Figure Skating podcast. With partner Guy Revell, Debbi Wilkes was a two-time Canadian National Champion, 1963 North American Champion, and the 1964 Olympic Silver medalist. After retiring from competition, Wilkes became a television ice skating analyst, an author, coach, and Skate Canada’s Director of Marketing and Sponsorship. Ms Wilkes was inducted into the Canadian Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2001. 1 hour.
A full transcription is below:
(DW: Courtney Jones, AM: Allison Manley)
AM: Hello again skating fans and welcome to the Manleywoman Skatecast. I’m your host Allison Manley, and this is episode 85 an interview with Debbie Wilkes. With Guy Revell, Debbie Wilkes is a 2-time Canadian national champion, the 1963 North American champion and the 1964 Olympics, silver medalist. But she didn’t stop there!
After retiring from competition, Wilkes became a television skating analyst, an author of several skating books, a coach, a team leader, and a technical specialist. And lastly, was Skate Canada’s Director of Marketing and Sponsorship. She was inducted into the Canadian Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2001.
Pretty amazing. Pretty amazing. Admittedly. I’m getting this episode to you a bit late. This interview took place in October of 2021. And if you’re keeping track, yes, it’s May of 2022. Life chaos gets in my way sometimes, but hey better late than never!
If you like the podcast, spread the word, retweet, share via social media, any way you can. Sharing is caring. Thank you for your patience. Here we go on an interview with Debbie Wilkes.
Well, let’s get started. If you don’t mind. Are you ready to go?
AM: Excellent. All right. I’m super excited to talk to Debbie Wilkes today, and I have to start always with my same ice breaker question. I hope you’ve had time to think about this. What is your most embarrassing skating related moment, on-ice or off-ice?
DW: Easy. Easy. Early in our career, Guy and I were invited to open the Lord Beaverbrook Arena, which is in St. Anders by the Sea, New Brunswick. So a long way from home in the Canadian maritimes. And we were very pleased to go; it was the first time I’d ever tasted lobster! And I recall the day of the performance. We took … our names were announced of course and we took the ice and held our opening position. And the first movement that we made, I felt the zipper in the back of my dress go, “ffffttthhh!”
The back of my dress was totally open! Now the saving gGrace was that it was a big hook and eye at the top. So I was really just kind of a windy performance! But the same performance, about a minute from the end of the program, Guy’s … the front of Guy’s blade came unattached.
AM: Oh, no!
DW: And so he … and I knew nothing about it. And he didn’t change a step in the program. Just kept going, lifts included. Because he knew that I was so upset over the back of my dress being open that he didn’t want to add any stress. Great partner!
AM: Wow. Did he actually know? Did he say later that he knew that it had separated?
DW: Yes. He knew.
AM: Wow, and he still lifted you?
DW: He was such a good skater that he managed somehow to balance and find, I don’t know, some kind of safe spot from which to skate. it’s amazing.
AM: Wow. That’s terrifying.
DW: That’s my embarrassing moment.
AM: I would call that more of a terrifying moment that embarrassing but it works! You were on the ice by age of five at the Unionville Skating Club of which you stayed a lifelong member. I think you’re still a member. Yes?
AM: And you felt a real community there, even though it was a teeny teeny club.
DW: It was a teeny teeny club in a very teeny teeny village. I mean, it’s all part of Toronto pretty much now, but back then Toronto was a long way away. I remember the sign, you know, how you drive into a community and there’s a little sign that says, “you’ve entered Unionville and it had a population number of 603.” So that gives you an idea about how tiny the villiage actually was. But they had a great sporting community and they drew participants from all around the county. So there was a very good Curling Club. There was the arena in which I skated. A huge, hockey membership. So it was very lively sports community.
I remember when we started, my mom actually took me the year before and I had double runner skates on my feet and I would have nothing to do with it. So I just stood in a corner and cried until she took me off the ice! But then I have an older sister who was also a very good athlete and we lived on a farm and we had this pond at the back of the acreage of course that froze over in the winter time. So she was actually the one that got me started skating.
And then my mom, enrolled me the next year into the club and the rest as they say is history.
AM: Yeah, and one of the … if I may fast forward through your career quite a bit … I was reading this one article about how when you came back from the Olympics, because of the time difference and travel and everything, you came back at around 2:00 in the morning. And you were driving into town and the cops pulled you over which of course, nowadays, would be 100% terrifying. But at that time what you didn’t know was that they were planning a parade for you back at the club?
