Curry's state of grace

Kimmie Meissner (practicing in St. Paul) was run through precision training based on principles of world champ John Curry.
Kimmie Meissner (practicing in St. Paul) was run through precision training based on principles of world champ John Curry. (AP photo)
He is mostly a memory, his grace and artistry lost to recent generations of figure skaters.

But while John Curry's gold-medal performances have been relegated to YouTube and an occasional 1976 Olympic retrospective, his approach to skating remains. Few have embraced it more than Kimmie Meissner, the U.S. champion who begins the defense of her title tonight.

Nearly all members of Team Meissner are disciples of Curry: coach Pam Gregory, choreographer Lori Nichol and artistic coach Nathan Birch. And there are others - notably Dorothy Hamill and her longtime choreographer, Tim Murphy - who have spread the gospel of precision and interpretation.

"When Dorothy purchased Ice Capades, we taught John's skating class to over 1,000 students, many of whom are teaching it to their own students. Tim and I joke that it's like Meadow in a Can," says Birch, referring to the packaged wildflower seed mixture popular a decade ago. "That's how his influence continues."

Buying into the Curry method requires attention to the details, drilling the basics until they are second nature and making sure skate edges are deep and clean and curves are well-defined, Birch says.

Meissner remembers back five years, when she thought sessions with Gregory were drudgery.

"She had me do edges and stroking. No jumps. I didn't like it, not at all. I was like, 'Let's jump,' and she would shake her head no and say, 'I need to see crossovers in a circle,' " Meissner recalls. "Now, I'm really glad I got that training, because that's what you rely on when you're out there on the ice all by yourself."

The other benefit to having everyone fluent in Curry-speak is that it makes it easier to concentrate, she says.

"Sometimes, it's really hard to hear a bunch of different opinions," Meissner says. "It's like, 'All right, which one should I listen to?' I've always been the kind of person to have one, solid thing."

Nichol, who has designed Meissner's programs for the past four years, agrees.

"It's good to listen to other voices and explore. Everyone you work with makes you better," Nichol says. "But once you lock in on a season, it's good to be of one mind. I know when I work with Kimmie that Pam's going to know how to teach it and Nathan's going to know what I'm striving for."

For all his influence, Curry remains an enigma, a private, troubled man. A member of the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame, he died in 1994 at his mother's home from an AIDS-related heart attack.

He began skating at 7 after his father denied him ballet lessons. After a seventh-place finish at the 1974 world championships, Curry moved from England to Colorado and worked with legendary coaches Carlo Fassi and Gustave Lussi.

In 1976, at age 26, Curry put it all together to win the European, Olympic and world titles. Three days after Curry won gold, Hamill did, too.

Of his Olympic performance, two-time gold medalist Dick Button praised Curry as "the finest classicist I have ever seen."

Birch says Curry "wanted to win the Olympics so badly so that he could use it as a steppingstone to do what he wanted to do."

After retiring from competition, Curry formed skating companies that practiced his ballet-inspired style. Birch, Murphy and Nichol were members of the John Curry Skating Co., appearing in venues such as New York's Metropolitan Opera House and London's Albert Hall, sometimes with Hamill as guest star.

"He made skating more than just a sporting event. He wanted it to be an art," Nichol recalls. "His approach was based on the rules of composition. Every day before rehearsal, we went through a series of exercises that trained us on every edge, every turn. It was a ballet on ice."

With encouragement from Curry in the late 1980s, Birch and Murphy formed The Next Ice Age and based it in Baltimore. One of the original cast members was Gregory, who skated with Curry during a televised New Year's Eve performance.

Nichol wonders whether Curry's artistic approach is incompatible with today's scoring system.

"I don't think John would be a big fan, because they pack too much in to allow true interpretation of the music," she says. "The required steps and spins take up so much of the program that the art of skating has trouble coming through."

But Button, an NBC figure skating analyst, takes another view.

"Artistry always lasts," he says. "John Curry's style was elegant, pristine, pure and classical," he says. "Is that too old-school? The best is still the best."

Foes to watch:

Skaters other than Kimmie Meissner who could challenge for the U.S. title:

Rachael Flatt, 15: A former pairs skater, this is her second nationals at the senior level. Still learning, but could surprise.

Miari Nagasu, 14: Won junior nationals last year and finished second at junior worlds. Fluid, with great jumps.

Ashley Wagner, 16: First appearance at senior nationals. Powerful, with great stamina and poise.

Caroline Zhang, 14: After winning junior worlds and the junior Grand Prix Final, she is this year's one to pay attention to and shares an agent with Michelle Kwan.

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