Episode #47: David Jenkins

by allison on April 7, 2011

MARCH 2011
An interview with David Jenkins, 1956 Olympic Bronze medalist, 1960 Olympic Gold Medalist, 3-time World Champion and 4-time US National Champion. We discuss how he and his brother Hayes worked together, his loathing of figures, how a boxing promoter came to own the rights to his performance from CBS, and how he was the first person to figure out and land a triple axel (see the YouTube video below). 58 minutes, 58 seconds.

Win a private box for six to Skate For Hope in Columbus, OH on June 18, 2011!
There is a contest running with this podcast: one lucky listener can win a private loge box for six people . . . that’s you and five friends . . . to Skate For Hope on June 18th, 2011 at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus Ohio. Skate For Hope is A premier figure skating event benefiting Breast Cancer Research & Awareness and it raises many tens of thousands of dollars for research. This year it stars Sarah Hughes as the guest emcee, with performances by Johnny Weir, Rachel Flatt, Ryan Bradley, Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin, and Emily Hughes.

To enter, send me either through email or my Facebook page the answer to the following question: who was it that landed the first ratified triple axel in 1978? All entries received between April 1 to April 29, 2011 are eligible. The winner will be picked at random from all correct entries sent. Click here to learn more about how to enter.

Thanks to Fiona Mcquarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On his most embarrassing skating-related moment:  When I fell four times at the World Championships in 1956. It was in Garmisch, Germany, and it was five below, and my brother said I should get my skates sharpened, and I was stubborn and I resisted. I fell on both the triples and twice trying to get back up.  I really had warmed up probably than I better had, and I thought I was on top of the world, and the crowd was getting all excited and I thought that was just great. And I think I totally stopped thinking. The next year I was world champion, and I never fell again in competition. After that one, my coach insisted that I fall in warmup whether I needed to or not, just so that he’d have some idea that I was still keeping my mind working.

On starting skating: My sister started, and then my brother was pressed into service to be a partner for her in ice dancing and in pairs, because she hated singles skating. And I was the youngest and I trailed along behind. I was too young so that choice didn’t really enter into it. Once my sister went to college, she didn’t skate any more.

On training in Colorado: My dad lost his job around 1952, so skating was over for us. And that summer the Broadmoor [skating club in Colorado] offered for us to come out and train without paying for ice time or coaching. So Hayes [Jenkins, his brother] and I went out and trained there, and we stayed there. And the El Pomar Foundation that owned the Broadmoor gave us college scholarships and all of that. They were very good to us and never asked for anything. In those days being subsidized was somewhat controversial, because those were the days of Avery Brundage and pure amateurism. But my brother won the World Championships the first year we were out there, and the next year I was on the World team, so it worked out for them too [laughs]. It was a wonderful place to train, and they had a tradition of doing that for a long time, not that others didn’t resent it. Peggy Fleming trained there, and Dorothy Hamill, all under somewhat similar circumstances.

My mother trailed after us and made a home for us there. My dad, after he lost that job, was kind of hither and yon, with different jobs that the same company found for him, but he was never able to make the same kind of money. We were out there for virtually all the years we were at the Broadmoor. We almost never got back to Ohio. My dad was an alcoholic, and I don’t know to what degree that got Mother to keep us in skating. I don’t know the circumstances because I was very young.

On being coached by Edi Scholdan: He was a very gentle man. My brother and I, by that time, we were fairly independent, and I was working on triples which very few people had done. Edi was very good at analyzing and tearing things apart and helping us put them back together in our programs and things. I was very fond of Edi, but even when I went to medical school I didn’t have him around at all and was pretty much able to train by myself at that time.

I looked up to Dick Button as a role model. Hayes was competing against Dick, so I’m not sure he really looked up to him as a role model [laughs]. I had certainly idolized Dick and the athleticism that he brought to skating. And I’d trained with the same coach, Gus Lussi, for a number of years before we went out to the Broadmoor. I loved Gus and I loved working with him. But I liked the athleticism. I skated somewhere between a figure skater and a hockey player for a number of those years.

