It’s the little things they remember so vividly, perhaps because those little things meant so much when they were young and their worlds revolved around one dream.
For Carol Heiss, the enduring memory of the 1954 U.S. Figure Skating Championships--the last to be held in Los Angeles until this week’s competition at Staples Center--is defying her doctors and competing despite a slashed Achilles’ tendon. The injury had kept her out of the world championships, which in that era preceded the U.S. competition, and she feared judges would forget her if she were absent from the world championships again.
With a 14-year-old’s single-mindedness, she vowed to compete even if she had to crawl around the Polar Palace.
“I worked real hard on my school figures so I could be a good, solid second. I could barely free skate my program,” said Heiss, who finished second to Tenley Albright and made the 1955 world team, launching a career that included four U.S. titles, an Olympic silver medal in 1956 and the gold medal at Squaw Valley in 1960.
A generation later, in 1972, the U.S. championships were held at the Long Beach Arena. That’s the last time they were in the Los Angeles area before this year’s competition. And like the drama that will unfold this week, the 1972 championships determined who would represent the U.S. at the Winter Olympics.
For Ken Shelley of Downey, who won the men’s title and shared the pairs title with JoJo Starbuck, skating in Long Beach brought extra duress.
“When you normally go away for a competition, you’re used to that. But I was staying at home, and there was the pressure of it being an Olympic year,” he said. “And it probably was going to be our final competitive year. It had a whole different feel to it.”
Here are recollections of some of the 1954 and 1972 competitors:
Winning the junior ladies’ title was a major breakthrough for Catherine Machado of West Los Angeles.
Because she won and the third-place finisher in the senior women’s division turned pro, Machado was sent to the 1955 world championships and became the first skater from Southern California to compete at that level. Eugene Turner had qualified in 1940 and 1941, but those competitions were canceled because of World War II.
“There was a lot of pressure, being a hometown girl in my own rink
Skating magazine, then the official publication of the U.S. and Canadian Figure Skating Associations, raved about her. “Wearing a persimmon velvet dress with long fitted sleeves and a sweetheart neckline trimmed in sequins, Miss Machado performed an exhibition of free skating as dazzling as her costume and had the capacity crowd completely captivated with her poise and her interpretation of her music,” Sevy Von Sonn wrote.
Machado can’t recall her routine, but she remembers receiving the Oscar L. Richard Trophy for the most artistic performance. “I was more proud of winning that than winning the championship,” said Machado, who in 1956 became the first Latina athlete to compete for the U.S. Olympic team in the Winter Games. Machado, 65 and widowed, teaches skating at Culver City. She keeps in touch with many of her contemporaries and hopes to see them this week; those who have died remain in her heart. “Tim [Brown, the 1954 men’s junior champion] is gone. Ronnie [Robertson] is gone,” she said. “Unfortunately, I see a lot of people I competed against in juniors at funerals.”
Franklin Nelson of Tulsa, Okla., won’t forget the Polar Palace.
“That was the rink that had the hump on one side,” said Nelson, who shared the silver dance title with Sidney Foster. “It wasn’t so bad for ice dancing or free skating, but if you were doing [compulsory] figures, you had to place them such that you got the downhill side to give you a little boost.”
Nelson and Foster’s free dance, according to Skating magazine, displayed “beautiful form and seemingly perfect unison.” He remembers it for what they couldn’t do, not what they did.
“There were no lifts allowed and you pretty much had to be in contact at all times. There was no original dance,” he said.
Nelson joined the Navy in 1956, when he and Foster wound down their competitive career. He went to medical school and became a surgeon, but remained involved in skating, including serving as president of the USFSA.
“I haven’t been to L.A. in some time other than passing through the airport,” said Nelson, 68 and living in Bainbridge Island, Wash. “These nationals are going to be exciting.”
The 1954 U.S. championships were a test of nerves for Robin Greiner.
He and Carole Ormaca of Fresno had won the pairs title the previous year, and they were tense about defending it before so many of their friends and relatives. But another memory stands above all.
“Remember the actor Tab Hunter?” Greiner said. “He was there, and he brought Debbie Reynolds to the event as his date. She was my favorite actress. They were sitting in the second row, and it was all I could do to keep my focus every time I saw her.”
Greiner didn’t meet Reynolds, but he and Ormaca repeated as champions. They finished fourth at the 1955 world championships, the second of three times they finished just out of a medal.
“We skated three to five competitions a year, and skaters do that now in a month,” said Greiner, who is nearly 70 and retired after managing two funeral homes. “I’m surely glad I skated then instead of now.”
For years, David Jenkins skated in the shadow of his older brother, Hayes, who won the U.S. and world championships four times each and won gold at the 1956 Winter Games in Cortina, Italy.
David would win four U.S. titles, three world titles, an Olympic silver medal in 1956 and gold in 1960. But in 1954, he was still Hayes’ little brother. Skating magazine reported that David Jenkins performed with vigor and daring.
Jenkins laughed at that account. “They didn’t say I skated half like a hockey player, which I still was,” he said. “What I remember most is it was my first time in seniors and the first time I competed against my brother.”
