It is a January Saturday morning in Minnesota. Outside it is cold, and a gray prairie wind is blowing. But the expansive arena of the Metropolitan Sports Center in Bloomington is nearly celestial in its removal from the cruel real world. Clear light and serenity have settled into the empty ice palace. Transcendent music (Debussy? Brahms?) rises on its own wings up to the sunlike lights in the ceiling. On the rink, a universe below the highest seats, a couple of tiny figures glide, dip, practice lazily to the music. They seem remote, ethereal down there in this great oval void of 15,000 empty seats.
Now Janet Lynn Nowicki is walking along the top rim of the amphitheater. It is the perfect setting for her. Last night, more like an angel than a girl, she won the U.S. women's figure skating championship for the fifth year in a row. She was brilliant, radiant, unreal. Today she is dressed with morning-after realism: a black pea jacket, drab baggy jeans, low dark shoes. She is very short, not a bit willowy. She is looking more like Janet Lynn Nowicki, the 19-year-old dumpling daughter of an upstate Illinois druggist than like Janet Lynn, the graceful darling of international ice from London to Vienna to Leningrad.
Still, the face is that of the cherubic celebrity herself. The famed blonde bob is perhaps a bit limp, but the smile is fresh and sunny. There are the fine cheekbones, the almond hazel eyes, the short straight nose, the features of a Slavic angel—though with a touch of tension today. She is here in the heights of the skating arena for an interview. She is congratulated on the brilliance of her championship performance and asked how she arrived at such perfection. She says, "I had an inner peace last night, and I always skate very well when I have that."
The interviewer says, "Inner peace?" and Janet says casually, "The peace of God. Before I went out on the ice I prayed. I said, 'O.K., Lord, You promised that if I asked for Your help You'd be with me. I'm asking You to keep Your promise, God.' And He did."
March 5, 1973
Janet's voice is matter-of-fact, girlish and mild, in no way evangelistic. She speaks about the Lord as if He were her pal. She is asked if she prays a lot and she replies, "Sure. Prayer is like a way of life with me. I pray a little every day, not just when I skate."
"Does God always tell you what to do?"
"He always waits to the last minute to tell me what to do. But He usually tells me."
"One thing specific, for sure: my being here now is only because of God. I didn't want to skate this year. I couldn't face it. After 14 years of serious skating I was tired. After the Olympics I was sick of it. I was bored and depressed. I almost quit for good this summer. One day I went to the rink. I was planning to work five or six hours. I stayed 10 minutes and went home and said, 'Mom, I can't do it.' I talked to my parents, my brothers and my pastor. I prayed to God about it. He said, 'Skate another year for me.' I said, 'O.K., Lord, if You want me to skate, I will. But then I have to trust You every day to give me the strength every day because I am tired of it.' He promised. So I am here. But it is so hard and I am more depressed than I was before. I'm O.K. when I trust in God, but otherwise not. I used to be O.K. on my own, but now I have to have God and faith or I can't make it. It's so hard now...."
The interviewer pauses then asks hesitantly, "Is God a good skater?"
The radiant smile flashes once again and Janet says with a giggle, "He must be. That sure wasn't me skating last night."
Janet Lynn Nowicki was 2½ years old when she was first put on skates, a round doll wobbling about and thumping down constantly. Her father, Florian Nowicki, a plain-talking, mild-looking, bespectacled fellow, owns the gleaming Rexall pharmacy on North Main Street in Rockford, Ill. Speaking of those times before his child became a champion, he says, "The first day was on a pond in Southwest Chicago at a Cub Scout outing. She fell all the time, but she never cried, she always laughed. She never let anyone help her. And do you know, before we knew what happened, that little girl had taught herself to skate backward? In no time at all. So we put her in a skating class. Partly that was to help her get over her shyness. She had been in a dance class, but she was so bashful she'd just sit at her mother's feet and refuse to move around.
"Skating was the thing for her. At 3 she passed up everybody in the children's class. At 3½ she had outskated a class of teen-agers. Oh, she was so little then. I remember the skating teacher asked the class to write a report about what they had learned. Janet didn't know how to write, so she brought in a tablet full of color crayon pictures.
"Now they always introduce me as Janet Lynn's father," Mr. Nowicki says. "I don't get tired of it, being called Mr. Lynn. I'm proud of it."
