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Thread: East German Figure Skaters

  1. #1
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    East German Figure Skaters

    While the unification of East and West Germany was a wonderful thing, it did seem to bring to a screeching halt the East German figure skating dynasty, especially as far as the women were concerned. For many years, East Germany produced a number of top-ranked woman figure skaters, and they emassed a very impressive number of World and Olympic titles and medals.

    Going back to the mid-1960s, blonde and vivacious Gabriel Seyfert won three World silvers (66-68) and the 1968 Olympic silver medal behind Peggy Fleming of the United States. Gaby was a rather stocky young lady, with strong legs, and she could really jump high. After Peggy turned pro, Gaby remained in the amateur ranks for two more seasons and won the 1969 and 1970 World titles. It was a mystery to me why she retired after the 1970 season, as it seemed that Gaby would have been the odds-on favorite to win the 1972 Olympic gold medal, had she stayed in the game. Gaby became a member of the East German media and covered a number of future international figure skating competitions.

    Christine Errath was another vivacious East German skater who starred in the mid-1970s, with the 1974 World title, bronze World medals in 73 and 75, the World silver medal in 76 and the Olympic bronze medal in 1976. Christine had an amusing way of standing at center ice following her program, with her hands on her hips, eyeing the judges as if to say, "OK, I've skated well, now let's have some good marks!"

    Annet Poetzsch became the first East German woman to win the Olympic figure skating title with her victory in Lake Placid in 1980 over Linda Fratianne of the US. While Annet was hardly an inspiring skater - she was almost awkward on the ice, and her artistry, as it was, usually looked pretty stilted, she was a great school figures skater, and she usually emassed a large enough margin with the school figures to carry her onto the podium. At the Olympics, she won the school figures, was fourth in the short and third in the long, yet she scored enough overall points to win the gold medal. Annet won the World titles in 1978 and 1980 and the World silver medal in 1977 and 1979 behind Fratianne.
    After the 1980 season, Annet returned to the GDR and faded from public view.

    Of course, most of us remember Katarina Witt as the figure skating diva from Karl Marx-Stadt. Kat won the 1984 and 1988 Olympic titles, the 84, 85, 87, and 88 World titles, and the 82 and 86 World silver medals. She also won six European titles. While Witt may not have been the best skater of her era, she was without question the best competitor. She really had the "killer instinct" when she competed, and she seemed to thrive on pressure. I remember watching the 1987 Worlds from Cincinnati, in which Kat regained the World title she had lost to Debi Thomas the previous year. She skated a fantastic long program to "West Side Story" and landed five clean triple jumps. She later said that was her best competitive program ever, and it was the best of the field, without question. Of course, Kat's beautiful face and figure were favorably looked upon by the media and the judges. She was a saucy, flirtatious
    "Carmen" and played that role to the hilt in Calgary, 1988.

    I only remember one other East German woman figure skater who won an international medal was Simone Lang, who won the bronze at the 1989 Skate America competition - just a few weeks before the Berlin Wall fell.

    Many of the above skaters competed to American music - "Funny Girl", "Gerswhin", "West Side Story", etc. I remember that Poetzsch skated an exhibition program to country western music. Clearly, they wanted to play to the western audiences, and they were successful in doing so.

    All of the above skaters had the same coach - Frau Muller, who is Gaby Seyfert's mother. Muller was a stern disciplinarian, and she succeeded in producing a steady string of champions for two decades.

    Undoubtedly, the East German sports machine suffered with the collapse of the GDR. All of the funding, "privileges", free training, etc., that was provided for the top GDR skaters disappeared when East Germany ceased to exist. I recall an interview Witt had on "The Larry King Show" in which she defended her receipt of those special privileges. She said, to paraphrase, "I think it was right for me to receive these things, because I trained very hard and brought honor to my country". In restrospect, I have to agree with Kat. What she did was remarkable
    and she deserved those goodies. In contrast with today's millionarie skating stars, what she received was a mere pittance - two small apartments, some spending money, and one of those lemon Travant cars.

    Anyway, I miss seeing those ladies from the GDR. I had hoped that we would be seeing more German ladies emerge as stars by now, but it hasn't happened yet. Of course, the Americans, Japanese, Russians, and others are very strong, but it would be nice to see Germany produce top skaters to get into the mix.

