Olympic skating coach has mix of joy, sadness

Feb. 15, 2011, 4:46 p.m. (ET)

Almost every time one of Frank Carroll’s skaters competes, he clutches onto two special mementos for reassurance. Carroll had them with him when Evan Lysacek skated to an Olympic gold medal in Vancouver and during the time he coached Michelle Kwan.

Michelle Kwan reacts to her scores with coach Frank Carroll after the Women's Short Program at the 2001 State Farm U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the Fleet Center in Boston, Massachusetts. (Doug Pensinger/ALLSPORT/Getty Images)

One of those items is a crucifix given to him by the mother of Olympic silver medalist Linda Fratianne, one of Carroll’s former pupils. The other is a gold medal won by Carroll’s coach, Maribel Vinson Owen.

“I wear them around my neck and put my hand on them when I am watching my skaters,’’ Carroll said.

Those women remain close to his heart, both literally and figuratively.

On Thursday, thoughts of Vinson Owen will be weighing on Carroll’s mind when he is in New York City as part of a huge gathering of skating heavyweights for the screening of “Rise,’’ a documentary about the 1961 plane crash that killed the 18-member U.S. world team in addition to judges, officials and family members. Vinson Owen, a three-time Olympian and a bronze medalist at the 1932 Olympic Winter Games, was killed in that crash.

The crash occurred on Feb. 15, 1961, and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the devastating moment in skating history, US Figure Skating commissioned this documentary. Proceeds from the film will go to the Memorial Fund, which was created after the crash to assist skaters with training and academic needs.

“Rise’’ will be shown in movie theaters around the nation on Thursday night, and all of America’s Olympic gold medalists – from Dick Button to Lysacek and from Tenley Albright to Sarah Hughes – are expected to be in New York to watch it. America’s golden group has only been together twice, once in 2002 during the Winter Games in Salt Lake City and again in 2006 at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Louis. This will be the first time all 13 of the United States’ Olympic gold-medal winning skaters, including Lysacek, will be together.

Evan Frank
Evan Lysacek with his coach Frank Carroll reacts as they sit in the kiss and cry area after he competed in the men's figure skating free skating at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
For Carroll, the night will be a strange collision of anniversaries. Certainly, he will be thinking of his longtime and beloved coach, Vinson Owen, and the 50th anniversary of her death, but also of the year anniversary of Lysacek winning a gold medal. Carroll, considered one of the sport’s most technically savvy coaches in the business, had guided many of America’s top skaters but never had one reach the top of the Olympic podium until Lysacek did so on Feb. 18, 2010.

Interestingly, Vinson Owen coached America’s first Olympic female gold medalist skater in Tenley Albright, and Carroll coached the last Olympic men’s gold medalist in Lysacek. 

“I know what Maribel taught me, particularly in lessons in life, in winning and losing,’’ Carroll said. “And this anniversary marks a tradition of passing on that knowledge.’’

As for Lysacek, the time has flown almost as quickly as skaters fly across the ice. Since Lysacek won in Vancouver, where he upset then-reigning Olympic champion Evgeny Plushenko of Russia, Lysacek has gone on to perform in the TV hit, “Dancing With The Stars,’’ and toured the country with the Smucker’s Stars on Ice tour.

Although Lysacek and Carroll communicate frequently, mostly via text messages, the two were reunited last month in Greensboro, N.C., at the 2011 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships.  Lysacek wasn’t competing but came to perform in an event-ending exhibition. He asked Carroll to stand by the rink boards for the performance.

“Evan told me, ‘I want you there. It will be like old times,’ ’’ Carroll said. “For him to feel like I was such an important role in his success means a lot. I am proud of him as a person.’’

The Winter Games in Vancouver were incredibly special for Carroll, not only because of Lysacek’s victory, but it was the first time US Figure Skating invited any coaches to march in the Opening Ceremony. Carroll was one of two coaches selected (ice dancing coach Igor Shpilband was the other).

Fifty years before the Winter Games in Vancouver, Maribel Vinson Owen was coaching skaters at the Squaw Valley 1960 Olympic Winter Games. Vinson Owen’s daughter, Laurence, placed sixth and her other daughter, also named Maribel, placed 10th in pairs with partner Dudley Richards.

A year later, en route to the world championships in Prague with daughters Laurence and Maribel, Vinson Owen died in the plane crash. Carroll’s life has never been the same. 

“I think about Maribel all the time,’’ Carroll said. “I was at Gold’s Gym working out once and thought about when was the last time I saw Maribel and I had tears in my eyes. T.   That happens to me off and on and it lingers forever.’

Carroll was about 14 when he met Vinson Owen. At the time, he was skating at a rink in Lynn, Mass., outside of Boston. About a year or so later, he started taking lessons from her. He chose her, he said, in part because he noticed so many skaters were uprooting their lives from around the country to train with her.

“I thought to myself, ‘What is this all about? What is the mystique here? ’ ’’ he said.

Quickly, he found out.

“I learned so much from her, about how to put your weight on the blade, and hip position on figures and how to move on the ice,’’ Carroll said. “Nobody ever told me this or how to obey the rules of physics. She was so intelligent and so ahead of her time.’’

As much success as Carroll has had as a coach, he is not quite sure she would have been happy he was still working in skating. In fact, he said Vinson Owen was “absolutely furious’’ with him when he decided to turn professional and perform in shows instead of going to law school.

“I was sick of studying and struggling,’’ Carroll said. “The shows were fun and it was another world for me.’’

He promised her that he would go to school in one year. Then came the crash. Carroll never went to law school. He left the East Coast for good, relocating to Southern California, where he has coached since 1964. Over the years, he has worked with Kwan, Fratianne, Christopher Bowman, Tim Goebel and Lysacek, to name a few.

Mirai Nagasu of the United States talks with coach Frank Carroll in the Ladies Free Skating at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

At the national championships last month, Carroll was busy working with several skaters, including 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu. During those championships, the entire 1961 team was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Carroll’s mind was on two skating generations at once.

Among the people he met there was the sister of Dudley Richards, the U.S. pairs champion with Vinson Owen’s daughter.

“She was down in the lobby of the hotel and she introduced herself to me,’’ Carroll said. “It was fun to meet her.’’

Not long afterward, Carroll was back to the rink to do what his coach before him had done for years and years – teach the best practices of the sport to the next generation and beyond.

Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.