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The Best Skaters: 1980s

Updated on April 18, 2020

Best Female Figure Skaters from 1980s

All right. It's time to check on the names for the top 10 in the 1980s. Selecting only 10 out of potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of female skaters, who shone during the period is not an easy thing, nor does it seem doable perfectly, but like any other times, either before or after, they are skaters with unmistakable talents and charisma that made them special.

Suffice it to say, based on the clips available for review, that those names I am about to put forward pretty much represent the 1980s. A decade is long enough to compare different skaters fairly objectively, though too short to assess them in terms of their contributions to the sport itself because it might require a wider range of consideration on technical skills as well as historical impacts in developmental contexts of figure skating. So, I have decided to focus here mainly on skaters' comprehensive technical ability, evaluative and verifiable from the archives. Each competitive record was also taken into account.

1: Denise Biellmann, Skater of Innovation

The best name for the 1980s is Denise Biellmann, known for her innovative signature spin.

Biellmann represents an era of innovation in the 1980s. In her days skaters madly competed with triple jumps; doubles were done for once and for all. To become top skaters, triples were a must and the more triples, the higher chances to win the game. The game would swing at the hinge of the number of successfully landed triples while the rest were shoved aside as dispensable and nonessential.

But what made Biellmann stand out was not triple jumps but her catch-foot-overhead spin, known as Biellmann spin today, by which Biellmann sensationalized the figure skating world. To add the icing on the cake, her technical proficiency was far greater than her peers. Despite the faulty, from today's perspective, way she executed jumps, Biellmann enshrined the figure skating with what her contemporary missed out: Figure skating is not all about triple jump or the number of them done in the game. Biellmann spin, a routine move for most skaters in competition, still remains relevant even today.

But her reign was short as she abruptly decided to retire, and Biellmann's early retirement in fact enabled Katarina Witt to come to the scene of figure skating and dominate like no other. History never allows ifs, but hadn't Denise Biellmann retired early, Biellmann could have been picked for the flag bearer of the ladies figure skating for tears to come.

2: Elaine Zayak, Skater with Unprecedented Jumping Ability

Elaine Zayak was a sensation in the ladies figure skating history, but not always in the way other champions had been hailed; Zayak, though admired as a figure skater, especially for her one of a kind jumping ability, wasn't much lauded as de facto a champion by her figure skating world as her predecessors. On the contrary, to some, if not all, she was somewhat an oddity.

Zayak's diminutive figure came short of the images people had been envisioning in female champions when it came to the queen of ice. Peggy Fleming, for instance, was tall, slim and feminine in every aspect, emanating the power of athletic brilliance without compromising aesthetic sensibility. That is why Peggy Fleming, the then figure skating commentators, outspokenly disapproved of Zayak's skating; Fleming viewed Zayak's skating as glaringly deficient of artistic qualities. Female figure skating isn't a contest for jumping beans, according to Fleming who feared jumping beans like Zayak would jeopardize the aesthetically oriented sport. What bothered Fleming much about Zayak and the value of her skating in the historic contexts derives from the difficulty of formulating a universally accepted measure for aesthetic qualities of figure skating. After all Fleming was right on that from the holistic perspectives, but when Fleming commented on Zayak's lack of artistic qualities other peers were often able to manage, she meant largely Zayak was less artistically expressive and Zayak's physique was the problem. Well, she didn't say after all "You are not good enough because you are not tall, slim and beautiful."

Zayak wasn't only skater whose jumping ability outshone other skating skills yet to make a nuisance of themselves. Through compulsory era, many talented skaters were systematically victimized in competition by virtue of devaluing their free skating in favor of compulsory. In those days many brilliant skaters such as Janet Lynn, were penalized, in retrospect, for their timeless greatness. Elaine Zayak also fell prey to the prejudice that stigmatized skaters with ordinary physique that good jumper doesn't mean they are well-rounded skaters.

Apparently this prejudice was shared with the ISU too. At the close of the legendary era of 1970s, a new format was introduced to short program, which significantly gave a handicap to Zayak. Under the new rules, Zayak didn't enjoy as much advantages as before by throwing triples unless she did different triples. With her artistic scores also checked, she was no longer as potent as before. The ISU declared that its newly placed rules are for skaters to learn various triples, but it gave a legal ground to put down skaters like Zayak.

