started: I can’t remember what the rationale was for the delay. It may have been that Arthur and I decided that we wanted to establish the tone of the program through the music first, and then follow it with the movement. Making the program work with the music was a really important thing for both of us. Arthur described it as, you gotta feel the music. And I described it as, the movements have to work with the music, they can’t be independent of it.
On his mother moving from Montana to take care of him when he attended Harvard: She had a collaborator in that little program, who was Arthur. Arthur said, you have to get out there to feed that kid, he’s eating that college food and he’s not going in the right direction. But it was fine. It’s interesting because I had no trouble, when I believed in something, telling my mother no. Arthur pleaded with me in 1967, when I was accepted to Harvard, not to go. And my mother wasn’t all that happy, because she was a devout Catholic and she thought it was an atheist school anyway. My father of course would have preferred that I go. So I said to Arthur, OK, I’ll go to the College of Great Falls, which was our local college, for one year. After the Olympics is behind us, I’m going to Harvard. I’ll give you one year, and that’s it. My mother would have much preferred I stay at the College of Great Falls, or go to Notre Dame or something like that. But that’s what happened. Arthur relocated for my second year at Harvard. [During the first year] he came out a few times, particularly as the competitions got closer, but Tommy McGinnis coached me a few times, and Cecelia Colledge, and that was about it.
On his innovative costuming: I’m a little bit of a contrarian [laughs]. I thought, it’s uncomfortable wearing these silly monkey suits, and you can’t move properly in them. I wanted something that went with the music and allowed me to move more freely. We recognized there was a risk, we went in with our eyes wide open, thinking, hey, we could get some penalties for this. But we did it because it was the right thing to do. We looked at ballet, and the guys there were in stretchy material, and they were in it for a reason — so they could move. The height on my axels was probably partly technique, and it was the ability to swing the free leg through and up. Monkey suits restricted that a bit.
On his music choices: España Cañi was not well known, although it’s a popular Spanish piece. On The Waterfront was just a great piece of music with a lot of dynamism and power. And the Rachmaninoff piano concerto #2 was just so gorgeous.
On becoming US national champion in 1971: It was a fun year. Nationals were in Buffalo and there was a ton of snow. Harvard had this thing where you had to take your exams at the same time as everyone else, so I had to go to Rochester or somewhere and find a proctor to take my exam before the competition. Then we went to St. Petersburg for North Americans, and that was the last North Americans. And I was the last North American men’s champion. It’s good to still be North American men’s champion when you’re 64 [laughs].
On adding Gus Lussi to his coaching team at that time: I started taking lessons from him as sort of a consultant. The first thing we were trying to accomplish was to improve the speed of my spins, and we accomplished that because he really understood the physics of the spin. Then we started working on some jumps, and there were a couple of things I disagreed with him on and didn’t follow what he was telling me to do, but he just intuitively understood the physics of free skating. He had a couple of things that I believed were wrong, like if you did lutzes the way he taught you, you took off on an inside edge, and if you did flips the way he taught you, you took off on an outside edge. And I didn’t agree with that. But what he understood was something that most people don’t think about, and that’s how skating is all angular momentum. It’s the most extreme form of angular momentum in any athletic endeavour. Most athletic endeavours are linear momentum, or modest angular momentum. Downhill skiing and hockey have some angular momentum, but skating is the extreme example. And Gus understood that it’s controlling the inherent rotational force that exists when you step on an edge. The book I wrote on skating technique is really based on that concept.
He used to teach a back scratch spin, and he would have you do them over and over again for one reason, the exit. And what he taught you to do was basically to break the rotation of the spin as quickly as you can with your arms and your free leg, to slightly lift your free leg and then jam it back as if you were punching something behind you with your foot, as fast as you possibly could. So coming out of a jump when everything is happening in microseconds, you would be so accustomed to doing that, that’s what would happen when you land the jump.
On the 1972 Olympics: I had a little more international experience under my belt, so I knew what to expect. Worlds and Olympics are basically the same except that at Olympics you’ve got a lot of other athletes there. But it’s the same people and the same format. We had a good time at those Olympics and I think the whole US team had a lot of camaraderie. Janet [Lynn] of course was so beautiful to watch on the ice, such flow. We were all close and it was a really enjoyable time.
On the short program being added to international competition: I don’t know if I had any influence on it or not. Dorothy [Hamill] and Janet captured people’s imaginations, they’re icons. I was a guy. I may have jumped high and skated to music and all the rest of it, but the young women have a more powerful hold on the public. Janet probably had much more influence on it than I did.
On getting Ulrich Salchow’s trophy from Dick Button, which he then passed on to Paul Wylie: Of all the things that occurred in my skating career, having that trophy passed to me by Dick Button was the greatest, without a doubt. In my opinion, this is a man who is the best judge of skating that probably exists. He may not be right in everything, but he is the best judge of skating in my mind. For him to do that was a huge honor for me. The one thing that I thought was so important about what Paul Wylie did was that he had an absolutely impeccable style, and he skated to music as well. I thought that was so incredibly important at that point in time in skating. He represented something to me that was critical. His programs flowed and were all connected, and he did it with such impeccable presence on the ice that I thought it was important. That we all attended Harvard, that’s a coincidence [laughs]. I suspect Paul will give it to someone who hasn’t attended Harvard, which would be appropriate as well.
On paving the way for skaters like John Curry and Toller Cranston: I certainly think [Curry] continued the musicality, and took ballet to the ice in ways that I didn’t. Toller was a contrarian. He was creative and imaginative and did a lot of interesting things on the ice. We were peers, so I can’t take any credit for his evolution, but we appreciated each other’s approach to skating.