  2. #2
    In my heart, I'm actually Canadian....
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    Great post!

    However -- you apparently forgot about Evelyn Grossmann, who won the European title in 1990, right before the German unification. Though given the fact that that's about the only thing she ever did win, I suppose she is pretty easy to forget.... :\

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    Tripping on the Podium
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    Quote Originally Posted by JonnyCoop
    Great post!

    However -- you apparently forgot about Evelyn Grossmann, who won the European title in 1990, right before the German unification. Though given the fact that that's about the only thing she ever did win, I suppose she is pretty easy to forget.... :\
    Is she not the retired skater nowadays known as the "Spin Doctor" for her work with several skaters, including Michelle Kwan a few years ago, on their spins?

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    Quote Originally Posted by valuvsmk
    Is she not the retired skater nowadays known as the "Spin Doctor" for her work with several skaters, including Michelle Kwan a few years ago, on their spins?
    That would be Evelyn Kramer, who coached Liz Manley and Caryn Kadavy when they were pros. She also coached Silvia Fontana when she trained at Lake Arrowhead.

    Back to Evelyn Grossmann: The first time I ever saw her skate was a piece CBS showed during the 89 Worlds broadcast. They first showed pieces of her disastrous skate at Europeans when she fell 3 or 4 times - once on footword. Then they showed the second half of her skate at Worlds, which was better. It's too bad she never developed to her potential. Then again, it must be hard when you're billed as the next Katarina Witt

    Herm (sk8ngnutt)

  5. #5
    Keeper of Michelle's Nose berthes ghost's Avatar
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    Were they a dynasty?

    Well, they did produce world champions and Oly medalists in 3 of the 4 disciplines.

    OTOH, the "dynasty" seems to really revolve around a small group of skaters all coached by Frau Muller (Seyfert, Hoffmann, Poetzsch and Witt). She was comparable to TT or Fassi or Lussi, but GDR comes no where close to the USSR or USA in term of overall number of successful coaches, champions and medalists.

    Muller was controversial and there are some (insiders, not fans) who consider her student's wins more political than athletic. Sour grapes perhaps. At any rate, most of them were considered a real "fridge break" when it came to the actual free skating.

    IIRC, Erath wasn't coached by Muller. Perhaps that explains why she didn't win more often.

    Unlike the USSR or USA, (and now the Japanese ladies) they never had a trove of high quality skaters all competing just to make the team, and never had more than one medalsit on the podium. In fact, they seem to have often only sent one skater to international comps despite the option to send 3.

    When the USSR broke up, everyone perdicted the eminant demise of Russian champs. A decade later and they are still overwhelmingly dominating the sport (they are the only country to sweep the golds in one worlds, and to sweep the podium in both pairs and dance). Perhaps the doom forcasted was because of what happened in Germany. Perhaps the GDR just wasn't as good at adapting to change ( what's the scientific term for when some species can evolve with greater adaptability than others? ) Perhaps Frau Muller's demise was the demise of the whole "dnyasty". For someone who was supposidly so well connected, she seems to have fallen off the map.

    They won a few medals in a short period of time, but other than that they're pretty low on the overall medals by country count. I think that they were more successful propaganda machine then successful sports machine, but that's JMHO.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by berthes ghost
    Were they a dynasty?

    Well, they did produce world champions and Oly medalists in 3 of the 4 disciplines.

    OTOH, the "dynasty" seems to really revolve around a small group of skaters all coached by Frau Muller (Seyfert, Hoffmann, Poetzsch and Witt). She was comparable to TT or Fassi or Lussi, but GDR comes no where close to the USSR or USA in term of overall number of successful coaches, champions and medalists.


    They won a few medals in a short period of time, but other than that they're pretty low on the overall medals by country count. I think that they were more successful propaganda machine then successful sports machine, but that's JMHO.
    Interesting thoughts. I agree with you that there was a considerable amount of resentment from the Western press over the victories of the East German skaters, particularly the 1980 Olympic victory of Poetszch over Fratianne.
    We wuz robbed!! was echoed throughout the landscape over that decision.
    And, frankly, choregraphically, their programs sometimes were pretty bland.
    I remember reading an AP report of Witt's 1986 World defeat at the hands of Debi Thomas. It read (to paraphrase, "When Witt missed her short program combination jump, her mouth contorted into the German f-word." Eeech.
    Another report labeled her "the beautiful villainess who stole the gold medal from Roz Sumners." Give me break, folks.

