An interview with Parker Pennington. He won four US national titles (Juvenile, Intermediate, Novice, and Junior titles), is now a coach and choreographer, and the creator of SkateDanceDream. He discusses having Carol Heiss Jenkins as a coach, how he loves to help people any way he can, and how he was once a stunt double for Woody Allen. 34 minutes, 6 seconds.
(PP: Parker Pennington, AM: Allison Manley)
PP: Surprise me. I love surprises.
AM: Really? I hate surprises [laughs]
PP: There’s not enough surprises in the world. I feel like, you know, things seems to always follow a course, so I always like when there’s surprises through days, weeks, months — good surprises, of course.
AM: Do you like surprises on the ice?
PP: In this sport, well, there’s always good surprises, when you come home with a medal and you’re not expecting it — well, of course. But then there’s always the flip-side surprises that are not as good. But for the most part I enjoy surprises.
AM: So we’re at Midwestern sectionals, in Rockne Brubaker’s house [ie: the rink he manages], and thanks to him for securing us a nice quiet room to do this in.
PP: He’s a great guy.
AM: Yes, he is. And I’ve had a glass of wine so I’m feeling great. I don’t know how you’re feeling [laughs]
PP: [laughs] I’m feeling pretty good. No wine for me tonight but certainly after that senior ladies event, it definitely had me on the edge of my seat. Some good, some not so good, but most importantly I felt like the kids were giving it their all out there today.
AM: And what about your kids, that you were helping out?
PP: Yeah, two actually. Kacie Kotnik, I believe this is her final performance, her last hurrah, and she really put it out there and skated one of the best performances that I’ve seen, almost a clean skate. She ended up finishing seventh in the field, which was a very good placement for her, so she had me tearing up a little bit. And Christina Cleveland, who I have been helping out with her programs, just kind of detailing and what not — to see her have a breakthrough moment was huge. This will be her first appearance at the national championships, and I’ve really seen her come into her own in the last couple of years. So that was an incredible moment, to see her have that breakthrough skate on the sectional stage. I’m very proud of her.
AM: OK, let’s start with the real questions [laughs]. Parker Pennington, what’s your most embarrassing moment, off-ice or on-ice?
PP: OK, so…well, just because this is a recent thing that happened. I was skating, actually doing choreography with one of my students. And I was wearing a pair of jeans, not my baggiest, they were actually kind of tight-fitting. And I dropped into a lunge and they ripped, in the middle of the lesson. So I had to carry on through the rest of the lesson even though I was trying to keep it hidden. Standing by the boards I could feel the breeze coming through [laughs]. So at the end of the session I ran off the ice and changed them. That was probably my most embarrassing moment, also because it was a young kid I was having the lesson with. There’s been other embarrassing moments throughout the years but that was probably the most recent one. You always hear about skaters ripping their jeans while they’re skating, and, well, it finally happened to me. At the age of 30.
AM: You actually had a spare pair in the rink?
PP: Actually I had to borrow from one of my friends. I got lucky. Good lucky surprise.
AM: So how did you get started in skating?
PP: I went to a public skate when I was three years old. My parents basically threw me out there, I had so much energy. And from the moment I stepped on the ice, I just loved it. It took me to a place where I just enjoyed being out there. I got into a learn to skate program and it just took off from there. When I was six, seven, eight years old I would skate six hours a day. My parents would have to pull me off the ice. So even from that early age I was very determined, and I had a strong passion for the sport. And I’ve carried that through to today.
The majority of my career, I trained in Ohio, under the guidance of Carol Heiss Jenkins and her former partner Glyn Watts. They helped me achieve many of my great skating accomplishments over the years. And I trained alongside some great skaters, like Timothy Goebel and Tonia Kwiatkowski and Lisa Ervin, who were world and Olympic level skaters. That made me push the envelope every day.
AM: And you also trained alongside your brother [Colin].
PP: Yes, and he did some very impressive things in the sport as well. He was national novice champion and national juvenile bronze medalist. He loved the sport. I think when I started skating and moved to Ohio at the age of eight, he saw me out there and he liked the coaches, and he thought, you know what, I’m going to give this a try. So he got out there and got into a learn to skate program, and he picked up the sport really quickly. He always had a lot of talent, and he ended up doing some pretty good things in the sport from a competitive standpoint.