Mrs. Ethelyne Nowicki is small and friendly, seemingly shy and seemingly a homebody—although she has traveled to more than two dozen countries as her daughter's adviser, chaperone, dietician, costume seamstress and roommate. She recalls that when Janet was just 4 she had advanced beyond all class instruction and was taking private lessons in Chicago. Her skating was that of a mature young woman, her personality still that of a chubby little girl. "She was so shy. When they had ice shows or exhibitions, Janet would sit in the lobby, sobbing, crying her little heart out. She was terrified of going out in front of people. Then some little friend or her teacher would talk to her and coax her—and she would finally go on the ice. She always skated like a dream."
The shy child outgrew skating teacher after skating teacher in Chicago. She was 5 years old.
"We never pressed her," says Mr. Nowicki. "Janet wanted to skate more than anything else."
"What do you do," asks Mrs. Nowicki, "when all a little girl ever says is, 'I wanta skate, I wanta skate, I wanta skate'?"
One thing one does is to move the whole family—mother, father, two sons, two daughters plus grandfather—to a town near where there is a skating rink with lots of open ice and a fine young teacher. That is more than the action of a typical skating mother, as these driving ladies are called: the Nowickis feel it is the skating family way. And, as Mrs. Nowicki points out, "We had been looking around for a small town for the children, anyway."
The Wagon Wheel is a well-known resort in northern Illinois. It is a kind of homespun Lincoln Log Grossinger's set amid cornfields instead of Catskills, and it is noted for its skating rink, which also is built of logs. The Wagon Wheel is equally well known for Slavka Kohout. Miss Kohout is a lithe and vibrant lady who is an exuberant and graceful skater. Though she never made the U.S. team during her prime in the '50s, she has coached, coaxed, cajoled and encouraged in Janet Lynn Nowicki the strong, balletic style that has affected the form of figure skaters all over the world.
In 1958 the Nowickis made a summer weekend visit to the Wagon Wheel and Janet skated with Miss Kohout. It was a match in heaven made.
A dazzled Mrs. Nowicki said to Miss Kohout, "Would you teach Janet?"
And a star-struck Miss Kohout said to Mrs. Nowicki, "Oh, would you let me?"
There began the grueling, loving, tender, hardhearted, expensive and successful affair of Kohout-Nowicki that would eventually create the brilliant skating ballerina named Janet Lynn.
The Nowicki girl was 7 when her last name disappeared from public view. "It was such a hard name for announcers and the press to get right," explains Miss Kohout. "I suggested it would be wise, in the interests of simplicity, to drop or shorten the name of Nowicki. Her mother said we could use just her first and middle names. She was such a petite, graceful little thing to be hauling around a big name like Nowicki."
Florian Nowicki says, "We did not discourage her dropping our last name. Janet Lynn came out nice and phonetic over public-address systems. We did it strictly for simplicity, not to glamorize her or anything like that. Yes, some Polish-American groups have asked about the un-Slavic name, but that doesn't bother me."
Slavka Kohout says, "There are people who are winners instinctively, and I think Janet showed that even when she was a little, little girl. I think now that perhaps I started her too early in serious competition, but she was that good! She had an animal grace. She had a sense of balance that was incredible, something innate that cannot be taught. And she had character. I have never seen anyone with the drive of Janet. She had the two things no coach can put into a skater—superb balance and strong character. She's very driven."
Like many skaters, Janet Lynn has a weight problem. She has been on a rigid Weight Watchers diet for three years, and now for an occasional treat her mother fixes her Jell-O made from sugarless black raspberry soda. Janet's discipline is that of a Trappist monk. When she is in training she rarely stays up after 7:30 p.m. and she rises early to begin another endless day—six or seven hours of skating—on the rink. It is, she says, what she has wanted her life to be.
"I don't feel I have sacrificed so much," she says. "I had to mature faster than most, I guess. I wasn't able to hang onto my school friends and go right on into college like everyone else. But I have had dates since I was 14. I went to football games sometimes. I went to dances. Sometimes it was not like everyone else. Once when I was a sophomore I asked a boy to a Sadie Hawkins Day dance. When we got there I was terribly nervous. The reason was that I had to figure some way to tell him that I could only stay for 15 minutes. I had to go home then and sleep because I had to train the next day."
In 1961 Mr. Nowicki sold his half of the drugstore in Chicago and the whole family trooped to Rockford, which is about 14 miles from Rockton and the Wagon Wheel. There they bought a large stone ranch house, "only a shell," recalls Ethelyne Nowicki, "and all the country around here was farm pasture." Today the Nowicki house is filled with lavish and tasteful furnishings and there is a swimming pool. All around on the former farm pasture arc sprawling homes, none worth less than $65,000—including the Nowickis'. Plainly it is a prosperous operation. Otherwise there would be no Janet Lynn.
