This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on January 12, 1998. Partner content is not updated.Ducking out of the freezing rain on a bitter Chicago night, the woman once dubbed Canada's Sweetheart arrives at Hugo's Frog Bar to a movie star's welcome.
Scott, Barbara Ann
Ducking out of the freezing rain on a bitter Chicago night, the woman once dubbed Canada's Sweetheart arrives at Hugo's Frog Bar to a movie star's welcome. Everyone, it seems, knows her name: the maître d', the busboys, even an aproned waiter, careering past with a tray of giant crab legs over his head, all pause to say "Hi, Mrs. King" as she winds her way through the dining-room to a booth near the back. Barbara Ann King is difficult to miss - she is gorgeous, and her scarlet fur coat and matching cap, dampened by the mist, glisten under the lights. The familiarity is no surprise. She has lived in Chicago for nearly 43 years since marrying Tom King, a onetime forward in the National Basketball Association who now owns a commercial real estate company. But for a Canadian, it is strange to hear her called anything but Barbara Ann Scott. Once she and King are seated, a dinner guest asks if she minds that she is still known in Canada by her maiden name. "I am flattered that people remember me at all," she says. "After all, it was a long time ago."
It was her figure skating career or, more specifically, her gold-medal winning performance at the 1948 Winter Olympics. That triumph on a rutted, uneven outdoor rink in St. Moritz, Switzerland, was huge news at the time. About 70,000 people - more than one-third of the city's population - attended her homecoming at Confederation Square in Ottawa after the Games, a similar throng cheered her in Toronto a week later, and by the following Christmas, Reliable Toy Co.'s Barbara Ann Scott doll was a best-seller. Larry O'Brien, then a reporter with the Montreal Standard, covered the Ottawa rally. "She put figure skating on the map," recalls O'Brien, a longtime associate of golfer Jack Nicklaus. "She made it a major sport in Canada."
Scott was then - and is still - the most accomplished skater the country has ever produced at the senior women's level. In addition to Olympic gold, she won two world championships, two North American titles and two European championships, and enjoyed a seven-year professional career. But it was St. Moritz that gave the country someone to cheer about, and propelled Scott and her sport to unmatched popularity. "Every little girl with skates wanted to be like Barbara Ann," says Frances Dafoe, who was a junior when Scott returned victorious and who later won two world pairs titles and an Olympic silver medal with partner Norris Bowden. "She was so pretty and so gracious - she was the perfect representative of our country and our sport."
She still is. To honor the 50th anniversary of Scott's Olympic glory, the Canadian Figure Skating Association has invited her to attend this week's National Figure Skating Championships in Hamilton, hoping, perhaps, that some of Scott's grace and grit will wear off on current skaters. "It's not just her achievements - it's what she has become," says CFSA director-general David Dore. "She's like royalty, and she exudes optimism." Scott, now 69, does not plan to be a figurehead. Over dinner - she orders a crab cake and salad - she says she loves getting down to ice level with the skaters, for whom she is an icon as well as an encouraging, grandmotherly figure. "The world needs heroes," explains Kurt Browning, the four-time world champion, "and she's one of ours."
Yet her presence in Hamilton also highlights the CFSA's most glaring weakness this season. To the association's embarrassment, none of the senior ladies at Nationals this week have qualified for next month's Olympics in Nagano, Japan. The slide in technical prowess is somewhat ironic - Canadians have traditionally pushed the limits of the sport. In 1942, Scott became the first woman of any nationality to land a double Lutz jump in competition, and that groundbreaking achievement has since been followed by Donald Jackson's first-ever triple Lutz (at the world championships in 1962), Vern Taylor's triple Axel (1978 Worlds), Petra Burka's triple Salchow (1965 Worlds), Kurt Browning's quadruple toe loop (1988 Worlds) and Elvis Stojko's quadruple-triple combination jump (Champions Series final in 1997).
Scott was powered more by a fiercely competitive nature than by her athletic ability. She went to St. Moritz carrying the weight of expectations as the defending world champion, and instead of wilting under the pressure, the five-foot, two-inch native of Ottawa soundly defeated runner-up Eva Pawlik of Austria and bronze medallist Jeanette Altwegg of Great Britain. She says she got the work ethic and attention to detail from her father, an army colonel, but her motivation came from her homemaker mother. "She told me when I was a girl that I was homely, but if I was very good at what I did, I would be a success," Scott recalls, sadly but matter-of-factly. "So I always felt a little inferior, and that I had to work a little harder."
When she left pro skating in 1955 and married King, she did not give up competition. She groomed, trained and rode horses at shows for 30 years, and the only reason she does not currently have a horse, she says, is because "I'm too competitive - if I had one, I'd want to show it, and I don't have time." She once took up golf, and in one year went from beginner to winning her flight in the club championship. After that, she stopped playing. "She was really good, and in such a short time," marvels Dafoe, now one of Scott's best friends. "She is truly a natural athlete."
Scott does not dwell on past glories. Around the restored Victorian townhouse she and King have shared in downtown Chicago for the past 16 years, there is more evidence of their recent interests - her equestrian medals, his golf memorabilia - than of her skating exploits. Her gold medal is in an upstairs study, and framed clippings and photographs detailing her Olympic win are hung in a back stairwell. "You don't live in the past, or at least I don't," she says. "Every day is different, and there's always so much to do." She cut short her professional career to marry King, and sitting in her plushly decorated living-room, with one of her six cats purring in her lap, she professes no regrets, saying she was tired of the grind. "I grew up in a time when a woman's career was to be a wife," she says. Then, smiling over at King, she adds: "It has been a wonderful career."
Scott is still active in skating as a judge at professional competitions, which has enabled her to keep up with the evolution of the sport. She admires today's professionals for being able to juggle more routines, more competitions and more difficult jumps while performing five out of seven nights. "Barbara Ann hasn't closed her mind to the changes in skating - she doesn't just write things off because they didn't happen in her day," says choreographer Sandra Bezic. "So it means a lot to me when she tells me she liked one of my programs." And although Scott and King had no children together (he has two from a previous marriage), she spends the bulk of her time at competitions talking to kids. "They are so enthusiastic, and it's incredible what they are doing," Scott says.
They may also solve the current woes of Canadian skating. Dore says female competitors around the world are struggling to cope with the demand for six or seven triple jumps in a program. But he claims the younger ranks in Canada are swelling with girls with elite-level potential. "The talent among novices and juniors is remarkable," Dore says. "I mean, we have novice girls landing three triple jumps."
That is not necessarily a good thing, says the only Canadian to have won Olympic gold in the women's competition. Scott worries that the emphasis on jumps drives many good skaters away from the sport. Still, she says current athletes need to be more focused to deal with the technical demands. She remembers her own hours of training at Ottawa's Minto Club when she had a cold or was missing a party. "In my old lady's opinion," she says, "young skaters have to realize that if they want to be champions, they have to dedicate themselves." Scott also believes that, even at a time when skaters can make millions of dollars, there is only one reward for competing at the Olympics. "It was an honor to represent my country," she says simply. "I am very proud of that." For a half-century, her country has been just as proud of her.
Maclean's January 12, 1998