|A personal net.shrine|
(This picture is from Beverly Smith's book "Figure Skating: A Celebration".)
I generally consider myself to be a fan of good skating rather than of any particular skater. The one exception I make to this rule is that for years and years I have been a devoted fan of Toller Cranston, the 6-time Canadian champion and 1976 Olympic bronze medalist. To me, Toller has always been the One True Skate God.
Toller was the major influence that originally got me interested in the sport of figure skating. I first saw him on TV around 1970 or 1971, and I was immediately intrigued; he was so unlike any other skater of the time. I was just a kid then and didn't know very much about skating, but this guy was downright weird, an individualist who wasn't afraid to be different, and who wasn't afraid to speak his mind about it, either. He was almost like Cyrano de Bergerac come to life, armed with figure skates instead of a sword. I loved it, and began to watch out for more televised skating events, and Toller in particular.
As it happens, the very first live skating performance I ever attended featured Toller Cranston. It was an exhibition at the outdoor rink in front of Toronto's City Hall in December, 1974. It was actually a complete accident that I was there. I was in town with a school group and snuck off on my own to see the skating without having any idea that Toller would be performing, and you can imagine how excited I was when my hero skated out onto the ice. I was definitely hooked for good after that.
To understand Toller's place in skating history, you have to realize that back in those days, men's figure skating had very little to do with artistic expression. It was stiff and rigid; the rulebook said the proper carriage for free skating was to keep your body erect and your hands palm-down at waist level, and for the most part, skaters did what the rulebook told them to. The thing that made Toller so distinctive was that he was not only bold enough to wave his arms over his head, but his whole body had a marvelous flexibility, fluidity, and extension that he showed off in spirals, split jumps, and a variety of unusual spins. (One of his stylistic trademarks was contrasting a long, stretched body line with bent-knee positions.) To go with this flamboyant technical style he had an equally dramatic sense of music and choreography. Probably the canonical Toller program of all time was his portrayal of the tragic clown Canio from the opera "Pagliacci".
Unfortunately, Toller's downfall when it came to competing was the compulsory figures. This is why he never placed better than third at the world level even though he won the free-skating part of the competition three times during his career. It's said that at the 1976 world championships he threw his patch skates into a pond in disgust after the figures competition because he was so frustrated with his poor marks. Because of the influence and popularity of strong artistic skaters like Toller (and Janet Lynn and John Curry, among others), the rules for competitive figure skating slowly began to change to de-emphasize compulsory figures. They were finally eliminated completely after 1990. And those prohibitions against raising your arms above shoulder level while free skating are long gone, too.
Today, Toller is spending most of his time concentrating on his second career as an artist. His paintings are full of vibrant colors and have the same sort of bizarre twist that's evident in his skating.
Toller has been active as a coach, choreographer, and costume designer; his most famous recent pupil is the 1995 world champion Chen Lu. He also does occasional TV commentary and is just as outspoken and strongly-opinionated as ever, and it's a ton of fun to hear him talk about skating even if you don't agree with half the things he says. His memoir "Zero Tollerance" is a kind of distilled essense of Toller and is highly recommended. Rumors are that he's working on a sequel....
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