And that, said figure skating legend and Olympic bronze medalist Charlie Tickner, is just the way he likes it. “Being in the Olympics is just something I did and I’m proud of it,” said Tickner. “But it’s not all of who I am.”
A four-time U.S. National champion and Olympic bronze medalist, Tickner was a member of the U.S. figure skating team at the 1980 winter games in Lake Placid, N.Y. It was an Olympics filled with performances from such notables as speed skater Eric Heiden, figure skater Scott Hamilton and a ragtag group of hockey players who pulled off a Miracle on Ice.
Heady stuff for the first-time Olympian, who at age 26 was the senior skater in the group. “I even had a T-shirt that read ‘the old guy,’” he laughed.
Raised in Lafayette, Tickner began skating professionally at age 18 – a late start for most skaters – but gained experience fast and went on to finish third at the U.S. Nationals in 1974. He was favored to earn a spot on the 1976 Olympic team but didn’t qualify.
“I had a bad skate and missed my chance,” said Tickner. “But I think in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t make the team in ’76 because I’m not sure I would have been ready.”
Tickner – like much of the nation – has stayed close to the TV lately, cheering on Team USA and reliving some of his own medal experiences.
“Lake Placid was beautiful, but very, very cold,” said Tickner, 58. “I remember being the last team to walk in for the opening ceremonies and just being so, so cold. But it was a great experience … once in a lifetime.”
And to the victors of the 1980 Olympics went the spoils, including a team trip to the White House (“I remember Heiden was wearing his beanie and I thought: take that thing off; it’s disrespectful”), lunch with the Carters (“both very nice people”) and a trip on Air Force 1 (“it was cool”).
As for the burden of being an Olympian, Tickner knows firsthand what some of the London athletes are experiencing. “The pressure can be intense,” he said. “And in skating you’re out there all by yourself – it’s not a team sport – and it feels like walking into the lion’s den. I remember Scotty (Hamilton) saying it was the worst feeling in the world waiting to go out, and it is. But once the music starts, it all just clicks.”
So who, in his professional opinion, is the all-time Olympian?
“Well everyone says it’s Phelps and it’s hard to argue with the number of medals,” said Tickner. “But I always liked Dick Button (Olympic figure skating medalist and sports commentator). He’s a smart guy and a great athlete. And I always felt that Eric (Heiden) was underappreciated. He skated and won all five of his events at the ’80 Olympics.” Heiden set four Olympic records and one world record at Lake Placid.
Tickner got to catch up with some of his former teammates a few years ago at the 25th anniversary of the 1980 Olympics, held again at Lake Placid. Most everyone was there, recalled Tickner, including the Miracle on Ice hockey team.
“Those guys were wild,” laughed Tickner. “They were a lot of fun. We (figure skaters) were asked to do a little performance at the reunion and afterward some of the hockey players came up to us and said, ‘You guys can still skate?’ A lot them were definitely not still skating.”
Following the Olympics, Tickner skated professionally for a time with the Ice Capades, which is where he met his wife, Kathy – a teacher at Excelsior Middle School in Byron. The two settled in Discovery Bay in the early 1980s, where they raised their three sons (‘not a skater in the group,’ laughed Tickner – ‘we were a skiing family’) and remain a tight-knit family. Today Tickner teaches competitive ice-skating to students throughout the Bay Area.
“Coaching is very challenging,” he said, “but I’ve really enjoyed it. I try to make it fun for my students and to be the kind of coach they like. I don’t want to be like Karolyi (the infamous Romanian gymnastics coach) and have kids say they hated having me as a coach. I tell them to go out there and relax. Once the music starts, the nerves will stop and the fun will begin. I know that from experience.”