DW: Well, in the village. And Guy was actually from a much larger town, but about oh, maybe a half an hour or 45 minutes further north from Unionville. And what I couldn’t understand was I was told to get into the police car and my mom kept saying to me, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” And Guy’s in there and I can’t figure out, “what are you doing here?” And then it kind of all registered. But yes, in the middle of the night there we were, in a parade through the Village of Unionville! And people had, they were up, they had their doors open! They’re waving flags! It was thrilling.
AM: With a terrifying police escort! [laughs] Lots of lots of terror in your in your career here I’m sensing.
DW: Made it exciting! [laughs]
AM: I know, right? Well, you were coached by Bruce and Margaret Hyland and they had a huge impact on your life. Can you tell me about them?
DW: Really, I have to give them pretty much all the credit. For some reason — I don’t know what they saw in me because I couldn’t really jump — I mean, when they took me on, which would have been maybe around age nine or ten, something like that. And they convinced me that I should be a competitor. And I guess I was just, I don’t know, cocky enough that the idea of trying to be somebody ahead of me which was the way Marg explained it to me. Because my first response was, “no way,” and she said, “it’ll be fun! All you have to do is try to be better than the person before you.” And that made sense.
And thing was Unionville Skating Club was hosting the sectional championships that year. I guess it would have been 1958, maybe? And so I had paired up with another young member of the club — Ryan Bailey was his name — just to do carnivals and things like that. But Marg and Bruce convinced us that we could go in Sectional championships as pair skaters. So we went in Novice Pairs and won somehow.
And then the next night (or maybe the same night) was the Junior Pairs, which only had one team competing. So Bruce convinced us that we could add 30 seconds to our program and compete just for fun against them in Junior Pairs — no, Senior Pairs, I guess — which would have been the qualifier for Junior Canadians at that time.
So, we did the choreo — he put together the music somehow — he did the choreography in my driveway. And the first time we ever skated it was during the competition. And we won that one too!
AM: That’s amazing.
DW: We were eligible to go to Canadians that year, but were realistic enough to know that, you know, our winning was pretty much a fluke. So let’s settle down. And then at that point Brian was a couple of years older than me [and] he decided he wasn’t going to continue. So, you know, that that was fine with me. And then somehow Guy and I got together — I think it was our parents.
AM: And he was considerably older than you were.
DW: Six years.
AM: Six years, which of course, nowadays at our ages is not a drastic age difference. But of course, when you’re 12, and he’s 18, it’s significant. And you are also significantly shorter than he was in the beginning.
DW: Well, I hadn’t yet gone through a growth spurt or anything. I used to fit under his arm when we started out! And I mean he, along with Marg and Bruce, they were just a tremendous team to motivate. They knew that I really wanted to do it too. I just wasn’t sure how.
AM: Yeah. And you did eventually — and again I’m jumping a little bit ahead —but eventually you actually grew to be taller than he was by one inch, which had to have been tremendously challenging for you both to figure out timing and rhythm, and especially for him just as far as lifting.
DW: Yeah. Well, you know, it wasn’t as as difficult as you might think because he was continually adapting as I was growing, right? So it wasn’t like one day I was five foot and the next day I was five foot six. It was a very gradual evolution. And again, because he was such a profoundly good skater, he just knew what to do.
AM: Made the adjustments.
DW: It would have been our last year or two, as I recall, he did have his skate soles raised somewhat which was, for him, the most difficult part in learning how to balance as a single skater. So when he … really excelled at that. It wasn’t that much harder to adapt to pair skating.
AM: Amazing. You have said that you didn’t have the strongest singles skills. Your hardest jump at the time was a double Lutz, but you loved being in the air as a pair skater.
DW: Yeah. And I think, I mean, I look now at pair skaters and they do such incredible things, but I think a pair girl has to be pretty fearless. You have to have total trust in your partner, and I mean … we went through a few very, very bad falls, very bad accidents. But that somehow made you more receptive to slight changes of weight. It made you more conscious, I suppose, of how to make sure something is safe regardless of the danger factor, I guess is as I would call it.
AM: Yeah. So your first World Championships was 1960 [in] Squaw Valley — I’m sorry, that was the Olympics …
AM: Yeah, Vancouver. You got 11th Place, which is not bad at all for your very first Worlds.
DW: There were only 12 teams! [laughs]
AM: Okay, fair [laughs].
