You Didn’t Need to Spin False Tales on Robertson


To Dick Button, Ronnie Robertson was the best spinner he had ever seen, a fabulous athlete who certainly would have been landing quads if he were a figure skater of the present era. A silver medalist at the 1956 Olympics, Robertson didn’t win the gold, says Button, because of those pesky school figures, the mundane ice tracings that were required of figure skaters until the early 1990s.

To Linda Ko at the Irvine Ice Arena, Robertson wasn’t an Olympic gold medalist. “Ronnie was the nicest coach ever because when I first came to him to take a lesson I couldn’t land my axel. I fell and fell and fell, but Ronnie kept encouraging me to try until I got my axel, because usually most coaches get mad at you. Ronnie also taught me a triple salchow before I could land all my doubles. And I landed it within three tries. I also will never forget when Ronnie said, ‘Three is always the charm!’ ”

On March 18 at the Irvine Ice Arena some 200 people gathered to pay tribute to Robertson. The 62-year-old skater, performer and teacher died last month from complications of pneumonia.


Monday in Nice, France, the 2000 World Figure Skating Championships begin. Robertson never could do better than a silver medal at World Championships either. He always found himself behind Hayes Jenkins and sometimes behind Jenkins’ brother, David.

“But Ronnie always pleased the crowd,” Dick Haag, Robertson’s close friend, said even though tears clogged his throat. “Ronnie was a performer unlike we had ever seen.”

When news of Robertson’s death began to circulate, skating fans mostly remembered the strong, elegant man for his spinning ability. Robertson spun so fast for so long that NASA had Robertson down to its Texas headquarters to measure the human blur. Robertson spun 420 times in a minute, seven revolutions per second. Ed Sullivan invited Robertson onto his show, according to one account, “to demonstrate that Robertson could spin faster than an electric fan.”

John Nicks, a figure skating champion himself and the Costa Mesa coach of Olympic hopefuls Sasha Cohen and Naomi Nari Nam, remembers that “there were stories out there that the faster you spun, the more your blood ended up in your fingers and Ronnie spun so fast that he would actually bleed out his nails.”

When he was 18, Robertson, who grew up in Long Beach, was talking about doing a quadruple salchow. Such a feat was inconceivable in the 1950s. It hadn’t been very long that men were doing triple jumps. Robertson also was ahead of his time when he received $100,000 to sign a two-year contract with an ice show. Too mercenary, too showy and too flamboyant, sniffed the skating establishment. But even as he was well into his 40s, Robertson was still a favorite participant in shows and a fierce competitor in pro events.

This was not what made Robertson such a favorite in Irvine though. For the last two years and without ever talking about his own accomplishments, Robertson taught beginning skaters, novices who could barely skate backward.


Chris Wilson, who was one of the organizers of the tribute, says that, “To most of us Ronnie was just the neat man with the big black coat.” Wilson, 36, started skating when she was 29. “I was introduced to him through a friend who said, ‘Take this man’s axel class. I got into a group lesson with him and just clicked with Ronnie. I didn’t know anything about him. Ronnie never talked about himself but word would kind of go around the rink. Ronnie was never one to talk about Ronnie.

“What I liked so much about him was how he treated me. I told him to think of me as he would any Olympic skater. I said that I knew I was never going to skate in the Olympics but that I wanted to be coached as if I were. And Ronnie did. He’d yell at me for two-footing landings, he’d put me on a diet, get on me for what I was eating. But more than that, in my two years with Ronnie I learned way more than skating. Ronnie taught me about being selfless and going for what I wanted and to not judge people.”

Many of Robertson’s pupils wrote tributes for the memorial. “Ronnie was more than just a coach and a mentor. He was a best friend. He was one of the few good-hearted people left in this world,” said Amber Albert.

“In measuring Ronnie’s life, all of you that are here only knew him as your coach. For me, he was a very special friend and one of the greatest skaters of all time,” wrote Evelyn Muller Kramer.

There were times when Robertson battled the figure skating establishment. His father, Albert, once accused judges of “rigging” results. Once figure skating officials tried to deny Robertson a U.S. nationals silver medal, accusing Robertson of demanding “excessive expenses for exhibitions.” Sometimes Robertson wasn’t happy with his skating life. But, says Button, Robertson always was happy as a performer and crowds always were happy to see him.

And in these last two years in Irvine, even as his health failed and his strength waned, Robertson still would march into the Irvine Ice Arena, bundled up in his long, black coat, eager to teach 29-year-old beginners how to land a jump on one foot, how to spin, how to be a star. Even if it was only in class for a day and even if the only person applauding was the man in the long, black coat.



Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: