A life in skating: An interview with John Nicks

Legendary coach looks back on career, hints at stepping away from sport

John Nicks has enjoyed countless successes over the years, including helping Ashley Wagner to the 2012 Four Continents title.
John Nicks has enjoyed countless successes over the years, including helping Ashley Wagner to the 2012 Four Continents title. (Getty Images)


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By Amy Rosewater, special to
(01/14/2013) - At 83, John Nicks has witnessed more in the sport of figure skating than almost anyone else, and he remains on top of his game. As a pairs skater with his sister, Jennifer, Nicks won four world championship medals (including the gold in 1953) and competed at two Olympic Winter Games, in 1948 and 1952. He would later come to the United States following the 1961 plane crash, landing first at the Paramount Iceland, owned by the inventor of the Zamboni, Frank Zamboni. Nicks went on to coach some of the world's best skaters, from Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner to Sasha Cohen, and has taught more than 1,200 students in more than a half century's time. These days, he coaches at a rink in Aliso Viejo, in Orange County, Calif.

He will be at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which he calls his favorite event, again this year; he hopes to guide his latest star, Ashley Wagner, to her second consecutive national title and help her earn another trip to the world championships. It will be fitting that Nicks will be at nationals in Omaha because that is where he made one of his first trips to the event as a coach, in 1967. There, he coached a young pairs team -- Jojo Starbuck and Ken Shelley -- to the U.S. junior title. (They went on to win three national titles at the senior level and placed fourth at the 1972 Olympic Games.)

"I remember it was very cold, and Ken and Jojo did very well and established themselves as the team for the future," Nicks said of the 1967 U.S. Championships. "That's all I remember."

The rest, as they say, is skating history. Nicks, known to everyone in the skating community as "Mr. Nicks," went to nationals every year from 1965 until Cohen won the national title in 2006 in St. Louis. He returned to nationals in 2010 with pairs team Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, as well as Cohen, who was making her comeback attempt. Of course, he was there last year when Wagner won her first U.S. crown.

Whether he will continue coaching after this season remains to be seen. He enjoys his time away from the ice, especially when he can go fishing, and isn't such a big fan of the early-morning practices in cold ice rinks. recently had a wide-ranging interview with Nicks, a member of all four figure skating halls of fame, including the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame, and winner of the Professional Skaters Association's 2012 Coach of the Year award. (This interview has been edited for content and clarity.) Tell us about your beginnings in the sport, when you were growing up in Brighton, England.

Nicks: My family was in the business of retail sports in England, and a local building was converted into an ice skating rink. My father, of course, wanted to sell ice skating equipment and didn't know anything about the sport. I was about 10 or 11 at the time; he had me and my sister fitted for skates to learn more about the equipment. The ice rink became very popular, and my father sold lots of equipment. And I started skating. What was it about the sport that made you gravitate to it so much?

Nicks: (With a laugh) Now you're asking me to remember what was happening in my life 72 years ago? I do remember one thing, though -- my sister was much better at it than I was! We started improving, and then we went to London to skate. You have to remember that there was a war going on at that time, so skating wasn't the most important thing going on in the world. But my sister and I liked skating, and we were solo skaters, mostly. I became the junior champion in Great Britain, which back then the standard wasn't so great, but still I won the junior championship. My sister placed high, too, I think second or third, and then the folks at the Great Britain association asked us -- well, they strongly suggested to us -- that we work as a pairs team, and they said they would support us, so we did pairs. Describe what it was like to compete back then.

Nicks: I remember competing at the world championships in Davos, Switzerland (in 1953, when he won the title with his sister). We were skating outdoors back then, and the temperature was, like, 28 degrees during a practice. It was so cold that I remember when I was taking off my boots that my laces were frozen. It was a small wooden stadium, and most of the people who watched had to stand. I tell this to people here in California when they start complaining. What are your memories of your own Olympic experiences?

Nicks: I remember at the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz (where he and his sister placed eighth; they finished fourth four years later in 1952), it was snowing so much they had to stop the skating after every three skaters to clear the snow. I saw Dick Button skate, and seeing him was one of the reasons why I wanted to come to the United States. I always liked watching the American skaters because they were so strong and so different than the European skaters. You eventually came to the United States, but it was not under the best of circumstances. The entire U.S. world team, along with officials and coaches, was killed in a plane crash while the team was on its way to the 1961 World Championships in Prague. Where were you when you learned of the crash, and how soon afterward did you come to California?

Nicks: I was in a little company town called Trail in British Columbia, and it was more of a hockey town than a figure skating town. I remember being in Trail and sitting down to watch TV; that's how I heard about the crash. At that point, I really didn't think that crash would lead me to move to the United States, but soon I got a few offers to coach in the United States. In addition to the offer you got from Frank Zamboni, where were the others?

Nicks: I had three other offers: one in Cleveland, one in San Francisco and one in Edmonton. I did my research and had a meeting with Frank Zamboni and decided to come to California. It's funny, I first came down as an undocumented alien. I applied for a green card and got it a few weeks later. Are you a citizen of the United States?

Nicks: I became a citizen five years ago. I proudly carry my U.S. passport. This country has been very good to me. When was the last time you were in England?

Nicks: Oh, I'd have to say about three years ago. I don't get there much. There's that saying that you can't go back ... I think that's true for me. I've been here for so long. You had said earlier that you always admired American skating. What were your first impressions of U.S. nationals?

Nicks: That it was nothing like British nationals! I think in England we had about one-tenth of the number of skaters and about one-tenth of the quality. The enthusiasm was very different too, and I think [British nationals] were over in about two days. I knew I made the right choice to coach in the United States. What was the first year you coached at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships?