DW: But it was of course my — you know — I was just like, whoa. What is this? And it was my first time meeting Ludmila and Oleg [Protopopov] and it was … I think they had competed maybe in Squaw Valley, not quite sure about that. But it was certainly their first World Championship. And of course, all the talk about, ‘the Russians are here’ and it was pretty exciting. And I actually made really good friends with Ludmila. And although she spoke no English and I certainly spoke no Russian, we would sit together and giggle. Now I only found out in years later that she was much older, but still she was incredibly gracious. Oleg as well. Very gracious and lovely to be with.
AM: And that’s of course, Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov, the great Russian pair. And I have to ask, did you know then, watching them compete together, that they were going to be as iconic as they ended up being? And influential?
DW: I’m not sure that I thought like that. I was 12 or 13. So I, you know, was pretty stupid.But I was certain …
AM: I would I would go with ‘naive.’
DW: I like that word! I was certainly very aware that there was something … I’ll call it magical and and unique about them. It was like they were skating on clouds and just the touch to the ice, that relationship that they had with the ice, plus the way that they performed the balletic style without compromising any of the athleticism was something spellbinding really. Wonderful. And they continued developing that. And it took them a long time, actually to be rewarded, in my opinion. Not until the Games in 1964.
AM: But they got there and then they started a dynasty.
DW: For sure.
AM: So the 1961 Worlds, of course, were cancelled due to the plane crash. How did that affect you and Guy at all, if at all?
DW: We were in Prague when it was cancelled and it’s kind of an eerie story, talk about danger. We had been competing in Philadelphia at the North American Championships, flew with the US team to Idlewild airport — JFK now — flew with them on the same aircraft. The Canadian team went to KLM. The US team went to Sabina. That day that we were traveling happened to be some kind of holiday in the states. Some, I think the President’s birthday, or something like that. And my mother’s Visa to be permitted entry into Czechoslovakia, of course, behind the “Iron Curtain” at that time, had not arrived.
So the Canadian embassy was trying to ship it out from the New York postal office to the airport. The Canadian team was leaving like half an hour, an hour before the Sabena flight. If my mother’s Visa had not arrived, she was going to go with the Americans.
DW: Right? Fortunately it did arrive. We landed in Prague and just because of connections, we expected the US team to be there ahead of us. We get there. There’s no US team. And of course however old I was — maybe 14 or so at that time — very engaged in the political drama around Maria and Otto Jelinek who were going back to Czechoslovakia for the first time since they escaped. It was a pretty nail-biting situation.
So we were all pumped up and I remember going to a woman who was supposed to be kind of in charge of our arrival and saying, “where are the Americans?” And in a very unemotional response, she said, “oh, they’ve all been killed.” We couldn’t understand. It took a long time for us to realize exactly what had gone on.
And as we continued on to our hotel, there was a huge demonstration because of the assassination of an African dictator. We were in a bus and the bus was being rocked by these crowds of people. Yet another terrifying experience. Terrifying. But we finally made it to our hotel and did continue to practice. And then it was some days later before we discovered that the event was canceled.
DW: Yeah. Yeah, very sad.
AM: Yeah, I mean, and a close call for your mother as well.
AM: Pretty amazing. And so, of course, nobody was able to compete that year and the times were very different. Now of course, we have the Grand Prix series, there’s tons of competitions — and I could argue there are too many, but that’s another conversation. But back then it was pretty much your Sectionals, your Championship and then Worlds, maybe North Americans — but there weren’t many opportunities to get yourselves out in front of judges and shake off the nerves and show people what you were doing.
So a year goes by for all of you and in 1962 you were able to rebound and capture the Canadian Senior title. And then that year you did get 4th at the World Championships. So you went from 11th in 1960 …
DW: No, we weren’t Canadian Champions that year.
AM: No? Did I get that wrong?
DW: Otto and Maria were still Canadian Champions in 1962. They retired after winning the World title in ’62, and then we won the title.
AM: You are correct. My apologies.
DW: No problem. I would gladly take a third title! [laughs]
AM: All right. Well, no problem. Thank you for the correction! So you did … but you did move up, thankfully, and and then you invented the Double Lutz Twist. I know that each of you were each pair was pushing the boundaries at the time, right? So the Protopopovs are credited with inventing some of the Death Spirals and then the Jelineks were really pushing the boundaries as well, but yours was the Double Lutz Twist. Can you describe it?
