Former Canadian Junior Men’s Champ to Compete After 13 Years
- Published: May 28, 2004
Norm Proft, 37, is currently a coach consultant for Skate Canada, the national governing body for all recreational and competitive figure skating in Canada. “My role is two-fold,” he said. “First, by instructing in seminars all across Canada, I help in identifying talented skaters at a young age and making the national office aware of these skaters and where they are located.” Secondly, through these same seminars, Proft (along with other coach consultants) assists these identified skaters (along with their coaches, clubs, and parents) better understand the ways they can aid the skaters’ development as a team.
Proft, who was born in North Vancouver, B.C., Canada, began his career on the ice at an early age, playing minor hockey. “But completely without distinction,” he said with a laugh. “I scored two goals in the three years I played, one by accident.”
However, Proft’s moves on the ice caught the eye of a local figure skating mother. “She happened to be at a public skating session one day, and noticed my love of jumping over things (blue lines, red lines, and other skaters),” recalled Proft, who was 11 at the time. “She suggested figure skating to my parents. Once I saw all the cute girls out on the ice at the figure skating session, I was hooked!”
Proft remembers learning all his single jumps fairly quickly. “I think my Axel happened largely by accident,” said Proft. “I didn’t know exactly how to do it. I just kind of watched the other kids. I look back at it now and realize just how bad my technique was!”
At 14, Proft started to become more serious about his skating and subsequently found a larger club and competitive coaches. “I needed lots of clean up work on my well intentioned, but rather misguided attempts at jumping,” he confessed.
Proft never favored any jump in particular, stating, “Nowadays, if I can do a double Axel or a triple toe I consider it a banner day!” However, the 37-year-old considers the back flip his most difficult element. “It’s not so much the technical difficulty of the move, but the risk that is involved,” he explained. “As anyone that performs the back flip can attest to, it is not a jump to be taken lightly. And at my age, it means that I must always be properly warmed up, both mentally and physically, before I attempt one in either practice or a show.”
Now that Proft is a full-time coach, he has discovered that his understanding of his own technique has improved. “As a coach, you spend all day assessing and correcting the errors in your students to help them improve. This focus, upon error analysis for hours each day, has really helped me to analyze and fix the day-to-day errors within my own technique.”
As a coach, Proft’s focus is more upon the technical side of figure skating. “I do, however, choreograph programs from time to time,” he conceded. “The more choreography I do, the more I get into it. In this era of specialization where skaters can have a head coach, a jump coach, a spin coach, a choreographer, etc., I think its important for coaches to be involved in the other aspects of the complete skater. Being involved in the choreography allows me to better understand how the jumps work in conjunction with the performance and vise versa.”
While Proft may be his own coach, he relies on his wife, Julie Brault, to do the choreography for his own programs. “This works out really well,” he said. “She’s a top flight choreographer in her own right that works with many top level eligible skaters (Valerie Marcoux and Craig Buntin, Dorota Zagorska and Mariusz Siudek and many others).”
As a team off the ice, the couple has a high level of understanding in how the other works. “She knows what my strengths and weaknesses are and she knows what my abilities are,” said Proft. “And, it means I don’t have to pay for my choreography,” he added with a chuckle.
As for Proft’s amateur career, he noted, “I was never an eligible skater that was capable of packing a program with technical fireworks. I both had to, and loved to give a strong artistic performance during competition.”
A few people, however, might remember the year he won the Junior National title in 1987 and how he did it. “I had set myself the goal that year of a top three finish at the Canadian Championships,” remembered Proft. “At the Western Divisionals that year, however, I skated poorly and placed 6th.” As only four skaters could qualify for the Canadian Nationals, Proft didn’t make the cut.
Proft considered retiring and joining a show when he found out that both the fourth and fifth place skaters were pulling out – one due to injury and one because he wanted to focus on the pairs event. “I went to the Canadian Championships as a second alternate and won!” stated Proft, adding, “This became an important lesson for me, as it taught me to live in the moment. I skated poorly at the Westerns because I was focused on the Canadian Championships and didn’t pay attention to my moment-to-moment goals I needed to achieve just to get to Canadians. Sometimes our greatest mistakes can be our greatest lessons!”
In addition to his win in 1987, Proft recalls another highlight of his eligible career when he won the short program at the 1990 Canadian Championships at the senior level. “There were some real big guns in the field that night: Kurt Browning, Elvis Stojko and many others,” he noted. “I had one of those moments where it all just came together. It wasn’t so much the winning that was memorable, it was the feeling at the end of the performance. I felt as I stood there at center ice and looked out at my first (and I think only eligible) standing ovation, that I had enough energy left to skate it all again, and also that I could stand there as long as they could!”
While Proft didn’t become a high-level international competitor as an eligible skater, he feels he achieved his goals at that time. “Even though I didn’t make the World Team, I was given the opportunity to represent my country for four years at some very prestigious events around the globe. Also, for me, the journey I’ve had through skating, and what it has taught me, is far more important to me than any of the individual stops this journey has taken me to along the way.”
It was on a day in the dead of winter in 1991 that Proft decided to turn pro. “I competing at the Western Divisional Championships in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan,” he recalled. “I was looking out my hotel room window at a snow-covered rail yard. I had always known that one day I would join a professional show, but in that instant I knew it was time.” Proft knew that even if he made the World Championships that year, he would never be in the top 10. “I had had a great competitive career up to that point,” he noted, “and I wanted to see more of the world than that rail yard. I also realized that with the following year being an Olympic year, many good skaters would look to the shows and I wanted to be out there a year earlier to get a bit of a head start.”