Gus was very virile and made me feel that what I was doing was very virile. For me, we were kindred spirits. For Hayes, because he was training with the same coach as Dick Button, there were bound to be conflicts in terms of Gus’ attention, and that’s one of the reasons we left Gus before the whole Broadmoor thing opened up for us.

On the American sweep of the men’s medals at the 1955 and 1956 world championships and the 1956 Olympics: At that time, the American men were strong, but the women as well were extremely dominant. For several years there, we pretty well knew that the medals would be divided among us, and in 1956 we pretty well knew that the medals would go to the Americans that time. Now I didn’t have a real distinguished career up to that point, My brother had won at every step along the ladder, but the first championship I ever won in my life was in my 8th or 9th year of skating, when I won the national junior championship. And the next title I won was the world championship [laughs]. So I didn’t really distinguish myself. But it didn’t really bother me because most of the kids I was competing with were older than I was, and I just don’t ever remember feeling discouraged about any of that. I thought I was moving along just fine. But I certainly didn’t win along every step of the line.

On whether it was tougher to compete at Worlds or the Olympics: Oh, there’s no question, the Olympics is in a class by itself. There is no way one feels, no matter what experience they’ve had internationally, prepared for the pressure of an Olympics. And that was true 50 years ago when we were doing it. Nowadays with the media and all of that — I’m not sure if pressure could feel worse, because it reaches a maximum. There were times you felt you could hardly breathe. I was interested in reading a book on the 1960 summer games to hear Rafer Johnson say that he could hardly breathe with the pressure, and that sense of suffocation was with me. I found it very interesting that he expressed that kind of sensation as well. The first televised Olympics was the 1960 winter games, and CBS got the rights for $50,000. And the anchorman was Walter Cronkite. So you can imagine, it was a different era and they had no idea of the impact that televising the Olympics would have.

On sibling rivalry: There was none at all. I looked up to my brother, he was almost like a father to me. And we never had a sense of rivalry. We skated very differently, he was smooth and polished, and for so much of my career I was very athletic, a jumper. I could always do things in the later years that he could not do. So people didn’t compare us very much because we did things differently. I was three years younger and I don’t know how I would have ever reacted had I ever beat him. I could beat him in freeskating, but the school figures were very much his forte, and I despised school figures.

I don’t think it was tough on our parents having us compete against each other. It just never was entered into the equation. We were very close, we trained together, we traveled together, we competed together for many of the latter years. We were very different personalities. Hayes is a kind gentle man, he was always very good and looked after me. He made sure my skates were sharpened and my boots were shined, and made sure I didn’t embarrass him [laughs]. I think I made it harder on my brother, because I think he worried about me, and because I acted up sometimes, I think he worried about what would happen if I lost something or I fell down a lot.

I just was more emotional and harder to deal with for my family. I had more resistance to the discipline of skating and wanted to do other things more than he did. It always seemed to be a shoe that fit him very well. The many many hours of training, getting up at that hour of the morning for training, the feeling of isolation from my peers — these were things that bothered me that never bothered Hayes. And I fought it more at times, but I know that I must have wanted a lot to continue on [with skating] because I kept on when I went to medical school, which was a pretty insane decision to make.

On figures: I did my last one in the 1960 Olympics and I swore I would never do another one in my life. And I never have. And now I think they’re even stupider than they were. I hated school figures, and my results certainly reflected my attitude toward them.

You train on them in the morning, and I was usually half-asleep. And even when I was winning the world championship, I only won figures once. I had to come back in the freeskating. And it wasn’t just that the weighting was 60 [percent for figures] and 40 [percent for freeskating], it was that the range of marks for school figures was so wide from one judge to another, giving them even more weight. I had to be in the top three or four in the school figures to win the championships, because you couldn’t pull up more than three or four places just from the freeskating. It just wasn’t possible.