DW: It’s like a lutz jump, only Guy would toss me in the air and then I do two rotations — I mean, it sounds so Mickey Mouse now! They’re doing quads! — and he would catch me so it would look like I was landing a double lutz jump. But it was pretty risky at the time and something we felt we really needed to, as you say, push the boundaries athletically and get our names out there. It was a pretty worn-out system at the time, you know, there wasn’t much coverage. So you needed to do something pretty extreme to get noticed. And that was one of the ways we thought to do it.
AM: And did it get a good response?
DW: It did! A really good response. Now everybody’s doing them. They use the double as a warm-up.
AM: Right right. Well, by 1963, you were poised to do very well at the World Championships. But a few days before you were posing for press photographs and what happened?
DW: The hotel where … this was in Cortina, Italy … and the hotel where we were staying, you can imagine the scenery and the picturesque view. They had a natural ice surface outside. So we thought, “well, we’re going to do some photographs and use them, you know, for handing out to fans or for press” or whatever.
So we had this one lift which was illegal at the time that we did in show performances, and it was called an Adagio lift. Everybody does it now; it’s one of the positions where the woman lies on the man’s hand, her back against his hand. But in the mountains, the sun is very warm in the daytime and of course, it would only hit part of the ice surface. So the part that was sunny was kind of sludgy, and then the part that was in shadow was extremely hard. And we ran into a sludgy part. Guy lost his balance, and I fell backwards onto my head.
AM: And you fractured your skull.
AM: So no 1963 Worlds for you. Oh, that’s brutal. Are the pictures good at least? Did you actually get pictures?
DW: The picture is great! [laughs] Although I look at it and go, “I never did that lift again.”
AM: Never? really! Wow.
DW: Nobody ever asked me to, so I was very glad about that.
AM: Fair enough, fair enough. All right, so then we move on to the 1964 Winter Olympics. And of course, you were a little bit less prepared because you did not get to compete at the World Championships in Italy. So, how was the Olympics for you going in? Did you feel prepared?
DW: I knew intellectually that we were very prepared. Our coaches Marg and Bruce, they, you know, there was no such thing as a lazy day or an off day. They knew the kind of work we needed to do to be at your best and they made sure we did it. We did a lot of training outdoors. We did training in altitude. Every situation that you could have possibly imagined, they presented that to us. So, I knew intellectually we were very prepared. Emotionally and psychologically … it was another pretty terrifying event. I was never the one that was afraid of nerves. I enjoyed that interaction. I enjoyed the the nervousness. But this was at a level that I never experienced before.
And I suppose part of it was because we had not competed the year before. Also, we were really playing with the big boys; Kilius/Bäumler, the Russians of course … and we were sort of tauted along with Vivian and Ronald Joseph from the States … those four teams were believed to be the front runners. But you know, there’s always that little nagging voice that sits on your shoulder that goes, “what are you doing here?”
AM: Oh no.
DW: Oh, yeah. And so fighting with that was my, I would say, my major contest. And telling that little voice to go take a hike and mind its own business I felt was a win.
AM: That is a win. It’s very tough.
DW: I think, you know, if more athletes talked about that, it’s not uncommon, but nobody ever said anything about being afraid or being nervous. You know? You were just expecting to go do!
AM: Especially not back then I would think.
DW: No. And I remember having a conversation with Bruce and he said to me, “You’re not yourself. What’s going on?” I said, “I don’t think I deserve to be here.” And he went, “what?” And in true Hyland fashion he straightened me right out and said something like — I can’t remember his exact words, but he said something like, “do you think I would stake my work, my reputation on putting a pair in here that didn’t not only deserve to be here, but deserves to be on the podium?” That kind of smartened me up.
AM: Well good. I’m glad he could be there to support you at that moment.
DW: Yes, he was tough. But he knew what to say and when to say it. Great coaches.
AM: Yeah, the great coaches are always … their words last, and have so much impact forever and ever.
DW: I find myself saying those words to my own children.
AM: Sure. Sure. So of course, you were competing against some amazing pairs — the Protopopovs, and, you know, the Josephs — but you were forced … I was surprised to hear that you were forced to wait through an intermission break before your turn on the ice. So Ludmila and Oleg skated, and then you had a long break. How did that work?
DW: Yeah. I can’t quite remember the situation whether there was a warm-up in between us … I’m just not sure how it played out. But I do remember there was quite a wait and that was almost more upsetting than anything. I mean today a coach will prepare a skater for a wait. You’ll practice that. You’ll practice that. So yeah, it could have been very damaging. But, you know, things worked out pretty well!