For Proft, entering the ranks of the professional circuit wasn’t a piece of cake either as it yielded more lessons to learn. “When I first joined the ranks of professional skaters, I was a little too eager to prove myself,” he said. “That first year out, I was doing a tour for Willy Bietak in British Columbia, Canada and as always, he had put together a really top notch group of performers. As the new guy, I felt I had to show them just how good this ex-National Team member really was.” It didn’t quite work out that way for Proft, who found himself forcing most of his numbers and never getting really relaxed. “The technicians in the show even had a betting pool on how many times I would fall during the course of a show!”
Proft recalls one night when he managed about six or seven falls or mishaps in one number. “It was so bad that later that night I heard laughter coming from down the hall at the hotel,” he remembered. “I went down to see what was up, and a few of the other skaters were watching a tape of this highlight of my young professional career. Well, I went in and swallowed what was left of my pride and ended up having a really good laugh along with them. But you know what? It taught me a lot about performing, not trying to win the Olympics every night out there, and the day-to-day hard work that is the true ethic of being a professional skater.”
Despite some embarassing moments, Proft also recalls a time when he was a super hero – almost. “It was when I was touring through France with Isabelle and Paul Duchesney with their wildly successful En Liberté show. We performed at night in an ancient Roman coliseum in Nimes, France. During Daniel Weiss’ Phantom of the Opera number, I had to make a brief appearance up in the stands wearing the famous cape and mask of the Phantom.” After his brief appearance, Proft had time to wander around the preserved structure and soon found himself at the top of the old structure in an archway. “I remember staring out over the moonlit rooftops of Nimes, in my skates, cape fluttering off behind me, feeling a little like a cartoon super hero. The only thing missing was music playing in the background from a movie soundtrack! I stood thinking how lucky I was to have a moment like that and that I should remember that moment for the rest of my life. I sure did!”
Currently, Proft has two comedy numbers which he performs to. One number includes Kiss Me by Harry Connick Jr., a tango, a samba, and a piece from the Nutcracker Suite. “My other number has music from Kodo’s Sai-So album, some very balletic music from Don Quixote, and a remix of Kung Fu Fighting by Fat Boy Slim. “The character I’m performing really dictates what music choices I make. This makes for some pretty wild choices. I find that by juxtaposing a character type against a totally inappropriate style of music, you get comedy without even having to do much in the way of skating.”
Proft enjoys doing comedy numbers. “Since I’m getting older and my body can’t expect to achieve the technical levels I had when I was younger, comedy gives me a chance to explore other areas of artistic development,” he explained. “There’s something else with comedy. It’s incredibly hard to do well. If you do an average regular skating piece, the audience will give you a rather polite response. If you do an average comedy piece, they’ll kill you. Nothing goes over worse than average-to-bad comedy. I think that challenge of it, being really on top of things and knowing that nothing short of my best will do, and knowing that if I fail, I really fail, helps to keep me on top of my performance each time.”
While Proft prefers comedy routines on the ice, he prefers to listen to classical and jazz music when relaxing. “My current favorites include Holly Cole, anything by Tony Bennett, and Patricia Barber,” he said. Proft also enjoys movies that have a well thought out plot and good characer development. “I hate being talked down to by a movie.”
When Proft isn’t performing or coaching, all his spare time is devoted to his two-year-old daughter, Emma. “I used to live my life wanting to see every corner of the world,” he observed. “Now, I can’t wait to see what’s waiting for me at home!” Proft also likes to engage in household renovations when not playing with his daughter. “I also like to ski, bike, and butcher a golf course from time to time,” he added.
Proft also enjoyes reading when he has a few rare quiet moments. “I’m currently re-reading some old favorites of mine, probably since I have so little time to get to a book store right now. At the moment I have The Cornish Trilogy by Roberstons Davies and St. Urbain’s Horseman by Mordechai Richler on my nightstand.”
Though Proft admires many skaters, Kurt Browning is one of his favorites. “I got to watch him every day in training go from being a prodigal talent to being the dominant man of his era,” said Proft. “Toller Cranston is another. To this day, every time a skater goes out and has the freedom to bring their own personality and character out on the ice and move beyond the technical side of our sport, they owe a debt of gratitude to how Toller reinvented the sport with his daring and controversial performances.”
Aside from family and performing, one of Proft’s favorite things to do is to travel. “My professional career was guided by the principal that if a show came along in a locale I’d never seen, I’m there!” he exclaimed. “My favorite trip was our honeymoon: four weeks in the north of Italy and the south of France with no maps. Just a car and a pair of bikes!” When on holiday, Proft likes to spend time at home, but would also like to revisit Provence, France in the future.
Proft, like many other skaters and performers, would like to see more events geared toward the professional skater. “I always want to see more chances for audiences to see more skaters. Either me or another of the lesser known professional skaters of our industry. Remember, although we are blessed to have such amazing talents in the world of figure skating like Kurt Browning, Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan, Brian Boitano and all the other wildly popular Olympic and World Medalists. There are countless other wonderful and entertaining skaters well worth getting to know.”
Events like the MLFS 2004 United States National Invitational Championships affords skaters the opportunity to do this. “When Ryan Hunka called me to participate, my first response was to say ‘No’. I don’t do alot of performances anymore and felt my competitive and show years were behind me (way behind me!). But the more we talked the more interested I became. I saw it as a chance to have a goal to train towards as well as a chance to feel the thrill and adrenaline rush of competition.”
“My goals for this event are to see it be a success,” stated Proft. “The format sounds exciting and if I can contribute some of my years of experience to it and maybe to some of the younger skaters, then I can be happy with my part of this new event.”
Proft also performs at many club shows in Montreal. “It’s a great chance to work on my numbers and give a little back to the clubs that help to start a skater’s career,” he said. “These kids in these clubs are the future of figure skating and if I can do just a little bit to help them have the same passion for our sport as I have, then I’ve done my job!”