Nicks: 1965 in Lake Placid. I coached a young skater named Roger Bass. (Note: Bass won the national novice title in 1965 and then claimed the junior crown in 1966. Bass went on to coach with Nicks.) You have always been known as "Mr. Nicks." I once asked (pairs skater) Jenni Meno if anyone ever called you "John," and she looked at me as if I had three heads. Does anyone call you John?

Nicks: (Laughing) I've never asked anybody to call me Mr. Nicks. My relationships are based on mutual respect. I don't know how that got started. I have been called other names, you know. Who are some of your closest friends in the sport?

Nicks: The greatest friend I ever had was Carlo Fassi. I competed against him, and we came to the U.S. at the same time. He, of course, went to the Broadmoor, and I came to California, but we were very, very close. I remain close with his wife, Christa, and we even work together with Junior Grand Prix winner named Leah Keiser. I am also good friends with Peter Martell (executive director of the Ice Skating Institute). We go fishing quite a bit together in Baja, Mexico. Is it hard to be friends with coaches, especially when you have skaters who are competing against each other? I'd imagine it was tough for you and Frank Carroll when he was coaching Michelle Kwan and you were working with Sasha Cohen.

Nicks: Yes, it is. I talk to Frank much more now. I think we always got along, but all of the supporters of each skater start getting in the way. They will say things like, "Did you see what he said about this?" and things like that. I've always admired Frank's work, and Frank always states honestly what he thinks. That is very refreshing in our business. Many journalists would have to say that your press conferences with Sasha were among the most entertaining. Did you have those planned?

Nicks: (Laughing) No. I never really knew what Sasha was going to say. But I had seen so many of those press conferences, and they have to be so boring for you guys. I mean, people asking, "What color dress will you wear?" and skaters saying, "I just want to skate my best." I've always tried to keep a sense of humor about things. I mean, really, this is not brain surgery. What is a typical day like for you these days?

Nicks: I get to the rink around 6:30 in the morning and talk to the ice directors, and then I start teaching around 7. I am always finished by 1 o'clock. So, I spend about 4-6 hours on the ice. When was the last time you laced up skates?

Nicks: About 45 years ago. Once you leave the rink, you are gone, right? I understand you try to keep your relationship with skaters at an arm's length.

Nicks: I have very few social interactions with my skaters outside the rink. In fact, I try to encourage the skaters to do other things outside the rink as well. I mean, Ashley is a 21-year-old woman; I'm not too interested in what she does socially. As I have told her, as long as you come to the rink in good shape mentally and physically, we will be fine. I've made that very clear to her. Speaking of Ashley, what do you think of her chances of being a medal contender at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games?

Nicks: Well, I know Ashley has been skating very well, the last year, year and a half, and she's very committed to the Olympics. It's clear that if she continues on the path she's been on, she has a very good chance. How long do you think you will continue to coach?

Nicks: Well, at my age, I don't have any long-term plans anymore. I will sit down after worlds and decide. I am sort of leaning toward finishing this year. Really, with Ashley one year away from the Olympic Winter Games?

Nicks: Well, I've coached 11 Olympics. Dating back to 1968, I think I missed maybe two or three. If I feel someone could do a better job, I think she would deserve that. I would continue to give her some lessons if she'd want, and I'd support her, but I'm pretty seriously looking into this year being my last. I've committed to her through this year. I used to have four- or six-year contracts, but I don't do that anymore. Is it just that you would rather be fishing or the travel is too difficult or you have achieved your figure skating goals, or all of the above?

Nicks: I don't know. I flew 11 hours to Istanbul and had a 12-hour layover before my next flight to Sochi (for the Grand Prix Final). I could do that or be on a boat. Over the years, you have coached both pairs and singles skaters. Which do you prefer coaching?

Nicks: I always enjoyed teaching singles, maybe even more than pairs. I particularly enjoyed coaching the ladies: Tiffany Chin, Sasha and Naomi (Nari Nam), and now Ashley. In singles, there are less problems. I think I've done a lot better job with singles skaters over the last 20 years. In pairs these days, I'm pretty much a backup to Todd Sand and Jenni (Meno). Todd corrects me all the time about the proper levels and what's legal. You really need to know the math. Do you miss that about skating, that so much in this sport is about calculating scores and there's not as much focus on the overall program?

Nicks: There's always going to be that argument. I was around when Sonja Henie skated. Nothing ever stays the same. I never worry about what I can't control. What is the biggest disappointment you had in your coaching career?

Nicks: Disappointment? Well, I guess I don't react very quickly as a coach. Of course, there were results that I wished could have been better. In Torino, Sasha just missed a gold medal, and that was very disappointing to me. I would have guessed it would have been that Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner could not compete in the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid.

Nicks: Well, it didn't really affect their career. They signed professional contracts and had long careers. I don't think it affected Sasha, either. It was hard when I had to make the decision to withdraw [Tai and Randy] from the competition. I was very worried about Tai's safety, especially with the lifts. He wasn't in a position to save her. There was such great media attention back then, and there was a big press conference. I think about 300 or 400 people were there, and I began to get a little concerned about things. I asked the team doctor to come to the press conference with me. It was quite stressful.

But disappointment? Anytime I have a little disappointment, I have to remind myself of my body of work. I also feel very lucky to have survived this long.

I was talking to someone at the rink the other day about health insurance, and I realized that I have taught more than 1,200 students over 51 years and only missed 13 days because of sickness. I am such a supporter of teaching figure skaters. I keep track of them, and most of them seem to get along very well in their lives. Skating is such a great sport for young people, so I don't do that. I don't look back. I always look ahead. What's one thing you've learned about coaching along the way?

Nicks: I've always understood that any success I've had is really because of the young skaters I've had. Without talented skaters, you can be the finest coach, but you can't have success, so I've been very lucky.