Ann Cannon approaches the sheet of ice inside CenturyLink Center with the cautious, labored gait you would expect from an 83-year-old woman with surgically replaced knees.
The ice skates she wears increases the degree of difficulty momentarily, but once she steps on the ice and begins to glide in graceful arcs, many of the years melt away. It's not hard to picture Cannon as a young girl, learning to skate on the lagoon in Benson Park.
The Omaha native has been skating for more than 70 years, and returned to the ice Saturday during FanFest at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
As beginners during an adult lesson fought just to stay upright, Cannon nimbly circled them dressed in a pink windbreaker and matching slacks, drawing applause from a small crowd watching nearby.
“I have two new knees, and I can't do a lot,” Cannon said. “I do the baby things I taught all the little kids. If I had a strong partner, I could go backward and dance and spin, but I won't do it alone.”
Cannon grew up skating at Benson Park with her sisters in the 1940s, buying her first pair of white figure skates with money she saved from birthday and Christmas gifts. The family took lessons at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum. From 1945 to 1950, Cannon was a member of the Omaha Figure Skating Club, winning the city's novice and beginner championships.
She knew she was never going to be an Olympic-level skater, but she turned her talent into a career. Cannon moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1949 to skate in showcases for tourists and convention-goers for several years.
“Back then, you had to do figures, the figure eights and all those (to compete professionally),” Cannon said. “They were difficult, and mine were lousy so I knew I wouldn't get anywhere in competition so I just went into it for pleasure.”
After moving back to Omaha, Cannon found herself in a position to give lessons when the city opened the Benson Ice Arena in 1971. She joined the Blade and Edge Skating Club, and for the next 20 years, tried to pass on her love of skating.
Spins, jumps, Cannon had all of the moves, but her favorite was ice dancing. Modern figure skating has its roots in the foxtrot, the tango, even the polka, and Cannon loved them all.
“They're beautiful and they don't do them anymore,” Cannon said. “We never had any men skating in those years. I guess there were a few, but we had many more women looking for partners.”
Cannon continued to teach regularly into the early 1990s before age began to slow her. But her legacy lives on, as several of her former students are now teachers. Jenny Turner took lessons from Cannon in the early '90s and has taught for the club for the past decade.
“When I was little, I remember thinking she was just like my grandma,” Turner said. “I remember she gave off just that warm, comforting feeling because she was so motherly with all of us. She was stern when she had to be when people were out of line, but she was great at explaining how to do something.”
Cannon still skates about once a week, mostly at Tranquility Park. She prefers to avoid skating outdoors where the cold temperatures can take a toll.
“Skating, she's fine,” said Cannon's daughter April Collamer. “It's walking that's hard for her.”
Cannon thinks skating has kept her young. Before her first knee replacement in 2002, she asked the doctor if she would be able to continue to skate after the surgery.
Oh yes, the doctor said. You'll have a greatly improved quality of life to continue doing what you love.
“Will I still be able to do jumps?” she asked.
Well, maybe not that improved, the doctors said.
“You just feel good,” Cannon said. “I'm full of arthritis and fibromyalgia, and I lay in bed. So I figure I might as well be skating and hurting. Evidently, it's kept me so I can bend and move. It's good therapy. You can also go skate and get real tired so you can sleep good at night.”
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