Esteemed US Olympic coach teaches local youth figure skaters
John Nicks coached Sasha Cohen to 2006 Olympic silver in Turin, Italy
The town of Breckenridge was blessed with an unexpected and atypical sporting opportunity this week at Stephen C. West Ice Arena. World and U.S. hall of fame figure skating coach John Nicks was in town for a ski trip with his daughter, their first time to Breckenridge, and he was connected with the town recreation department. They asked if Nicks, 91, would be interested in a figure skating clinic, and the recently retired longtime coach for U.S. Figure Skating couldn’t say “no.”
Back when Nicks was the age of the youngsters he taught in Breckenridge this week, he learned about the sport thanks to his father’s sports equipment store in Brighton, England. Nicks was his father’s “guinea pig” for the ice equipment he sold. Soon enough, Nicks and his younger sister developed as pair skaters, ultimately winning the British, European and World Championships in 1953.
Over the ensuing years, Nicks toured as a skater in South Africa before he came to the United States in 1961. Up until then, Nicks admired American skaters from afar. Sadly, Nicks’ reason for coming to the U.S. was due to the 1961 airplane crash that killed all 18 members of the U.S. Figure Skating team traveling to the World Figure Skating Championships in Prague. The crash also killed several team officials and coaches, so the Americans tapped Nicks to fill a coaching spot.
“I was asked to go to Long Beach, California, to replace one of the coaches who was killed,” Nicks said Wednesday. “Then I worked in that area for the next 50-60 years.”
Over that time, Nicks helped coach seven winter Olympic teams, several world champions and some Olympic medalists, including Sasha Cohen, who won silver in Turin, Italy, in 2006. Throughout the years, Nicks said the sport has progressed not just on the ice — where skaters went from single rotations in the 1940s to quadruple rotations these days — but in the media.
“At the Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 1948, they competed on an outdoor surface,” Nicks said. “The wind was blowing. The snow was coming down. They had to stop the competition for a half-hour and then went on. And after all was done, there were only about five to six newspaper photographers there. At the last Olympics I was at in Turin, when Sasha went in the newsroom, there were like 170 newspeople there.”
Nicks also hopes casual fans appreciate the mental and physical toughness of figure skaters. He said it takes someone special to gradually and, at times, painfully learn a new trick when the margin for error of landing on a quarter-inch blade is slim.
That’s why “the triangle” of athlete support is so important to him. The three parts of the triangle are the athlete, coach and parent, and Nicks said some of his success as a coach of more than 1,110 skaters over nearly six decades came thanks to his understanding of the balance between when the athlete needed the parent versus the coach and vice versa.
“In figure skating, you have to be cognizant of so many things,” Nicks said. “You have to be athletic, artistic and understand the importance of music in a program. You have to be pretty tough with all of the falls and hurts you’re going to have. And you have to handle pressure.”
Now “semiretired” from coaching as of three years ago, Nicks stopped by the Stephen C. West Ice Arena to work on 15-20 technical aspects of skating with the Summit Skating Club. He said his goal was for most of the athletes to be more confident in two to three of the items by the end of the week.
Two of those athletes were May Omori, 12, of Frisco and Katrina Baird, 17, of Breckenridge. Omori said she would remember the importance of presentation skills, including keeping her head and arms high with her chest open. Baird said Nicks helped her improve her jumps, spins and presentation skills.
“We are really lucky to have this opportunity,” Baird said.
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