It doesn’t feel like 50 years, says Petra Burka, 1965 world champion, of her momentous achievement, almost a lifetime ago. Somebody sent flowers and cheer. There’s a celebration in Toronto on today. The years have gone in a flash. Still, Burka is ever youthful. “I think because I’m with kids a lot, I don’t feel old,” she says, still working as a team leader and coach.
She remembers little of that day 50 years ago of her stunning win. But she recalls that she and her coach/mother Ellen Burka looked at each other when they heard Petra had won. “I think she was happier than me,” Petra said. “I was in shock.” She had swept both the figures and the free skate.
In a way, she’s paying the price for having an innate jumping ability and she did it in a time without the sort of support that the skaters of today enjoy. Last year, she had hip replacement surgery. The banging on her leg as she worked the doubles – and the triples – took a toll. “It’s a skating thing,” she says. “I think you’ll find a lot of figure skaters, dancers, athletes need hip replacements. It was my landing foot. Now they have sophisticated programs that allow you to get your body warmed up so you won’t injure yourself.”
In Petra’s time, there was no such science or help. Skaters back then did not do off-ice work. She went to the rink straight from school, put on her skates and jumped. Strangely enough, Petra never suffered an injury as a competitor. And just like so many other things in her life, it wasn’t easy for Petra to recover from her hip surgery. The flat in which she lives – in an orchid-hued house designed by architect sister Astra – requires her to navigate 45 steps to the top, to her sun-filled digs.
Petra was Ellen’s first international student, and together they learned the ropes. For her now 93-year-old mother (she still has her driver’s licence), there had been many more to follow. Ellen Burka has taught students that made it to seven Olympics and won 48 international medals. Petra led the way, often training on her own while her single mother worked to pay the bills. Fifty years ago, skaters didn’t get money to train, and they were restricted from earning money. The rule back then was that if skaters earned more than $25 in a season, they’d be banished from the amateur kingdom for good.
“After worlds, we’d be in shows all over Europe and North America, but we didn’t see anything of it,” says Petra. While Petra’s journey to her first world championship in Prague in 1962 was paid by the skating association, Ellen had to buy her own ticket. While she was away, she’d lose the revenue from lessons missed. At Petra’s first Canadian championship in Regina, she and her mother dined on their own breakfast of champions – a can of beans on a hotel dining room plate – because her mother didn’t have the cash to pay for steaks. Remember, women weren’t allowed to apply for credit cards in those days.
In her day, skaters didn’t have the luxury of going to sports schools that would understand the demands of an athlete schedule. Petra would get to the rink by 6 a.m. for four hours of figures, and two hours of free skating a day, and she’d miss the first period of school. Between January and March, she seldom showed up at school because of her travels. The school would demand that Petra still write her exams and she’d cram to fit it all in. Luckily, she has a photographic memory and it would all stick. The year she won the world championships, she got 49 out of 50 on a health exam, but zero for the physical education portion of the course – because she was never there.
It didn’t take long for the Russians to spot Petra’s superior jumping ability at her first world championship in 1962. During a tour that followed, she received a telegram from the Russian federation, asking if she and her mother could go to Moscow and do skating seminars. “They wanted to know how my mother taught ‘that girl who could jump.’” Petra says. “What’s the secret?”
In Prague, the Russians had taken their passports. Ellen was understandably skittish, with no documents in hand in a Communist country. Finally they boarded a cargo plane with no seats for the ride to Moscow. Ellen calmed her nerves by downing vodka. “I remember the plane flew really low and dropped mail or whatever and would keep flying,” Petra recalls.
After her amateur career, Petra toured for three years with Holiday on Ice, with the final two years in Europe. It was a culture shock for Petra, used to training, never going out, missing the high school prom. They played to sold-out houses for a month in Paris, and Amsterdam, too. Picture this: near a rink in Paris, there would be 10 caravans, where the show’s cast and crew would have wives and dogs and lives. Petra could have stayed for another two-year stint, but she decided that she didn’t want to get caught up in a never-ending carnival life with “all those gypsies that stay in forever.”
Mostly, Petra would stay in cheaper hotels in Europe (skaters paid for accommodations) because that’s where her friends were. One night, she was caught off guard. During a drive from France to Spain, Petra stopped to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969 on a tiny TV screen somewhere out in the countryside. When Petra finally arrived in Madrid, the sun was rising over the city, and her room had been taken. It was the only time she checked into a five-star hotel during her career.
She arrived back home in Toronto with a designer wardrobe and a Mercedes 250 SL that promptly died, and found herself in the midst of another culture shock. While she’d been gone, hippies had blossomed, and they all wore gauzy dresses with flowers in their hair. “We were yuppies before there were yuppies,” Petra says. She had to adjust to the real world. “It took me the next 40 years to recover,” she says, laughing.
With the money she made on the tours, she bought her mother a refrigerator. “I want to make sure my mother gets credit,” Petra says. “She had a pretty tough life. She had to drive herself around between three clubs to make a living. My mom was instrumental in my doing well. It was because of her that I became a champion.”