When glancing through the sports page recently, I came across an amazing statistic. Patrick Chan is now in the Guinness Book of World Records after receiving the highest marks yet to date in a Figure Skating Competition. It happened at the World Championships, 2011. This news is marvelous on many counts, but personally meaningful to me because it is a triumph for someone else, someone no longer on this earth, gone, but never to be forgotten. The man I am recalling today would be my old skating teacher, Osborne Coulson.
To part the mists of time, I return in my mind's eye to Silver Blades skating club, nestled as it was in the borough of Etobicoke, in the west end of Toronto. The rink was absolutely as ordinary as any in existence at the time. The smell of hot dogs, and popcorn would hit full force when we entered the door. The drinks were limited to boiler plate coffee for the mothers and strange tasting soft drinks, with very little ice. The last thing we needed was more cold.
We took to the ice wearing skirts knit by our mother's and grandmothers. In my case, we were lucky enough to have a great aunt who contributed to this effort. Out I went with sweater, skirt, hats and mittens, all fashioned by loving hands. My first coach, in keeping with all efforts to put me on the road to championship, was the best to be had in the entire world. Ellen Burka by name, she had coached her own daughter into landing a perfect triple jump in competition. Petra Burka was the first to accomplish this amazing feat, beating the men and everyone else to the punch, and not only did she do it, she nailed it. Mrs Burka went on to coach many champions, but not yours truly here. At the age of eight, I was quite overcome by a fit of creativity. At center ice waiting for my music to start, I suddenly got the daft notion to invent my own program. The judges, my parents, and my coach were all horrified with the latter refusing to teach me ever again. In the process of being disciplined for making such a crazy decision, I was told that without Mrs. Burka, I could forget, just abandon, any hope of becoming Ladies Figure Skating Champion of Canada. I had to go down a notch in the coaching field. Due to my odd move, with a championship now out of the running, I had to figure out another way in which to distinguish myself. Without music or dance lessons, it became a tall order, and the insurmountable problem of my young life.
Into this sea of trouble skated Ozzie Coulson. I was in the process of working on my school figures, in silence, when he glided over and told me he would be my new coach. He was smoking a cigarette at the time, housed in an elegant gold tipped extender. His hat, a fedora, was enhanced by an extravagant feather sweeping skyward on the side of his head. A cashmere scarf around his neck over a white shirt and tie, an elegant overcoat, and crisp wool pants, he was just unlike most men I knew in my youth. I thought he was great! After telling him right off that he was to consider me soft in the head, and stupid on all accounts, he nudged me with his elbow. “You know what” he whispered. “I liked your program!”
I could not believe my ears. Someone was on my side for once? This was too good to be true. That is how my relationship with him began and at this point in time, I cherish every lesson I had with him, not only for what he taught me about the sport, but what he gave me about life.
“I want you to present yourself to the world with pride,” he said. He would lift his head, smile with a twinkle in his eye, and put his chin up. Sometimes people would make fun of him, or say in their polite way, that he, "certainly was different." Flamboyant was the term most often given to him, but he persisted in walking tall, beautifully and colorfully dressed. He brought a smile to the face of everyone in his midst. He was artistic, creative, and cherished that quality in his pupils. He used to laugh his head off at my scathing imitations of others, or of the silly things I said and did.
When I saw him in later years, his eyes filled up with tears as I hugged him. He told me straight away that he was currently coaching a really, really good skater. He referred to Patrick Chan.
When Ozzie lay on his deathbed, Patrick held his hand. A clip shown in the last Olympics featured Ozzie telling Patrick, “I want you to show your pride.”
Any writer attempting to find an agent, or publisher and facing rejection. will be knocked sideways, more than once. It is not uncommon for a young scribe to have a drawer full of verbal assaults and they may start to doubt whether they should pursue this crazy life at all. Bless the people in our midst, the teachers who gave us encouragement, because we can never fully gauge the degree of influence. The meanest letters I ever had to read regarding my work, did not destroy my pride. Just as all those falls, where gravity overcame any efforts to defy it, over and over, and sent me smashing down to the ice, hurting and discouraged, did not stop me from skating. To this day, I still love it, and watching a skater like Patrick Chan who can land not one, but two quadruple jumps, in a short program, one who can make the toughest judges agree that they just saw the best ever, well, that is just as good as it gets. Watching Patrick's record breaking, perfect short program brought me unmistakeably back to the dramatic and jazzy moves, Ozzie taught me as a child. Patrick, I congratulate you. Ozzy, I love you and thank you. You had the heart of a champion.