I’m sure many of us have seen figure skating books and/or manuals that contain photographs or drawings of skaters tracing school figures. These intricate patterns, all variations of the figure eight, were originally the entire content of figure skating competitions. Competitive skaters of the early era (before World War II or so) traced the figures in outdoor competitions.
While jumping, spinning, and other athletic maneuvers were added to the sport and a program of skating was added to the competition, the school figures, for many years, carried the majority of weight in the overall score. If you weren’t a strong school figures skater, you simply could not expect to win a medal, unless the rest of the field self-destructed. As late as 1968, when Peggy Fleming won the Olympic gold medal, the school figures comprised 60 percent of her total score. Peggy emassed such a huge lead in the figures that her victory was a foregone conclusion. Her free skating was also outstanding – elegant and athletic. However, had Peggy not been a strong school figures skater, she would not have won the Olympic title or her three World titles.
Austrian Trixi Schuba won two World titles and the 1972 Olympic gold medal, based on the strength of her outstanding school figures. Trixi was probably the best school figures skater of all time, as her tracings were, typically, exactly on axis and right on top of each other. The scoring was changed so that the figures and long program were 50/50 in weight; however, you still had to be a strong figures skater to medal. Trixi built up such enormous leads that all she had to do – pretty much – was stay on her feet and not fall nine times to win the title. Her free skating was quite weak and almost embarrassing, compared to the strong free skaters of her era, such as Karen Magnussen, Janet Lynn, and Julie Lynn Holmes. At the 1972 Worlds, Schuba’s final amateur competition, she won the figures by a wide margin and then finished only 7th in the free skate – yet she still won by a substantial margin. As part of her exhibition performance, Trixi traced a few figure eights on the ice.
The school figures were reduced to 30 percent of the overall score, with the new short program weighing 20 percent and the long program 50 percent by the 1980s. However, the figures still sometimes determined the final outcome. At the 1984 Olympics, Brian Orser finished 7th in the figures, won both the short and long programs, yet had to settle for the silver medal behind Scott Hamilton, who had won the figures and finished 2nd in both the short and long programs. Had there not been school figures, Orser would have won the title.
The judges sometimes used the school figures as a means of marking up and marking down skaters to set them up for medals. The figures were also used as a basis for making new skaters “wait their turn”. Typically, a skater in his/her first appearance at Worlds could expect to be placed lower then 10th in the school figures, even if he or she skated solid figures. I think of the 1990 Worlds in which Todd Eldredge, the new US champion, skated clean figures, yet was ranked out of the top 10. He skated good short and long programs, but finished out of the medals. At the 1984 Winter Olympics, US silver medalist Tiffany Chin skated good figures but was marked 12th. She finished 2nd in the short and 3rd in the long program and 4th overall. Had she received the marks she deserved to receive for the figures, she may well have won a medal. Conversely, at the 1988 Worlds, Katarina Witt skated subpar school figures – really blowing one of them – and she was ranked 1st in that discipline. The judges, obviously, wanted to keep her up, since she was the defending World and Olympic champion.
School figures were eliminated from competition after the 1990 season, and probably nobody was happier about that than Midori Ito. Ito, who had won the 1989 World title, skated disastrous school figures at the 1990 Worlds and was buried in 10th place. I remember seeing a tracing of one of her figures – it was all over the place. She rebounded back, won both the short and long programs, and won t he silver medal. Had she finished 9th in the figures, she would have retained her title. Jill Trenary won the World title, thanks to her 1st place in the school figures.
Skaters had to spend hours skating patches, often before dawn, to learn to trace the school figures. I commend them for spending all of those hours over so many years. If there was any benefit, IMHO, it was that the skaters learned discipline, good carriage, and balance.