3: Katarina Witt: Most Celebrated Skater of the 1980s

It is quite fair, if not universally accepted, to say that two-time Olympic gold and four time Worlds Champion Katarina Witt was the female skater who rightfully defined the 1980s. Witt was perhaps the most advanced skater of her time in many aspects; she was technically superior to her peers, shockingly innovative in her style and artistic interpretation, ruthlessly capable and competitive. Incredibly successful were her performances in major competitions, as she continued to land one triple jump after another, which most her competitors were not able to replicate either due to insufficient skills or suffocating pressure that sapped the spirit off the skaters. Witt decimated the field with her charismatic charm and that amazed her peers and experts alike so often.

When compared to her formidable peers, Witt was often not regarded as the most skillful skater. Rather Witt's skating was marred by lack of polish on the moves; Witt's skating no doubt appeared unripe and often coarse, and betrayed much room for improvement. But once the game started, she bulldozed the field with her power and speed, landing triple after triple. Yes, she definitely showed her skating was far from being perfect, but she knew how to edge her peers out in competition. For her, winning a game is what she was good at and she knew to get the better of others all the time no matter what. With her stylistic brilliance, vibrant energy and power, and her proficient handling of jumps and consistency, Witt knocked her opponents out during her reign in the 1980s, rightfully called a skater of iron. Katraina Witt, a two-time Olympic golf medalist, was one of the most celebrated skaters of all time.

4. Rosalyn Sumners, the one who could have beat Witt

Though Sumners lost to Witt in the 1984 Olympics with perhaps the tiniest margin ever in judging history, Sumners was a skater whose skating was somewhat desirable, if not superior to Witt, according to Fleming. Fleming found merits in Sumners' skating enough to present her, not Zayak, as a potential flag bearer for the ladies figure skating, but Sumners didn't live up to her expectations after all. Rosalyn Sumners, after her loss to Katarina Witt, was quickly forgotten and the once aura lingering around her soon faded. With all fairness, it is not easy to say Sumners could have made herself a formidable rival of Witt or even shortening Witt's long reign, had she beat Witt in 1984. That's a big if, but well, at least we can say positively that her fate definitely hinged at a blow that flipped the score sheet.

5. Debi Thomas, Power Skater as Strong as Witt

For all of her talents, the answer to a question whether or not Thomas was a skater capable of beating Witt, is not easy to get. After all, skaters are evaluated based on how they do at competition only. However great they do in practice, they don't count. And competition was not what Thomas was best at. More often than not, Thomas gave way to her nerve.

But try as you might to discount her skating, Thomas has inspired many viewers; she was powerful and gorgeous in her ever moves to watch. Her skating was not like Witt's, which was often coarse and raw, unpolished. Powerful and devilish successful at landing triple jumps while her peers ass landed or aborted altogether. In her skating, the old glorious artistic skating appeared ready to resurrect once again, but the competition of figure skating gave no room for mistake or chicken out. Like so many brilliant skaters before and after, Thomas was brought down to her knees; she was too lackluster to claim victory over her almost invincible enemy of all time.

6. Elizabeth Manley, Canadian Jumper

Elizabeth Manley was perhaps one of the most successful Canadian skaters in the 1980s, as closest to the top in the ladies figure skating since Barbara Ann Scott. Manley's skating was characterized by her proficient jumping ability and speed, somewhat reminiscent of Elaine Zayak.

Manley was a kind of skater whose physique was in close proximity to Zayak, unlike Fleming or Witt. Skaters of Manley's type typically show advantages in speed, jump and agility. Though Manley in her competitive career was seen fairly successful, especially as Canadian figure skater, her skating was also inherently less appealing than that of those skaters whose stylistic skating would fall well in line with traditional artistry.

7: Midori Ito, Most Powerful Jumper of All Time

If you imagine a skater with graceful gesture and feathery moves, Midori Ito isn't close to it. Midori Ito was such a short skater whose height reached not even 5 feet. Stocky and diminutive, Ito was at odd with the traditional figure skating featuring style, grace and femininity. Well, don't bother. Ito didn't seem to mind it at all. She had little intention to make the slightest efforts to emulate it. Instead, Ito decided to throw all those stereotypical out of the ring while offering a new vision for female figure skating, strong and masculine. Ito's mastery of triple jumps, featured by triple axes, which had been a virgin territory even by male skaters, opened a new era when female figure skating might not be all about elegance and gracefulness.