The economics of figure skating include a welter of small and large costs, odd and complex bits and pieces of expenditure. They add up over the years.
"Look. I just don't like to talk about the expenses involved in this," says Mr. Nowicki. "It really might discourage other people who are trying to bring up a skating daughter."
Fair enough. Simple arithmetic shows there is no way to independently build a national champion skater for less than $10,000 to $12,000 a year during the peak seasons of top-class competition. It has also come to be a standard rule that no one can really hope to reach world-caliber class as a figure skater with less than 10 years (and more often close to 15) of intense and expensive training. Thus it is not outlandish to figure that it will cost roughly $100,000 to turn one's darling dumpling daughter into a downright skating queen.
It costs about one half that much to become a brain surgeon.
And what might be the return to such a generous investment—in dollars and cents? It could be very, very good.
Sonja Henie, who won her first Olympic gold medal in 1928 at the age of 15, earned a splendid lifetime total of $47.5 million in her shows and movies. That figure, it is said, is the most money ever earned by any athlete. Peggy Fleming's intricate and imaginative contract for a combination of NBC television shows and personal appearances is worth well over $1 million.
A charming pixie like Janet Lynn might get $100,000 a year right now if she signed with an ice show. Mr. Nowicki says, "Janet will do whatever she wants in regard to an ice-show contract. We do not expect her to share her earnings with us. She won't be selfish, but we have never talked in terms of any repayments or of her sharing with us."
Janet says, "I really don't know what I will do. I don't think I could ever live without skating. But God will tell me what to do when the time comes."
Father says, "She talks some about becoming an evangelist. We have encouraged her to do her evangelizing on ice and kind of cool it in terms of real evangelizing for the time being."
"Never forget," says Slavka Kohout, "Janet is skating on two thin blades and with a heart full of fear. For a figure skater there is fear of falling, fear of failing, fear of the audience. When I think of the disciplines, the muscular control, the emotional stresses, the athletic demands in this sport, I wonder that anyone can do it."
Stresses, indeed. The dean of all figure skating experts is an ageless, charming Frenchman, Pierre Brunet, now well into his 70s, a statesmanlike figure as he stalks about the rink in his long maroon parka, bald and sharp-eyed as an eagle, the brilliant mentor of world champions Carol Heiss and Don Jackson. Brunet was a genius of a skater himself who with his wife won the pairs gold medal in the Olympics of 1928 and 1932. Today the old master coaches U.S. men's Champion Gordie McKellen and also trains Janet Lynn in school figures. He is a perceptive man who has never lost his awe of this most demanding athletic endeavor: "I do not think there is any other sport so difficult as figure skating. Average human beings cannot do it. It is the one complete sport. It uses the whole body. It requires equilibrium like it does for the balance beam in gymnastics. It requires a perfect ambidexterity. No other sport requires such ambidextrous performance as figure skating. You have to be able to spin like a top without falling and yet be athletic enough to jump like a gazelle and land on one foot—either foot—and not fall. You must have tight and precise control to draw the figures—the circle does not lie—and you must have the ability to skate like a ballet dancer to great music. You have only one chance before an audience. You must be perfect in all this or you fail! Oh, yes, there is no sport that demands so much of a performer as figure skating."
Given the mathematical intricacies, the athletic profundities and the balletic artistries of the sport, Janet Lynn's record is a phenomenal thing.
She was 7 when she entered her first competition, the Midwestern juvenile ladies, and she finished 13th. The next year she won the Upper Great Lakes novice ladies title. When she was 12 she won the national junior championship; at 13 she competed as a senior lady and finished fourth. She was third in the U.S., ninth in the Olympics and ninth in the world championship when she was 14. She won her first U.S. championship and was fifth in the world at 15. She was first in the U.S. and sixth in the world at 16. She was first in the U.S. and fourth in the world at 17. And she was once more first in the U.S., third in the Olympics and third in the world last year.
And now at 19 this is her year, is it not? Quite possibly. In Bratislava, Czechoslovakia this week she is the favorite to win her first world gold medal. The 1972 champ, Austria's Trixi Schuba, has skated off into an ice-show career, and the top spot is now open. There are those who thought Janet might have done it before. Perhaps. But in world figure skating one must be very, very patient, for the powers of this sport are as infamous for the follies of their judgment as for the political—and transparent—precompetition fixes that are so common.