AM: Your poor parents, having two of you in competition [laughs].
PP: Well, yes, it’s a very expensive sport, and my dad, he worked every single day to try and pay all the bills. While my mom and brother and I were in Cleveland, he was in Connecticut working. So our whole situation was incredible. I don’t think a lot of people realize the sacrifices my parents made for me to chase my dream of being an Olympian, and my brother’s as well. I can’t thank them enough for their tireless hours, my mom driving me to the rink at 6 am and my dad working from 8 am to 8 pm five days. For that I’m forever grateful, that they gave me that opportunity, and I’m excited to hopefully carry on and give other skaters the opportunities that my parents gave me.
AM: It’s a common story that families do have to split up to move to training centers, but I can’t imagine what that’s like for everybody involved. That’s tough.
PP: It really was difficult but I think, you know — my parents really believed in me. When I told them I had this dream to go to the Olympics and would do everything I could to get there, they believed in me wholeheartedly. They said, however you see yourself going with this, we’re going to guide you, we’re going to encourage you to go for it, and they really did. And to this day, to any parents of skaters out there, or any sport — if a kid is so determined like I was, I tell the parents, let them go for it. If you have the means, the capability, let them take their shot. Because you only get one shot. So if you enjoy it, I think you should follow that passion.
AM: What was it like taking lessons from Carol Heiss Jenkins?
PP: Amazing. She is just full of energy, so bubbly, so positive. No matter the circumstance she was always able to pick me up and encourage me, through the good times and the bad. So I think that’s why in all the years that I trained under her guidance, she was making me into a great skater, but also gelling me into a good person. An amazing person and I can’t thank her enough for making the person that I am, beyond the skating world.
I started with her when I was eight years old. I started out in learn to skate in Connecticut when I was three or four years old, and I picked up with my mom and brother to move across the country to Cleveland. On somewhat of a whim, I would say. I saw Carol on TV working with some of the skaters at Nationals, and I said to my mom and dad, this is who I want to take from, can we make this happen? At eight years old I said this, I know [laughs]. My dad grew up in Ohio and he has a bunch of relatives there, that still live there to this day, so we would take trips every summer for a week or two. On one of these trips, we took a drive to Cleveland from Tiffin, which is about an hour and a half, and I got introduced to Carol. The time I skated there I think I did my program about 20 times in that one session, just because I wanted to grab her attention [laughs]. And then after that session, I talked to her, and my parents came over and talked to her. I said, I really admire what you’ve done with your skaters, with your tutelage, and I’d really love to be a part of that. And she told us, hey, this is a huge sacrifice, what the commitment level was, and really took the time to make sure I properly understood what it meant. So we went home, and for about a week I thought about it, and my parents did too, and we went for it.
AM: That’s some serious balls, to be honest [laughs].
PP: Well, yeah. But you’ve got to go for things. You can’t hold back, and I think if you enjoy what you’re doing, that’s the most important thing. And when everything lines up, you can do some great things.
AM: So she obviously did right by you, because you were the first, and I think still the only, man to win juvenile, intermediate, novice and junior titles.
AM: Wow. Not bad [laughs]. Not bad at all. And such a trajectory. And then you switched coaches at some point, to Diana Ronayne. So why the switch?
PP: At that point in my career, I felt like I was in a little bit of a lull. I had moved up to the senior ranks and I felt a little stale. And I felt like I needed help in the artistic department. So Tom Dickson was the choreographer I admired the most, and I also admired Diana Ronayne for her work with Ryan Jahnke. So I thought Colorado would be the perfect environment for me. So after Skate Detroit, I don’t remember what year this is, it wasn’t a great competition for me and I felt it kind of building and I felt like that change needed to happen for me to grow as a skater and as an artist. So I went ahead and made that switch. Definitely one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make for sure. But I guess it really all came full circle, though, because Carol did say in our last conversation before I left, if you ever want to come back, you just say the word. And I remembered that because I was so teared up. So a couple of years before I ended up retiring, I told her, I want to come back, and she said, absolutely. So it was kind of a full circle thing. But I had the opportunity to work with Diana, and she was incredible. So many great people over the years.
