Commentary

A skating legend finally gets his due

Updated: February 19, 2010, 4:07 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Frank Carroll, beset by admirers, moved gingerly through the hallway in the bowels of the Pacific Coliseum after the medals had been awarded in Olympic men's figure skating, carrying a pair of Evan Lysacek's sneakers. People approached him, literally tugging at his sleeve, telling him how glad they were, asking him to pose for a photo.

"Thank you, thank you," Carroll said hoarsely. And then, softly, to no one in particular: "Oh my god, I can't believe it."

One man in a suit and tie pardoned himself as he extended his hand. "I am Russian, but congratulations," said Alexander Kuznetsov, one of two officials who run the video replay machine for the judges at the competition.

[+] EnlargeEvan Lysacek
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesFrank Carroll, right, won his first gold medal as a coach Thursday night, thanks to Evan Lysacek.

The scoring that gave Lysacek a victory over Russia's Evgeni Plushenko may be forever debated, but there was at least one unadulterated lovefest. Most everyone in the sport couldn't help but be happy for the debonair Carroll. At age 71, after coaching three skaters to seven world championships and three to the Olympic podium, two of whom -- Linda Fratianne in 1980 and Michelle Kwan in 1998 -- came achingly close to the top step, Carroll witnessed one of his pupils strike Olympic gold at last.

Carroll has coached in 10 editions of the Winter Games, but last Friday he marched in the opening ceremonies for the first time, courtesy of a last-minute vacancy in the U.S. delegation. His head of white hair stood out as it bobbed among the young athletes. When it was suggested to him that taking part in the ritual may have been his lucky charm, he rolled his eyes.

"I'm never doing it again," he said. "It took such wear and tear out of my body. We stood like this [hugging his arms to his sides to indicate being sardined] for four hours in a tunnel, and it was like 80 degrees, and we had on a cashmere cable-knit sweater and a jacket. It was grueling."

He probably meant it, but the answer was also vintage Carroll, deflecting self-seriousness and clichéd sentimentality with self-effacing, dry humor. On Thursday, he downplayed his own skill and said talented athletes simply seem to gravitate toward him. That may be true, but it's because he has a long history of putting skaters into the right orbit.

"Oh well, you know, I gave up on having an Olympic gold medalist a long time ago," he said, surrounded by a group of American reporters, when asked whether Lysacek's accomplishment represented the fulfillment of his own dream as well. "And so this is just frosting on the cake for me. It was not something I coveted after a while. It was something I thought maybe would never happen. I'm just grateful."

Then he corrected himself slightly. "I didn't give up," Carroll said. "It's just that I felt I shouldn't think about it. For me, it was better to let the chips fall and not think about, 'Oh, I've got to have an Olympic gold medalist.'"

Perhaps Carroll hasn't thought about it, but Lysacek is the latest in a series of his skaters who has, despite Carroll's exhortations not to. How could the milestone be far from the 24-year-old Lysacek's mind when, as he pointed out, Carroll has been at this game "for more years than I've been alive"?

"When I first heard the final results, he was the first person I thought of," Lysacek said. "He was standing right behind me.

"He's taught me everything about being an athlete and being competitive, about respecting the rules of the sport and those who have come before me. … You can't win until you learn how, and he taught me how. And I think most of my performances are 99 percent him and 1 percent me.

"If you could only have seen him by my side today, whispering in my ear every 30 seconds and telling me exactly what to think. And when he could see a doubt creep in, he would come back over and tell me what to think. He made me believe I could skate perfectly at the Olympics, both short and long programs."

Carroll has been through every imaginable hard knock his demanding yet flighty sport can deliver, from capricious judges to temperamental skaters, from bungled jumps that may seem tragic at the time to the very real tragedy of losing his beloved coach, Maribel Vinson-Owen, in the plane crash that claimed the lives of the 1961 U.S. figure skating team.

On Thursday, he credited Vinson-Owen with showing him it was best to ignore the gossip, posturing and finger-pointing endemic to this high-profile sport that, try as it might, cannot rid itself of subjectivity in judging. Some revel in the sideshow, but Carroll considers it a draining distraction.

"Evan and I have agreed that we would never respond and get mentally caught up in things that were controversies," Carroll said. "That's kind of my philosophy. Do your thing well. There's not much you can do about what's going on around you. and you can't get caught up when words fly back and forth.

"[Vinson-Owen] taught me that. She taught me to take responsibility for whatever I did in life. And that's a lesson I've tried to [give] Evan, is -- don't blame anybody for the results. Not the judges, not the skates, not your coach. What you do out there is what you've earned, and you accept that responsibility."

Carroll, in turn, has been a mentor to other coaches, including Colorado-based Tom Zakrajsek, who considers him a father figure and asked Carroll to stand up for him at his wedding. Both have skaters in the upcoming Olympic ladies' competition, Carroll with Mirai Nagasu and Zakrajsek with U.S. champion Rachael Flatt.

Zakrajsek, a former competitive skater who studied journalism and toyed with going into that field, said last week that Carroll's guidance has been crucial in his development as a coach.

"He took me under his wing and said, 'Here's how to do things,'" Zakrajsek said. "He's just always been really honest with me and helped me understand how to get to the top, how to sort through the riffraff."

In 2003, Zakrajsek said, he was faltering in his resolve when Carroll sat him down. "He said, 'You have to have a vision of what you want, as opposed to what [a skater's] parents or anyone else wants.' It was a good talking-to, and it turned things around for me."

Carroll doesn't seek out publicity, but he is honest with the media, which is why there is always a scrum of reporters looking for him after one of his skaters comes off the ice. In one of his few exceptions to the no-blame-game rule, he recently told The New York Times that he still considers the 1980 Olympic competition, in which Fratianne finished second, to have been rigged against her by vote-trading judges.

Yet he eschewed any crowing after Lysacek's victory. "I don't think there was a message [the judges] were trying to send out there that you don't have to do the quad [jump]," Carroll said. "No, I don't think that at all."

Carroll still teaches with his skates on, as opposed to giving directions from behind the boards. That's emblematic of his real secret -- his enduring passion for his work, according to the last man to win Olympic gold as reigning world champion, NBC commentator Scott Hamilton.

"He loves seeing somebody improve," Hamilton said. "He loves being there for someone and giving them perspective and giving them quality and giving them technical knowledge and massaging everything he can to bring them to their highest level. He's been able to do that for so many skaters: make them better than they've ever been and possibly better than they ever could have been with anybody else."

Even though Olympic gold eluded Carroll's pupils for so long, Hamilton said he never doubted it would happen.

"With somebody of that integrity, that quality and that knowledge, it was only a matter of time," he said.

Lysacek didn't have the quad, but he may have had something infinitely more important on his side: someone who believed a different kind of mastery might take the day, and made him believe it, too.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.