The best may win—or maybe not—in figure skating. Mrs. Nowicki says, "We have always told Janet that judges are human. One likes the kick of the foot one way, another likes it another. We've said to her not to skate for the medal but skate for the sport."
Slavka Kohout says, "I've never argued with the judging of any world champion. I don't think Janet has ever been judged off more than one place in all of her competitions. Figure skating judges rule on the complete skater, the complete event, not just one day or one performance. Until now Janet wasn't really ready. This is, I'd say, the first year she is really a top world competitor. She's emotionally and mentally mature now. She wasn't quite before. You can't put an old head on young shoulders, can you?"
Janet's rise or fall this week in Bratislava will probably come in her school figures, the most precise and drab event in almost all of sport. She has nearly always failed at this in major competitions in the past. Brunet says, "Janet's problem is lack of concentration. You cannot let go for one split second, not one. You cannot think of one thing else when you are doing figures. Understanding figures is not high-class geometry as some people think. It is a matter of perspective and balance. Some people have a gift for drawing circles, others don't. To do figures well you must concentrate only on figures for three hours a day, every day. A juggler does not learn to balance a plate on his head and toss a spoon into it from his mouth without full concentration and full days of practice. I've seen some improvement in Janet's concentration. But, whatever happens, remember—the circle doesn't lie."
Janet Lynn's toughest competition for skating queen of the world this year is expected to be another lovely little blonde, Karen Magnussen, 20, the Canadian women's champion and 1972 Olympic silver medalist. And another challenge may come from 15-year-old Dorothy Hamill, who finished second to Janet in the U.S. championships. As for Miss Magnussen, she is no genius at cutting the perfect circle, either, and her forte also is the freestyle. This year a third event—"compulsory freestyle," combining certain required movements with a dance program—has been added to the competition. This probably will offer a slight advantage to both Karen and Janet. Since 1970 in world, Olympic or North American competitions Karen has finished ahead of Janet five straight times. But this year Miss Lynn—and God—seem to be skating with divine excellence.
On a glum February morning, a week before she was to leave Illinois for Europe and final preparations there for the world competition, Janet Lynn was working at the Ice Palace of the Wagon Wheel. A dark rain beat down outside on snowless brown cornfields. Under the intense eyes of Pierre Brunet, Janet skated round and round the empty barnlike rink, dutifully doing her figures. The dazzling smile was missing, although her natural good looks brightened up the seedy rink a little. Her warmup stockings bagged and bare skin showed at her thighs, for they did not quite meet her dark blue skirt. Her appearance matched the surroundings: the Wagon Wheel Ice Palace is not quite fit for a queen. The light-blue chairs around the rink were tattered, patched and taped, and a chicken-wire barrier strung up around the rink was broken and bent in several places. Here and there rain dripped through the ceiling, and a melancholy American flag hung limp over Janet's blonde head.
Again and again, her face as grim as the day, Janet drew her circles on the ice. Again and again Brunet examined the figures, explained to her the mistakes. Janet frowned and said, "It doesn't feel right." Brunet said that it was right, and Janet went through it again and again.
In midmorning Slavka Kohout skated onto the rink, smiling and clowning. Janet said to Brunet, "Why don't you skate, too?" and he replied with a smile, "Ah, mais non, why should I?" Miss Kohout flittered around them and said, "Ah, she just wants a distraction." Brunet drew a sunflower on the ice for Slavka to trace. She could not do it, and she said, "Well, mine is a tulip!" At last Janet smiled, then finally she laughed.
The work began again and she fell back into a dense trance as she practiced her figures. Brunet had Slavka skate behind Janet and hold her leg in a certain position. Then Slavka balanced her by the hand. It went on and on.
At about 12:30 Janet burst into tears. With her head bowed, she glided to a bench to take off her skates. It had been too much, too much. She had had an argument at home that morning, the circles didn't work.... She sat bent over, looking very sad, much like a child, her eyes brimming with tears, for a few minutes. Then she composed herself and went off with Gordie McKellen to eat a light dieter's lunch of mushrooms and lettuce from a brown paper bag.
"This is her home," said Slavka Kohout quite calmly. "If she can't break down and let it out here, where in the world can she break down? She has been doing this a long, long time, and there are ups and downs, patterns which she understands and I understand. She will be fine this afternoon."