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In Long Run, Little Things Remain

SPORTS EXTRA: U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS

History: Competitors fondly recall fine details from events in L.A. in 1954 and in Long Beach in 1972.

January 07, 2002|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's the little things they remember so vividly, perhaps because those little things meant so much when they were young and their worlds revolved around one dream.

For Carol Heiss, the enduring memory of the 1954 U.S. Figure Skating Championships--the last to be held in Los Angeles until this week's competition at Staples Center--is defying her doctors and competing despite a slashed Achilles' tendon. The injury had kept her out of the world championships, which in that era preceded the U.S. competition, and she feared judges would forget her if she were absent from the world championships again.

With a 14-year-old's single-mindedness, she vowed to compete even if she had to crawl around the Polar Palace.

"I worked real hard on my school figures so I could be a good, solid second. I could barely free skate my program," said Heiss, who finished second to Tenley Albright and made the 1955 world team, launching a career that included four U.S. titles, an Olympic silver medal in 1956 and the gold medal at Squaw Valley in 1960.

A generation later, in 1972, the U.S. championships were held at the Long Beach Arena. That's the last time they were in the Los Angeles area before this year's competition. And like the drama that will unfold this week, the 1972 championships determined who would represent the U.S. at the Winter Olympics.

For Ken Shelley of Downey, who won the men's title and shared the pairs title with JoJo Starbuck, skating in Long Beach brought extra duress.

"When you normally go away for a competition, you're used to that. But I was staying at home, and there was the pressure of it being an Olympic year," he said. "And it probably was going to be our final competitive year. It had a whole different feel to it."

Here are recollections of some of the 1954 and 1972 competitors:

1954

Winning the junior ladies' title was a major breakthrough for Catherine Machado of West Los Angeles.

Because she won and the third-place finisher in the senior women's division turned pro, Machado was sent to the 1955 world championships and became the first skater from Southern California to compete at that level. Eugene Turner had qualified in 1940 and 1941, but those competitions were canceled because of World War II.

"There was a lot of pressure, being a hometown girl in my own rink

Skating magazine, then the official publication of the U.S. and Canadian Figure Skating Associations, raved about her. "Wearing a persimmon velvet dress with long fitted sleeves and a sweetheart neckline trimmed in sequins, Miss Machado performed an exhibition of free skating as dazzling as her costume and had the capacity crowd completely captivated with her poise and her interpretation of her music," Sevy Von Sonn wrote.

Machado can't recall her routine, but she remembers receiving the Oscar L. Richard Trophy for the most artistic performance. "I was more proud of winning that than winning the championship," said Machado, who in 1956 became the first Latina athlete to compete for the U.S. Olympic team in the Winter Games. Machado, 65 and widowed, teaches skating at Culver City. She keeps in touch with many of her contemporaries and hopes to see them this week; those who have died remain in her heart. "Tim [Brown, the 1954 men's junior champion] is gone. Ronnie [Robertson] is gone," she said. "Unfortunately, I see a lot of people I competed against in juniors at funerals."

*

Franklin Nelson of Tulsa, Okla., won't forget the Polar Palace.

"That was the rink that had the hump on one side," said Nelson, who shared the silver dance title with Sidney Foster. "It wasn't so bad for ice dancing or free skating, but if you were doing [compulsory] figures, you had to place them such that you got the downhill side to give you a little boost."

Nelson and Foster's free dance, according to Skating magazine, displayed "beautiful form and seemingly perfect unison." He remembers it for what they couldn't do, not what they did.

"There were no lifts allowed and you pretty much had to be in contact at all times. There was no original dance," he said.

Nelson joined the Navy in 1956, when he and Foster wound down their competitive career. He went to medical school and became a surgeon, but remained involved in skating, including serving as president of the USFSA.

"I haven't been to L.A. in some time other than passing through the airport," said Nelson, 68 and living in Bainbridge Island, Wash. "These nationals are going to be exciting."

*

The 1954 U.S. championships were a test of nerves for Robin Greiner.

He and Carole Ormaca of Fresno had won the pairs title the previous year, and they were tense about defending it before so many of their friends and relatives. But another memory stands above all.

"Remember the actor Tab Hunter?" Greiner said. "He was there, and he brought Debbie Reynolds to the event as his date. She was my favorite actress. They were sitting in the second row, and it was all I could do to keep my focus every time I saw her."

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