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'Hard and Strict' : Ex-'Blonde Bombshell' Teaches Tomorrow's Stars

July 29, 1988|IRENE GARCIA | Times Staff Writer

Barbara Roles-Williams was known as the "Blonde Bombshell" in her heyday as a national-champion figure skater. She was a graceful athlete who soared on ice with tremendous speed and charisma. Her fancy maneuvers captivated audiences worldwide and won a bronze medal at the 1960 Olympics.

"That was 100 years ago," she said, shaking her head. "I don't remember everything. It's been a long time."

To the 47-year-old, those days are gone for good. It's been a while since Roles-Williams, who lives in Redondo Beach, sped enthusiastically across the surface of a frosty ice rink.

These days, she stands on the ice at the Olympic Ice Arena in Torrance in Reebok high tops instead of skates.

Occasionally she'll put on skates and try a spiral or some other fancy move, but it's not the way it used to be.

"The kids laugh when I do that," Roles-Williams said. "I'm almost 50. I'm too old for that."

Her physical ability is not the same as when she won the bronze at Squaw Valley as an 18-year-old, but her knowledge of the sport is still immense.

That's why she's so comfortable behind the scenes, coaching top-caliber skaters like 1976 Olympian Wendy Burge, 1980 Olympian Lisa Marie Allen and 17-year-old Jeri Campbell, an alternate on the 1988 U.S. Olympic figure skating team.

Roles-Williams, who grew up in Arcadia, started coaching in 1969 at a rink in West Covina and admits that she hesitated to do it.

"I used to think, 'I can't teach, I'll be too hard on these kids.' I guess it's because when you perform you depend on yourself, and I was a very dependable performer."

Campbell has been Roles-Williams' student for three years and says she's an extremely demanding coach, but in a positive way.

"She's hard and strict," Campbell said, "but she knows what she's talking about and doesn't live in the past. She knows what she's done (as a skater), and that's in the past. Now she wants her students to be the best."

Producing a world champion is Roles-Williams' priority, but highlights of an incredible career can't be completely forgotten, even if most of her titles are deposited in a memory bank and trophies are stored in the closet.

There are numerous reminders of her success in the sport. In 1981, she was named one of L.A.'s top 200 athletes in a 50-year period by Mayor Tom Bradley. Laker center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, gymnast Cathy Rigby and Olympic figure skater Peggy Fleming were among the athletes honored.

There are also photos and videos of her days as a figure skater, and the medal from the Olympics.

Roles-Williams pauses for a moment, lifts her purple-rimmed glasses and smiles at the thought of participating in the world's top amateur competition.

"I guess I kind of expected to do well because I had a lot of drive, like the gas pedal in a car. When you press it, you go faster, faster, faster. I guess I still can't explain the excitement of winning a medal, though."

Before her Olympic debut, she was already a prominent skater who was undefeated from 1953--when she won the California state championship at age 12--to 1958. She was one of the few athletes to win the sport's three national divisions.

In 1956 she won the national novice championship, in 1958 she was the national junior champion and in 1962 she won the senior national itle.

"She is the best-balanced skater I've ever trained," said Nancy Rush, who coached Roles-Williams during her 15-year career and still teaches at the Pasadena Ice Skating Center. "She was just so good in everything. She was great in figures, jumps, spinning and she was very flexible and limber."

Roles-Williams won her last national title after a year off. Following the Olympics, she retired, got married and had her first child.

She had no intention of competing again, but the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. asked her to come back after all the top U.S. skaters were killed in a plane crash on their way from New York to the World Championships in Belgium in 1961.

"When she retired as an amateur," Rush said, "she wasn't even at the best of her potential. It's unusual, though, to come back the way she did after a year. Very few people could have come back and skate as well as she did. There was just a greatness about her. She had exceptional ability and desire."

Roles-Williams placed fifth at the world championships after winning the senior national title, but regardless of the success, the comeback period was painful because a lot of friends were on the plane that had crashed.

"I just blocked it out of my mind for a long time," she said. "For years, I felt they had gone on a trip and just never came back. It was difficult."

After the world championships, Roles-Williams took time off to have her second child, then toured with the Ice Capades for one season before putting her skates away for good.

"I'm still very involved," she said. "I guess when you're involved with skating this long, it will always be a part of your life."

She will always be part of the graceful figure skating world. She may never jump, spin or glide through ice on thin-bladed skates, but she's still in demand. Top-notch skaters are practically begging to be coached by the former "Blonde Bombshell" of the ice.

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