Frank Carroll: At 80, he retires from a "frozen life" of transcendent coaching success in figure skating

  A happy Frank Carroll after Olympic champion Evan Lysacek presented him with the Order of Ikkos medal at the 2010 Winter Games.  "He owns just as much or more of my Olympic gold medal as I do," Lysacek said.  (Getty Images)

A happy Frank Carroll after Olympic champion Evan Lysacek presented him with the Order of Ikkos medal at the 2010 Winter Games.  "He owns just as much or more of my Olympic gold medal as I do," Lysacek said.  (Getty Images)

It was the middle of 1964, and 26-year-old Frank Carroll was in San Francisco at a career crossroads.

He had done college, getting a degree in 1960 from the College of the Holy Cross in his native Worcester, Mass., with a major in sociology and Dean’s List grades.  He had done competitive skating, with national junior singles bronze medals in 1959 and 1960.  He had done show skating, spending four and one-half years with Ice Follies before leaving the show with plans to attend the University of San Francisco Law School, which had accepted him, then deciding he did not want to start academic studies again.

Over the years with Ice Follies, which was styled like an elaborate Broadway review, Carroll had made friends with many actors in musicals like “Kismet,” “Carousel” and “Hello, Dolly.”  One suggested he go to Los Angeles, where friends could help get him work in films.  He went.

“I would go to auditions, and when they would ask what I did, I said, `I ice skate,’’’ Carroll said.  “I was like a joke to them.”

But he was handsome, with a physique buffed in the gym, and that got Carroll parts as a “body person” in three of the eminently forgettable beach movies of the mid-1960s (think “Beach Blanket Bingo,” although Carroll declines to identify which movies he was in or what his stage name was.)  He would stand among a group of other “body people” in the background and sometimes sing with the group.

There would be months between film shoots, leaving Carroll to spend his days hanging at the gym or going to the beach until, as he puts it, “I got bored with this ridiculousness.”

A friend who had photographed Carroll at skating competitions suggested he might fill the down time as a skating teacher.  After all, he had done some coaching as a Holy Cross undergrad to help pay his school and skating bills and done some more coaching after graduation.  The photographer connected Carroll with a rink in the Los Angeles suburb of Van Nuys, where he began working in the 1965/66 skating season.

By 1968, Carroll was coach of a medalist at the national championships.  A year later, he had his first national champion:  Jimmy Demogines in the novice men’s division.  In 1972, he coached Olympic team alternate Robert Bradshaw. In 1976, he coached his first Olympian, Linda Fratianne.

Over the next 40 years, Carroll would become the most successful coach in the United States.

He coached Michelle Kwan, the most decorated U.S. woman skater of the last 50 years, through most of her star-studded career of multiple world titles, U.S. titles and Olympic medals.

He coached Evan Lysacek, the most decorated U.S. men’s skater of the 21st Century, to all of his many senior career highlights, including Olympic and world titles.

He coached Christopher Bowman, whom Carroll feels could have been “the best skater of all time if he had been interested in that instead of girls and being a showman.”

  Frank Carroll gives Michelle Kwan some final advice before her triumphant free skate at the 1996 World Championships.  (Getty Images)

Frank Carroll gives Michelle Kwan some final advice before her triumphant free skate at the 1996 World Championships.  (Getty Images)

He coached one Olympic champion, six Olympic medalists and 11 Olympians from five countries at 10 Olympics.  He coached three world champions, three world junior champions and six U.S. champions.  He coached champions in the 6.0 scoring system before and after the end of compulsory figures, and he coached champions under the International Judging System.

He coached and taught skating 60 years, beginning as a 20-year-old and officially ending Friday, 23 days past his 80th birthday, with his retirement as a coach of elite skaters.

“For someone 80 years old to still be at it, still be teaching, is a testament to how devoted he is to the sport,” Lysacek said.  “I don’t know if there will ever be another Frank Carroll.”