AM: And, I think, Janet Champion too, and Audrey Weisiger.
PP: Yeah, they were all great coaches, and they all brought something different to the table. I think they all added a little bit of something unique to my skating, and I think that has stayed to this day. I think I have started to incorporate some of what they’ve taught me into what I pass on to the next generation of skaters.
AM: So I think you did, I counted, nine senior nationals, and you had to withdraw from one, right?
PP: I lost count after a while [laughs].
AM: So you’re taking my word for it [laughs].
PP: Yes [laughs]. Somewhere around that number, that sounds about right [laughs].
AM: It’s what the Interwebz tells me [laughs].
PP: Well, I’m sure the Interwebz is right, as long as you don’t use Wikipedia, right?
AM: Well, I’m obviously not going to ask about each one, but I wonder if you have any favorite moments from the senior level events.
PP: Oh yeah, absolutely. I would say my favorite senior moment [laughs], it’s like high school all over again, it was 2009 nationals in Cleveland. I consider it my hometown, with my hometown skating crowd. I skated a clean short program, it was the most emotionally packed performance I gave as a senior, and it guided me to third place. And I will add that I think after I landed my triple flip, I let out a roar after I landed it because the moment just took me away. And from that point forward in that program, I was just completely absorbed in the moment. And at the end when I was taking my bows, I just soaked it in. I had a standing ovation, and even to this day when I go back and watch videos of it, it gives me goosebumps. That standing ovation, I’ll never forget that, sharing it with my family and friends and everyone that got me on that journey.
AM: Nice. And you also at some point got vertigo as a skater. That’s not good [laughs].
PP: Not good at all. I had a lot of things happen throughout the years, that was one of them. So they put me through rigorous training doing neck exercises, icing my neck and all that stuff. You may have even seen pictures of me wearing shades at Nationals as we’re getting ready to get on the ice, because it’s so bright in there and it might disrupt my balance and all of that. And I had ankle injuries, I had shoulder surgery, so lots of things throughout the years.
AM: It’s pretty typical for skaters to have lots of injuries, but vertigo, it’s a big one.
PP: Yeah, so we had to structure where the spins were. I would have to try to do them after the jumps, or give myself plenty of time so I wasn’t super dizzy. I was a pretty good spinner but getting dizzy, it wasn’t typical for me. It was definitely a unique thing.
AM: I also read that you were once a stunt double for Woody Allen.
PP: This is true [laughs].
AM: Can you explain, please?
PP: After 9/11, with all of that happening, they wanted to try to bring people back to New York. And Woody Allen always wanted to be a skater.
PP: Yep, that’s what I heard. So they thought, OK, let’s do a commercial of Woody Allen skating. So they wanted to bring someone in who could do all the tricks. I had to wear this costume that made me look like Woody Allen, all this gear —
AM: You look nothing like Woody Allen [laughs].
PP: I know, that’s what funny about it. This costume was like 30 pounds, it was heavy. And it’s summertime, and I’m wearing his glasses, the whole gear. It was so hot in that thing, and I went from 8:30 in the morning, I’ve never experienced anything like that. It was hard work. But it was a lot of fun. It was something different, and those are the kind of opportunities that skating sometimes brings you. A good surprise. That was pretty cool, to get to say that I got to be Woody Allen’s stunt double in a commercial.
AM: Was it indoors or outdoors?
PP: Outdoors at Rockefeller Center. That’s why it was hot. And that ice is not super easy to skate on, but in summer it was not the best. It was a hard day of work but it was a lot of fun.
AM: And you were also a super good high school student during all this too. You were balancing skating and school, which is tough. A lot of skaters do it but it’s not easy. Was it good for you? Did you like the balance?
PP: Yeah, I felt it was good for me. It kept my mind on other things besides skating, which is good for me because I love skating and I live and breathe skating. And I took all the classes and I was in the National Honors Society, and on the [USFSA] Scholastic Honors Team and being recognized at the US national championships, so I gave it my all with my schooling just like I did with my skating. And I think it made me a lot more well-rounded in terms of balancing my skating with having a good knowledge base.
