A Golden Era: Bay Area Skaters Enjoy a Special Connection
By Nick McCarvel
Brian Boitano and Rudy Galindo remember it well: It was an early morning practice at Dublin Iceland in 1994 and they set off, one after the other, doing triple Axel after triple Axel.
“The first one to miss a triple Axel had to buy the other one a doughnut or something like that,” Boitano recalled with a laugh. “We each did something like 17 triple Axels in a row.”
Such incredible stories are common among an elite group of Bay Area athletes who for decades defined figure skating success in America. It started with Peggy Fleming’s rise to become America’s Golden Girl as she won the 1968 Olympic title. In her footsteps came such champions as Charles Tickner, Boitano, Debi Thomas, Kristi Yamaguchi and Galindo, who defined a golden era that began in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“The number of rinks out here at the time helped develop a culture of skating,” said Yamaguchi, who with Galindo won two U.S. pairs titles. “The Bay Area and LA area skaters were pretty competitive nationally. There was the feeling that, ‘Hey, if you could make it out of California then you’re doing OK.’”
“OK” is underselling it.
As a group, Fleming, Tickner, Boitano, Thomas, Yamaguchi and Galindo combined for five Olympic medals, 16 World medals and 19 U.S. titles.
But how could so much talent be contained to one small region of the country?
“I’m not sure exactly why a strong group of people came through that was pretty consistent,” Tickner said. “We were a good group.”
“The Bay Area always had a lot of top national competitors,” Yamaguchi said. “I think it was just full of talent.”
Fleming, the Bay Area’s grande dame of figure skating, offers a more poetic explanation:
The Domino Effect
Fleming, born in San Jose in 1949, first stepped onto the ice at the now-defunct Sutro Baths on the west side of San Francisco. She became “more serious” about skating at age 9 when she started at Berkeley Iceland under Gene Turner.
At age 16, she moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to train under Carlo Fassi.
“Growing up I was doing all kinds of things, playing the violin, taking ballet … I loved sports, and baseball was my favorite. I was a tomboy,” Fleming said. “When I was introduced to skating, it was a combination of everything that I already loved. In the Bay Area, you can do anything.”
Though Fleming left the region in her teens, she and husband Greg Jenkins returned for much of her adult life, raising their family in the Bay Area. Last year, she and Greg moved to a Denver suburb to be closer to their grandchildren.
Tickner, of Lafayette, California, also found his way to Colorado as a young athlete. A self-described “late bloomer,” Tickner won his first of four U.S. titles at age 22 and captured the 1980 Olympic bronze at age of 25 in Lake Placid, New York.
“I was going to college in Reno [Nevada] and was actually living in the 1960 Olympic rink in Squaw Valley,” he said. “I was supposed to be training up there but instead I was just skiing all the time. My dad was the one that got the ball rolling for me to go to Colorado. I was supposed to be there for just a summer, but I ended up there for eight years. I flourished.”
While Fleming and Tickner were making headlines and winning titles, a young boy in Sunnyvale, Calif., was watching closely. Boitano, born in 1963 just a few miles outside of San Jose, first saw his idol (and now friend) Fleming perform at an Ice Follies show that came through town.
“Peggy always inspired me because I imagined that I was starring in the Ice Follies alongside her,” Boitano said. “After my mom took me to see that show, I used to roller skate in our driveway in Sunnyvale and I would draw chalk marks on the ground like I was leaving ice marks on the pavement. I also made this billboard that said, ‘Brian Boitano starring with Peggy Fleming in Ice Follies.’”
Check the December SKATING cover to read the entire story and see some of the greats’ childhood photos.