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60 Years Ago, The U.S. Men’s Figure Skating Team Swept The Olympic Podium

By Karen Rosen | Feb. 01, 2016, 1:36 p.m. (ET)

(L-R) Hayes Alan Jenkins, Ronnie Robertson and David Jenkins pose after sweeping the podium at the Cortina d'Ampezzo 1956 Olympic Winter Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.

As pep talks go, Hayes Alan Jenkins received one 60 years ago that wins the gold medal for bluntness.

His coach, Edi Scholdan, took him aside before his free skate at the Cortina d’Ampezzo 1956 Olympic Winter Games.

“As they were announcing my name,” Jenkins, now 82, recalled, “He said (imitating Scholdan’s Austrian accent), ‘Hayes, whatever you do, don’t fall, because if you fall, you’ll lose.’”

That cold, hard advice “didn’t make me nervous,” Jenkins said. “I didn’t mind being put under that kind of pressure.”

Hayes Alan Jenkins won the men's figure skating gold medal at the Cortina d'Ampezzo 1956 Olympic Winter Games.

And he didn’t fall, either. Jenkins skated a clean program to lead a clean sweep of the men’s figure skating medals by Team USA. It was the first time the U.S. swept the podium in any event at a winter Olympics. Sixty years later, the U.S. has swept the podium just two other times — men’s halfpipe snowboarding in 2002 and men’s slopestyle skiing in 2014.

With Jenkins claiming the gold, the late Ronnie Robertson, known as “the Blur” for his spinning ability, captured the silver and Jenkins’ younger brother David took home the bronze, a precursor to his own gold medal four years later.

Monday, Feb. 1, is the 60th anniversary of the most dominant Olympic performance by Team USA in figure skating.

Hard to believe, but when the day began, the 1956 Winter Games in Italy were more than halfway over and the United States had yet to win a medal in any sport.

The Jenkins brothers and Robertson broke the ice at the Stadio Olimpico Del Ghiaccio, the outdoor rink in the picturesque Italian city in the Dolomites.

The following day, Tenley Albright won the gold and Carol Heiss the silver in ladies’ singles. Heiss went on to win the 1960 gold medal and two months later married Hayes Jenkins, making the family ties in 1956 even more remarkable. Those five medals in Cortina accounted for the bulk of Team USA’s seven medals (with men’s ice hockey later winning silver and four-man bobsled the bronze).

The men’s medal sweep was no surprise; they had finished in the same order at the 1955 world championships.

“It wasn’t a definite thing that I’d come in third,” said David Jenkins, now 79, “but it certainly looked like we would have at least two of the medals. I don’t think it was a shock that we took all three, but the medal ceremony was meaningful also because the Olympics were half over and it was the first medals at all for the Americans — and it was all three medals.”

Though Hayes Jenkins, then 22, was the overwhelming favorite, he took nothing for granted.

“The Olympics was not an easy experience,” he said. “There are wonderful, wonderful memories, but there was so much at stake.

“The pressure was fairly intense. And I can’t look back on the Olympics and say it was a lot of fun. It was a job that I wanted to do — no second thoughts about that, no saying, ‘Gee, what am I doing here?’ sort of thing. You might call it the ultimate pressure of competition. On the other hand, you have worked your way up to that point. It’s not a new pressure, and yet it’s a totally different type, maybe because it only comes every four years.”

Hayes Jenkins wanted to cap his career with a gold medal, and knew this was his final chance since law school awaited him.

He placed fourth at the Oslo 1952 Olympic Winter Games as Dick Button, who revolutionized the sport by landing the first double axel and first triple jump in competition, won his second straight gold medal. Upon Button’s retirement, Jenkins began his streak of four titles in a row at worlds.

“I viewed both Ronnie and David as real threats to winning,” Hayes Jenkins said. “They were very strong competitors. My brother was already nipping at my heels.”

Yet when David Jenkins thinks back to 1956, what comes to mind first is “my concern for my brother.”

“We trained together, traveled together, roomed together and he always kind of looked after me,” he said, “and it wouldn’t have dawned on me that I was a threat to him. I just wanted to see him win.”

David Jenkins particularly didn’t want Robertson to defeat his brother. “I just didn’t want him having the gold, that’s for sure. That’s all I cared about. He was my nemesis. I would have liked to have beaten him. But that didn’t hold a candle to my brother winning and it was a very close competition.”

In those days, men and women skated compulsory figures — which counted 60 percent toward the final score — and a free skating program. Also called school figures, compulsory figures required skaters to trace five circular patterns into the ice to demonstrate balance, control, flow and edge. They were dropped from the Olympics after the Calgary 1988 Games.

On Jan. 29, 1956, Hayes Jenkins took a slight lead after the compulsory figures, followed by Robertson and David Jenkins, who despised the painstaking carvings that took up so much of his training time.

Three days later, the weather in Cortina was “frightfully cold,” said David Jenkins, and the artificial ice was so hard that “you really couldn’t get a grip on it.”

The Jenkins brothers had different styles. Hayes was smooth and polished and could always depend on a solid performance in figures. David, who was more athletic and flashy, was the first skater to perform two triple jumps in a competition program.

“He was really somewhat ahead of his time in many ways,” said his older brother. “The first year he made the world team was 1954 and one of the judges came up to me and he said, ‘Do you have any more brothers?’ Because he was already an attention-getter.”

But David Jenkins fell on both of his triples in Cortina. “I didn’t skate all that well,” he said. “After the school figures, it looked like the best I would do and the worst I would do was third, but I did not have a great skate.”

He again fell at the world championships two weeks later. “The next four years I did not fall,” he said.

Ronnie Robertson won the men's figure skating silver medal at the Cortina d'Ampezzo 1956 Olympic Winter Games.