AM: My understanding is that your lifelong dream is making a difference wherever you can. So since your competitive career, you’ve organized a couple of shows — and during your career, you organized one for muscular dystrophy, Skate For Life, that raised over $20,000. And you’d never organized a show before.
PP: I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but really — my dad was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, and he got it later on in life which is extremely rare. And so I thought, I wanted to make a difference, because he was my idol, always. He’s always positive, takes the time to talk to everyone, and really is an incredible person. He works 24/7, gives everything his all, and so growing up he was my idol. So I wanted to do something to make a difference, for him but also for all people that dealt with a disease like that. So I took that and combined that with my passion, which was skating, and I thought, why not try to do a show? And so I kind of just dove into it not knowing what I was doing. And looking back, I think, what was I doing? I just literally tried it, and I think my craziness led me exactly to what I’m doing today. That planted the seed for everything now. So we raised $21,000 the first year we did it in Connecticut, and then we ran it in Ohio the year after and raised $25,000. So in total that was $46,000 over two years, and it made a huge difference for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. It was an incredible couple of years.
AM: And as you said, that set the stage for what you’re doing now, which is Skate Dance Dream. And that’s been, what, four years?
PP: Yes, we started with it 2010. In late 2011 we started with our first show, and now we’re ten shows in. We travel around, we’ve done the greater Cleveland area, Dayton, South Carolina, Pittsburgh, Lansing, and Clinton, New York. Skate for Life led us to Skate Dance Dream, because with Skate for Life I saw the skating community come together. They were gelling for two reasons. One was for the charity, of course, and seeing that was super exciting, but also because — there’s not that many opportunities for the skaters to come together and just celebrate their skating. So in the second year we ran Skate for Life, we brought in a couple of dancers from So You Think You Can Dance, which was a show on Fox that I was getting into at the time, and we put a stage on the ice for them to dance . . .
AM: How did you even know how to contact them, though? It’s not like everybody can watch something on Fox and say, I want to contact the people who do that [laughs].
PP: The only reason I knew that they would be a good fit was because they did a background piece on them, and they used to be skaters. So it got me thinking, well, they could be in the show, they could dance, they could skate. Let’s try to get hold of them. I tried every which way to reach them, and I eventually got connected to them — this was Sara Von Gillern and Gev Manoukian — and I told them what my idea was, and they said, we’re down with that. So I put the dance stage on the ice and kind of introduced them to the skating world. They performed in that show, and we also brought in local dancers who got a little bit of choreography from them and then performed in the show with them. So that’s where I also got to see the interaction between the high level pros and the kids, and the smiles that they had. And we saw the same thing on the skating side, with the skating pros and the kids. And it got me thinking, these kids need more opportunities like this. They need to be inspired. They need to close that gap from the television screen, like how I saw the pros, and give all these kids that access to them. So seeing that happen, as well as how well received the dance was with the figure skating, made me say, let’s build off this. So from that point forward, that’s when Skate Dance Dream was born. We got down to the drawing board and just started working, how to get that concept going. Because we wanted to split dance and skating, 50/50, start to finish, and merge the two worlds together.
AM: And it’s been very well received.
PP: In every city that we’ve taken it to, everyone that’s seen it has raved about it, how innovative it is. The pros are obviously incredible performers, but the grassroots initiatives that they’re taking on, it’s giving these kids dreams. To be able to learn from them, to connect with them over a weekend. So the impact that we’ve made and the headway with the kids — I see a lot of them here this weekend, competing now at their first sectional championships, it’s incredible. So yeah, huge strides with the kids, with the parents, the fans, the attendees, everyone who’s seen it just loves it. So it just encourages me every day, when I’m hearing stories like, our skater is doing ice dancing and got a partner and is going to sectionals because they got to work with national ice dance champions at Skate Dance Dream. It’s things like that that make me go, oh my goodness, we’re making dreams come true. Some great feedback so far, and we look forward to keeping that momentum moving forward.
AM: When is the next show?
PP: Still working on that [laughs]. We’ll keep people updated, of course, and they can do that through our website. We’re hoping to do some big things with it.