The brothers were born and reared in Akron, Ohio. When their parents couldn’t pay for their skating, they got help from the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs and a foundation, which was controversial in the days skaters were supposed to be amateurs.
Jenkins, 65, retired after practicing medicine for 30 years and lives in Tulsa. He said he did triple jumps in his 40s but hasn’t skated for five or six years. However, he still follows the sport closely--and not only because Heiss married his brother and became a coach. He’s looking forward to watching this week’s competition on TV but wonders if the men are inviting injury by focusing so much on quadruple jumps.
“I could go through my competitive program in practice and feel confident I could do it in competition. Now they’re pushing their programs so far,” he said.
To see Janet Lynn perform is to know why steel was cut into blades and attached to skating boots.
At Long Beach, the mesmerizing blond with the pixie haircut won the fourth of five consecutive U.S. titles, blending proficiency with the blissful artistry that characterized all of her performances.
“She just took my breath away,” said Josephine Lawless, historian for the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club--the host club for the national competition--and an official at countless local figure skating events since 1956. “She was close in style, I think, to Michelle Kwan.”
Even Lynn’s rivals were in awe of her and knew they were competing for second.
“It was foregone unless she really messed up,” said Suna Murray, then 15 and visiting California for the first time. “She was kind of my idol. The first time I made the world team  I remember Janet sent her skates to the Skating Club of New York [Murray’s club] to be sharpened, and I remember touching her boots for good luck.”
Murray recalls Long Beach fondly. “I don’t think the arena had any barriers, and I felt like I could soar forever,” said Murray, who was third behind Lynn and Holmes and won a berth at the Sapporo Olympics, where she finished 12th.
Many of the 1972 champions will be honored in a ceremony Tuesday at Staples Center, but Lynn isn’t likely to be among them.
“I’m trying to talk her into it,” said Julie Holmes, now Julie Holmes Newman, mother of two skaters and two hockey players and a skating coach in La Jolla and Escondido. “She puts God first, then her family, and she felt it wasn’t the right time to come. Two of her [five] children are in the Navy.”
Holmes finished ahead of Lynn at the 1970 and 1971 world championships because she was adept at compulsory figures and Lynn had trouble with those intricate tracings. However, at Long Beach, Holmes was first in the figures but was passed by Lynn in the free skating. Both qualified for the Olympics, where Lynn finished third and Holmes was fourth.
Lynn could not be contacted.
“Things have changed with multi-million dollar contracts,” Holmes Newman said, “but we just did it for the love of the sport.”
Judy Sladky recalls the short boards at the Long Beach Arena, the Queen Mary berthed nearby and the nostalgia of knowing it would be her last U.S. competition with ice dance partner Jim Sladky.
They won their fifth consecutive U.S. championship, but it was the end of their competitive road because ice dancing hadn’t yet become an Olympic sport. “It was time to start making money,” Jim Sladky said.
He remembers they won praise for their free dance, which included part of “Irma La Douce” and “a guitar thing” before changing to a waltz.
“We were not big, tall and elegant and we didn’t go at 100 mph, with our sleeves fluttering gracefully in the breeze,” he said. “We were short and quick and we had quick footwork.”
They performed in ice shows for many years and lived for a while in the San Fernando Valley. They were together 27 years and married for 19 before divorcing.
He’s a hotel engineer in Hartford, Conn., but skates nearly every day in nearby Cromwell.
Judy Sladky works for Sesame Street and Charles Schulz productions. She’s the voice of Baby Alice Snuffleupagus and skates in a Snoopy costume in ice shows, doing back flips on the trampoline. “The old broad can still skate,” she said.
Said Jim Sladky: “She’s amazing. That’s one of the reasons we did as well as we did. I was just a prop, a guy showing off a beautiful woman. It was always well-noted that Judy was doing all the hard work.”
Shelley was busy at the 1972 nationals, winning the men’s title, sharing the pairs title and juggling his studies at Cal State Long Beach. “I was either training, eating or sleeping,” he said.
Emotive and athletic, Starbuck and Shelley were immensely popular with fans and judges. Skating magazine praised their innovative stag overhead lift and double cartwheel with a throw landing, but Shelley insisted neither was difficult.
“That’s what you would call a star lift now,” said Shelley, who was first paired with Starbuck at a studio rink in Downey when they were 7. “Things have changed a lot. When I competed, I did one triple jump the year I won nationals. I was working on another but it wasn’t consistent, so I said, ‘Let’s not mar the program by taking a chance.’ There’s a whole different outlook now. They go for broke.”
Shelley lives in New York City and is active in the USFSA. He will run a seminar for novice skaters and their parents this week in Los Angeles. Starbuck had planned to attend this week but canceled because her mother is ill.
Starbuck and Shelley remain friends, but they don’t skate together anymore.
“The last time we skated was about four years ago,” he said. “It was, ‘Let’s see those old folks skate once more.’ We didn’t embarrass ourselves too much, but we looked at each other and said, ‘I don’t think we’ll do this again.”’