Karen Preston is back in the very place where her career began some 28 years ago - on the ice at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club.
As a budding 9-year-old skater Preston trained at the venue under the watchful eye of her first coach Wally Distelmeyer. It would be her training base for the next 14 years.
After living in the U. S. for a number of years, Preston moved back to Canada in 2005. “I was just going to be a mommy but after about six weeks of no skating in my life I just called people and said ‘hey I miss it, I need to come back,’” she said.
Preston did a few seminars at the Cricket Club over the summer and joined the coaching staff last September. “I was watching what Brian (Orser) and Tracy (Wilson) were doing at the club and saw all the positives. They have developed a positive, encouraging atmosphere here.”
Little did she know three months later she would be mentoring and co-coaching one of the sport’s most gifted athletes, America’s Adam Rippon.
Preston is excited about attending her first competition with the reigning World Junior and Junior Grand Prix champion. She will mentor Rippon at the 2009 U.S. Figure Skating Championships next week.
“Brian Orser, (Rippon’s official coach) has another commitment and cannot go with him so he suggested me. I have U.S. Citizenship so that makes it easy,” she said. “I think Brian learned a lot from his coach Doug Leigh about team teaching – Doug was ahead of his time that way.”
In her early teens Preston began training with the late Osborne Colson. “He took me from novice to my second year in senior,” Preston said. “What I remember the most about Ossie is that he was always trying to bring out that extra bit of panache, that flair in his skaters before there was a system that was heavily weighted in artistry. I think Ossie was ahead of the game in developing programs that were creative and artistic.”
In 1989, at age 17, she claimed her first national title at her debut in the senior ranks. Figures were not her forte but her 8th place in that portion of the event was a blip on her radar. She won the short and long programs and walked away with the gold medal.
“When I was 18 I began training under Ellen Burka who took me to my second national title and the Olympics. I felt it was time for a different voice, a different direction Ellen was just what I needed at the time. I’ve run the gamut of great Canadian coaches,” Preston said with a laugh
She repeated as national champion in 1992 and earned a berth to the Winter Games in Albertville, France where she placed eighth.
Preston remains the only female competitor in Canadian skating history to win national titles under two different judging systems – one that included compulsory figures and one that did not. Kurt Browning is the only men’s competitor to claim that honor.
Preston won the bronze medal at the 1994 national championships but failed to make the Olympic team. She knew it was time to quit the amateur ranks. “The team was chosen and I unfortunately did not make it,” she said. “I was 22 at the time and it was another four years before the next Olympic Games. In those days 26 was unheard of to be continuing in the amateur ranks. I had done my thing. I had won two national titles, been to Worlds and Olympics – it was time to move on.”
Preston was prepared to retire and become a broadcast journalist but an unexpected offer to take on the starring role as Snow White on the Disney on Ice tour changed her mind.
“I did that for three years. It redeveloped my love for skating and reminded me of why I started when I was six,” she recalled. “It sounds very cliché but the wind in your face, the sound of the crunching ice, the applause of the audience and no judging panel to assess whether I had been successful. Instead, there were just the smiling faces of the people in the audiences. During those three years on the tour I rediscovered my love for the sport.”
She toured the world with Disney. “I spent seven months in Korea and Japan. We toured Mexico, Peurto Rico, the USA and Canada,” she said. “I decided to leave the tour when it transferred to Europe.”
Preston said that during those years she and a couple of the other principal skaters taught edge classes to other cast members.
“I continued to foster the coaching role that I began here at the Cricket Club,” she said. “Starting in 1990 the CFSA (now Skate Canada) allowed us to do some coaching as long as the money went into a trust fund. The director here at the time, Doug Haw, allowed me to teach CanSkate classes and some young children.”
In 1997 she moved to Simsbury, Conn. and began coaching at the International Skating Centre of Connecticut. “I was there for a year and then I went to Spain to do some professional skating shows."
She returned to the U.S. and spent two and a half years working with pre-novice skaters at the RDV Sports Complex in Florida where Patrick Chan and Don Laws are currently based.
Preston met her husband Gary Wilson while on the Elvis Stojko tour in the 1990s. “It is actually due to Uschi Keszler and Irene Stojko that we met because neither of us was interested in a relationship at the time,” Preston admitted.
The couple married on December 15, 2000. They are the proud parents of daughter Lindsay who will be 5 in February and Ryan who will be 2 in May.
“Gary and his partner run a theatrical lighting design company, Hungry at Dawn Inc.,” Preston said “He is presently in Japan with Stars on Ice and his company does the lighting for a lot of television shows, movies and IMG skating events.
Looking back, Preston reflected on some of the highlights in her career. “Aside from winning the national titles in 1989 and 1992, there have been tons of special moments,” she said.
“I remember stepping out onto the ice and into the TV lights as a novice lady at the 1987 Canadian Championships and being awestruck by the size of the building and the crowd. It was my first national championships. It was a special moment.
“And years later, I remember as I was cutting through the Olympic emblem and the Olympic rings during the spiral sequence in my short program at the 1992 Olympics that it actually dawned on me that this is the Olympics!”
But Preston said that perhaps the most memorable moments have been off ice. “Some of the greatest memories I have are in the friendships I have made during my journey,” she said. “It is the relationships and those friendships that have lasted the course of time.”
Orser is one of those long-standing friendships. “Brian was a child hero, a mentor, then a friend and now a co-worker so it has been decades that in some format he has been involved in my life via skating,” Preston said.
“I think I have been blessed with being exposed and surrounded by people, from the very beginning, who chose skating as a career because they loved it,” she said. “I think that really set the course for what I do now. I had other options. I was an educated skater. I went to university. To be exposed to such wonderful role models and to work with them now as a colleague is a dream come true.”