At first it seemed like an odd thing to see along the edge of the road. Who would expect to see a tattered, once white, women’s figure skate next to the curb in the middle of summer? It was in the remarkably rich residential neighborhood of The Broadmoor Resort on the south side of Colorado Springs. Surely the well-heeled residents could afford better equipment than this—and would never litter their own streets with this kind of detritus.
If you thought about it for a while, it actually began to make some sense. . It was obvious that the skate had been there—undisturbed—for a while. It lay not far from the old Broadmoor World Arena—converted from an outdoor riding stable in 1938 and home to the Broadmoor Skating Club—known as a major force throughout the International figure skating community
Young skaters (young women in particular) came from all over the country to train here under the watchful eye of world-renowned figure skating coach, Carlo Fassi. The year was 1969 and up until that time the USA had yet to put forth it’s first female figure skating star—or at least one who was recognized around the country and the globe.
That was certainly part of the allure for Gretchen, a high school girl who had moved to Colorado Springs from upstate New York with her mother in order to train with the great Carlo Fassi. Why else would someone travel the almost 1,600 miles across country to a place where they knew no one?
There was no question that Gretchen was good. You simply didn’t get to train with Fassi unless you were among the very best. Being good, however, wasn’t good enough. Fassi only worked with the elite, and the training Gretchen sought came at a high price. It wasn’t just pulling up roots and separating a family that was a challenge. And it wasn’t simply a matter of financial hardship either—although that was certainly part of the equation. There were other factors that tested the resolve of a teenaged girl in pursuit of Olympic dreams.
Gretchen never really experienced high school in the same way that most girls her age had. She went to a fairly large high school in Colorado Springs, where the average income of the parents was mind-boggling to most middle class Americans. And while there was no shortage of activities for the privileged students, Gretchen was rarely able to take advantage of them. She was up every morning at 4 a.m. in order to be on the ice at 5 o’clock. She’d train for two and a half hours, shower, and then head to class. As soon as school was over, she’d head back to the ice arena for more practice. Then it was home to do homework and get to bed so she could do it again the next morning.
Here weekends were spoken for as well. When she wasn’t training, she’d be at competitions somewhere around the country. After all, if you wanted to be the best, you had to compete against the best. And that’s what she did, week after week. It didn’t leave much room for socializing. Dances and pep rallies and hanging out with friends weren’t going to get her to the Olympics. But all of her hard work was slowly beginning to pay off.
Fassi’s reputation wasn’t built on smoke and mirrors. He got results. Gretchen and a couple of her colleagues began doing things that women in figure skating had never done on the ice before. They were working on jumps and moves that had previously been restricted to the domain of their male companions. In fact, it was generally “accepted” (obviously, not by all) that women simply couldn’t do some of the jumps. They simply lacked the physical ability and skill to pull them off.
Under the maniacal tutelage of Carlo Fassi, however, Gretchen and her training colleague, Peggy, progressed beyond what many thought was possible. In fact, in preparation for the 1968 Olympic Winter Games in Grenoble, Gretchen was the first woman to successfully land a double axel in competition. The competition wasn’t an Olympic trial, so her accomplishment received little attention. Still, a significant barrier had been broken.
Even though all the years of hard work and sacrifice were paying off, Gretchen pressed on, pushing herself in training to do more and to do it better. She’d learned that you could never rest on your laurels—because there was always somebody waiting in the wings waiting to take your spot. And she knew the Olympics were waiting. She had to be at the top of her game to compete.
Then six weeks before the opening of the Games in Grenoble—while Gretchen was pushing herself in practice—she suffered a horrendous fall. The pain was excruciating, and she knew from the expressions of those who raced out onto the ice to help her that things were bad. She hardly needed the confirmation of the orthopedic surgeon to tell her that her knee was torn apart beyond repair. In the blink of an eye, her skating career was over.
Gretchen never made it to Grenoble. Instead, like everyone else, she watched the games on television and stared through tears as her training companion, Peggy Fleming took the gold medal in women’s figure skating—becoming the first universally loved American figure skating star. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Peggy was beautiful, composed, and exceptionally talented. Still, the thoughts of what she might have done haunted Gretchen.
After recovering (as much as that was possible), Gretchen returned the old Broadmoor World Arena to clear out her locker. Before, she’d been able to tolerate the dingy setting and the smells of a locker room as the price she had to pay for the glory that was to come. Now the place just depressed her.
The ice held nothing but pain for her now. Years spent in isolation had left her without friends or any kind of support network. The high school she had attended was nothing but a building to her. The people she knew couldn’t begin to understand the death of a dream that had driven her for years. As she drove through the residential streets surround the old arena, her fury rose and she grabbed one of her old practice skates and hurled it out the car window. It was a farewell—not just to the arena—but to skating forever.
She began to detest anything and everything that reminded her of the rigid discipline and structure of the skating world. They were reminders of her failure. Desperate to leave that all behind, Gretchen left town and drove to Arkansas where she joined the infamous Dragon Wagon Commune and spent several years living a life that was as far from the world of figure skating as she could get. There were no rules. There was no schedule. There was no measuring yourself against what you’d done yesterday.
Drugs eased the pain somewhat, but they could never get the dream—or the price it had exacted—out of her head. Even the birth of her first child (she wasn’t even sure who the father was) didn’t make the past go away.
Years later, she finally returned to Colorado Springs. But the old World Arena was torn down—replaced by a brand new facility south of town, with far better amenities (and no soul whatsoever). She never found that old skate by the side of the road, and she never stepped on the ice again.