AM: They did work out pretty well! I was gonna say. So, as we mentioned earlier, the Protopopovs, with that win, started the Russian dynasty of pairs that came for decades to follow. Could you, seeing them and their coaches, was there any indication of that at the time that they as a country were going to be the powerhouse that they were in pairs?
DW: Well, I don’t know if you’ve … have you met Oleg?
AM: I’ve not had the pleasure, no.
DW: He is a force all on his own. And even back then you kind of knew that with his forceful personality and his determination to upset the the whole world of pair skating. You knew that that this was going to be a long-term and very worthy cause that they were on. And I mean really they changed the whole nature of pair skating for a time, for a time. Yes.
AM: A long time. So you were originally … you and Guy were originally awarded the bronze medal. However, two years later in 1966, you were informed that the silver medalists which were — I hope I don’t butcher this, but it’s Kilius and Bäumler of Germany — had been disqualified by the IOC after they found out they had signed Pro contracts before the Olympics. Why did it take two years to sort all that out?
DW: It has been a mystery to me my whole life. I don’t know. I have heard unofficial stories about why that was the case. Back then, the German Federation was extremely powerful. And I believe that at that point, the bid for the Munich Games was being negotiated. Yeah, and of course … and this is just the story that I had been told by some pretty reputable people that the German Olympic Committee did not want any kind of blight on their bid.
And so, somehow convinced Kilius and Bäumler to step back and officially disqualified them. And then, after the Games, some years after the Games, they were reinstated.
AM: Right. They were never officially removed. And I think it was 1987 had their medals returned by the German committee, right?
DW: Yeah. I’m not sure of the year, but that sounds about right.
AM: So technically where things have stood now: we have the Protopopovs in Gold, we’ve got Wilkes and Revell (yourselves) and Kilius and Bäumler sharing the Silver medal …
AM: And then Vivian Joseph and Ronald Joseph in Bronze. Yeah, and that’s where it remains today.
DW: That’s my understanding. Yeah, yes, but I’ve never really had any kind of official communication around exactly what happened. I’ve no idea.
AM: Do you still have the Bronze medal or did you have to …
DW: No. We sent the Bronze medals back. And then we received the Silver medals.
AM: Excellent. Well at the 1964 World Championships, which were after the Olympics right in Dortmund, Germany (speaking of Germany) it was the first time that there had been a Short Program skated by pairs. So I’m thinking you had to have had in your back pocket a Short Program already prepared going into the Olympics. You didn’t use it at the Olympics, but then you had to bring it out for the Worlds! Is that … so the you had it in the works?
DW: Oh, yeah.
AM: Okay. Okay. That had to have been tough.
DW: It was actually kind of fun.
AM: Was it? Okay?
DW: Yeah. Because it took some of the pressure off that Free Program. I can’t recall if there were, I don’t think there were required elements in the Short Program at that time. It had to be two and a half minutes in length. And of course, our goal was to make it as different from the long program as we could to show versatility and some different kind of theme. So we skated to show tunes which was whoa, crazy back then! And of course, our free program was same free program that we performed at the Games done to classical music, which was sort of the accepted genre at the time.
AM: Well, and I think the other thing that I love about that story is that I read a quote from you where you wore gold costumes and you were concerned that they would be too controversial because nobody wore gold. And the quote says, “we didn’t dare wear them for the Olympic Games because everything was black or navy in those days. That was the trend and the expected fashion. We didn’t want to do anything that was going to jeopardize our ability to finish as high as we could. I think we wore black for the Short Program and then we decided, ‘what the hell we’re going to wear the gold.'”
DW: Exactly. That’s exactly it.
AM Did you get any pushback from anyone about doing so?
DW: Oh … we … there was lots of coverage about wearing the gold. And my dress was totally sequined. Totally. And Guy, of course, in a gold jumpsuit with gold boot covers, I believe. So, you know, it was ironic in a sense that it was gold. But it was just the most fun and and felt like a real statement that we wanted to make. ‘Come on, guys. Let’s get out of this stodgy stuff.’ Yeah, it was really fun.
AM: Well, I love that because it seems of course, once the 70s came, it got a whole lot less stodgy. So I think you set the tone there. [laughs]
DW: Well, it was kind of like opening the barn door, you know. Everybody wanted to do it.
