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Carroll reflects on life with former coach

Frank Carroll poses with his prize student, defending U.S. Champion Evan Lysacek.
Frank Carroll poses with his prize student, defending U.S. Champion Evan Lysacek. (icenetwork.com)

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By Liz Leamy / special to icenetwork.com
(01/25/2008) - Anyone who has achieved a high level of success in figure skating seems to have been influenced by an external force.

Take Frank Carroll, the iconic American Olympic and world coach who is here in Saint Paul with his student, Evan Lysacek, to help him defend his U.S. Championship title.

Carroll, who has helped produce many of the sport's greatest athletes over the past few decades, is quick to credit his former coach, Maribel Vinson, for much of his success.

Last night, Frank Carroll took some time to talk about Vinson's influence on his life following the men's practice at the Pleasant Arena.

Growing up with Vinson: When he was a skater, Carroll studied with Vinson, the renowned world coach from the Skating Club of Boston who lost her life in the tragic 1961 Sabine Flight 458 en route to the World Championships in Prague.

During the 1950s, Carroll grew up in Worcester, Mass. He continued to work with her even when he was studying full-time at College of the Holy Cross. There, he majored in education.

"It was a wonderful school. They encouraged you to question things and look at situations in different ways," said Carroll.

In spite of a heavy workload, Carroll still managed to achieve some terrific success in his skating. He was the U.S. national junior men's champion and passed all eight of the challenging U.S. Figure Skating figure and freestyle tests.

"Maribel was driven and was intent on passing that on to me. There was no goal that couldn't be achieved and she made sure that I understood that," he said.

Vinson's charmed but abbreviated life: Vinson's philosophy certainly seemed to carry her far throughout her charmed, yet sadly abbreviated life.

She was a Radcliffe College graduate and one of the first female sports correspondents for the Associated Press and The New York Times. She also wrote two books, Maribel Vinson's Primer of Figure Skating in 1938 and The Fun of Figure Skating-A Primer in 1960.

"I was actually frightened of her intellectually. She was much brighter than me, and I couldn't pull anything over her, so to speak," said Carroll.

As a skater, she was a nine-time U.S. Ladies Champion and Olympic bronze medalist. During her competitive career, Vinson sat right in the eye of what was about to develop into World War II.

When Vinson was participating in the 1936 Olympics in Garmisch, Germany, she had written a letter to someone at home asking then to bring her team jacket over. During this time, Adolf Hitler had just risen to power and the stationery that she used was embellished with the ominous Third Reich symbol.

Years later, Vinson gave Carroll that letter as a historical memento from that dark period.

"That letter was typed and signed and I believe it had been reviewed before was sent out," he said.

In the 1940s, Vinson retired from competition and began coaching. She began building her stellar stable of students. Eventually, many of these individuals would go on to become world-level coaches themselves.

According to Carroll, Vinson's success was largely due to her strong personality, and said that she was a very frank, honest and compassionate person.

"She was outspoken and didn't suffer fools well, that's for certain. If someone wasn't a standup kind of person, she didn't have too much tolerance," he continued.

She was also a real character, and would do things like show a student how to do a camel spin with her skates untied while holding a ham sandwich.

Carroll said that the varied range of personalities among her students made for a colorful atmosphere. In particular, he recalled her lively banter with Ron Ludington, who was a National pairs champion and known for his rather rebellious ways. (Ludington has since gone on to become a World and Olympic coach and is based in Delaware.)

"There were moments where the two of them would lock horns and the rest of us would try to do our work and not pay attention to it. Ron, who is about six years older than I am, would later come to me and ask why I didn't help him, and I would respond with the fact that I wasn't old enough to handle that type of situation," he laughed.

Vinson's Legacy: At the time of her death, Vinson was regarded to be one of the finest international coaches in figure skating, and was very much on top of the world.

She coached most of the 1961 U.S. Championship titleholders, including her two daughters, Laurence, who was crowned the Ladies Champion and Maribel Jr., who won the pairs championship with Dudley S. Richards. She also taught Gregory E. Kelley, who was first in the men's division.

Sadly, Vinson was on board the ill-fated Sabine flight with the entire 1961 U.S. world team. This tragedy caused not only a great deal of grief and sadness around the world, but also threw American figure skating into a major deep freeze for a number of years.

At the time of the crash, Carroll had been retired from amateur skating for a year and was touring with Shipstad and Johnson's Ice Follies.

"I remember Maribel telling me I had to get a job when I finished school. Back then this is what most people did. They graduated from college, left home and went out into the world. So in 1960, I joined the Ice Follies and Maribel made me promise to come back when it was over-then the accident happened and I skated with the show for four years," he said.

Vinson's influence looms large: It certainly would be fair to say that Vinson's influence on Carroll has been profound.

After he finished touring with the Ice Follies, he began coaching in California, where he started to build his own stable of champions. Within a few years, he had become known as one of the rising stars in the business.

By the 1970s and 1980s, he was hot on the national and world circuits and had a multitude of national and world-level skaters. His breakout skater was Linda Fratianne, the former U.S. champion and Olympic silver medalist, who was one of the first female skaters to do triples in competition.

By the 1990s, Carroll had established himself as one of the best coaches in the business. He taught many top skaters, including the enigmatic former U.S. men's champion, Christopher Bowman, who just passed away several weeks ago.

By the new millennium, Carroll was an icon. He coached the mesmerizing Michelle Kwan, the nine-time U.S. champion and two-time Olympic medalist, and Timothy Goebel, the Olympic bronze medalist.

"I wish that Maribel could've seen some of my skaters. I would often think of what she might say when I would work with them and think that I would have to make them good enough to meet her standard," he said.

This week, Carroll has been hard at work here at nationals with Lysacek, the reigning U.S. champion.

Regardless of who he might be working with-whether it is a national and world champion or a beginner--Carroll said he always tries to think of what Maribel might say about them.

"Maribel has had a tremendous influence on me and to this day, I still think of what she might say. For instance, I might think, "would Maribel think that the foot on this skater is turned out enough or is the edge quality of that turn good enough?"

So, what might be Carroll's answer to this thought?

"I think that she might tell me that I could do better," he smiled, adding that he still wears a U.S. Championship medal around his neck that had been a gift from Vinson from when he was her student.