Mary Rose Thacker
— Winnipeg girl named Canada's leading woman athlete for 1939, is holder of the North American figure skating championship
SHE SAW the news vendors with huge placards in the streets of London that day—“Britain Declares War” —and she was every bit as disappointed as Hitler. Mary Rose Thacker, reigning amateur figure skating champion of North America, had gone to Europe to seek possession for her native Canada of the Olympic and world championships. When war was declared, the only way Mary Rose Thacker could have got to the place where the skating events were scheduled was with a machine gun. For Garmisch-Partenkirchen is located—of all places—in Germany.
There was no skating left in London, what with blackouts and the possibility that Earl’s Court and smaller skating arenas might be requisitioned for the military; so they said she’d better go home.
So she came back to Canada (and on the way saw an escorting British destroyer sink an enemy submarine that tried to attack the convoy). But she came back to good news—just as sjxjrts writers from coast to coast announced the results of the annual Canadian Press poll, naming her Canada’s outstanding woman athlete for the year 1939.
Mary Rose Thacker, of Winnipeg, is only seventeen, and she already has taken many titles. From her own club championship she went on to win the Canadian National Championship of 1939, and later the championship of the North Ameriam continent. For the present, the war confines this ambitious and capable young lady to North America, which, after all, is considerable territory.
She has met only one major reversal to date—her loss of the Senior Women s Singles figure skating championship in January of this year at Ottawa. But Miss Thacker was not discouraged. In as keen competition as is encountered in a Dominion championship, the margin between opponents is a narrow one, and many things can happen. Mary Rose Thacker was leading the field when the final round was reached—the free-skating exhibition. During the freeskating—a ballet dance on skates—the Winnipeg girl fell. Sports writers agreed that she appeared unnerved after that, and the superb performance of Norah McCarthy of Toronto and North Bay, topping brilliant competition from the entire field, could not be denied.
So Mary Rose Thacker is now in the anomalous position of being minus the championship of her native Canada and
yet the holder of the ladies figure skating championship of all North America—this continent's queen of the ice. She has more trophies than a big-game hunter, almost as many medals as Field-Marshal Goering.
In the early months of 1939 Mary Rose Thacker won her first national championship, one of the highest in the skating world the Canadian ladies’ title. The veterans who saw the youngster steal the show were further surprised when she went on to the finals of the North American championship, there to meet another teen-age star, Joan Tozzer, age nineteen, who had just won the United States championship, a title declared vacant when Maribel Y. Vinson turned professional. In the dramatic finals, the Canadian girl captured the North American championship, and by the rules of the game will reign as queen of the flashing blades at least till 1941, when the title again comes up for defense. Winning the crown at the age of sixteen, she is the youngest person ever to hold the coveted amateur championship.
While she was pleased to be awarded the skating crown,
for any woman loves to be a queen—the youthful Miss Thacker was not overwhelmed. She had been skating since she was three and a half years old, had appeared as a fea-
tured soloist in a skating carnival at four, and had won her first championship at six. So she was already an old-timer at the game.
Those who have seen her in action describe her as “a symphony on skates,” “greased lightning,” “graceful as a melody,” “a will o’ the wisp,” and many are of the opinion that the seventeenyear-old schoolgirl has a better than even chance of one day capturing those world titles that Sonja Henie held for so many years, in her pre-Hollywood days.
TF THERE hadn’t been a freezeup in England every seven years, Mary Rose Thacker might today be riding to hounds over the fields of Shropshire, instead of skating. But her mother and father liked the one-winter-in-seven of Shropshire so much, and got such enjoyment from skating on the ponds with the old-fashioned screw-on skates, that they decided to go to Canada where they could have winter every year.
In this they were not disappointed. In Winnipeg they promptly joined a Winnipeg skating club, which was to grow into the Winnipeg Winter Club, one of the largest organizations of its kind on the continent. When Mary Rose was born, in 1922, she came into a world peopled by skaters. Her mother had become one of the club’s best figure skaters among the women, and her two older brothers were showing signs of championship talent.