On the influence of television on the sport: It was ramping up from 1966 through when I quit the sport in 1972. I remember, Peggy [Fleming] and I and a bunch of us were practicing outside in Grenoble, and Audrey Hepburn was there at the side of the rink to watch Peggy. I’m sure that skating wouldn’t have risen to that level of attention in her world without television. And by the time we got to Sapporo, Janet was like a movie star in Japan. She was blonde, small, and she was a star. And it’s all because of television.
On starting the Evening of Champions show at Harvard in 1970: I had a pulled ligament in my knee or some such thing, and my orthopedist was at Children’s Hospital. So I was walking to my appointment one day, and I walked through the pediatric cancer ward to get to his office. And I’m looking at these nine- and ten-year-old kids and thinking, these kids aren’t going to be around a year from now, and this is not fair. So I was going to Harvard, I was training for high level competitions, so I couldn’t go spend my days with them, and I wasn’t a doctor so I couldn’t help them in that regard. So I thought, maybe the thing I can do is take what I’m good at and do something with that. I mentioned it to some of my colleagues at Eliot House at Harvard, what if we put on a show and raise some money and give it to the Jimmy Fund for some additional research to help figure out what we can do for those kids. That was the motivation. This was during the Vietnam War, and a lot of things were going on at campuses, and it became clear to us that this would be a great way to get Harvard students who knew nothing about figure skating, and figure skaters who knew nothing about Harvard generally, together, and that as young people we could do something really constructive. So we planned it in about four weeks, and the Jimmy Fund thought they would be lucky to break even. It was snowing that night and there was a traffic jam on Storrow Drive that was probably three miles long. The show was supposed to start at 8 and it didn’t start until 9:30, and it was standing room only. We expected this to be a one-time event. There were two shows, standing room only both nights, and we made about $15,000. We thought, oh my God, we actually made money [laughs]. And after the show, we all sort of looked around and said, maybe we should do it again. So we did another year, and now it’s all history. It’s raised over two and a half million, but I say to people, it’s not so much the money, but it’s really an occasion where young people, all by themselves, get together from two completely different spheres and do this. And they gain some empathy for young kids who probably don’t have anything that bright to look forward to. That’s what’s most important to me. And gosh, to have college kids and young skaters do that for that many years – I give my help if they ask for it, but they do it by themselves. We tallied it up once and I think there’s 188 World and Olympic medals among the skaters that have performed there.
On his work as a commentator: I enjoyed it. My first gig with NBC was doing the World Professional Championships in Maryland that Dick Button organized, and I did it with Dick Enberg and we became great friends. I did some others with Peggy and with a bunch of guys like Dick Stockton. It was fun, but I stopped because I was at a point in my professional career when I couldn’t take the time. I had too many responsibilities, but these contracts always came a month or two before, or maybe three months, and my business responsibilities were such that I couldn’t commit to doing something three months in advance because I didn’t know what would be required of me any given Thursday or Friday with respect to my clients or the firm I was a partner of. So I had to pick one or the other.
On his book Figure Skating: Championship Techniques: I wanted to document what I thought was really important, what I had learned or been prompted to think about with respect to skating technique. I never thought that technique has been a strong suit of figure skating. Part of it is because it’s so darn complex. You’ve got pole vaulting mechanisms, you’ve got angular momentum, you’ve got all sorts of things going on. People have analyzed golf swings ad nauseum, but no one has really done that for an axel. I thought it was really important to put down some fundamental principles that could be helpful to skaters and coaches in the future. I’m not sure it has been all that helpful, but that was the intention.
On the newer judging systems: I don’t like what’s happened to skating personally. I think it’s taken some of the beauty and spirit and creativity out of it. I think some of the skaters are magnificent. They’re athletic, they’re coordinated, their choreography is wonderful, but the problem is that there’s this big effort to get rid of subjectivity. I don’t know how that can work in skating, and I don’t think it can ever work. I suppose if they got to the point where they used high-powered computers to dissect every move, you could get to the point where a quantified system would work, and then you could get to the point where you’d allow more creativity as part of it, and allow for some subjectivity on that side of that equation. But look, one of the things that’s very hard to do in skating is for a large number of humans to dissect microsected movement and compare it for 10 or 20 skaters. That takes really close analysis. I’ve listened to some commentators, experienced people, and heard things where I’ve said, no, you’ve completely missed what happened. I have to believe that some judges are going to have a hard time picking that up too. We’re trying to quantify it but we don’t necessarily have the tools to do that. It’s like drivers, some people have really good reaction times but others don’t. That’s why 10 years from now, people won’t be controlling cars, computers will.
In due time, computing power will maybe enable you to appropriately rank the difficulty of so many programs with different elements. A human mind just can’t do it, it’s just too complex. And then you can say, okay, we’ve got a pretty good handle on which program is the more technically complicated and the best executed, so now we’re going to give points to the artistic side, which has to be subjective. But that would be nice, if we could really be sure that the quantifiable stuff was really accurately done. Then there would be a lot of freedom to move.
On watching skating now: I go sometimes. It’s a prioritization thing. The two most important things right now are my family and what I do outside of my family work-wise. I’m planning to be up there at least for the opening night of 2014 Nationals in Boston.
On a program that was particularly memorable to him: It was a program I did as an encore starting in 1969. The night Martin Luther King was shot [in 1968] the Supremes came on the Ed Sullivan Show and sang Somewhere, from West Side Story. And they stopped in the middle of it, and recited the part about how everybody becomes one. So I choreographed a program to that performance, and I did something that nobody else had done before. I stopped when they were talking and just looked out at the audience for about 35 or 40 seconds. And I loved doing that program, which I always dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, because he stood for something that I strongly believed in, the equity of humankind. And that was a really important thing for me. That program and the Salchow trophy were probably the most important to me on a pure skating level.