    Our American ladies have always been wonderful, and I have cheered them on for decades (more years than I care to remember, actually). However, it stands as a fact for about two decades, the East Germans won the Olympic gold medals, not the Americans, and they won a bevy of World titles as well.

    Yes, it's absolutely true that there was only one star GDR skater on the ice.
    They weren't blessed with trios such as Thomas/Trenary/Kadavy or with a long list of young skaters who were vying to make the US World team. They seemed to produce one major star at a time. So be it - perhaps that's the way their system functioned.

    Another aspect that I did not mention in my initial post was that the GDR government did not permit any of their star skaters to travel with their families to the Worlds and/or Olympics. No doubt, the powers that were feared that the whole family might defect to the West. Katarina Witt's parents were not allowed to accompany their daughter to the Worlds until 1988, and that was because the competition was held in Budapest, Hungary, a Socialist country.
    After Witt won her second gold medal, she wasn't even sure whether or not she
    would be allowed to skate professionally. Can you imagine that kind of treatment of an American, Japanese, or any other skater after winning Olympic gold?

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by JonnyCoop
    Great post!

    However -- you apparently forgot about Evelyn Grossmann, who won the European title in 1990, right before the German unification. Though given the fact that that's about the only thing she ever did win, I suppose she is pretty easy to forget.... :\

    Thanks for reminding me of Evelyn Grossmann. You're correct, she did win the European title in 1990. However, I was writing about the East German skaters who won World and/or Olympic titles, not Europeans or other competitions.

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by berthes ghost
    Were they a dynasty?

    Perhaps the doom forcasted was because of what happened in Germany. Perhaps the GDR just wasn't as good at adapting to change ( what's the scientific term for when some species can evolve with greater adaptability than others? ) Perhaps Frau Muller's demise was the demise of the whole "dnyasty". For someone who was supposidly so well connected, she seems to have fallen off the map.
    We can only imagine the disruption that was caused by the unification of West and East Germany. Let's remember that the GDR had total control of its citizens, from the cradle to the grave, and that freedom of thought and expression was not a welcomed commodity behind the Iron Curtain. Perhaps Frau Muller's rather authoritarian coaching style ran afoul with the new German skating federation and she was not hired by any of their top skating facilities.

    Some people, as you write, cannot adapt well to change. In these days, folks who aren't flexible, at least to an extent, are going to run in trouble at some point in time. Mergers, layoffs, blended families, you name it - the only constant is change these days. I'm not criticizing the East Germans for this, as they probably encountered all kinds of problems, and perhaps resentment, from the skaters and coaches from the former West Germany.

  9. #9
    Keeper of Michelle's Nose berthes ghost's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SkateFan4Life
    It was a mystery to me why she retired after the 1970 season, as it seemed that Gaby would have been the odds-on favorite to win the 1972 Olympic gold medal, had she stayed in the game..
    What's makes it even more mysterious to me is that this seemingly odd decision was mirrored in the men's event.

    Both Seyfert and Wood took silver in Grenoble.

    Both took gold in 69 and 70. Schuba was second both times as was Nepala. Both mysteriously turned pro after 70 worlds.

    Both Schuba and Nepala took gold in 71 and again in 72 including the Sapporo Olys although neither one of them could even muster top 3 in free skating.
    :(

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by berthes ghost
    What's makes it even more mysterious to me is that this seemingly odd decision was mirrored in the men's event.

    Both Seyfert and Wood took silver in Grenoble.

    Both took gold in 69 and 70. Schuba was second both times as was Nepala. Both mysteriously turned pro after 70 worlds.

    Both Schuba and Nepala took gold in 71 and again in 72 including the Sapporo Olys although neither one of them could even muster top 3 in free skating.
    :(
    Good point. It was a mystery to me why Timothy Wood turned pro after winning his second World title in 1970, as he was a strong jumper and artistic skater who could have won the 1972 Olympic gold medal.

