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A champion born to be a figure skater

The Janet Champion story

Champion's parents didn't know that accepting this trophy and cash prize would end her amateur skating status.
Champion's parents didn't know that accepting this trophy and cash prize would end her amateur skating status. (courtesy Janet Champion)

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By Jo Ann Schneider-Farris, special to icenetwork.com
(05/27/2008) - Janet Champion's story is a bit like an old Hollywood movie. Called "the Shirley Temple of the Skating World," at the age of three Champion began tap, acrobatics, and ballet lessons at a local studio in San Diego, Calif. The students of Mrs. Thornbrook's Dance Studio performed on the weekends for groups like the Lion's Club.

After watching Champion perform, Thornbrook got the idea that she could do her acrobatic moves on roller skates at one of their local performances. They signed Champion up for roller skating lessons with a teacher who also happened to teach ice skating.

On the urging of her instructors, Champion also began to take lessons on the ice. In a short time, young Champion had honed her skating skills to the point where she could perform intricate acrobatic moves on the ice. Her love of ice skating prompted her parents to sign her up for private skating lessons with Charlie Storey and Larry Ward.

At the age of eight, Champion entered a statewide contest -- the California State Exchange Club Contest -- where she performed a series of acrobatic moves and jumps. Her performance was so outstanding, that she won the contest out of 3,000 other entries. She was presented with a trophy and a cash prize of $500. At the time, her parents did not know that accepting a cash prize would end Champion's amateur status. In those days, accepting any money for a sports-related activity, meant that an individual had become a "professional" and was ineligible for competitive amateur athletics. The San Diego Figure Skating Club soon informed Champion's coaches and parents, that her future as a competitive skater was over.

Her coach, Storey, knew Eddie Shipstad, one of the owners of Ice Follies. He told Shipstad about "this amazing little girl," and arranged an audition. Shipstad was amazed at what he saw, and a month later, the Champion family was flown to Spokane, Wash., for an official audition with Shipstad, his brother Roy, Oscar Johnson, and the show's choreographers.

After a short introduction, Shipstad asked Champion to show her back handsprings to Johnson. Champion asked "How many do you want me to do?" Shipstad asked for ten, so the obedient nine year old, without a thought and with her skates on, did ten handsprings on the ice. Dually impressed, a contract was offered to Champion, but her parents rejected it. After some negotiations, the Champion's agreed to the second offer, and she began skating with the Ice Follies at the age of ten.

So began a fairytale-like existence as Champion spent the next several years traveling the world with her mother, visiting idyllic locations and living in grand hotels. She loved to perform every night, and the three shows on Saturday was more of a delight than a job. Leslie Goodwin, the partner of "Mr. Debonair," Richard Dwyer, coached her on the road. For about six months each year, she would go to the rink in the morning and practice figures and freestyle, then she would take a taxi to a school where special arrangements had been made for Champion to attend. After school, she would do homework, eat dinner, and then head off to perform each evening. Champion only performed in the first half of the show in compliance with child labor laws which did not allow her on stage past a certain time.

While Champion and her mother traveled with the Ice Follies, her father remained in San Diego and continued to run the family's dry cleaning business. Her summers were spent skating and training at the world-famous Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, as the Ice Follies paid for Champion to train under Olympic coach, Edi Scholdan.

Each show season, she was featured in two numbers: a ballet act and a children's number that included acrobatics on the ice -- eventually an entire Lollypop Land number was designed around her. After her three-year contract expired, Johnson handed her father a new contract and told him to fill it out any way he wanted.

All fairy tales do come to an end, but unlike Temple who was phased out by Hollywood, Champion designed her own escape route as she entered adult life. After nine years on the road, Champion was ready to grow up. She graduated from high school and headed to Las Vegas to star in a show at the Frontier Hotel on the strip. After that, she headed to South America where she landed a three-year stint with Holiday on Ice.

At 21, Champion had had enough travel and wanted to return home. She went back to San Diego and began teaching skating part-time while going to beauty school. In time. however, she found that she loved teaching skating and enjoyed sharing the joy she had for the sport with others. Therefore, she became a "beauty school dropout," making a name for herself as a figure skating coach. Champion has had students compete in regional, sectional, and national events. Cindy Moyers Stuart, one of her first private students, won a bronze medal in the 1975 junior ladies national championships and is now considered one of the foremost figure skating choreographers.

Champion continues to contribute to the sport, and has been a residential staff coach at the Broadmoor Skating Club for the past 21 years. She has worked with Olympic champion John Curry, world champion Linda Fratianne, world champion Jill Trenary, and the current U.S. pair champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker. She has been on the board of the Professional Skaters Association and has received numerous awards for her contributions to figure skating.

No one has ever duplicated the acrobatic moves that Champion did on the ice as a child. Although skaters like Scott Hamilton (who Champion helped teach) do back flips on the ice, the back handsprings done by Champion were unique.

Her career has truly been an amazing one.