At the World Figure Skating Championships in Ottawa last week, U.S. team member Charlie Tickner and a few friends met for a late dinner at a Chinese restaurant, the sort of place whose only merit is that it stays open until 2 a.m. Tickner polished off his meal with a fortune cookie, first extracting the fortune and reading it aloud. It said: "Jealousy and competition may trouble you." Nothing could have been more appropriate for fold-under-pressure, maybe-I'll-quit, I've-got-an-excuse Charlie.
But this particular cookie made everybody crumble into laughter. A few hours before dinner Tickner had won the world championship, the first U.S. man to do so since Tim Wood in 1969 and 1970. "If I had gotten this cookie before I skated," Tickner said, "I would have died." At 24 the Grand Old Man of U.S. skating, Tickner has been hovering near the top for years while gaining a growing reputation for crashing on important landings. In his upset performance last week, Tickner finished third in the compulsory figures, third in the two-minute short program and second in the five-minute free-skating program, which was good enough to give him the title.
After his unsatisfying start, Tickner had driven to a practice rink with Norma Sahlin, his coach. Sahlin said about his effort, "Well, it wasn't your best."
"It's hard to have a magical performance," Tickner said.
March 20, 1978
"Yeah, but you're about due."
He was, indeed. Last Thursday night Tickner delivered the near magic he needed in the free-skating final to earn the victory just when it looked as if 1978 might belong to East Germany's Jan Hoffmann, the 1974 titleholder. (Reigning world champ Vladimir Kovalev of the U.S.S.R. came in fourth.)
"The ultimate victory is to skate your best," Tickner said. "And so I skated my best." And perhaps had a bit of luck as well? "You only have luck when you train for it."
With Tickner winning an unexpected gold medal—and 17-year-old superskate Linda Fratianne still to finish her competition—it suddenly appeared the U.S. was on its way to taking both the men's and women's titles for the first time since 1959, when Carol Heiss and David Jenkins made off with the world championships. Fratianne, from Northridge, Calif., the 1977 world champion, already is being mentioned by some in the same breath as Heiss, Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill.
But Fratianne had gotten off to a disastrous start with a third in the school figures. Her coach, Frank Carroll, complained bitterly about collusion among German-speaking judges, but everyone always complains about the judging in figure skating. It is a rule. However, at times nationalism can become too rampant even for skating's ruling body to abide. That's why the Soviets had been banned as judges this year. "I'm not into judging," Linda said resolutely. "I just know I have to do better figures."
Fratianne's work was further cut out for her after Tickner won. Not only was she trailing significantly in points, but also the whispered feeling among many Americans was that the judges would not care to award gold bookends to the U.S. As it turned out in the Friday night final, East Germany's Anett P‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√átzsch was the clear—if unspectacular—winner, with Linda second. Fratianne's father, Bob, consoled his stoic daughter. "To be second in the world is not so terrible," he said. Then he added, "Why are you looking at me like that?"
Coming into Ottawa, Tickner was haunted by his history of erratic performances. At the 1974 national championships, he fell twice and cracked a skate blade. In the 1976 nationals, he again crashed twice. "Plus he skated lousy," Sahlin says. In 1977 Tickner won the nationals and seemed on the right track, but came in fifth at the world meet. This year he faltered and finished second in the Midwestern sectional, the first significant step on the way to the world competition. Several times he has almost given up the sport. Says Sahlin, "He announces his retirement to me about twice a week."
En route to Canada from Littleton, Colo., where Tickner lives with the Sahlins, Norma told Charlie she thought he should end his free-skating program with two double axels, a tricky jump that involves a forward takeoff on one foot, 2½ turns in the air and a backward landing on the opposite foot. Then, three days before the start of competition, Tickner's crossed ankles accidentally locked on a triple jump and he fell, injuring a hip. Charlie didn't complain. But after his third in the school figures ("That's as good as I can skate figures") and a competent if ho-hum short program marred by a shaky landing on a combination jump, he did not have the look of a champion. Just before the free skating, Sahlin warned him, "Concentrate. Don't waste the year you have put in, and remember to do the two double axels at the end." Charlie did all of the above with an exacting, positive performance—including four triple jumps, the last one four minutes into the program to demonstrate his stamina. There was never any doubt of his command of the ice. When Hoffmann fell and Britain's Robin Cousins faltered on a triple loop (he won the free skating, nonetheless), the computers spewed out the news that Tickner was the champion. "Jeez," he said, "I would have been delighted with the bronze."
During the men's free skating, Canada's Vern Taylor executed the first triple axel—3½ rotations—ever to be done in competition. Dick Button, five-time world champion, equated Taylor's feat with a 3½-minute mile. It was Button who introduced the double axel in 1948 and the triple loop in 1952. And it was Button who led the standing ovation for Taylor's achievement.
Tickner attempted nothing so dramatic. Indeed, in the past he has been concerned about how the judges would react to his free skating because it didn't arouse the fans, whose enthusiasm rarely fails to influence the judges. Says Tickner, "Once there was this judge who told me, 'You skate too smoothly. Make it look harder.' "
Before the women's finals, there was similar concern in the Fratianne camp. Linda is frequently charged with not being exciting on the ice. She does seem the perfect windup doll. Send her out and she jumps, spins, turns, glides with mechanical sameness. And she doesn't smile much. "I think that I have substituted maturity for excitement," she says. "Before, I was bouncy and out of control, and everybody said I skated like a little girl." Her mother, Virginia, says, "Linda has class on the ice. She'd look stupid being bubbly." E. Newbold Black IV of New York, who helped judge the women skaters, says, "I don't know if total sparkle would have won it for her." Probably not. Fratianne was scored best overall by two judges; seven picked her for second.
Fratianne's title also was jeopardized by the high marks awarded to P‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√átzsch, who preceded her in the final event, and Linda certainly was a goner when she overrotated a landing on a triple toe loop early in her program. "I thought, 'Uh, oh, I've sure got to hit everything else,' " Fratianne said. She did, but it just wasn't enough.
The evening's most thrilling performance came from Lisa-Marie Allen of the U.S., who was too far back to challenge, but put on a show in the free skating that lit up the Civic Centre. She could improve at the world level if she works harder on her school figures; at Ottawa, she was 14th among 23 competitors in the compulsories.
In the pairs competition, the Soviet Union's Irina Rodnina was half the winning combination for the 10th straight year, a run of firsts that ties Sonja Henie's 1927-36 record in the women's event. Rodnina's current partner, Alexander Zaitsev, has been with her six years. Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner of the U.S. were third. The dance was won by the Soviet team of Natalia Linichuk and Gennadij Karponosov.
While Tickner is not sure what's next for him in skating, Fratianne claims perfect tunnel vision: regain the world title in 1979, win the Olympics in 1980. Button says he thinks there is a "chasm between the very good and the great skaters. Some sail over it, some step over, and some just don't make it. Linda is young, so we'll wait and see. But she was not beaten by intricacies of judging. The real question is why was she not more firelike. She needs to sit down and think about why she lost, then decide what to do about it."