AM: But that’s great. I think it’s wonderful that you were fashion trend setters, as well for skating.
DW: Well, we kind of knew at that point — and this is probably going to lead into your next question — I knew that Guy was going to retire after Worlds. And so we thought we have nothing to lose, right? We have our Olympic medal. That was our goal. If we’re penalized by virtue of our wardrobe, so be it. But let’s let’s go out with all fires blazing, all guns blazing, I guess maybe that’s not such a good reference these days, but you know what I mean?
AM: I know what you mean. And you did, you did get rewarded with the Bronze medal, so they couldn’t have penalized you too badly.
AM: Wonderful. Well, as you said at only, you were only 17 at the time, but you and Guy decided that you were done at that point. He had a job lined up. I think you were heading out to college. You weren’t interested in sticking around and finding another partner?
DW: I was in grade 12 my Olympic year and at that point we had grade 13 in Canada. So I still have another year of high school to do. But I was offered the opportunity to team up with another partner. But this was the point where I recognized the capacity and potential of the Protopopovs. And I went, you know, “if I’m with a new partner, it’s going to be another two years of slogging before we can be anything worthwhile and the Protopopovs are not going anywhere.” And honestly, I really achieved my goal. I wanted to go to school. I wanted to, you know, go to the basketball games … it sound so corny.
AM: Not at all.
DW: You know, I wanted to hang out with friends … all those things that I had … I didn’t feel they were a sacrifice at the time, but I guess that’s because of my age. And I was kind of on autopilot. But by the time we finished Worlds that year, I really wanted to have a more normal life.
AM: That’s totally reasonable.
DW: I hadn’t been to a full year of school since around grade 7.
DW: So I thought, you know, grade 13 is going to be a snap. I’ll be at school every day … I failed at Easter!
AM: What? You failed by Easter?
DW: Mmhmm! I was in school every day. I, you know, I wanted to go to university. So I really had to smarten up! So I worked very hard from Easter until the end of the school year and I passed. It wasn’t my most sterling moment, but I did get into university.
AM: But you made it. Right. [laughs] By the skin of your teeth maybe but you made it.
DW: Oh boy. What a time. I was having a good time.
AM: Well, and as you should. You earned it. So you did move on to college and my understanding from my homework was that you always considered skating sort of a side hobby, but you did coach on the side to help defray the costs of college.
DW: Only I didn’t start to teach until I was pursuing my Masters. And that was at Michigan State. That was when I started to teach. I did not teach through my undergrad years. I had a lot of work to do to maintain my program and my course rated grades. And so I was pretty dedicated to that. And I still continued to skate a lot, but it was in a different place.
DW: I still loved it.
AM: Oh good. And then after college you found employment at CFTO, which I understand is the Toronto news channel?
DW: No, it’s an affiliate of CTV’s. We have a bunch of major networks here in Canada, the two largest being CBC (the government-owned network) and CTV. And CFTO was the affiliate for CTV here in Toronto.
AM: Got it. And so you went … was that intended that you were going to go?
DW: Yeah. I did my degree in Communications. My Master’s is in Communications with a major in TV and radio.
AM: And it was so new with the time. I mean radio wasn’t new, but you know, television was relatively new at the time.
DW: Yes. Well, I had thought the TV and radio school at Michigan state was more about management. And I thought that … I mean I had a fair amount, just because of skating, I had a fair amount of experience with TV. So it was something that certainly appealed to me and but I never thought for a second I’d be in front of the camera. That wasn’t my goal. My goal was to be behind the scenes; management, producing, something like that.
But when I was given the job, CFTO was in the sports department and I was working for probably the top sports team in Canada. Johnny Esaw — a very famous and legendary name in sports — was the vice president of CTV at that time, my immediate boss, and a lover of skating.
AM: Oh, that’s handy.
DW: Very handy. And CTV had the rights at that time. And so I said to Johnny, “hey, what do you think?” And he said well, “I don’t know.” Otto Jelinek was the color commentator at the time.
AM: I love that.
DW: Yeah. And I said, “well, you know, you really should have a woman’s perspective” and he said, “okay, we’ll try it. We’ll try it for one event.” And that went on for years. Yeah.
AM: Amazing. I love that.