On the 1956 Olympics, and skating outdoors: The ice is never the same two days in a row, and a whole lot of factors come into play. It was always pretty but it wasn’t always the easiest thing to compete outdoors. I wanted desperately for my brother to win, and it was a terribly close competition. It was very nerve-wracking, but I think perhaps my best Olympic moment was the medal ceremony in 1956. It was a beautiful ceremony, and there was my brother on the top rung of the podium and there was me in 3rd place, which I was very pleased with, so that was a very thrilling moment for me. That was really more thrilling than when I won. In 1960 I had so many different pressures on me and so much I was looking at, with medical school and the time I was taking off, and getting back quickly. I had hardly as much chance to relish winning and the experience as we did in 1956.

I don’t think there’s any question that if Hayes had fallen, he would have lost. It was extremely close and the ice was extremely difficult. I finished my routine and so I got to watch, and I think watching him was the hardest thing for me. I was finished, and I knew every element that was at risk, and sitting there watching it and knowing that he could not fall — it just was a very hard thing. I think we both had a pretty good idea that the ice was going to be treacherous [laughs] and it certainly was. To a degree the pressures of watching my brother had an effect — that was the same year I fell four times in the world championships, and I think all of that had an effect on me. I certainly never fell again after that.

On appreciating the pressure that Hayes had been under after becoming world champion himself: I had lived with the pressure that Hayes had been under for so long that it didn’t feel much different. I had lived with having a world champion in the family for four years, so it didn’t feel a lot different from what I had been living with for a long time [laughs].

On the 1960 Olympics: Leading up to the 1960 Olympics, Edi was in Colorado and I was in Cleveland in medical school, in 1959 and in 1960, so I did not have a coach with me. And Hayes would drive up from Akron, Ohio, on the weekends to work with me. As a motivator and to help what I was doing, it was an important part.

I trained in the evenings when I could and on the weekends. In the summer of 1959, before the Olympics, I’d been injured, I’d had a nasty slash in my leg that put me in a cast. So I went back to medical school in a cast, with a nerve partially severed. People were wondering whether I would get to skate at all, but in an odd sort of way it took pressure off me. I had no conflict with school, because I couldn’t train. Maybe that’s just the odd psychology of the way you look at things, but I didn’t start training until mid-December, which was only seven or eight weeks before the Olympics. And then I left school for three weeks, and that was the part that was very hard, to leave medical school for a whole three weeks. But I needed to get out to high altitude and to be with my coach, and to be in particularly good shape because it was outdoor ice in 1960. And that’s the last time any major international championship was held outdoors.

My brother and I became very self-sufficient. In our latter years I did not need a coach hovering over me. It certainly was hard on my coach [laughs], he almost became apoplectic when I wasn’t training in Colorado. But that wasn’t the part that concerned me. I think it was a little hard because there really weren’t serious competitive ice skaters in Cleveland, so I was pretty much alone on the ice with that. And the milieu that you’re working in sort of affects you, but again Hayes was a big help to work with me. But the whole year leading up to the 1960 Olympics, I’m almost amnestic about parts of it because there was so much pressure, I didn’t have anything approaching a social life, not even close, and that was the sort of existence it was. When I won the Olympics, I wasn’t sure if I was happiest because I’d won or happiest because it was over. And I think you can understand that it was just so much pressure, such a crazy year because the second year of the medical school is the hardest by far, and all of that was buzzing around. And I didn’t have two nickels to rub together the whole time [laughs]. I lived in some lady’s attic for nothing, I had a scholarship for tuition and books, and that was it.

I don’t know that [winning the Olympics in the US] really registered. I was so focused on what I was doing that a lot of those kinds of things just didn’t enter my mind. The secret of all of it under Olympic pressure is the ability to focus and just shut out everything else. Brian Boitano said he created a bubble around himself and just didn’t let anything else in, and I very much did the same thing. I kept off to myself, I did not participate in the Olympics. I’m sorry in some ways that I didn’t intermingle as much with other athletes, but it was simply the way I had to do it, to keep my own focus and to handle the pressure.

