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Bob Fenn: A Tribute To A Speed Skating Legend

By Jeff Klaiber | Oct. 10, 2017, 4:18 p.m. (ET)

It can be argued that Bob Fenn gave more to speed skating in the U.S. and speed skaters than any other person.

Perhaps ever, in the history of our sport.

Nobody was out on the ice more. No one was ready to help more. No one gave of himself and his time more. Bob Fenn was a rock of consistency and as much a part of speed skating as the “USA” on the back of a skin.

And he wasn’t just “Milwaukee”.

Bob’s contribution played out on ice surfaces across the globe for over four decades. He never wavered in his dedication. He was simply a stalwart and a fixture. Skaters came and went, the sport moved from outdoor to indoor, hard tails to claps, and a new century dawned.

And there was Bob, stopwatch and clipboard in hand, advice ready at the tongue, eyes and ears and focus poised on you, the skater. I was privileged to have worked with Bob several times as a skater and I was the better for it. I’d fly back from Europe in the mid-80’s hoping to extend my season, and there was Bob. I’d be in Calgary going to University as the U.S. team was overseas. There was Bob.

I was trying to find my way back to good form in Lake Placid in 1990, and there was Bob. I implicitly and explicitly trusted him. Through the years so did hundreds if not thousands of skaters, parents, and officials. When I resumed coaching again in 2010 after a 12-year break from the sport - there was Bob.

He never left for 12 long years. And that’s just a sliver of his career. Having coached from the late 1970’s, straight through until Friday October 6, 2017. This is prodigious and unprecedented in the United States.

His last coaching session was spent refining the technique and toughening the physique of the 53-year old distance phenom, Theron Sands. Theron’s drive, combined with Bob’s tutelage, have shaved over 90 seconds from Theron’s 5,000m and 10,000m personal best times over the past few years and resulted in a master’s world record. But because of Bob’s belief in his athlete, and Theron’s unyielding determination, Theron’s focus isn’t on the silver-haired set; he’s indeed qualified for speed skating’s longest two events in the U.S. Olympic Trials. This is mentioned simply to demonstrate that Bob was deeply involved, right until the untimely end of his life.  

Just a recent example of what Bob has done for hundreds of skaters.

If one were to quantify Bob’s contribution, it would dwarf even legendary coach’s achievements. While he coached the sport’s best, he also coached anyone willing to work hard. That was his standard. If you were willing to work, he was willing to show up, anytime, anyplace, to help you. He was a savvy street-fighter from Queens, N.Y., who relished the challenges of competition, enjoyed the difficulty of the sport, and would bluntly state his opinion to anyone at any time if he thought it necessary, regardless of the impression he left. He believed in what he said and didn’t concern himself with others’ opinions. The ice was his habitat, not a meeting room. This is where his magic happened, in knowing how to extract more from athletes than anyone expected.

He was at once encouraging and challenging and his work ethic was unrelenting. His method was based on the time-honored principles of dedication, determination, perseverance, patience, and hard work. Bob had high standards for himself as a coach. In turn, he expected the same commitment from his skaters, exemplifying a can-do spirit that was infectious. Bob instilled belief not with empty affirmations but in serious and blunt progress reports. He told it like it was. Because he was so direct and honest, Bob’s words were taken very seriously and he was a trusted source of wisdom in a gritty, gutsy, street-fighting way.

And his was a voice one could hear over a howling wind or a crowd of 10,000. Bob’s forging and forceful urging will echo forever in the ovals of our sport.  

More personally, it seems to me that the real reason Bob got through and made such a huge impact to all of us is simple but not easy to do in life: Bob was always, always present. You never got the idea that Bob had somewhere else to be, something else to do, or someone else to talk to. This was it, you were it, and that was it. Simple. No conflict, no distractions, he was 100% there. This capacity was a huge part of who Bob was and it was one of the reasons he connected so easily and could effect change so rapidly. He communicated that he valued and respected the act of pursuing one’s personal ambitions on the ice. He joined his skater that way, and made one believe.

Lastly, it was not just the quantity of Bob’s contribution that was paramount. He got results, having led generations of skaters to greater heights. Bob knew the ins and outs of skating, from how to train, how to peak, how to enter a turn, how to skate a straightaway. How to think about a race. How to think about your competition. Bob had the experience and the knowledge, and shared that more freely and for a longer period of time than anyone ever has.

Perhaps the best way to think about Bob is to think of the massive gaping void there would be in our sport had he not been around. Bob is and always will be a permanent fixture in the annals of U.S. speed skating.

In preparing this text, I reached out to several skaters for comments on Bob and these are below.

Two-time Olympic Medalist Derek Parra: “The first time I met him was my first trip to Milwaukee and his passion was immediate and unmatched. He opened his arms to myself and the other inline skaters that were trying to make the transition. Bob was always ready to help-whether you skated for him or not-he was always willing to do that.”

Three-time Olympian Mike Woods: “Roscoe (Bob) would help anyone who was willing to work. He influenced so many skaters at so many levels from beginners to Olympic champions. He was blunt, irreverent, yet knew how hard work translated into success. His historical knowledge of the real guts of 65 years of speed skating was unparalleled in the sport. A legend is gone. We’ll miss you, Bobby.”

Olympic legend Dan Jansen: “It would be hard to find anyone who had more passion for our sport than Bob Fenn. He was a permanent fixture at the rink for the last 30 years plus…a lot of skaters from many generations owe a thank you to Bob for his contributions to our sport.”

Five-time Gold medalist Bonnie Blair-Cruikshank: “Bob brought a lot of energy to the rink, every day!  I always loved the fact that he was loud and you could hear him but he never “yelled” at his athletes.  He will truly be missed!!  He was always “Roscoe” to me, not sure which came first his nick name or the dog we had..., both were special to me and my whole family, The Blair Bunch. In the last couple of years he seemed to be our daughter Blair’s #1 fan and always had an encouraging statement and smile for her daily!! We will all miss him dearly and stand in awe of his contribution. Our prayers are with his family and friends.”

Four-time Olympian David Cruikshank: “Bobby was arguably the most passionate person about skating that I have ever met.  He’s been involved in our sport from grass roots to the podium in the Olympic Games.  Once Bonnie and I had kids he was ALWAYS asking questions about them and how they were doing and once they became involved in skating his intensity picked up even more and that’s just the way he cared for people. Lots of people say they care but he truly loved and cared for his skating family and will be greatly missed.

Two-time Olympic Champion Shani Davis: “For as long as I can remember, Bobby has always been there for me. He helped me develop my confidence at a very pivotal time in my career. I always felt alone or that everyone was against me, and when Bobby came along I found that support and I felt with him at my side. We could take on anything, against all odds! I will miss hearing his conquering voice on the backstretch guiding me strong to the finish and his New Yorker mentality. To me, he was more than a skating coach; he was a life coach that guided me through many situations. No one was more passionate about the sport of skating and coaching. He will always be in my heart and soul, and as I continue this journey he will be front seat with me. I will pass along all the things he taught me as I come across people that seek guidance just like I did when I needed someone in my life to help easy the burden of skating and competing at high levels. “

Many others have thoughts to share, yet due to time constraints, I was unable to catch up with them all. The speed skating family lost a treasure. Yet we are all better off for having known Bob. Our prayers and wishes go out to Bob’s loved ones at this difficult time. We will all miss him.

Jeff Klaiber is a two-time Olympian and a Level 3 USS Coach from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This is an editorial submitted by Jeff.