Episode #29: Slavka Kohout, Part 1

by allison on July 26, 2009

JULY 2009
An interview with elite coach Slavka Kohout Button, who ran the Wagon Wheel Skating Ice Palace in Illinois, and was coach to Janet Lynn. 54 minutes, 53 seconds.

Thanks to Fiona Mcquarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On her most embarrassing skating moment: I can’t think of one exactly. Maybe when I missed my flying sit spin at junior nationals. But I don’t think I’ve ever been embarrassed by anything I’ve done. Whatever it is, it is.

On how she started skating: My father started me. He was a figure skater, and he skated pairs on the Douglas Park lagoons in Chicago. So I probably started — I walked at seven months,  and I remember [when I started walking]. I remember running under tables and then watching to see if everyone was looking at me, and everybody would go, ooohhh! I loved that [laughs].  So I probably started skating at about two [years old], at the other end of a broomstick from my father.  He would hold the broom, and I would hold the broom, and the two of us would skate.

On her coaches:  The person who really made me a skater was Otto Gold. My father sent me to him in Ottawa when I was nine. And I used to patch next to Barbara Ann Scott. I used to look at her figures, which looked like they’d be drawn with a compass, and traced perfectly. Otto Gold met me and my mother in the ice rink lobby when I arrived, and he said to my mother, oh, we’ll let her get used to the ice and get a feel for the building, and we’ll start tomorrow. So I got out on the ice, and I started on the ice, and he looked at me and said, hm, I think we’ll start today [laughs].  I was advanced in what I knew, but I wasn’t deep in the ice, and he really taught that.

On turning professional: I really wanted to go to college, and I’d had very little school experience. And my mother said my brother needed to be educated, and personally she didn’t feel that women needed to go to college. So I had an opportunity to skate a solo with Ice Follies, and I decided not to do that, because if I taught I could put myself through school, so I decided to do that. So I got a contract at the Buffalo skating club, and I went to the University of Buffalo. And I had no car, and I used to take the bus to rink, and then back to school, every day, twice a day. I think back on it, and go, was that me? [laughs]

On starting work at the Wagon Wheel skating club: In the back of my mind was this idea that skaters should be in the country. To skate, and to run, which they needed to do, that they should have other facilities around them, and not just sitting on a curb. I spent a lot of my summers sitting on curbs. And I went there, and I fell in love with it, the hominess. And what I really fell in love with was the man who ran it, Walter Williamson. He was great. He was entrepreneurial, he was dynamic, he was just a lot of wonderful things. And I saw an opportunity to have a skating school in the country. The fact that there wasn’t much population around, and that there would be no one to teach, never entered my mind [laughs].  About three months in, [Walter] hired a man to run the place, but he wasn’t passing on messages, the rink was locked, that sort of thing. And about six months in, I came in and told Walter, this isn’t working. And he said, I fired him this morning, now will you [run the rink]? I’ll help you. And that’s when I realized how much I knew about ice rinks. In Buffalo, I used to hang around with the Scottish guy who ran the compressors, and I knew how to make ice, paint lines, and so on. So I knew how to run a good rink, and I ran it for 17 years.

On the rules skaters had to follow when training at the Wagon Wheel:  I hired nuns as dorm supervisors. I was tired of everybody climbing out of the windows and running around. I threatened them with it, and they didn’t believe me. And then they all arrived and there was this nun standing in the doorway [laughs]. But they still climbed out. And one of the people was Scott Hamilton. He sort of led the troops, when he was nine or ten.

And [Cindy Watson Caprel] is right, I used to make a nightly visit to the dorms and bang on the doors if they were talking. {I’m glad to hear] that it scared them [laughs].

And [the skaters had to dress the same] because on the grounds of the resort, we wanted to be sure we could find the skaters, and so all the people who worked there knew who the skaters were. They had to walk in pairs, too, because there were a lot of people who would come to the resort just to see it, and so we had to keep them safe, especially at night.

On the skaters’ training: I had ballet, gymnastics, and trampoline, and also yoga. I had a person come from Chicago and he taught yoga two days a week. And I used to take the skaters out after a public session, and we had massive public sessions, and make them do their programs on that ice. It really taught them good control. You can’t find this stuff, you can’t create these conditions any more.

And they also used to practice in the middle of public sessions, and they learned to go around people. And it’s amazing the amount of control it taught them.