Carroll might have kept going but for the demands of global travel with elite skaters and the fatigue of having a life in two places, Palm Springs and El Segundo, which are separated by 140 miles and an often miserable trip on crowded freeways.  His consultant’s contract with U.S. Figure Skating ended Tuesday, but he wants to continue working with USFS, and federation communications director Michael Terry said in an email, “The plan is to continue to keep Frank involved.”

Carroll plans to help a longtime friend, Scott Driscoll, with the coaching of one of Driscoll's singles skaters, 11-year-old August Perthus, at the Desert Ice Castle rink, less than 10 miles from Carroll’s Palm Springs home.  He has packed up his apartment in El Segundo, near the Toyota Sports Center rinks where he had worked for most of the last 15 years.

“I don’t feel 80,” Carroll said.  “It’s just a stupid number.  I’m perfectly capable of doing anything.  I’m not the slightest bit feeling like an old person.”

That attitude is why Carroll once rebuffed Kwan’s respectful insistence on calling him “Mister Carroll” when she came for a tryout.  She was 11, and he was 53.  He thought “Mister” was for old farts.  He was just Frank.

“He changed the lives of every skater and parent he came across,” Kwan said.  “I think he will never really retire.”

* * * * *

July was supposed to be a month of happy milestones for Frank Carroll.

There was the 80th birthday, which he had the good fortune to reach July 11 in excellent health, thanks in part to a daily regimen in the gym.  And his being able to end his career as a full-time coach on his own terms, with friends, colleagues and skaters toasting his retirement.

Instead it became a month in which Carroll would be relentlessly grieving.

First came the July 8 deaths of the actor Tab Hunter and the groundbreaking sports psychologist Ken Ravizza.

Hunter and Carroll had been friends for 60 years.  They had met through mutual friends in skating, including Carroll’s skating and life coach, Maribel Vinson Owen, who would die in the 1961 plane crash on the way to the World Championships that wiped out the elite – coaches and athletes – of U.S. skating.

Ravizza had helped many of Carroll’s skaters.

Then came the July 10th death of Steven Kramer, husband of skating coach Evelyn Muller Kramer, the woman known as the “spin doctor.”  She worked with Carroll and his skaters for more than four decades.

Finally, there was the murder of Kazakh figure skating icon Denis Ten, whom Carroll had coached from 2010 through the 2018 Olympics.  During that time, Ten won an Olympic bronze medal and two world championship medals, landmark skating achievements for his country.

On July 10, nine days before he died, Ten posted on Instagram a picture of himself and Carroll, with the caption, “Happy birthday to the man with whom I shared the best moments in my life.”  I had not seen the post until Carroll sent it to me this week.  I told Carroll it had made me cry.

“I have no more tears,” Carroll replied.

That is why it meant so much to Carroll that Gracie Gold, whom he coached four years, sent him a text of condolences about Ten.  The coach and skater have not talked since their bitter parting at the 2017 nationals.

“She said she knew we didn’t end our relationship on the best note but she wanted me to know how sorry and upset she was about Denis,” Carroll said.  “That was very nice of Gracie.  I texted her back to say thanks.”

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And that is why it meant so much to Carroll that Lysacek flew from New York to Los Angeles to have dinner with the coach last Friday.

“I wanted to celebrate his career and his birthday,” Lysacek said.  “People always say to me, `When you won all those events, you must have celebrated,’ but it was always just a quick champagne toast and then back to work.

“He deserves so much praise. I’m sad for the sport losing one of its most impactful figures, proud of the career he has had and honored to have been a small part of it.  He owns just as much or more of my Olympic gold medal as I do.”

Others were equally effusive in their praise, via text messages, emails or phone conversations with me.

From Canada’s Brian Orser, two-time Olympic silver medalist and coach of two Olympic singles champions:

“Frank has this ability to bring out poise, confidence and star quality from his athletes,” Orser texted.  “As a professional, all coaches want to be (or should be) like him.  I love to listen to his views on skating.  Many conversations may be about a book he is reading or music he likes.  I admire his perspective on skating and the balance of his life.”

From Linda Leaver, coach of Olympic champion Brian Boitano:

“He is an all-around great coach who considers the full scope of skating on a kid’s life,” Leaver said.  “He had one eye on the prize, and the other eye on the person.”

From 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton:

“Frank’s retirement means the end of an era in the world of figure skating coaching,” Hamilton wrote.  He showed many times that a coach can take a skater from their very first steps to an Olympic podium.  He weathered every storm with class, elegance and incredible quality.  He was passionate yet unflappable, instilling the qualities he experienced from the golden age of skating to create modern champions.”

From Russia’s Alexei Mishin, coach of Olympic champion (and 3-time singles medalist) Evgeny Plushenko.  (Mishin responded to me in the form of an email greeting to Carroll):

“Dear Frank,” Mishin wrote, “next year will be 50 years of my coaching life!  This is a reason why I precisely understand your great investment not only in our sport but in modern society.  With my big respect and best wishes.”

From 2002 Olympic bronze medalist Timothy Goebel, whom Carroll had unceremoniously dropped as a student in 2004 over differences about training approach after a four-season collaboration.  (The two since have reconnected as friends):

“Frank means a great deal to me.  He helped me achieve the greatest successes of my career, and for that I am eternally grateful,” Goebel wrote.  "What Frank and his team created over the years is remarkable, and I feel privileged to have been a part of it.  His impact on the sport – and the Olympics – is both impressive and enduring.  It’s hard to believe we will be going through this next Olympic quad without Frank."

  Dick Button, Linda Fratianne & Frank Carroll at the 1980 Olympics, where Fratianne won silver. (Getty images)

Dick Button, Linda Fratianne & Frank Carroll at the 1980 Olympics, where Fratianne won silver. (Getty images)

Beginning with Linda Fratianne in 1976, Carroll coached skaters at 10 of 12 Winter Olympics, missing only 1984 and 1994.  Both Fratianne (1980) and Kwan (1998) were favored to win, but both got silver.

Carroll nearly quit coaching after believing that an unsavory arrangement cost Fratianne the gold won by East Germany’s Anett Poetzsch in 1980.  (The alleged deal was to give Great Britain's Robin Cousins the men’s gold over East German Jan Hoffmann in return for the East German winning the women’s event.)

It would be years before Carroll would even speak again to Carlo Fassi, who coached Cousins.  But the brilliance of one of Carroll’s young students, Tiffany Chin, gave him incentive to continue.

Chin would win the 1981 world junior title at barely 13 years old,  But differences of opinion between Carroll and Chin’s mother led the coach to drop her before the skater went on to finish fourth in the 1984 Olympics and win the 1985 U.S. title.

And then Carroll got the irrepressible Bowman, who fought a losing battle with substance abuse during and after his career, dying of an accidental overdose at age 40.  The young man known as “Bowman the Showman” won one U.S. title and two world medals under Carroll, but there could have been so much more.

Ask Carroll if Bowman was the most gifted skater he coached, and his answer is, “Oh my God, yes.  He oozed natural talent – the turn of the head, the look of eye, the gestures of his arms, the posture of his landings.  The first time I showed him the moves in a triple loop, he immediately went out and landed it.

“I think of how well he skated even when he was in the gutter, the (bad) shape he was in and the things going on around him.  He had a supercharger button built in him.  He pressed it and just went.  No one was ever able to do that except Christopher.  He could abuse all the rules, abuse his body, have no discipline and still skate fabulous.”

Bowman and Carroll parted ways after the 1990 World Championships.  Barely a year later, Carroll began coaching an 11-year-old who would become his most famous athlete and, for more than 20 years, the most popular figure skater in the world.

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Linda Fratianne’s mother, Virginia, a skating judge, recommended Carroll look at Kwan, then competing as a junior, during the Pacific Coast Sectionals in autumn 1991.  Virginia Fratianne told Carroll that Kwan was thinking of training at Ice Castle in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., where Carroll then coached.

At that time, Kwan had no full-time coach because her family could not afford one.  With Virginia Fratianne’s encouragement and the potential of having the Ice Castle foundation help with expenses, she went for a tryout with Carroll, who had been impressed while watching her finishing third in those sectionals.

“I was so nervous,” Kwan recalled via telephone this week.  “I was thinking, `Here I am, 11 years old, this coach is too good for me, why would he want to coach me?’

“Over the years, I would see why.  He would get to the rink at 7 a.m. to coach a seven-year-old and dedicate himself with his full presence to that little skater as he would to a three-time world champion.

“He gave me the respect for the sport he brought to his work, day in and day out, whether he was sick or not,” Kwan continued.  “He asked me big questions about what I wanted in my career and then said, `I can help you get there, but you have to put in the effort and energy.’  It was always, `Do your run-throughs, don’t stop.’  That’s how I became more consistent.”

Carroll’s approach became examples of both do-as-I-say and do-as-I-do to his skaters.

“People would tell me, `You’ve got to motivate these kids,’ but a kid is either motivated or not,’’ Carroll said.  ``Those I taught who became champions always wanted it themselves.  I was along for the ride.  I helped but didn’t make anyone a champion.”

The ride with Kwan hit an unexpected bump less than four months before the 2002 Olympics.  After winning four world titles and five U.S. titles under Carroll’s tutelage, she decided to finish the 2002 Olympic season without a coach.  She explained the stunning move by saying, “I’ve made the decision I’m responsible for my own skating” and did not elaborate on it, then or later.

Carroll was taken by surprise.  “I’m in complete shock,” he said.  It would be several years before he both got over the split and also understood where Kwan had been coming from.

“You teach someone for 10 years, and they hear the same expressions, and you demand the same exercises, and after a while it must become tedious and monotonous,’’ Carroll said.  “It’s like, `I’d like to hear another voice other than this old man I’m tired of listening to.’’’

They have a good relationship now and, even in the heat of the difficult moment, the coach and skater remained cordial to each other.  “I never felt uncomfortable,” Kwan said.  “It was never like we exchanged nasty words.”  When they met backstage at the 2002 nationals, Carroll encouraged Kwan by saying, `You look good, you look strong.’’’  She then won her sixth of what would be nine U.S. titles.

“I loved Michelle, and I knew she loved me,’’ Carroll said.  “It’s like a divorce, and I never understood how when people get divorced, they have to hate each other.’’

Kwan fell to bronze at the 2002 Olympics after winning the short program.  Whether she might have won gold with Carroll still at her side remains a tantalizing question.  After all, as Kwan noted this week, among her most vivid memories of the decade working with Carroll was how he cut the tension before she took the ice at a competition by talking about books or playing a game to see whose hands were more still – and, therefore, less nervous.

“We were both very still,” Kwan said.  “He made those moments very easy and relaxed.”

After the disappointments of 1980 and 1998 and the end of his chances with Kwan for 2002, Carroll came to terms with the idea he might never have an Olympic champion.  Even after Lysacek won the 2009 world title in the absence of Plushenko, Carroll – and nearly everyone else – pegged the Russian as the 2010 Olympic favorite.

“Evan’s gold medal was basically a complete, utter, delightful shock,” Carroll said.  “It was the grandest thing in my career – the biggest event and the happiest because I didn’t dare think it would ever happen.”

Lysacek’s memories of the triumph focus on the moment at USA House – the U.S. Olympic Committee’s hospitality facility – when he presented Carroll, then 71, the Order of Ikkos medal.  Since 2008, that medal ceremony has been the USOC’s way of recognizing the coaches of each Olympic and Paralympic medalist.

“Of course I wanted to be the one that came through and allowed him to put that on his résumé,” Lysacek said.  “He had such tremendous skaters before me that easily could have been the one.  The fact it was me bonds us forever.  He always will be family to me.”

Lysacek was a talented skater with stagnating results when Carroll began coaching him in the fall of 2004.  A few months later, Lysacek was world bronze medalist – one of his three world medals, most by a U.S. man since 2001.  Carroll’s role in that transformation came at both competitions and practice.

“I was a very anxious competitor, but knowing you had Frank there with that level of experience behind you as you warmed up was a confidence booster,” Lysacek said.  “Nothing was going to rattle him; he’s not scared of anything or anybody.

“Knowing he had committed to guide my career forced me to step up.  I always felt an expectation to perform in practice every day.  He wasn’t an easy coach that let mistakes fly or let me off the hook if I wasn’t feeling well.

“But (the criticism) was never mean.  It was always pragmatic and constructive – not saying, `You have a problem’ but saying `How to we fix it?’  I never took offense.”

  Michelle Kwan and Frank Carroll exult as the free skate marks come up (two would be perfect 6.0s) at what the coach considers the standout performance of her career: "Salome" at the 1996 World Championships.  (Screenshot from ESPN)

Michelle Kwan and Frank Carroll exult as the free skate marks come up (two would be perfect 6.0s) at what the coach considers the standout performance of her career: "Salome" at the 1996 World Championships.  (Screenshot from ESPN)

Ask Carroll which performances by his athletes stand out the most, and the first two he cited are by skaters with whom his working relationship fractured: Kwan’s “Salome” free skate to win the 1996 worlds (“It’s a beautifully skated and interpreted program that stands the test of time, and she was a baby (15) when she did that”) and Gold’s “Firebird” free skate to win the 2016 national title (“Polina Edmunds skated so fabulously before her.  Gracie had to be better, and she was.”)

(Carroll’s standout performances among the men he coached are Lysacek’s “Scheherazade” to win the Olympic gold and Ten’s short and long programs to “The Artist” to win silver at the 2013 worlds.)

  Scott Brown, Gracie Gold and Frank Carroll after Gold's triumphant free skate at the 2014 U.S. Championships.  (Getty Images)

Scott Brown, Gracie Gold and Frank Carroll after Gold's triumphant free skate at the 2014 U.S. Championships.  (Getty Images)

Carroll always has been blunt and forthright, unafraid to criticize skaters publicly, no matter that his words sometimes upset those fans whose feeling that skaters be treated like Dresden dolls belittles their toughness and resilience as athletes.  For those of us in the media, Carroll’s frank honesty made him a go-to interview.

“I always opened my big mouth and said what I thought,” Carroll said.  “A lot of times I took flak from the association or from skaters and agents.  I didn’t really give a damn.

“Maribel Vinson taught me to take responsibility for all I do in my life, not to blame anybody for anything.  In my dealings with parents, with skaters, with associations, I have always done that.  What I have done and said is my responsibility, and I stand behind it.”

* * * * *

Whenever I saw Carroll at a competition, the first thing I did was check out the book he was carrying (he always was carrying one.)  He favored history and historical fiction, including substantial works like Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall,” the Man Booker prize winner about the rise of Thomas Cromwell, and Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage,” about the opening of the American West.

Carroll considered it part of his job to help fill in gaps in skaters’ educations, which often were compromised by the demands of the sport, whether it was talking to them about world history or the history of their sport.  He would often quiz them on both.

“He showed me `Undaunted Courage’ and said, `This is what you need!’’’ Kwan recalled with a laugh.  “He opened my eyes to the world.  Wherever we traveled, he was always curious.”

At the 1998 Olympics, Carroll talked about an epiphany he had while sitting in the Jules Verne restaurant on the second level of the Eiffel Tower.  It suddenly hit him just how far the kid who once skated on frozen ponds in an old Massachusetts mill town had come.  He had traveled the world, owned fancy cars and homes in Palm Springs, where he will retire, and Los Angeles. 

What then, would he like to have come to mind when people say “Frank Carroll” 20 years from now.

“He led a frozen life,” Carroll deadpanned.

The coach seemed to be trying not to aggrandize his place in the sport’s history, a futile effort for a man in four of his sport’s Halls of Fame: World Figure Skating, U.S. Figure Skating, Ice Skating Institute and Professional Skaters Association.  A big reason why he has earned such hallowed stature is his life never was frozen in time.

“Frank was old school meets modern and new school, very adaptable,” Kwan said.  “He made the transition from Linda in the 70s and Christopher in the 80s to the 90s and 2000s.  He was relevant throughout.”

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(Correction:  An earlier version of this story misspelled the maiden name of Frank Carroll's coach.  It is Vinson.  Apologies for the error.)