DW: I’ve been very fortunate with the people around me. I guess I’ve also been kind of bold in asking for what I wanted. But I was also unafraid to take their feedback if they thought, you know, if his answer had been, “are you crazy? Here’s what you need to do.” But instead of saying that, he coached me. And really I think felt that he was making a statement too. I was probably one, if not the first, female sports broadcaster. Certainly one of. Now it was figure skating, but still. So he took a chance on me.
AM: Which is wonderful because when you think about the first … when the first Olympics was televised, it was 1960. You know, so it was really still relatively new. Sports commentary in general, right? I mean, most people still didn’t have a television in their home necessarily, you know, it wasn’t quite as common. So I think it’s impressive that you were able to make your way to the front of the camera and that he had the foresight to put you there and train you.
DW: Well again, he was a tremendous mentor. He didn’t mince words. He was very tough. But he was very kind to me and I guess saw it perhaps as carving a bit of a new path and even supported me like once even he retired, he continued to support me and I felt I have no problem and going to him and saying, “this came up. What should I be doing about it?” He was extremely generous in his guidance and insight.
AM: Yeah, and I would also add that you, unlike your peers from high school of course, as you mentioned you had quite a bit of experience being in front of a camera way more so than any other high school student I imagine except for Peggy Fleming maybe!
AM: I mean, you’re right that there were only a certain teeny tiny percentage of people who had any experience with cameras, filming them and asking them questions. And there certainly, I don’t think, there was anything called “media training” at the time. Which, of course, now all the athletes go through all the media training.
DW: Well, and, you know, too even as a competitor, if you’re going to be good and make an impression, you have to have a bit of a show dog in you. You can’t be afraid of the lights or the the action. That is when a true competitor can really turn it on. And so those kinds of understandings really helped me in the field of broadcasting. And I think I was very fortunate to have not only those wonderful people behind me, but also a pretty unique and long-lasting career. Very exciting. I loved every second.
AM: Yeah, I was about to ask; how long were you in front of the camera doing commentary?
DW: Well, I’m still doing stuff on a rare occasion. Of course, not many events. Certainly not in Canada. We’re starting back up next weekend. So that’s good. I guess … well, let me think … boy, it’s been a long life, you know? I retired from an active broadcasting, like regular broadcasting, in 2006 when I went to work full-time for Skate Canada. And did no commentary for the duration of that assignment, which was until, I guess, maybe 8 years … something like that? And then since retiring from Skate Canada, I do pick it up on occasion. But, you know, it’s time for the younger generation to come in.
AM: Well, it’s lovely that you’re there to mentor the next generation as well.
DW: I enjoy that.
AM: Yeah, so you one of the things I loved reading about you is that you led the CTV team that uncovered the rigged judging at the pairs event at the 1999 World Championships. How did that come about?
DW: That was one of the most exciting moments in my career. We had a tip-off from someone who thought they saw the judges communicating on the stand. And so I went to my producer and said, “here’s what I think is happening. You need to isolate a camera on those two judges.” Which they did. I took the recording of that to the Referee of the event and I said, “you have a problem.” And that was how it started. It took a while to gain momentum and I felt, you know, it felt like we were tripping over dead bodies trying to get to the root of the problem. And the problem wasn’t the ISU. The ISU was determined to uncover whatever this was.
AM: Really? So they … okay.
DW: Yeah, and we had a lot of support from them. It was pretty huge … what would you call it … accusation. And, you know, we had to be careful with that. There are countries’ credibility on the line. There is probably funding along the line. Placements. It’s complicated.
AM: It is.
DW: But it was eventually uncovered, which was pretty exciting.
AM: And it was all because you had a camera on them.
DW: Yeah. All because somebody tipped us off.
AM: Yeah. Yeah. Amazing. So then you went to Skate Canada to be Director of Marketing.
AM: And you did that for how long?
DW: I think I was there eight years. I went from Marketing to Business Development. It was a very exciting time in the sport, particularly in Canada. I was very honored to be part of that team. Huge change over a huge building of the organization … a real reinvention of the organization and all with the desire to make it a truly professional organization. So it was wonderful to be involved. We had great skaters at the time.
AM: You still do!
DW: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, some household names for the time and it was a really thrilling adventure. I’ve been to something like, I don’t know, 9, or 10 Olympic Games in a variety of different positions. Obviously sometimes as a competitor, mostly as a broadcaster, but then several times as part of Skate Canada’s contingent. So I feel like I’ve seen it from just about every angle possible and loved every moment of it.
