COSTA MESA — Insulated from the cold by thick-soled boots and a parkathat swallows him in its folds, John Nicks is a still and stolid figure in a tableau of bright and darting colors at the Ice Capades Chalet skating rink.
As Nicks watches from a corner, U.S. men's figure skating champion Christopher Bowman flashes across the ice and soars toward the ceiling in an explosion of power. A few feet away, Jenni Meno and Scott Wendland, who were second in the pairs event at last month's U.S. championships, spin in perfect unison and then skate to Nicks for a critique, imitating him as he extends his leg to demonstrate a more graceful pose. Natasha Kuchiki and Todd Sand, the third-ranked U.S. pair, glide through a sequence of difficult moves, winning an approving nod from Nicks as they finish.
Never does Nicks raise his voice or gesture theatrically; he would no sooner scream than he would ask skaters to try jumps that would endanger their health or their dignity. He's not flashy, but he is inarguably successful: after coaching JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley to U.S. pairs titles from 1970-72 and Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner to five consecutive pairs titles and the 1979 world championship, Nicks has coached five skaters who will compete for Olympic medals in Albertville, France.
Nicks, a Briton who has lived in Southern California for three decades, considers it amusing and rewarding to have such a bonanza at age 62.
"A lot of people have complimented me on my coaching, which is very nice," he said, "but I have a lot of losers, too."
His skaters--and the parents who entrust their children to him--say no one coached by Nicks is a loser.
"We wouldn't be where we are today without him. He's a master," said Sand, who combined with Kuchiki to win a bronze medal at the 1991 world championships. "He commands both of our utmost respect. He's been great."
Said Bowman, who has been working with Nicks since November: "He's very serious and direct and to the point. There's no flimsy-flamsy way of training with John Nicks . . . In the back of my mind I knew John Nicks was the person who would have the experience and road work laid out to do the work I needed to do in a short period of time. It's paid off tenfold in the end. Things couldn't be better."
Nearly 40 skaters, whose ages range from 7 to 28, twirl and glide under Nicks' instruction in Costa Mesa, his base the past 10 years. The honors won by his students attest to his expertise, and the reverence shown even by skaters with distant Olympic dreams testify to his concern for them all.
"He watches out for his kids. All his kids are special to him," said Elinore Birk of Newport Beach, whose 15-year-old daughter, Shannon, is a junior pairs skater. "He doesn't put up with any nonsense on the ice, but he knows how to let them have fun and they get the work done. I don't think there's anybody here who doesn't respect the man."
Bowman's mother, Joyce, considers Nicks' firmness a stabilizing influence on her headstrong son.
"He's very supportive of Chris and he's tried to take some of the pressures off him," Joyce Bowman said. "They get along really well. Mr. Nicks won't put up with any monkey business, and Chris knows that. He's absolutely wonderful . . . Out of thousands of rinks in the country, to have one skater go to the Olympics is an accomplishment. He has five from this rink. That alone speaks for the man."
Nicks himself speaks in conversational tones, never bullying skaters or stifling their creativity. "He wants to take my personality, which is the strongest point of my skating, and he wants to add to it," Bowman said. A quiet word from Nicks has the impact of a thousand orders bellowed by any other coach; his clipped assessment, "Fine. Right, right," after a deftly executed move is equivalent to a thousand bouquets.
"I get a lot of pleasure when young skaters are successful. One of my weaknesses is what to say to them when they're not successful, when they mess up, and that does happen," said Nicks, who won the 1953 world pairs title with his sister, Jennifer, after finishing eighth in the 1948 Olympics and fourth in the 1952 Games. "Some coaches scream, some coaches kiss them. Some say, 'Let's leave it to tomorrow.'
"When they've failed, it's very difficult because I care for them. When they're successful, it's easy to know what to say. When you've failed, it's difficult, particularly in this sport, as opposed to a team sport. You've got one or two people out there by themselves, with 14 or 15,000 people watching them. There's not 10 or 15 other people you can hide behind, as in a team sport. It's all out there for everyone to see."