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Hughes blog: Premiere of RISE in New York

Skating luminaries gather for historic event

All 13 U.S. Figure Skating gold medalists at the premiere of <i>RISE</i>.
All 13 U.S. Figure Skating gold medalists at the premiere of RISE. (courtesy Sarah Hughes)

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By Sarah Hughes, special to icenetwork.com
(02/19/2011) - Thursday's New York City premiere of RISE brought many skating greats together.

Despite the euphoria of combining dozens of skating idols and legends with individuals who have influenced and shaped the sport in celebration, the mood at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square was a bit more somber than usual.

In 2002, I was welcomed with open arms into the elite circle of U.S. Olympic Gold Medalists. I was number 12, rounding out the dozen. In 2006 and then 2010, the twelve of us gathered at nationals, first in St Louis and last year in Spokane to celebrate the sport We also celebrated our accomplishments on behalf of our country and personally wished our newly qualified team for the Olympians the best of luck at the upcoming Games.

One of the main goals of these get togethers is to inspire the current crop of skaters and encourage them that their Olympic dreams can come true just as ours did.

The first time we gathered was quite overwhelming. I'd never seen all the champions in one place before. Special bonds were immediately obvious. Take for example, Kristi and Scott. Their hellos carry an underlying deep bond they've developed from years touring and working together, one surely strengthened from building Stars On Ice from the ground up.

Scott created the show -- Kristi toured with it for 10 years as a key cast member immediately following her Olympic win -- and then came back to make guest appearances after starting a family. She was right there when he was first diagnosed with cancer and then skating right next to him in countless cities across the country when he came back to tour the next year as he celebrated being cancer-free.

The show celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. As you can see, their hello is not merely a ceremonial one, a passing nod in a hallway, but one that signifies a deep connection, a relationship formed and continued through big chapters in their lives, on and off the ice.

That deep bond, formed through skating, is exactly what RISE highlights, a bond unique to our sport. With the tragic 1961 plane crash as the backdrop, storytellers Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano, Dorothy Hamill, Michelle Kwan, and Peggy Flemming shared their own skating experiences in tandem with the skaters, coaches and parents who perished on the plane. As an avid fan of history and skating, the film did a nice job of combining skating's past, present and future in a different light than usual.

As revealing as skating is, not much has been presented about the roles and impact the 1961 crash had on two of the most prominent coaches today. Frank Carroll and Ron Ludington both relive losing those who were instrumental in their lives through adolescence and young adulthood. Having spent a handful of weeks training in Lake Arrowhead with Frank over the course of two summers and making a weekly trip to Delaware to work with Ron Ludington for a few years, I've seen firsthand the influence they have on young skaters just starting out today. The stories they share in the film, and seeing and hearing those who influenced them, is not something their students will likely grasp in a few on-ice lessons.

Mr. Ludington and Frank's reflections also show how important every person involved in skating is to the future of the sport. Frank spoke about his own coach, Maribel Vinson-Owen, in our very first lesson. It wasn't, "let's see you jump," it was more, "we won't start working on specifics until you understand the theory behind the student-coach relationship." By instilling a respect for the sport, the history, and its instructors, Frank was teaching me something other than the importance of solely practicing through repetition, an approach that was not working for me at the time.

Working with Mr. Ludington was a different experience as a young skater. He was the most revered person in the rink and he would only give 20 minute lessons. Never anything more, no matter who you were. Unlike Frank who taught me with his skates on, Mr. Ludington sat on a stool by the boards with a space heater next him. It was a different form of intimidation. My mom would drive me the four hours each way to Delaware every Thursday so I would be able to skate with the top skaters in the country and only miss one day of school. I remember times when he would be training Olympic pairs skaters and he would only give them 20 minutes as well. Anyways, that's what he told me. I'm not sure it was true because he was always joking.

