Forty years ago, the Olympic Winter Games weren’t quite as buttoned-up as they are today. At least they weren’t for ice dancers Colleen O’Connor and Jim Millns, bronze medalists at the 1976 Innsbruck Games.
Millns recalls standing by the boards, smoothing his baby-blue trousers and visualizing the couple’s free dance to a quintessential 1970s medley of Earth, Wind and Fire; Stephen Sondheim; and Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes. Suddenly, he felt a tap on his shoulder. A TV cameraman wanted to chat.
“He said, ‘Just think, over 200 million people are looking at this. How do you feel?’” Millns recalled. “I stood there and just went, ‘Huh?’ And Colleen, who was always taking charge, yells ‘Jim, get on the ice now!’”
When Millns reached his starting position, one thing ran through mind: “Skate well, and a medal is yours.”
After two compulsory dances, he and O’Connor sat third behind two Soviet couples. Favorites Lyudmila Pakhomova and Aleksandr Gorshkov were near-legends with five world titles; Irina Moiseyeva and Andrey Minenkov — known to Westerners as “Min and Mo” — had won the 1975 world title in their countrymen’s absence, narrowly defeating O’Connor and Millns.
Form would likely hold, but the Americans could not afford a mistake. A third Soviet team, Nataliya Linichuk and Gennady Karponosov, were on the rise (and would go on to win the Olympic title four years later in 1980).
“You heard a lot of rumors flying around about how the Russians were really grooming this team,” Millns said. “We had that kind of scuttlebutt going on behind the scenes. So it didn’t turn out to be as easy a task as some people thought it would be.”
“(Pakhomova) was an artist, in the true sense of the word, and she could really skate,” O’Connor said. “(Gorshkov) could not skate as well, but he was a good foil for her. I didn’t mind getting beat by them.”
Innsbruck was the apex of O’Connor and Millns’ competitive career. Teamed in 1971, the two Illinois natives trained under British coach Doreen Denny at the old Broadmoor Arena in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where mile-high altitude and close quarters groomed them for international success.
“We were always in optimal shape,” O’Connor said. “The rink was small, so you really had to skate great edges to get your dances in. It was a good practice tool.”
By 1976, O’Connor and Millns were three-time U.S. champions and world silver medalists, two rays of sunshine in an ice dance world crackling with Russian angst. Dick Button, the voice of U.S. Olympic figure skating for decades, told TV viewers they did “twice as many steps” as other couples. Watch the footage today and you’ll find Button was exaggerating a bit, but not much.
“Colleen and I had true technique, we were clean in our deep, powerful edges,” Millns said. “The Russians had a lot of difficulty in their programs, especially Pakhomova and Gorshkov, but they were sloppy from what I would call a technical of view. When I looked at them waist down, I didn’t like their skating. When I looked waist up, it was wow. We did a lot more skating; they did a lot more drama.”
In those days, skaters could not earn money coaching or performing in shows without risking their amateur status. So after winning the 1975 world silver medal, O’Connor and Millns seriously contemplated retirement. Then, after being an exhibition event at the 1948 and 1968 Games, ice dance was added to the 1976 Olympic roster.
“We were second at worlds and we thought, ‘Now what? It’s very expensive, can we afford to keep going with this?’” O’Connor remembered. “Then the Olympics come up, in maybe May or June, right when we were ready to pack it up. And then it was, we can’t afford not to continue, because we were set up in a perfect place. We knew if we maintained and worked hard we would probably win a medal.”
O’Connor and Millns traveled to Austria as part of a team that included Dorothy Hamill, who would win gold in Innsbruck; Linda Fratianne, winner of the silver medal at the Lake Placid 1980 Games; and future pairs world champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. Surprises awaited at the picturesque venue.
Some practices were held at the outdoors Olympia Eisschnellaufbahn, in a rink surrounded by a speedskating oval. Ice dancers would perform their quicksteps while athletes like Peter Mueller (gold, 1,000-meter) and Sheila Young (gold, 500-meter) whizzed by.
“They were on the track around us and we were in the middle,” O’Connor said. “That’s one picture that really sticks in my mind. It was pretty dizzying.”
“Of course you had super-bright sunlight, because there is white snow all around,” Millns said. “And you had winds and very cold temperatures. So here you are trying to perform, all bundled up but still showing your best, because the judges came to every practice.”
In the end, O’Connor and Millns were thrilled to ascend the medal podium with the Soviet couples. Both note with pride that their names are inscribed on a plaque in Seefeld in Tirol, the site of many of Innsbruck’s ski jump events, along with the other 1976 Olympic medalists.
American couples have medaled at the last three Winter Games, with Meryl Davis and Charlie White bringing home gold from Sochi, Russia. Two U.S. teams — Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates — are medal threats at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships in Boston. But it would take 30 years from O’Connor and Millns before another U.S. team, 2006 Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, stepped up to the Olympic podium.
Millns, who served as a national and international ice dance judge for many years, thinks he knows why.
“The U.S. fell into this situation where they said, ‘Let’s copy what the Russians are doing, they are having success,’ and that didn’t work well,” he said. “The thing that turned it around — in addition to an amazing coach, Igor Shpilband — was that U.S. ice dancers started doing their own thing. They developed their own style.”