It appeared female figure skating ready to defy and break free from old traditions represented by Peggy Fleming, Janet Lynn or even Katrina Witt. Female skating might not be all about fragile beauty; it could be as strong as male skating, even faster, higher and more dynamic. What seemed traditionally to have attached to male skaters could be then handled by female skaters too. Especially Ito introduced triple axel to the ladies figure skating, earning herself the fame of "the most powerful jumper of all time." Ito's jumps presented a supreme form of athleticism in her time in terms of both power and proficiency that no skater prior to her could have ever managed to demonstrated. Ito's jumping ability was often regarded as even surpassing men's. Consequently her programs became a testament for how greatly female skaters could perform, even to the point of bettering men. Her mastery of jump, however, was inevitably long plagued by the shadow of performative elements other than jump.

8: Caryn Kadavy, Skater of Elegance

Caryn Kadavy's skating was stylish and fit to the ideal of aesthetic emphasis, yet somewhat technically desired of jumping technique. Unlike her peers, Kadavy pursued the ideal of female figure skating, investing more in artistic elements such as lines or interpretive moves rather than the number of jumps or triples. Once Scott Hamilton said, Kadavy had what all the women skaters would like to be. Unfortunately her jumping ability was by no means anywhere near the top level.

If she'd had jumping consistency or the same level of jumping ability as Tiffany Chin, she could have swept the competitions hands down. Kadavy was a skater totally opposite to Ito whose jumping ability appeared taller than anyone.

9: Tiffany Chin, a talented skater who could have won her day

There were a rank of skaters who joined a force in the battle of dethroning Witt from a variety of backgrounds in the 1980s. Among them was Tiffany Chin, a skater with remarkable proficiency who could have won any World title or even Olympics at her best, some thought, even against Katarina Witt. Yet, that would be grossly inaccurate because Chin, whose skating style was what Ito should have emulated, some thought, especially as both Ito and Chin resembled in height, but Ito far surpassed Chin in jumping ability, and Chin, though less speedy and less powerful than Ito, purported to be a more artistic skater. Despite the overall scale of her performance appeared be flat to be fully appreciated, Chin proved to be a worthy opponent to Witt and Ito.

10.Jill Trenary, who never rose to the greatness of her predecessors

Jill Trenary was sharp and agile. She had a style of her own, and technique that could have rendered her the best; she could have dominated the world like her predecessors. Though she was competent enough to make herself on the top of the podium in the 1990 Worlds, she wasn't quite as dominant as Witt or Ito.

Trenary was a skater of balanced skating skills, but her jumping ability wasn't quite as impressive as her formidable opponents.

The 1980s: The Era of Soul Searching

It was the time when people felt the ideal of female figure skating needed to be sorted out in competition more concretely. In terms of scores, figure skating needed to be understood more pervasively. It was clear to most of people, either experts or general viewers, that putting more emphasis on free skating was the way to go, but how much was the question. Compulsory was reduced, short program was introduced and long program was cherished as the crown of the competition. But still there were more to be answered.

After the 1970s, female figure skating entered into the uncharted water called triple jump, as more skaters attempted to land them in competition. Judges lavished those successful jumpers with points and the competition was offered to those who landed more triples. How well they should be done was secondary as landing triple itself was considered an admirable feat to achieve, especially when Ito showed off her one-of-a -kind mastery of triple axel, which men skaters were struggling to emulate. Artistry appeared obsolete and something weak and imitative at best, if not outright phony or selling cheap, as jumpers led their golden era with a flag of progressive athleticism. That wasn't a right direction, thought Peggy Fleming. She was one of the constant voices raising a red flag. Peggy Fleming voiced that figure skating was suffering from the lack of its core element as the competition was turned over to jumping beans.

Katrina Witt was a decisive answer to this growing concerns; she was a new type of star skater with an unparalleled balance between power, proficiency and innovation. Surrounded by many formidable rivals, she managed to dominate the 1980s. It was also the time when an institutional culling was imposed on an unprecedented talent Elaine Zayak, mainly for the purpose of fending off jumper's wave, and a new format of spin was implemented by Denise Billemann.

Who do you think is the best among the top skaters in the 1980s?

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