At my first nationals in 1998, I was a junior lady and I would rub his belly for good luck at the boards right before I went out to skate. He was our Buddha. I won the Junior title that year and we joked it was because of his big belly. He was always up for a laugh. One of my competitors in that event was coached by John Nicks, someone Mr. Ludington went way back with. Mr. Nicks came to the U.S. from England to coach after we lost our top coaches in the 1961 crash.

Being surrounded by so many of the people interviewed in the film in my own career, I knew of the crash, but not to this extent. One of the things this film does very well is document how the sport's champions rose from the debris of this horrific tragedy, hence the film's title. All one has to do is look at our reigning Olympic men's champion, Evan Lysacek, who was born almost 25 years after we lost our team, and see how the crash's legacy still lives.

It's a shame this was only a one-night only event and not in theaters for the next few weeks. However, since it was announced yesterday that there will be another showing in theaters across the country on March 7, here are some highlights of the film to look forward to:

• The archival footage of the 1961 team skating in competitions and how they were doing double Axels and triples in paper thin boots

• Laurance Owen's contagious charm and sparkle. Her smile truly illuminates the screen.

• Ron Ludington reminisces about his relationship with Maribel, making you laugh through the tears.

• An effervescent 16 year old Douglas Ramsay dance down the ice doing a difficult footwork sequence that will put a spring in your own step. A loving interview with his sister recalling how her father found out about the crash from a co-worker who heard it on the radio forces you to grasp the enormity of the devastation: it shook the nation. President Kennedy offered condolences as well.

• You see Dick Button through the ages. He has consistently contributed to skating, devoting his whole life to skating. He is standing next to skaters in the earliest days of televised competitions, including the 1961 nationals a few weeks prior to the crash, already commentating on and analyzing the state of skating for viewers. The wealth of knowledge Dick Button has on the sport in every which way is completely astounding.

• The devastating footage of the plane debris, which makes the crash more real and, at the same time, harder to believe it occurred.

• Footage of a young Brain Boitano repeatedly falling on a triple Lutz. Who would have thought the 'Tano Lutz would become his trademark?

• Also note the contrast of Brian's skating in his younger days and now. The confidence, strength and steadiness he portrays in the 1988 Olympic footage the film shows is unparalleled.

• Barbara Roles Williams, who speaks about coming back to compete and win the ladies crown in 1962 after having a baby.

• Evan's win in Vancouver and seeing how much it meant to Frank Carroll and what it added to the film. It wasn't until this moment that tears started rolling down my face.

Some things you missed Friday night if you weren't there:

• When the film noted how Douglas Ramsay was nicknamed "the next Dick Button," all eyes turned to see Dick's reaction. A true man of the sport, he kept a stoic gaze on the film as to not divert attention from the film.

• All the revealing interviews must have rubbed off on Matt Lauer. He recalled how he went to the same high school as Dorothy and had a crush in a post-viewing roundtable on the stage. Matt now joins Donald Trump as publicly proclaiming their love of "America's Sweetheart" within the past few months. Who will be the next one to step forward?

So where was I in 1998 when Scott Hamilton skated his epic 6-minute reenactment of The Wizard of Oz, the program in which he played all the roles? I was twelve years old and sitting front and center in the audience, taking in every minute, dreaming of one day sharing the ice with him. I would be sad when the show ended because I'd have to wait a whole year for them to come to town again. That is the type of influence and impact Scott has on young skaters.

As a storyteller in the film last night, he spoke of the importance of getting back up. And here, back in 1997, that's just what he did. After undergoing intensive and invasive treatment for testicular cancer, he did what Lance Armstrong did before Lance. He walked the walk. He went to every city, skated the longest program he has ever performed, and brought the house to their feet every single night. That's Scott.

As the night came to a close, the 12 Olympic Champions came on the podium as Brain Boitano auctioned off an item to raise money for the Memorial Fund: a breakfast he would cook at Dick Button's NYC apartment. It's a rare moment for us, one we only get the pleasure of sharing every four years. Except this time we got to celebrate two new additions: a film that captures an important piece of skating's rich history and welcome a new member to the prestigious group: Evan. He's our lucky number 13... but we wouldn't mind adding to that number in the near future.