Susie Wynne meditates on crash courses and faith

by Lorrie Kim

This interview was conducted over the phone during Skate America 2000. It was first published in the Spring 2001 issue of 6.0 Skate magazine.

In the 1999-2000 skating season, Olympic ice dancer Susie Wynne went from being a rookie commentator for ABC to one of the most valuable public speakers the skating world has ever had. Following the Grand Prix from country to country, plus covering U.S. Nationals, Four Continents, the World Championships, the World Synchronized Skating Championships, and the World Junior Championships, she honed her incisive technical commentary before the camera's eye -- learning not only event to event, but as she said, "minute by minute."

This crash course was accompanied by rapid growth of a literal sort, as well, signaled by the onset of morning sickness while traveling on the job.

"At the beginning of NHK, I didn't know I was pregnant yet," she said. "At Four Continents, the Grand Prix Final, and Worlds, I thought I was going to die. But I could focus better, focusing on the pregnancy. I did most things in one take. I was thinking about the miracle of birth -- 'this week, the baby's growing earlobes. This week -- it's got eyeballs!'"

John Wynne Barth arrived on August 3 at 6:45 AM, at 8 lbs. and 20 inches. A friend travels with the baby and his blissful, exhausted first-time mother, helping with childcare.

However, as much Wynne might suffer from sleep deprivation, having the baby continues to help with her focus and perspective. As nerve-wracking as it might be to have such influence over how the entire Grand Prix series is perceived by the public, Wynne knows there are more important things in life.

"Now, I'm thinking, 'Baby's got to eat in three hours,'" she said. "He's a good baby. He's sleeping through the night. But as Christopher Dean told me: 'It's like fishing. You never know what you're going to get.'"

It is characteristic of Wynne to apply concepts she's learned from one area of life to other areas.

"I think I'm having my sophomore crash course this year," she laughed, referring to traveling one country per week with an infant.

"You can never stop learning. I watch my son and how he learns, gathers his language, his hand-eye coordination. By the end of the day, something new happens." This is the same pace at which she has been adapting to the demands of new motherhood and high-profile television work.

Wynne committed to learning on the job from the beginning.

"I'm not academically educated in this. I didn't spend four years studying communications. Going into this, knowing that, was scary," she said. "I tried my best to ask a lot of questions."

For the 1997-1998 season, Wynne did commentary for the Fox network, covering the Champion Series (now known as the Grand Prix). She said she went into that job thinking, "Okay, I know skating; I'll be good at this." But she quickly learned how much she didn't know.

"You've got to understand all the different ways to stand," she pointed out. "The content. How you're presenting it. How to think through things better, thinking on your feet in a way that's very comprehensive. The TV -- that medium's so different. Looking into the camera, it's cold. Everything I say has to be important. You have to respect the person that's turning on the TV [to watch skating] for the first time."

"TV talk -- it's very quick," she added, with a rapid emphasis on the word "quick" that told of a lifelong dancer's understanding of pace.

The following year, Wynne studied voiceover work with a coach named Ray Van Steen, learning "how to mark copy, a marking system of how to pronounce things better. Make it sound natural. It's funny how it doesn't."

She also learned how to conduct interviews from Eva Greenwell of Northwestern University, a working partnership that continues.

"She reviews all my tapes," said Wynne of Greenwell. "And we laugh. It's so painful to watch. We have a cup of coffee and watch for a few hours, and we just howl. I try to watch myself like I'm not myself. I have to laugh at myself. It's just TV. It's not being a good wife or a good mother."

Through these tape reviews, Wynne makes notes of how to improve her delivery, posture, and vocabulary. For example, she noted wryly that she was corrected several times last season for saying "heighth" instead of "height" -- a word that she had never pronounced incorrectly until the pressure of broadcast twisted her tongue.

The other skating-background commentators take a similar approach, she said. Peggy Fleming and Dick Button always review their tapes; "They take it very seriously," Wynne said. Peter Carruthers has helped her by passing on advice, such as how to buy earpieces for broadcast -- a tip she passed on, in turn, to Todd Eldredge during his commentary debut at the 2000 World Junior Championships.

Wynne also praised the producers and researchers for their teamwork on presenting the Grand Prix coverage on ABC, ESPN and Lifetime, "the most television coverage we've ever had."

She, Carruthers, and researcher Joy Goodwin, "with the support of every producer," developed this season's dance demos, in which Wynne and Christopher Dean explain ice dance basics such as closeness and edging. The minute-long demos will be aired during the broadcasts of Skate America, U.S. Nationals, the Grand Prix Final, and Worlds.

"The thing I find frustrating," said Wynne, "is that there's not enough time for everything. In 40 seconds, to describe a ground zero approach to edging, really accurately, so everybody really understands -- it cannot be done."

Not that Wynne and Dean didn't try repeatedly, whittling their explanations down and talking quickly in an attempt to meet the time limit.

Viewer response is part of what shapes ABC's coverage, which continues to be receptive to change in its second year covering the Grand Prix as a circuit package.

