Ice Network

Wilkes thankful to witness skating history firsthand

1964 Olympic silver medalist enjoyed storied career as skater, broadcaster
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Canadian Debbi Wilkes attended every Olympic Winter Games, in one capacity or another, from 1976 to 2010. -Courtesy of Skate Canada Archives

While her relationship with the Olympics went through various stages over the years, Debbi Wilkes has still maintained her enthusiasm for Olympic competition. Whether it's remembering her own time on Olympic ice or having a rinkside seat for historic moments in the sport of figure skating as an announcer, Wilkes treasures the memories as well as her place in skating.

Wilkes was only 17 when she and Guy Revell represented Canada at the 1964 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck. While the time she spent in the Olympic village was her first taste of life away from her parents, she still enjoyed every moment.

"That was an eye-opener," the now semi-retired Wilkes said about living away from home. "The Canadian team had other competitors who were fairly young, such as Petra Burka, and probably away from parental supervision for the first time. While we were very serious competitors and very serious about our training, I would say that the activities after a day of competing were great fun.

"There was entertainment, and bands were playing at night -- just a wonderful bevy of activities that you could enjoy if you were so inclined," she continued. "We tried to take advantage of as many of them as possible."

On the competitive side, Wilkes felt a bit overwhelmed by the responsibility of representing her country. Even though the marquee pairs teams at the time were Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov of Russia and Germany's Marika Kilius and Hans-Jürgen Bäumler, following in the footsteps of 1960 Olympic champions Barbara Wagner and Robert Paul and two-time Canadian champions Maria and Otto Jelinek brought heightened expectations.

"Thank goodness competitive spirit kicked in," Wilkes said. "Our coaches, Margaret and Bruce Hyland, were so clever at being able to push the right buttons that brought you beyond whatever you felt your limitations might have been."

Wilkes and Revell finished third and were awarded bronze medals on the podium; subsequently, second-place finishers Kilius and Bäumler were disqualified, which enabled the Canadians to move up one spot on the podium. (Years later, however, the Germans were reinstated and their result restored, but Wilkes and Revell retained their runner-up status.)

Following the 1964 World Championships, Wilkes retired from the sport to finish high school and then attend York University, where she earned an honors degree in psychology. She then went to Michigan State University and earned a master's degree in communications, which launched her career in broadcasting.

When she returned to Toronto, she was hired by the local CTV affiliate to work in the sports department. Her first Olympics behind the mic brought Wilkes back to Innsbruck for the 1976 Winter Games. She attended every Winter Olympic Games after that up until Vancouver in 2010, serving as a broadcaster through the 2002 Games before carrying the duties as Canadian figure skating's team leader in 2006 and 2010.

"As a broadcaster, I would say some of the most newsworthy things have perhaps been the most unexpected and the most exciting," Wilkes said. "I would have to put the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Olympics (1994) as number one."

Magical moments that remain in Wilkes' memory include the gold medal-winning performance of Lyudmila Pakhomova and Aleksandr Gorshkov in 1976, the first time ice dance was contested at the Games. Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov's showings in 1988 and 1994, as well as Jamie Salé and David Pelletier's run in 2002 also stand out.

"I feel very privileged," Wilkes said. "At the moment, you're just trying to do your job to the best of your ability, but as I look back at it now, not many people have had that opportunity to witness the history of skating firsthand and to see the legacy that so many of those performances produced."