By the time she was three, Mary Rose was yelling vociferously for a pair of skates herself. It was impossible to buy either skates or shoes in such a tiny size, so they were made to order, and at her mother’s insistence the tot had the advantage of professional instruction from the moment she stepped onto the ice. Ferdinand G. Chatte, the club professional and an expert, thorough coach, gave her an excellent foundation in school, or fundamental, figures, as for an hour every afternoon, he coached Mary Rose and her two brothers.
Lessons by a top professional cost money—especially when taken for an hour every day—so Mrs. Thacker stayed on hand to see that her three children did at least a little practicing, which is no more than you would.ask of a child taking piano lessons. Mary Rose, however, evinced a very early liking for playing tag—on skates; and before he could teach her, Ferdinand Chatte usually had to catch her. He charged just as much for this service as for teaching, and it sometimes took several strenuous, expensive minutes. But to Mary Rose it was just one big, grand game.
She liked to play tag with the other children, too, including those twice her size. They could skate faster than she could, these others, but she had them on the comers. She got the greatest enjoyment out of coaxing the big kids to chase her until they were within a few feet of the end of the rink, then Mary Rose would swing easily to one side, and the others, being unable to turn at such short notice, would charge into the boards. When the other children began to wear skinned noses as a regular part of their equipment, parents began to complain. The problem solved itself when her playmates learned to turn comers, too.
Although her mother was responsible for seeing that Mary Rose received professional instruction from the start, there was no intention then of making the child into a champion. Her natural talent, her abundant health and liking for the sport, made championships inevitable. The mother’s purpose was to give her children an opportunity to learn something about a number of different sports and hobbies, so that later the children could choose their own. Under this policy, Mary Rose became an expert swâmmer, an excellent horsewoman, and studied ballet dancing and fencing. She studied both violin and piano, and is now studying for her final grade on the latter, and a certificate from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music of London. She speaks three foreign languages—French, German and Spanish—the result of years of tuition in a private school. Her academic education has been just as thorough, just as personal, as her skating instruction. From gradeone,
Continued on page 26
Mary Rose Thacker
Continued from page 24
through high school, Mary Rose Thacker attended St. Faith’s School, in Winnipeg.
Her entire daily schedule of play and study has been designed to produce tangible results for every minute spent.
From the outset, Mary Rose Thacker showed greatest interest in, and talent for, skating. Ferdinand G. Chatte became her coach every afternoon for eight full seasons. From 1934 to 1937 she studied skating under the late Dr. Leopold MaierLabergo. Then in ’37 and ’38 she studied in London and New York City under the teacher rated as the world’s greatest— Howard Nicholson. Nicholson’s instruction is regarded as so indispensable to success in the skating profession that many of his protégés follow him around, back and forth across the ocean. It was Howard Nicholson who had much to do with making a champion of Sonja Henie, and created such continental stars as Daphne Walker and Horst Faker. When Mary Rose Thacker last crossed the Atlantic to London—as well as countless non-title holders who were present—there were fifteen champions from all over the globe who had gathered to let Nicholson smooth off their rough spots.
Since her debut at four, Mary Rose Thacker has been a featured star every year for the 6,000 nightly spectators at the annual Winter Club Carnival in
Winnipeg. This is no mean honor, for the carnivals in Canada’s major figure skating centres, Toronto and Winnipeg, as well as in two or three other large cities, demand greater skill of their mill-run performers than is required of ice performers in Hollywood movies. The spectators are more demanding and skating-wise, for one thing, and the average performer is more expert. Many have skated almost from infancy, and are not just ex-chorines who have learned to skate only recently as a chorus side line. Though she could do some phenomenal acrobatics if called upon, even the capable Sonja Henie has had little need for her ample repertoire in Hollywood, sticking close to a few simple, but graceful, routines, and running around on her toes. The sophisticated winter carnival audiences, on the other hand, demand that their performers shoot the works.