Robertson, who died in 2000 at age 62, skated extremely well, his trademark spins always a crowd-pleaser. A Canadian coach once said, “You’d see his face and the back of his head at the same time.”

According to “The Complete Book of the Olympics,” Robertson could revolve 240 times a minute. “It was said that if he held his arms out while he was spinning, blood would come out of his fingertips.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that,” said Hayes Jenkins. “Ronnie was a great spinner. He had a center of gravity that just seemed to lock into place and he could spin like a top.”

By the time Hayes Jenkins skated, next to last among the 16 competitors, “The sun had dropped behind the stadium, and it suddenly got chilly and damp but no wind, thank goodness,” he said. “The free skating really in the end decided that Olympics. I was first after the figures, but it was close enough that I had to do my job in the free skating or it could have slipped away from me.”

David Jenkins watched from along the boards.

“I think the most awful thing I’ve ever experienced is watching him do his free skating program knowing where every critical element was and it was so cold,” he said. “He skated very well, but I’ll tell you, it was nerve-wracking. It’s awful to watch, I don’t know how parents do. My coach (Scholdan) didn’t. He hid under the stands in 1960 when I skated. He couldn’t watch.

Although Hayes Jenkins could more often than not land a triple loop in practice, he never felt secure enough to put it into his program. After winning figures, he said, “I didn’t feel it was worth the risk.” The two-and-a-half revolution double Axel was his hardest jump.

Skating to “Scheherazade,” Hayes Jenkins was a little tight the first minute and a half of the five-minute program (which is 30 seconds longer than today’s length).

“My most vivid recollection from the actual skating was I then had about 30 seconds of slower skating where I could catch my breath,” he said. “And I do remember saying out loud to myself on the ice, ‘All right, settle down. You feel good.’”

He had never talked to himself in the middle of a program before.

“I ended up skating the best I’d ever skated in my life, which you always hope to do,” Hayes Jenkins said. “It wasn’t the first time I’d skated a clean program in competition, but it had that extra feeling that you sometimes get when you’re giving a performance. Somehow it felt different.”

While current skaters see their point totals flash on the scoreboard as soon as they sit in the “kiss and cry” area, results had to be calculated by hand in 1956.

Robertson wound up winning the free skate, but Hayes Jenkins had amassed enough points to prevail. He won six of the nine judges.

“I think it was almost 20 minutes, half an hour before I knew the results,” he said. “I was sitting in the locker room alone, resting and taking off my skates, and David came in and he said, ‘You won.’ I said, ‘Ahh. And you?’ He said, ‘I was third.’

“We hugged each other. It was a wonderful moment; it was just the two of us. It’s fun, of course, with Carol and David going on to be world champions together and Olympic champions at the same time, the three of us have a certain bond, shared memories that are pretty intense. Because we were there at some of those moments that we each individually had and the other one was there to see it happen or even share it with you.”

The awards ceremony was the next day, with IOC President Avery Brundage handing out the medals, which then came without a ribbon but in an Italian leather box.

“Both of us were able to stand on the podium,” Hayes Jenkins said. “It adds such a unique dimension to the whole experience, because I was rooting for him; he was rooting for me, and I think we both genuinely got nervous for one another.”

David Jenkins won the men's figure skating bronze medal at the Cortina d'Ampezzo 1956 Olympic Winter Games.

Standing on the podium with his brother “was the most thrilling experience for me in skating,” said David Jenkins, “more so than my win at the Olympics. It was a beautiful setting, it was night, they darkened the stadium, trumpets blared, and they began to announce it. We were there in full light in front of the whole stadium, and then my brother climbed up to the top step. That was very special.”

Not only did Hayes win the gold, he won the girl, too. “My wife Carol and I started — I wouldn’t call it dating during that Olympics, but we very much enjoyed finding ways to somehow spend time together,” he said.

At her 16th birthday party in Cortina on Jan. 20, Hayes kissed her on the cheek. Teammates since 1953, they traveled to the world championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, two weeks after the Olympic Games, where both won world titles — her first and his last.

Following European exhibitions, Hayes Jenkins retired, leaving the sport in good hands — his brother’s.

“One more year and I’m not sure I would have kept him at arm’s length,” Hayes Jenkins said.

He went to law school at Harvard, close enough to Carol in New York that they could stay in touch. They married soon after Carol and David each stood atop the podium at the Squaw Valley 1960 Games.

Hayes and Carol have three children and 10 grandchildren and live in Westlake, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. He was an international lawyer with Goodyear before retiring, while Carol is still active as a figure skating coach.

David Jenkins is a retired gastroenterologist in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He won the gold medal while studying to become a doctor. “At the time it was inconceivable to me that I would continue to skate while I was in medical school,” he said.

The U.S. won a total of four figure skating medals in 1960. Barbara Roles won the bronze in ladies’ singles while Nancy and Ronald Ludington took third in pairs.

A year later, Scholdan, who had coached the Jenkins brothers and many other skaters, died in the plane crash that killed the entire 1961 U.S. world championships delegation.

U.S. Figure Skating had to rebuild following the tragedy and to this day has won no more than three medals in any Olympic Games, even with the addition of ice dancing and the team event.

Unfortunately, in this age of on-demand video, there is little footage from the 1956 Winter Games. David Jenkins found some snippets of his brother’s winning performance on German television, but Hayes Jenkins said he has never seen film of himself, his brother or his wife skating in Cortina, where the names of the champions are inscribed in stone on the side of the rink.

Four years later, CBS broadcast the Games from Squaw Valley.

“There’s color footage of both my brother and Carol winning their gold medals in 1960,” Hayes Jenkins said. “They have that — that’s how quickly things changed from 1956 to ’60. I have nothing but a lot of good memories of ‘56.”