"They get inundated with stuff. Sometimes it takes a while," said Wynne, but those with suggestions for ABC skating coverage may direct their correspondence to producers Curt Gowdy, Jr. and Kathy Cook:

c/o ABC
77 West 66th Street
New York NY 10023

Wynne is open to feedback, as well, noting that it takes extra focus to improve on a job which lasts only eight weeks each year. "I've had some hate mail," she acknowledged.

"'You talk too much.' 'I hate your hair.' Those are not productive. But if there's something I could do better -- I want to be better at this."

Her goal is to develop a relationship with the viewers over time, eventually raising public knowledge of the sport.

"When I'm most excited about skating is when I'm working with a student," said Wynne. "Stroking, edging -- [the student and I] have gone through a process together through the years, an A to Z system that works. That relationship to me is why I love the sport -- the teacher, the communicator, the liaison."

Researcher Joy Goodwin is crucial to helping Wynne develop the same kind of long-term history with the television viewers. When Wynne explains finer technical points, Goodwin challenges her with, "Why? Why? They don't get it. Why?"

This constant reminder to be not only a narrator but a teacher is especially important in ice dance, Wynne's discipline. Dance is the most subtle and difficult discipline for the viewer to understand. But recent judging scandals, combined with uninformative remarks from commentators without dance backgrounds, have contributed to a skeptical attitude from the mainstream U.S. audience that dance is impenetrable and less than a full sport.

There is more at stake here than simply helping Americans to appreciate a subtle sport, however. The U.S. is where skating tours and shows make most of their money. If American fans demanded more ice dance, promoters would employ and pay dance teams more. This would make a crucial difference, since dance teams are sometimes left entirely out of profitable skating events, even though dance -- requiring costumes and training for several programs each season -- is the most expensive discipline.

Wynne knows this well. She and former partner Russ Witherby spent their pro career together working to pay off the debts they accumulated during their successful eligible partnership of the early 1990s.

"We had no savings. We had to start teaching," said Wynne. She and her husband lived with her in-laws, unable to afford their own home, while "maxing out many many credit cards."

Her husband came up with a $60,000 fundraising package to repay the team's debts, which included appearances on made-for-TV pro events and a stint with Torvill and Dean's "Face the Music" tour.

"Now, you get $10,000 for an exhibition for Worlds," observed Wynne.

"I hope these skaters appreciate it. It changed so quickly." But for Wynne and Witherby's last pro season together, in 1995-1996, they found it was not worth it to train for pro events.

"Financially, it was stupid to do them," said Wynne. "We'd lose $3,000 in teaching to take a month off to train, compete, and make $3,000. It was time to quit."

After her pro career was over, Wynne continued to contribute to the sport in many ways. In addition to her commentary career, she has served on committees for the USFSA and PSA, coached, and done choreography (including for Tara Lipinski).

She spoke out publicly in defense of Craig Maurizi in 1999, when he filed grievances with the USFSA and PSA charging that his former coach, Richard Callaghan, had abused him and fellow students. Both organizations later dismissed the grievances.

In the aftermath of this highly publicized grievance, the USFSA adopted a Harassment and Abuse Policy at the 2000 Governing Council meeting. Wynne served on the task force that developed the policy.

Of all of Wynne's contributions to the sport, one of the most personal and valuable has been her work combating eating disorders and body image distortion.

In Joan Ryan's controversial 1995 book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, Wynne disclosed that she had suffered from a grueling eating disorder at age 19, partially triggered by her coach's demands that she lose weight.

She said Ryan dragged it out of her, but she was very glad that had happened.

"I reluctantly shared it," she said. "It's something I could have very well kept a secret. It's embarrassing. It's not something I discussed with my family. I found my support through friends and counselors."

When young girls wrote to Wynne about their own eating disorder struggles, she realized it was her opportunity to be a support to others. She was able to tell them she had gotten through to the other side, intact; and that having done so, she knew she could handle any problem that came her way.

The U.S. skating scene is better prepared now to deal with eating disorders, she said.

"Compared to when I was skating, they do have seminars, and camps, and nutritionists," said Wynne.

"In some ways, it's really not their responsibility. It's up to the skater and people working with the skater to be accountable, to say, 'This is my problem.' I can't blame completely the coaching situation I was in."

Wynne pointed out, "It's not just skating; it's our world." In a world filled with both great beauty and a sense of evil, it's difficult for young women to resist the constant, sexualized messages of what is supposed to be attractive.

"If we can recognize that, then we can overcome it. But if we don't recognize it, we buy into it," said Wynne.

For skaters battling eating disorders, Wynne recommended that they not pay attention to any rumors about themselves, especially those posted on the Internet. Otherwise, she warned, "You start to skip steps in your recovery because you're worried about what other people think."

And for concerned observers, she recommended that they give the skaters support, but from a distance.

"I think it's nice to let people work it out themselves," she said.

If she were going through a hard time now, said Wynne, she'd want to hear no more or less than, "I'm thinking about you. I see this is hard on you. I'm keeping you in my thoughts. You matter in this world."

And most of all, said Wynne: "I would say, 'Pray.' Prayer is just meditating about something outside yourself. It's energy. It gets there every time. I have faith in that."

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