After the first day, I was third in figures, and after the second day, the last day of figures, I was in second. And I was about 26 points behind, and when I looked at the marks I realized that more than half of that was from one judge. That judge didn’t like what I was doing, I think [laughs]. The other judges, I knew that if I skated well [in the freeskate], that I’d win. I know [that his coach said it was the greatest freeskate ever] but he was a little prejudiced [laughs]. It’s a wonder that he said it, because he didn’t watch. He hid under the stands! Carol Heiss, my subsequent sister-in-law, yelled at him to come out and watch, but I was doing well and he wouldn’t. He would just listen to the crowd reaction. He couldn’t stand to watch. Edi got very wrapped up in it all, he became kind of a basket case at times. One day I sent him off to go skiing because I couldn’t stand having him around me for a while. He came back with a sprained ankle [laughs].

I had no film of any kind of my Olympic performance until the latter part of the 1970s, when the [US Figure] Skating Association asked me to send them a copy of my performance to show during the national championships in Orlando. And I said I didn’t have anything, and they were incredulous. CBS had always promised me a copy but I never had one. And they found that CBS had sold the rights to my performance to a boxing manager, I assume for televised boxing [laughs]. And the person who found this out tracked him down, and obtained the film from him, and that’s when I first had a full copy of my Olympic performance. There’s almost nothing from 1956, and I’m sorry for my brother for that. There’s film of him at the national championships, his freeskate, but there’s virtually nothing from the 1956 Olympics. I feel very lucky because it was a thrill for me to ultimately see my performance at the 1960 Olympics. I skated actually pretty well [laughs].

On landing a triple axel in 1957: Until the time I went to medical school, I’d pretty much accomplished the triple flip, and was working on the triple axel to the point where I could land it about 50% of the time on a good day. That wasn’t the sort of statistic that would lead me to put it in a program yet, but when I went to medical school I really did not have the time to train on those sorts of advances for me. And I was the only person really doing triples at the time, and there was no advantage to me to trying to do the triple axel in competition because no one else was doing triples. Don Jackson landed a triple salchow in the 1960 Olympics, but nobody else, and up until then he had not been [trying triple jumps]. Ronnie Robertson did some triples, but beyond me and Ronnie and Dick, no one else to my knowledge was even trying them. My brother never even trained them.

My approach to learning new jumps was that first of all you had to learn to fall on them, so you could relax. I reached the point where I could say, well, I’ll make myself try three, and if I can’t relax then I’ll stop. And I’d always feel relaxed without falling. To me the secret of jumping was being comfortable falling, and no one in skating probably fell more times than I did. You just learn to fall, and then you relax and learn how to do it. And then it’s just trying it over and over again until you can do it. I spent a lot of time on all the triples before I could master them, and I approached the triple axel the same way, because there wasn’t anyone who could coach me. Edi was no help with that, it was just a frontier. He was a very good school figures coach and very good at tearing things apart, but not so good about putting them together and learning from that. So I pretty much relied on myself. We didn’t have film or video or things you could watch in those days, so you couldn’t really learn from seeing yourself. For me it was just repetition until the timing became a part of you. It was just trial and error.

I never tried any more triple axels after I went to medical school. There just wasn’t any point in it, as much as I would have loved to have done one in competition, from an ego standpoint. But especially at high altitude and on outdoor ice, your pacing [is important]. The other thing I didn’t have time to do was to work up a new program [for the 1960 Olympics], so I stayed with one that I loved doing and that I knew how to work with, how I should feel at every step of it, how tired or not tired. The timing of it was sort of ground into me, like part of my body. And I hadn’t exhibited it much — being in medical school I hadn’t toured it in Europe where people could have seen it over and over again. So I felt very comfortable staying with my old program and not having to work up the choreography for a new one, and all the time of agony in making a new program. And of course we all did our own choreography in those days.

On the resources that skaters have now: Coaches spend so much time with them, hours and hours every day. I think coaching of more than an hour or two would have driven me insane. But I sort of have come to believe that becoming self-reliant and not being coached — Edi only worked with me a couple of half-hours a week, and the same with Hayes — when you head out into the Olympics and there’s nobody there but yourself, it’s very reassuring to be self-reliant and not dependent on your coach. And I did not feel dependent in terms of handling the pressure. What I was doing on the ice, I felt very self-reliant, and I think that’s a great advantage. And I think sometimes nowadays they’re so carefully managed. I may be wrong about that, but I think they get many many more hours of scrutiny, and many of them are much more under the thumb of the coach, and I’m not sure it’s always an advantage. It worked to my advantage when I was away from my coach, that I felt very self-reliant.

