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Remembering a figure skating legend

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

I have been very fortunate to have been involved with the Skate Canada Hall of Fame since its inception back in 1990 and since that time, I have had the wonderful opportunity of meeting many iconic figures from our nation’s skating past. During this most recent meeting I was reminded of a very special time in our skating history as people reflected upon the recent passing of legendary coach Sheldon Galbraith at the age of 92.

One individual who had many stories to share was fellow committee member Frances Dafoe, who along with partner Norris Bowden, was discovered by Galbraith. This famous pair actually started out as ice dancers but were convinced by Sheldon to switch disciplines and as the saying goes, the rest was history. They went on to become one of this country’s most successful pair teams, claiming four consecutive national senior titles and becoming the first Canadian pair team ever to win gold at the World championships, doing so in 1954 and 1955. World and Olympic silver medallists in 1956, they retired from competition that year. Since her on-ice skating days, Frances has remained involved in the skating world by serving as an international level judge, a costume designer and most recently an author, publishing a book in 2011 entitled Figure Skating and the Arts.

Whenever I remind Frances that I am from Thunder Bay she always recalls with great fondness the various times she was in our community to skate in local skating carnivals or to judge, and how she would take the opportunity to enjoy our local ski hills during her visits.

As Frances noted, and as many people have recalled, Sheldon Galbraith was ahead of his time in his coaching and training techniques. He utilized the technology of that time by using his movie camera to film his skaters, and their competitors, and would spend many hours analyzing the footage alongside his students. As a result not only did this master coach leave behind a legacy of success as the coach of some of our best skaters, including the likes of Barbara Ann Scott and Donald Jackson, he also left behind a truly priceless archival record of film footage which I am happy to say has been donated to Skate Canada.

Included amongst that collection is no doubt some footage of a skater with ties to Thunder Bay. Prior to moving to Thunder Bay, Wendy Griner (Ballantyne) was coached by Galbraith at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club, and under his leadership she went on to claim four consecutive Canadian senior ladies titles (1960-63) the 1962 world silver medal and represented Canada at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics.

In a 2010 article, Wendy recalled how as a young skater she would sit in a room at the Cricket Club watching footage of Barbara Ann Scott and be inspired. She would also watch footage of her own skating to learn what she was doing right and what she could improve upon, which are common training practices today, however, ahead of their time during the 1950s. In that same article Wendy recalled another debt of gratitude she owed her former coach and mentor. In 1961 Wendy and her mother and Sheldon were booked to fly from Philadelphia, the site of the North American Championships, to Prague to attend the world championships. Their original plans had them travelling with the United States Figure Skating team, however, Sheldon felt it was important that Wendy not arrive with her competitors so requested that the flight be changed.

Sadly, the plane carrying the U.S. contingent crashed in Brussels killing the 18-member team, along with 16 family members, coaches and officials.

I spoke with someone who attended Sheldon Galbraith’s funeral this week and I understand that it was a virtual who’s who from the skating world which was not surprising considering the impact he had on the sport in Canada and abroad. Fittingly there was a wonderful selection of music played throughout the service which was reflective of some of the memorable skating programs performed by his pupils including a special tribute to Donald Jackson’s famous Carmen routine from the 1962 world championships when he became the first person to perform a triple lutz in a world competition. His coach would have been proud.

Until next time, keep that sports history pride alive. (Originally posted May 9, 2015)

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