By Debbi Wilkes
The skating world can be a strange and wonderful place.
One minute an athlete can be on top of the podium, sought after by fans and glorified for their accomplishments; the next minute they can feel forgotten, out of place and awkward in a world they used to dominate.
What happens to these incredible champions once their competitive careers appear to have been reduced to a few lines in a record book?
Obviously some continue participating in the sport as coaches, officials and volunteers but many others move on in life and away from skating, with their beloved experiences and recollections of performances that made front-page news faded into distant memories.
A few have been recognized in Skate Canada’s Hall of Fame, established in 1990, for athletes with exceptional international success, and for coaches, officials and builders who have made outstanding contributions to skating in Canada. While this recognition is well-deserved and thrilling to those involved, scant resources have been available for planning “next steps” in further developing the potential of the talented Hall of Fame members plus those champions who stood atop the Canadian senior podium.
This illustrious and elite group of individuals, our Canadian Champion Alumni, and potentially skating’s greatest ambassadors, have been silent stakeholders in the advancement of skating. They have skilled history, rare expertise and rich knowledge to share, but how to mine and harness their collective power to promote our sport has not been identified by Skate Canada … until now.
During the 100th Anniversary of the Canadian Championships last season in Ottawa, nearly 100 past Senior Canadian Champion Alumni and Hall of Fame members were invited by Skate Canada to attend the event. Alumni were treated to special VIP seating and VIP Lounge passes, introduced throughout the competition, hosted by the Governor General and Mrs. Johnston at Rideau Hall, and celebrated at fan autograph sessions and in the final Alumni Gala with the 2014 Olympic Team in attendance. Designer pins and scarves were also produced to commemorate the occasion.
Donald Knight, four-time Canadian Champion and 1965 World bronze medalist described his emotional reconnection with so many former colleagues and friends. “All of us have the common thread of competing and representing ourselves, our families and our country, something we will always cherish and share together.”
For skating, Ottawa was a major milestone. Only three other sports have such a long history in Canada. And to recognize the existence and importance of such history through its champions was an opportunity for fans and current competitors to learn first-hand how the sport has evolved.
Like Don, 1988 Olympic silver medalist Elizabeth Manley attended because it was an amazing opportunity to reunite with all the skaters over the years and with her heroes from the past.
Liz commented, “I was so impressed and it was so exciting to sit with people who I hadn’t seen in years and watch our present and future stars compete. It was also very emotional at times when I got to speak with skaters I had looked up to my whole life.”
Ottawa’s Alumni Program was certainly a hit with alumni, competitors and fans alike. The past, present and future suddenly came together and with the remarkable magic that created, the alumni realized they really were treasured and important members of the skating family … and far from forgotten.
What can the alumni expect in the future?
This year in Kingston at the Canadian Tire National Skating Championships, January 19th to 25th, 2015, another Alumni Program is in place to attract our past champions and rekindle their interest and commitment. This year’s program will not be quite as heady as the one during the 100th anniversary in Ottawa but it will still offer the fantastic opportunity for alumni to build their community and be recognized for all they have contributed to skating. Special seating, VIP treatment, autograph sessions and a celebratory brunch will be part of the package. Alumni will also get to celebrate the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Sunday’s Exhibitions honoring the incredible creativity of choreographer Lori Nichol.
To Liz Manley, building a strong alumni program gives past champions the opportunity to keep the skating family close, something she feels is important for on-going success. “Recognizing our history makes Canada a stronger country in the international skating world because it helps to breed confidence and pride in everything we do on the ice, now and for the future.”
What began as a little idea for Skate Canada has blossomed into a growing program with inspiring potential. Not only is it the organization’s aim to celebrate the accomplishments of the Alumni, it’s in Skate Canada’s long-term plans to develop an initiative that would organize, epitomize and market the incredible history the alumni represent.
Congratulations to skating’s greatest ambassadors!
Hope to see you all in Kingston.