    On the other hand, in those days figure skaters only had a handful of competitions every season, and they did not have the financial oppportunities that today's top skaters have - lucrative endorsements, tours, shows, appearance fees, etc. Today's top eligible skaters can remain in the game for a lot longer than the top skaters of 30 years ago, if for no other reason, for the chance to make big money. IMHO, of course.

  11. #11
    Tripping on the Podium
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    Quote Originally Posted by hrmsk8ngnutt
    That would be Evelyn Kramer, who coached Liz Manley and Caryn Kadavy when they were pros. She also coached Silvia Fontana when she trained at Lake Arrowhead.

    Back to Evelyn Grossmann: The first time I ever saw her skate was a piece CBS showed during the 89 Worlds broadcast. They first showed pieces of her disastrous skate at Europeans when she fell 3 or 4 times - once on footword. Then they showed the second half of her skate at Worlds, which was better. It's too bad she never developed to her potential. Then again, it must be hard when you're billed as the next Katarina Witt

    Herm (sk8ngnutt)
    Oops, sorry - thanks for the correction and the information on Ms. Kramer.

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    What happened with GDR was perhaps more dramatic then what happened to USSR. The latter got to keep its old institutions, even though the funding and the structure around them collapsed. As GDR was absorbed into the unified Germany, its instutions became all but redundant.

    Also, I'd argue that the Russian champions of today are a very different phenomenon then the USSR champions of two decades ago. There is a lot more free choice involved, and they are not followed through every second of their lives the way the old athletes were. That's why I doubt we will see out of Russia the champions with the consistency of Rodnina & partners or Gordeeva and Grinkov.

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    Keeper of Michelle's Nose berthes ghost's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ptichka
    As GDR was absorbed into the unified Germany, its instutions became all but redundant.
    Do you mean politically, as in the "losers" must be punished? In any business merger, the company with the stronger program would win out. The GDR had a far more successful program than the FRG, why not keep it as the one to keep?

    I'm a little sceptical. I think that the USSR had a truely successful program, that's why they often had two podium finishes and even sometimes 3. Other than Frau Muller's small clique of stars, I think that the GDR program was probably all smoke an mirrors. 6 world champs in 20 years? That's kid stuff compared to the US and USSR.

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    Forum translator Ptichka's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by berthes ghost
    Do you mean politically, as in the "losers" must be punished? In any business merger, the company with the stronger program would win out. The GDR had a far more successful program than the FRG, why not keep it as the one to keep?
    Admittedly, I do not know that much about the unification (so anyone who knows better -- please correct me), but my understanding is that the old GDR institutions were basically all dismantled without much weeding out of good ones and bad ones.

    Also, I don't think it's fair to compare GDR is either USSR or US -- the country is just not the same size, with so much potential skaters.

  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by berthes ghost
    I'm a little sceptical. I think that the USSR had a truely successful program, that's why they often had two podium finishes and even sometimes 3. Other than Frau Muller's small clique of stars, I think that the GDR program was probably all smoke an mirrors. 6 world champs in 20 years? That's kid stuff compared to the US and USSR.
    Maybe that's "kid stuff", but I would imagine that the skaters who lost to the East Germans - Linda Fratianne, Roz Sumners, Elaine Zayak, Debi Thomas, Jill Trenary, during those three Olympics - 1980, 1984, 1988, not to mention the Worlds in which the GDR skater won the gold medal, would disagree with that viewpoint.

    IMHO, had the Berlin Wall not fallen and had the GDR continued on with its oppressive Communist rule, chances are that Frau Muller would have continued
    to coach skaters who would have continued to win Worlds and the Olympics.

    Of course, I shed no tears at the collapse of the Iron Curtain. One thing about the GDR that really annoyed me was the way in which their sports officials nitpicked over the rules, just to punish the athletes from other countries. At the 1988 Summer Olympics, the GDR technical judge marked down one of the American gymnasts, because his coach had been on the floor during his high bar routine. It was one of those teeny weeny rules that probably nobody else bothered to memorize - except for the East Germans. Ugh.

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