"I remember standing on top of the podium and thinking,… (Getty Images )
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — - Five months before the U.S. hockey team's "Miracle on Ice" Olympic performance transformed a sheet of ice into a sports icon, 65 figure skaters tested their skills and built their dreams in an international competition that became known as Skate America.
For Scott Hamilton, it marked his first international gold medal. For Peter and Kitty Carruthers, it boosted their fledgling career as a pairs team after a rocky start. For Lisa-Marie Allen, the win was one of the few times she stood higher on the podium than some better-known women.
The only U.S. event on the six-stop Grand Prix circuit, Skate America gives fans here a chance to see competitors fine-tuning their programs before the national championships in January select the team going to the Winter Games.
"Skate America is very important to us. You want to represent your country and have U.S. skaters on top of the podium," said Bel Air's Kimmie Meissner, the 2007 winner who is sidelined with a knee injury this season. "You can feel the crowd pulling for you and wanting you to do an awesome performance."
This was supposed to be the event at which 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen showed she had shaken off the rust after three years spent on acting projects and ice shows. But injuries continue to hobble her - this time tendinitis in her right calf - forcing her to withdraw Monday and increasing doubts she'll be at nationals to continue her quest for a third Olympic appearance.
As Skate America marks its 30th anniversary this week, Olympic puzzles remain for U.S. Figure Skating leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Games: Is reigning world champion Evan Lysacek ready to add Olympic gold to his resume? Do ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto have the formula to improve on their 2006 silver medal? Can any woman derail South Korea's Kim Yu-Na on her way to the gold medal?
The same types of questions existed in September 1979 before the start of competition.
"If we had been in a high school yearbook with a 'most likely to succeed' and 'least likely to succeed,' we would have been much closer to least likely," said Peter Carruthers, remembering the start of the season. "We were so green. ... Nothing was working. We were trying hard, but nothing was going particularly well."
Hamilton recalled "all kinds of training issues" tied to the fact that the 1980 Olympics and the rink at the Olympic Field House were still works in progress. "The lights wouldn't work. The music wouldn't come on. It was dark. It was cold."
But, as Allen recalled, "They had to have an international test of the facility before the Olympics, so they were testing things as much as we were."
Despite the construction and glitches, all three skaters recalled being taken with the Olympic atmosphere in Lake Placid, which also played host to the 1932 Winter Games.
"That wasn't lost on Kitty and I," Peter Carruthers said. "There's just such an incredible presence of history. ... The remnants of the ski jump were behind the rink, and the speed-track oval was in front of the high school next to the rink. There's no place like it."
The athletes knew that a great performance at Skate America - then known as Norton Skate, after a Massachusetts manufacturer of the same name - might help propel them onto the Olympic team and a trip back to Lake Placid.
"Skate America was hugely important," Hamilton said. "The game plan going in was to make a case. Scott Cramer, David Santee and I were ranked 2, 3, 4 in the U.S. I had to beat one of those two American guys to be taken seriously."
For Allen, the competition started well.
"I won compulsory figures, an oddity because I had a reputation of not being able to skate cleanly. The short program, I don't remember, but I must have been good enough. I fell on the triple salchow in the long program, but it must have been good enough to win," she said, laughing.
Standing atop the podium "was such an unfamiliar place for me because I was usually second. Unfortunately, it never happened again," said Allen, who finished fifth at the 1980 Olympics.
Hamilton was middle of the pack in compulsories, moved up a few notches in the short program and took the free skate "by a lot," he recalled.
Peter Carruthers praised Ron Ludington, longtime coach at the University of Delaware and member of the International Figure Skating Hall of Fame, for taking control of his and Kitty's career and turning things around after a "nothing great" finish at nationals in January 1979. The pair went to Europe for the start of the season and won the Coupe des Alpes in late August, followed by the Nebelhorn Trophy.
"We knocked off the Soviets and then went to Skate America and won silver. That put us on our way," Peter Carruthers said. "We made the Olympic team at nationals in Atlanta and then came back to Lake Placid for the Olympics."
The brother-sister team placed fifth at the 1980 Winter Games, added a second silver medal at Skate America in 1981 and took silver at the 1984 Olympics, the same year Hamilton captured the gold medal.
"The memories are wonderful and specific," said Hamilton of Skate America. "I remember standing on top of the podium and thinking, 'I've got to start winning more because the view is amazing.' I really turned some heads in that competition. From that point on, I had to be taken seriously."