In February 1972, the dreams of an entire country fell onto the shoulders of a petite 18-year-old girl. Canada was not doing well at the 11th Winter Olympic games in Sapporo, Japan. And as each day passed, more pressure mounted on young Karen Magnussen.
“The pressure was outstanding,” she recalls. “It’s a long program, and every day I came out of the Olympic Village with the press just down my throat reminding me that no Canadian had won anything. Everybody was so downtrodden and everyone was saying ‘it’s all up to you.’ I was thinking ‘stop telling me this.’ I felt more pressure there than at any other competition I was ever in. But I kept telling myself to stick to the plan and focus.”
One thing Karen had going for her was that despite her age, the Sapporo Games were her second Olympic competition. Four years previously, she had competed as a 14-year-old in Grenoble, France. She finished in a very respectable seventh place for one of her first major international competitions.
“The knowledge I got from skating in those first Olympics was really vital in carrying me through to the 1972 Games,” says Karen. “It grounded me and allowed me to stay focused on what I had to accomplish. Since I had been through it once, I was a little more seasoned. Had 1972 been my first Olympics, I would have really felt all that pressure. When I won the silver medal, it was a huge accomplishment because it was the only medal won by Canada in the 1972 Olympics in any sport.”
The other Canadian Olympians must have suspected something special would result from Karen’s performance as she was coming off a third place finish at the 1971 World Championship.
“I was voted on by my peers to carry the Canadian flag,” she says. “I understand now that it’s like some freaky thing, and many athletes don’t want to carry it because they are afraid it will jinx them. I just felt it was a tremendous opportunity. And being voted on by my peers – the whole Canadian team – [it] was such an honour.”
During Karen’s skating career, the marking system changed three times, but in 1972 at the Olympics, it consisted of two parts each worth 50 per cent of the skater’s score. Beatrix Schuba held the lead by such a wide margin after completing the compulsory figures that even though she finished seventh in the free skate, she still managed to claim the gold medal. This meant the best Karen could hope for was the silver medal she captured after nailing the free skate portion of the competition ahead of her American rival Janet Lynn.
“Trixie Schuba was a fabulous compulsory figure skater,” recalls Karen. “She did the circle eights just unbelievably. They marked her so high on her compulsory figures because her free skating was so poor compared to Janet and me.”
Karen developed quite a rivalry with Janet Lynn – one that lasted all the years they skated competitively – but she is quick to point out that it was a one-sided fight.
“We battled back and forth, but I always beat her,” says Karen. “The Americans presented her as ‘the medalist,’ but they never said what medal. It was presumed she had beaten me, but I beat her every year.”
The year following her Olympic silver, Karen completed her journey to the summit, winning the World Figure Skating Championship in Bratislava, now part of Slovakia, but then part of Czechoslovakia. This was the culmination of a four-year ascent at the Worlds. In 1970, she finished fourth, and then moved up one spot every year until winning the championship in 1973, which is the way figure skating seemed to work in those days.
“In the skating world, you had to improve consistently all the way up,” she says. “And that was how you showed the judges, by your progress and your willingness to work hard.”
In 1973, there were three events, the compulsory figures, the short skate and the free skate. Karen won each of the three events, which meant she was awarded three gold medals, one of only two women to ever achieve this feat. And her timing was excellent.
“Figure skating was one of the last sports to give out solid-gold medals, and the year I won was the last year they did. Now, they are in a safety deposit box.”
Most Canadians who saw Karen’s world championship free skate do not realize how fortunate they were. The satellite feed was going to go down and Karen was in the final group, which still had not skated.
“Johnny Esau had to pay the Zamboni driver to go faster, so they could show me on television in Canada.”
But this was nothing compared to what Karen had to go through to see her world championship performance more than 20 years later. ABC covered the event on their Wide World of Sports show and after the event, Dick Button told Karen that they had lost the tape of her performance.
“They told me it wasn’t in the archives,” says Karen. “So, for 20 years every time someone from Canada wanted to see my performance or get a copy to put on the air, they were told it couldn’t be found. I told this to someone who was interviewing me years later in Boston and they went to New York where they had a friend at the network and found a copy, so I could finally have one. It was quite a thrill watching myself and thinking, ‘Wow! It was some pretty good skating!’”
Karen had come a long way from her first time on ice at Kerrisdale Arena as a young child. The eldest of three girls, Karen surprised her mother by leaving her support behind almost at once and skating well for a beginner.
“The minute I stepped on the ice, I wanted to figure skate,” she recalls.
“There was no question. My passion was for figure skating right from the get go. I used to be banging on the doors of the North Shore Winter Club at 5:45 in the morning for the maintenance guy to let me in. Honestly, there were 25 to 28 figure skaters there every morning at that time.”
Coach Linda Brauckmann worked with many of the skaters there, and stayed with Karen up until she won her world championship title. Karen looked up to Linda and was greatly influenced by her along the way.
“There was a great loyalty to coaches then,” says Karen. “It takes a good 10 years for the technique of a coach to come through and, when it does, it’s really quite beautiful.”
Karen started competing at the age of seven. Her first was at the Kerrisdale Arena. She won. From there, she was identified as a skater with talent, but she didn’t win them all.
“There were some pretty ugly skates and some pretty ugly placements,” Karen recalls. “But I learned from those even more than I did from the events I won because I had to step back and analyze where I went wrong and learn from it.”
Another important lesson came from her father. Karen noticed many of the other skaters bringing stuffed animals to competitions so, one day, she decided to bring one of her own. Just before she left the house, her father asked her where she was going with the stuffed animal.
“I told him I was bringing it to the competition and he said, ‘what happens if you don’t skate well? Is it the stuffed animals fault or is it yours?’ I left it home, and it was quite a lesson learned. What matters is what you do out there as an athlete.”
Today, Karen lives in North Vancouver with her husband Tony, her two boys and one daughter. She stays busy coaching skating at the North Shore Winter Club but no longer is she only coaching figure skaters.
“I absolutely adore it,” she says of coaching. “I love the kids. And I have diversified into working with hockey players, and I love that as well.”
Of her own meteoric rise to be the best figure skater in the world, Karen had plenty of help – loving and supportive parents, an understanding high school principal and an amazing coach. But the drive came from within.
“I loved the speed [of skating],” says Karen. “I loved to go fast with big fast jumps and fast spins. Despite that, I was known as a skater who could do it all because Linda coached me in all aspects of figure skating. It wasn’t just that I was a good compulsory figure skater. I was good in the speed, the jumps, the artistry and that’s what ended up winning me the world championships.”
Karen is a huge supporter of the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver and remains hopeful some young skater may be inspired to become a future world champion.
“Barbara Ann Scott and Petra Burka were the only Canadian World Champions before me and there have been no women since,” she says. “When we get together, we always have a great time. It’s a nice little club, but we certainly hope to make the club bigger!”
JANUARY 2010 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND