Last time, the stars were Peggy Fleming, Janet Lynn and Gary Visconti.
Their outfits were made of wool and jersey, with the men in nearly identical suits, the ladies in long-sleeve skating dresses.
Figure skating was riding a surge in popularity — and the U.S. program was finally rebuilding after one of the biggest sports tragedies in the country's history.
Omahans, getting their first chance to see the best skaters in the country compete for gold, turned out in droves. By the final weekend of the 1967 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the 6,100-seat Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum was sold out, and people were advertising for tickets in the newspaper.
“At that time, this was a huge deal,” recalled Omahan Gilbert Larson, who attended the event. “I mean, nationals? In a town like Omaha?”
Forty-six years later, the city is getting a second chance to host the country's biggest skating event. And according to the people who saw it happen the first time, this competition will feature much of the same glamour, excitement and athletic skill — but with some notable changes in both the city and the sport.
In 1967, visiting skaters who ventured to the riverfront north of downtown would have found themselves in the middle of a rail yard-turned-metals refinery. It would be more than three decades until it became the major arena and convention center that will host this year's championships. In those days, if you were headed to a concert, hockey game or figure skating competition, the destination was the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum.
Since the late 1930s, the facility had been home to the Figure Skating Club of Omaha. The group was as much a social club as a sports organization, attracting members of all ages and occupations who would turn out for group skating and ice dancing sessions. Young skaters would spend hours there, perfecting their technique.
Joan Brejnik, now 77, remembers relishing the quiet of the rink for early morning practices before she'd head to school.
“My dad would drop me off, and I'd walk down the full length of Ak-Sar-Ben, lift up the curtain, turn on the lights, and skate by myself for a while,” she said.
But when the national championships came to town, the Coliseum, which was located in what now is Aksarben Village, was far from quiet.
Unlike current championships, which are organized by U.S. Figure Skating and professional local sports authorities (in this case, the Omaha Sports Commission), the event was the responsibility of the local skating club. That meant almost everybody was put to work.
Another former club member, Joan Lubischer, recalled that a local car dealer with a daughter involved in skating provided the transportation for visiting athletes. Lubischer said she set up tables with refreshments for the competitors: water and lemons.
Some of the skaters, she said, weren't sure if this small Midwestern city could pull off a big skating event.
“I remember the skaters were a little leery of coming to Omaha, Neb.,” she said. “And they were absolutely astounded at the wonderful ice we had.”
So many years later, memories are hazy for some of the competition's top finishers. Most are in their mid-60s. But several said they recall Omaha as a big steppingstone in their skating careers — and a significant step for a sport that had been devastated just a few years earlier.
In 1961, a plane carrying the country's 18-member team to the World Championships in Czechoslovakia crashed in a field in Belgium. All the skaters died, along with 16 of their coaches and family members and 39 other people. Many of the skaters were in their teens, just beginning promising careers.
Some followers of the sport thought it would take years, maybe a decade, before the United States again had enough talent to be competitive at the Olympics.
Ronald Kauffman, a pairs skater who took gold in Omaha with his sister, Cynthia, said just about everyone in skating at the time had a connection to someone who died in the crash. His first coach was on board, along with her two children.
In a phone call from his home near Dallas, Kauffman choked up as he talked about the loss.
“It was difficult for us,” he said. “I think we were out there trying to represent what (the skaters killed in the crash) had started.”
By the winter of 1967, with one year to go before the Winter Games in Grenoble, France, the Americans were poised for an impressive comeback.
Peggy Fleming, then 18, already had three national titles under her belt.
“It was trying to keep that momentum going and aiming toward the Olympics,” Fleming said from her home in Northern California, where she is an artist. “To see how you could handle the pressure, being consistent. ... It's very similar to what's going to be happening (in Omaha), because this is the nationals before the Olympic year. I think everyone is kind of seeing where they fit in and testing their nerve and trying to get noticed.”
Fleming got noticed, again, in the Omaha competition, winning the fourth of her five U.S. gold medals. She went on to be at the top of the podium in the 1968 Olympics.
Omaha also marked the start of a career for the woman who picked up where Fleming left off.
Janet Lynn, who won every ladies U.S. Figure Skating Championship between 1969 and 1973, skated at the senior level for the first time in Omaha. At just 13 years old, she placed fourth.
Though she was a serious contender for a medal, she remembers being a nervous, excited teen.
“I always thought, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm so honored to be on the ice with these people,'” she said from her home on the East Coast. “I wanted to try and be as good as they were.”
It was also the first senior national competition for John Misha Petkevich, a 17-year-old from Montana who placed fourth. He went on to compete in two Olympic Games, earned a Ph.D. in cell biology from the University of Oxford and later managed investment funds.
“I do recollect thinking, 'I'm going up against these guys, Tim Wood and Gary Visconti, that have been in there for a couple of years,'” he said by phone from Maryland. “And that was a new experience for me.”
Back then, Petkevich said, skating was a different game.
Today, skaters perform a short program with several required elements, and a longer free skate, each program set to music. In 1967, all the skaters were required to participate in compulsory figures.
One by one, skaters would have to show how well they could trace specific patterns on the ice. Later, they performed a free skate.
Under the old system, skaters trained differently. Nobody was doing quadruple jumps, but some of the veteran skaters say they think the figures requirement forced skaters to build a stronger skill set before moving on to the toughest elements — which meant they were falling down less often and not suffering the kinds of injuries that plague many of today's skaters.
While some of the skaters who dazzled audiences in Omaha in 1967 still keep up with the sport, others have left the world of skating behind to focus on their careers and families.
But some, including Tim Wood, the bronze medalist in Omaha in 1967, said the ice still has the same draw it did all those years ago. When he gets time away from his career as a real estate developer, Wood heads to a rink near his home in Southern California.
“I still skate, and I have a blast. I put the headphones on and I don't even know what comes up next, I just go along for the ride,” Wood said. “The little kids go, 'Who is the old bald guy? He's pretty good.'”
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