On skaters’ attitudes now: People aren’t attuned to try hard enough to be competitive enough. I’ll say, do ten axels, and they’ll say, oh, I can’t do ten axels, and then poop out at eight. Before, I would say, OK, who can do the most axels?, and, boom, everybody would zap out there and give it a try. I think our approach to children has changed, being constantly gratified. I always have to say what was good first, and then something bad. Before, they were used to being criticized by their parents until they got it right. And they were also used to being gratified not by praise but by their own accomplishments.

On bringing out the best in her skaters: I asked them [laughs]. And I told them. And they would learn from experience, and they would see. And they would also learn to trust me because they did well. And when they did well, they knew what they had to do to be better.

On starting her work with Janet Lynn: She came the first summer I was there [at the Wagon Wheel], she was on a public session, and her mother asked me to give her a lesson. Now Janet and I just got around really well, and there was never any push-pull between us. Her mother told me years later that Janet would lay on the ice at Michael Kirby’s and wouldn’t do anything, and she could skate as well as she could because she just learned it by osmosis. And she came to me and she was just a dream. She was very strong-willed and very smart, but it was so easy to teach her. It was always challenging, but it was easy.

On Lynn’s alleged problems with figures: She was short. And her place of looking at the figure was different from everybody else’s. And consequently she had trouble lining up circles, lining up turns, and it’s because she was much shorter and the figures were so big.

On Lynn’s winning the bronze medal at the 1972 Olympics:  I thought it was great that we got that far [laughs]. I was talking to my mother on the phone, and she said, aren’t you disappointed that Janet fell on the flying sit spin? And I said, no, I’m glad that was all that happened [laughs].  And it gave her a great deal of publicity because of all the pictures of her smiling as she picked herself up. I always told her, when you fall, always laugh at yourself because you have to release your audience. They go, ahhh!, and you have to release yourself, like, wasn’t that silly. And then they can relax and enjoy the rest of your performance.

On Lynn’s missing her jumps in the short program at the 1973 world championships: The rink at Bratislava was very cold, and the windows were open. And where we were standing, the wind was coming up and down and caught her in her calves. And she said, I got out on the ice and I couldn’t feel my legs. And she said, I never complained. And she was brought up never to complain, so she didn’t. And she was last after the warm-up, so she stood there for a long time. I had my coat around her, and it wasn’t enough, and I didn’t realize it, and I didn’t know about it at the time. And we only talked about it 15 years ago for the first time.

On the new judging system: It puts too much emphasis on filling the program with the pre-requisites, which doesn’t allow you the freedom to create. You’re busy putting in all the requirements, and the time is limited. That’s why people aren’t skating as well to music, because — you have to do a straight line sequence, and if you don’t put in X, Y, and Z, you don’t get the same number of points, and someone else beats you. So what difference does it make whether you skate to music or not? It’s just background.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Sahdia Khalid February 23, 2011 at 9:34 am

Needless to say this is amazing. Thank you very much for this interview. I love your approach of talking about the lesser known sides of the life of skaters and coaches as well instead of only about the already frequently discussed topics. That certainly makes your podcasts worth listening. Very much appreciated!

allison February 23, 2011 at 4:13 pm

You are welcome! thanks for the feedback. I loved talking with Slavka Kohout. She’s such an amazing person.

Former Skater August 24, 2011 at 9:26 pm

Hi Allison…Having just listened to Part 1 of your interview with Slavka, I would like to comment. First, it was fun to hear her speak of her childhood and and Wagon Wheel coaching years in retrospect. Second, she commented that 1)her relationship with Janet was wonderful and that Janet learned so easily, etc., like it was a match made in heaven, and 2) that Janet was a strong willed person. Here’s the thing: Slavka is also a strong willed person. Any coach in any sport must be to accomplish anything. These two locked horns on a regular basis. There were many times that Janet came off the ice in tears. Slavka’s voice could often be heard speaking in anger at Janet. Slavka has a temper and Janet could easily push her buttons. However, I want to make clear that I am not being critical of Slavka’s coaching style. There isn’t a star athlete on the planet who didn’t have contentious periods of time with their coach. The coach/athlete relationship is as complicated any other close human partnership. For it to be presented as a bed of roses, especially in this particular case is just not accurate. ( I skated with Janet beginning at Michael Kirby, then at the Wagon Wheel until my early teens.)

allison August 24, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Thanks for your comment. I don’t think she was trying to present it as a bed of roses, but I do think over time we tend to glorify those relationships and remember the good more than the bad. From comments I’ve heard or read from Janet Lynn, it was overall a fulfilling relationship for both parties. But I don’t doubt there was the occasional conflict. I myself have left lessons in tears before, and I was in my 30s . . . but I still adore my coach!

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