On being in Ice Follies: I took a year off between the second and third years of medical school, because there were so many offers and I could make so much money, and I joined Ice Follies, which I loved. I spent two summers in San Francisco and one whole year on tour. It was a lot of fun, I felt totally irresponsible [laughs], and at that point it was lovely to have a whole year to be irresponsible and not train very much, which I didn’t [laughs]. It was a fun year. It was a little hard to go back to medical school after that year. And the way I’d been living — it’s funny, you don’t feel it was a time of great deprivation, because there wasn’t anybody who had any money. It’s like when my wife and I were first married, we never went out with our friends and did things because none of us had any money, but I don’t think anybody in any way felt deprived, even though none of us had much of anything.

On the 1961 plane crash that killed the US team going to the World Championships, including his coach Edi Scholdan: I was skating in the Ice Follies at the time, and he had called me — I had rushed back to medical school so fast that he and I hardly had a moment to relish together, winning the Olympics, I left the next morning to get back to medical school. He was going to come up to Boston, where I was playing with Ice Follies, on his way to Europe, and then he called and told me that because he had a lot of first-time skaters going to Europe, he thought he’d better stay with them, and that he was going to go along on the flight. And then a news source called for my reaction, and that’s how I found out the plane had crashed. It was very sad, and I think it was particularly sad for Edi and me because we never really had the chance to relish the moment that I’d won. And that’s something I’d always looked forward to, sharing that moment. And then there were all the youngsters that were heading over there, many of which I knew well. I had not been training with any of them for a number of years because I was in Cleveland and away from my training center, for two years except for the summers. I hadn’t been as much surrounded by them as I had been before. It was a very tough time indeed, very emotional, and so many coaches with them. The loss in the coaching ranks was profound.

On whether he considered returning as a coach after the 1961 crash: No. In those days, if you turned professional, no matter what the circumstances, you became something of a pariah in the amateur world, and I did not feel welcome in the amateur skating world until probably the mid-1970s, when I started to speak and was asked to do things. And those same years were the years when I was completing my medical school, completing my internship, my residency years, two years in the Air Force, and starting a family. And I was so wrapped up in all of that that I left skating behind. And of course I was glad to leave skating behind [laughs]. I was the one who had fought the sacrifices more than anyone else in my family, so I was glad to see it end. So I left it behind with relish — not sorry that I had done it, but glad that it was over.

On his involvement in skating since he became a gastroentrologist: I went to [the 1983] world championships with Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano in Helsinki as team doctor, and I’ve been up to the Olympic training center for a week at a time, when they try to communicate between scientists and younger skaters and their coaches, trying to serve as something of a go-between. Dick Button invited me to judge in his World Professional Championships many times, and I loved doing that, some of the greatest skating I’ve ever seen. That was wonderful, and I was able to take each of my children at various times to that. I was awfully glad for them to have a window into the skating world. And my wife, who had nothing to do with skating, she’s gotten to know the skating world. Those are nice things to share. And the [USFSA] over the years has done more and more to bring their old Olympic champions into the fold, inviting them to national championships. I’ve never attended another world championship, but I’ve been to a number of nationals, and I love doing that.

I thought it was easier to watch [the Olympics] on television than try to be there, so, no, I’ve never been to another Olympics since 1960. I did go back to Squaw Valley in 1985, 25 years later, I was invited there. I remember walking out there on the balcony of the hotel room and looking down the valley, expecting to see all the structures, the stadium and all those things, and they’re all gone. There isn’t a single building left in that valley from the 1960 Olympics. That was very deflating [laughs]. I’ve subsequently been to Cortina [in Italy] where the 1956 Olympics were, and the arena is there with my brother’s plaque on the wall, which was really a thrill for me.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

J. Barlow Nelson April 8, 2011 at 3:45 am

A delightful journey in time with one of the most amazing and unique skaters in the history of our sport; the insight into his self reliance and dedication is a “must” for all competitive skaters of today.

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