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Scott is still Canada's Olympic sweetheart

Ottawa native honored on 60th anniversary of big win

Barbara Ann Scott poses with her friend Dick Button at the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz, where she won gold. Button won the men's title that year.
Barbara Ann Scott poses with her friend Dick Button at the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz, where she won gold. Button won the men's title that year. (Getty Images)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(02/01/2008) - Hearing that young Patrick Chan had won the Canadian men's title pleased Barbara Ann Scott to no end. After all, her dear friend, Osborne Colson, who died in 2006 at age 90, had been his coach and, a lifetime ago, her choreographer.

Scott, the 1948 Olympic ladies champion who also won the 1947 and 1948 world and European titles, first met Colson as a young child when he came to perform at her home club in Ottawa. Later, when she graduated to the professional ranks, Colson choreographed her show programs. At that time, Scott also got to know Chan's current coach, Don Laws, who was then training under Colson.

"I think Patrick will do well in world competition. I think he's got the gumption and the fire," Scott said. "Osborne is up on his cloud very happy; I know that."

This week, just days in advance of the 60th anniversary of her Olympic victory in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Scott is back in her hometown of Ottawa. On Saturday, she will be the guest of honor at the Viennese Ball, hosted by Austria's ambassador to Canada. The event is one of the national capital's social highlights of the year.

"To be remembered after so many years is overwhelming. That's all I can say," said Scott, an energetic 79-year-old who lives on Amelia Island in Florida with her husband of 52 years, Tom King.

"Aren't people kind to remember? It doesn't seem that it could be 60 [years]," she added.

In April, Scott will become only the 23rd Canadian to be named to Canada's Olympic Order, joining Toller Cranston as the second figure skater on that exclusive list. The Canadian Olympic Committee's highest honor recognizes Canadians who have made the Olympic movement their life's work and have served it with distinction.

"I'm so thrilled about that. I can't think of anything that would mean more," she said.

The Olympic Order and other celebrations of Scott's career -- and there have been many over the years -- are emblematic of the impact she has had on the sport of figure skating through the generations. To this day, Scott remains the only Canadian singles competitor -- male or female -- ever to win Olympic gold for a country that has had its full share of world champions.

"I just hope the good Lord will let me live long enough to see another Canadian girl win the Olympics. I'd like to be there," Scott said. "But, they'd better hurry up. I'm going to be 80 in May."

In 1948, the Olympic figure skating events were held on an outdoor rink that also served as the hockey venue. The ice quality was less than ideal, having been rutted and gouged by the hockey games. Scott and her coach, Sheldon Galbraith, with whom she remains in regular contact, walked the rink before her free skate to locate the worst patches of ice. She adjusted her choreography to avoid the hazards.

Scott recalls that the medals were presented between periods of a hockey game in a blinding snowstorm.

"They handed me the medal in a box. There was none of the ribbons over the neck and all that stuff. The great thing was that Canada's flag went to the top of the flag pole and they played 'O Canada.' It was very special."

Although the memories of the 1948 Olympics still burn bright, Scott said she feels disconnected from the athlete she was back then. "It's like it's not me that goes up [to Ottawa]. It's like that girl who goes up to Canada. It feels like a different person. I'm not sure how to explain it.

"The girl is very grateful and overwhelmed, but I'm me, and I walk on the beach and feed the stray animals."

King thinks it is his wife's extreme modesty that is responsible for her feeling that the ongoing recognition is intended for an alter-ego.

The awarding of the Olympic Order in April in Calgary coincides with the induction ceremony of the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, of which Scott is already a member. Scott, who's also in the World and Canadian figure skating Halls of Fame, will have the pleasure of witnessing the induction of the seven surviving members of Canada's 1948 Olympic gold-medal hockey team -- the RCAF Flyers.

The team has a special place in her own Olympic memories. The players watched her skate for gold and, when she won, hoisted her onto their shoulders in celebration. As well, Scott served as the bridesmaid for player Hubie Brooks, who married his Danish sweetheart in a little church on the hill overlooking the Olympic rink once his team had claimed gold.

"When we came out of the church, the hockey players raised their sticks [to form an arch] for the bride and groom to come through," Scott recalled.

Scott and King play golf, enjoy walks on the beach, and are currently involved in the building of a small Anglican church, for which he donated the funds, on Amelia Island.

Scott, who weighs 92 pounds -- three pounds less than her competitive weight, King points out -- does not have a regular exercise regimen.

"Every morning, I bend down and put my hands flat on the floor about eight times, and that's it; I'm off," Scott said, who takes pleasure in feeding raccoons and armadillos that inhabit her neighborhood.

Scott figure skated from the time she was seven years old but hung up her blades after marrying King. Still, the lessons she learned on the ice have shaped her life.

"It makes you do the things you should do first and the things you want to do second. It makes you self-sufficient," Scott said, clarifying that that didn't mean to diminish how central King is in her life.

Also attending Saturday's gala ball are three women who won silver medals for Canada at the Olympic Games. Elizabeth Manley (ladies, 1988); Debbi Wilkes (pairs, 1964*); and Scott's close friend, Frances Dafoe (pairs, 1956). Skate Canada will present them with gold championship pins to commemorate their Olympic experiences.

* - Wilkes and her partner, Guy Revell, originally won the bronze medal, but the silver medals were awarded to them after the original silver medalists, Marika Kilius and Hans Baumler, were found to have signed a show contract prior to competing. This decision, however, was reversed in 1984.

Scott's take on current issues in figure skating:

On the age requirement that you must be 15 to compete in the Olympics and world championships:
Isn't that foolish! Let the best one win. If the 14-year-old is that good, then let her skate. That's being fair.

On the new scoring system:
With 6.0 or 10 [in professional events], the audience could boo or cheer the judge, get excited about the skaters. But now, nobody knows who's doing what. I've had people say to me, 'How do you know that they're not cheating, if you don't know how they're judging?' I don't think it has helped anything.

And the poor girls -- now I'm quoting my dear friend Dick [Button] -- they can't look pretty any more. They have so many mandatory elements in their time slot; they have no time to do something original, or look beautiful, or slow down and interpret the music. Some look nice, but they all look more or less the same because they have to do the same elements.

On learning the intricacies of the new system:
It's too complicated [to learn].

On reversing figure skating's decline in popularity with the general public:
Let the judges stand up and hold up their marks, and let the people have fun booing or cheering. That was part of it. The audience would come back and have favorites [among the skaters] and get all worked up about it like football and baseball. The general public would like to know what's going on and to participate. Now you sit there and don't know what's going on.

On judges' conduct:
If a judge cheats, they should never be allowed to judge again, but, I guess, we've got two or three that had their wrists slapped that are back on [the judges list].