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Nicks accepts Coach of the Year with dry humor

Octogenarian credits Wagner, former pupils for landing him PSA honor

John Nicks, ever quotable, speaks after being honored with the Coach of the Year award.
John Nicks, ever quotable, speaks after being honored with the Coach of the Year award. (PSA/Amanda Taylor)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(05/25/2012) - When John Nicks, the octogenarian who has coached top U.S. skaters for half a century, accepted this year's Professional Skaters Association EDI Award for Coach of the Year, he did it in his own inimitable style.

"I'm here to tell young coaches, you better try harder," the ever-quotable Nicks said to a crowd of fellow pros in the packed ballroom of Boston Park Plaza on Thursday night.

Nicks' acceptance speech was full of his patented brand of deadpan humor, as when he related one of the less-glamorous moments of his stellar career.

"About five or six years ago, I was having a bad time," he said. "One morning at the rink, I had gotten up late, and had a lesson with a student who had no talent. And then the mother asked me to give her updates."

A native of Brighton, England, Nicks and his late sister, Jennifer, had a long competitive pairs' career, taking part in two Olympic Games and six world championships. After winning the 1953 world title, Nicks toured briefly and then turned to coaching. He relocated to British Columbia in 1960.

The following year, fate brought him to California. All members of the 1961 U.S. world figure skating team, including many top coaches, were killed in a plane crash en route to the world championships in Prague. Frank Zamboni, inventor of the ice-making machine and owner of a well-respected skating rink in Paramount, invited Nicks to his facility to replace a coach who had been lost.

Last night, Nicks paid tribute to Zamboni and others who have helped him along the way.

"Frank Zamboni taught me all about the ice business," he said, going on to thank, among others: Jimmie Santee, president of the PSA; Carole Shulman, who "helped me pass the [PSA ratings] tests;" Carole Rossignol, PSA testing and acceditation director; and U.S. Figure Skating Executive Director David Raith, who Nicks said "has good ideas."

Nicks also acknowledged some of the many U.S. skaters he has trained, including Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, five-time U.S. pairs champions and 1979 world champions; three-time U.S. pairs champions Jenni Meno and Todd Sand; Tiffany Chin, 1985 U.S. champion and two-time world bronze medalist; and "the challenging Miss [Sasha] Cohen," 2006 U.S. champion and 2006 Olympic silver medalist.

"Coaches in figure skating are like trainers of horse racing," Nicks said. "The trainers will never be successful unless they have the right horses, and here we need skaters."

Finally, Nicks came to his most noted current pupil: reigning U.S. champion Ashley Wagner, who today tweeted her own tribute:

Congrats to my coach John Nicks on winning coach of the year. Well deserved for an incredible man, I am so proud of our progress this year.

"Ashley is a complete scatterbrain and listens to half of what I say," Nicks said, once again calling upon his dry English wit. "She is very critical of me; [she says] my hairstyle doesn't hack it, my clothes are too old-fashioned. Recently she said I was her 'Yoda.' My friend had to tell me Yoda was [that character] from Star Wars."

After the laughter died down, Nicks added, "If it wasn't for Ashley, I wouldn't be here."

The evening's other winners included Pasquale Camerlengo, who was honored with the Paul McGrath Choreographer of the Year Award; Tammy Gambill, coach of U.S. novice champion Vincent Zhou, named Developmental Coach of the Year; and Kat Arbour, the developer of Ice Dynamics® Assessments, who received the Pieter Kollen Sport Science Award for use of scientific technology in skating.

Joe Inman, the longtime international judge, received the Jimmy Disbrow Distinguished Official Award. Ryan Bradley, the 2011 U.S. champion and now a professional showman, won the Gus Lussi Award, given annually to a male professional skater who brings positive world recognition to the sport.

Christy Krall, former coach of world champion Patrick Chan and current coach of Joshua Farris, Agnes Zawadzki, Armin Mahbanoozadeh and others, won the Sonja Henie Award, presented to a female professional who has brought positive recognition to figure skating. Janet Champion, the renowned Colorado Springs spin coach specialist, was honored with the F. Ritter Shumway Award for her contributions to the sport, while Sandy Lamb won the Betty Berens Award, presented annually to a coach who has overcome adversity while continuing to contribute to the profession. Heidi Thibert received the Joe Serafine Volunteer of the Year Award, and Andrea Hoo Chempinski won Photo of the Year for her photo of 1998 Olympic champion Ilia Kulik.

Liz Leamy contributed to this article.