AM: And it’s fascinating because I’m a Director of Marketing as well, for a completely different industry. But I think what’s most fun of being Director, of Marketing, is knowing that you work at an organization where you have a really great stuff to promote. Like that’s the best, right? Because you love what you do because you’re excited to get it out there in the world and share it with everybody in all the different ways and knowing that you had all this tremendous talent to get out there and promote to everybody. It must have just been a joy.
DW: Well, it was interesting from another perspective too; as I’m sure you’re aware any, amateur sports organization is made up of some paid employees, but a lot of incredible volunteers who may or may not have business skills. And then those wonderful people are organizing and running the clubs. And we always tried to remember that Skate Canada’s major job, their major goal, was to teach skating. And so balancing that goal with the idea of finding money and resources is a huge problem for amateur sport, and figure skating was extremely lucky for a very long time. I mean, everybody’s suffering from the Covid fallout right now. But for a very long time, figure skating was right up there with hockey and baseball and basketball. And football! It was really one of the very few amateur sports that could compete at that level for viewership. So finding how to make that work and at the same time support the clubs to whom we are most responsible … how do we do that? It required a lot of lot of thinking, a lot of creativity. A lot of trying new things that have never been done before. And of course, you’re really being run by a board of volunteers.
DW: So finding who has the ideas, and who is willing to implement them … how do we find the resources to make this happen? That was fascinating.
AM: Well, you’ve been a Director of Marketing at Skate Canada. You’ve been an Olympic medalist. A coach. A team leader. A tech specialist. A broadcaster.
DW: We didn’t even talk about that!
AM: I know we didn’t even get into those, but you’ve pretty much been everything except a judge …
DW: Well, as a Tech Specialist you kind of are a judge.
AM: That’s fair. Ish. Judge-ish. It’s judge-adjacent! [laughs] But it’s a wonderful legacy that you’ve created for yourself and left to the world. What is, what is next for you? You’ve also been an author. I didn’t even mention that either. Yeah, so there’s that as well. So, what’s next for Debbie Wilkes?
DW: I have a hard time focusing on one thing. Well, right now, I’m focusing on sort of quasi-retirement, I guess. It’s strange how the timing of the pandemic and my retirement kind of coincided. I never ever could have imagined not traveling, not having some blockbuster problem to solve or staff to manage. I never could have imagined that. But with a little bit of time under the Covid — that thing — I had to find a new way to go on. And that was really concentrating a lot on family, of course, who we haven’t seen for two years. But concentrate on that, and on supporting them in their efforts to homeschool. My son is an actor. There’s been no work for him. How do we support him? So it has been a total about-face for me.
I find I’m very comfortable where I am. As I said, I never thought that would happen. I still have found limitless energy. I still sort of work out and train. My daughter and I are planning a trip to the Haida Gwaii, which are formerly the Queen Charlotte islands that are out on the west coast of BC. And so I have to keep in training for that because it’s a lot of hiking. And I’m still doing the occasional broadcast bit. I still do a lot of writing. I am Chair of one of the national committee’s of Skate Canada. So that still keeps me very involved. And you know, there is the odd project that comes up that I look at and go, “do I want to do this?” and before where I would have just lept at it, I now, go, “let me think about it for a few days” and I go back and decide. So it has to be something pretty interesting and challenging and something that I think I can commit to fully and make a difference in its execution.
AM: Yeah. So you’re in a position where you can just be much more intentional about the projects that you choose.
DW: I like how you said that. Intentional. Exactly. Yeah.
AM: Well, I can’t personally wait to see what you do next. I’m very excited. Thank you so much for spending so much time with me. I’m so grateful and it’s wonderful to meet you.
DW: Well. I must say that for someone like yourself giving me a little applause for what I have done, I would in turn like to go back and give you some applause because this podcast, your love of skating, and how you are giving special room to people who’ve made a difference in this sport and allowed them to be able to tell their stories … I think this is something that has been sorely missing. So I’m so glad you are back.
AM: Well, thank you. I’m thrilled to be back.
DW: Thank you for including me.
AM: Lovely, she’s a delight. I hope you enjoyed this interview with Debbie Wilkes. Thanks to Ryan Stevens of Skateguard for helping set this interview up so you all could listen to it. And thank you so much for joining me by listening.
Until next time may you uncover bad judging scandals for the good of the sport. May you push the envelope and wear gold at your next event. And unless you can channel the Wilkes and Revells of the Skating World, never skate to Carmen. Bye.