Mary Rose Thacker, who has been shooting the works since she was four, scored her first real carnival hit at the age of six, and received her first newspaper write-up then. The same year she won her bronze medal. (The Canadian skating federation rates a skater’s ability in three classes, recognized by gold, silver and bronze medals; United States divides the groupings into eight.) At eight years, Mary Rose won the Juvenile Girls’ club championship, open to all those under fourteen. At nine, prompted
by the promise of a puppy of her own, she copped both the junior and intermediate championships—the latter open to women of any age—against a competitive field of skaters whose ages averaged twenty years.
At the age of twelve, she won the Canadian silver medal, and the following year won the Winnipeg Winter Club ladies’ senior championship, a title she has held ever since. At fourteen she qualified for Canada’s highest rank, the gold medal, an honor that only seven or eight other persons held, being at that time the youngest ever to hold such a title. The same year, she won the Canadian ladies’ junior championship. At sixteen, the first time she competed in the United States, at Madison Square Garden, she qualified simultaneously for all eight American grades, to win the American gold medal. That same winter she went on to capture the Canadian national championship followed by the North American championship.
Her daily training schedule is a strenuous one. Up at five o’clock in the morning, makes her own breakfast—which doesn’t necessarily qualify her as an expert cook, as her breakfast consists of one piece of toast and a glass of milk. She catches the first street car at six o’clock, and, being usually the only passenger at that hour, she sits where she can talk to the motorman on the way downtown.
She practices, till noon, on the ice at the Winter Club. At times the workmen chase her off while they roll the sprinkling barrel over the ice, but except for these brief spells it’s a continuous, exhausting, practice session all morning. Exhausting mentally, that is; not physically. America’s title holder contends that figure skating is not tiring physically. It’s physically strenuous, yes, but not tiring. Which is a fine point. Mentally, it is tiring, she admits, because it demands intense concentration in improvising and timing figures, and to perfect co-ordination of muscles, movement and rhythm. Travelling at the speed she does, in leaps, spins and circles, • a one-hundredth of a second mistake in calculation might mean an awkward, embarrassing spill and a spill can be costly, as was demonstrated at Ottawa. At the end of a morning’s rehearsal, her legs, she says, aren’t tired at all, only her brain that does the timing and lightning calculating.
To rest, she relaxes—for awhile—with a light book or a detective story, or maybe goes to the movies to see a good comedy— not a skating picture. Then there are school lessons that have to be caught up, even during the training period (normally, she cycles to school) ; and music lessons which must be prepared. And maybe there’s a reporter or photographer waiting to see her when she gets home, or an official from the skating association. Days like this, week after week, would finish most youngsters, especially with school exams and championship competitions tumbling over each other in a clamor for attention. But Mary Rose Thacker grows healthy and plump on it, or would grow plump if she didn’t stick to that solitary piece of toast at breakfast.
This top-flight skating business is expensive for an amateur. Costumes run into large figures; even the bare necessities of skating boots and skates run into money. Skating boots may cost $45, skates. $25, and anyone in the top brackets needs two new pairs of both each season. A4ost club dues are high, and it takes more than pin money to cross the Atlantic chasing after the invaluable Howard Nicholson, whose instruction comes at a minimum of ten dollars a lesson.
A/T ARY ROSE supposes that some day she’ll turn professional, not for a great number of years though, and only long enough “to pay back some of the money that this skating business has cost.”
A pretty girl, sweet and shy, five feet four inches tall and weighing 115 pounds, with brown hair and hazel eyes, she has an
unusual ambition—to retire at the age of twenty-one; for twenty-one seems such a long time away. Maybe, she says, she’ll own a horse or two of her own by then, sleek, long-legged riding horses and a stable of her own to keep them in. And undoubtedly she’ll have a dog of her own, too. Her bitterest complaint is that while she got a dog for winning the junior championship of her club when she was nine, she didn’t get anything at all for winning the championship of North America last winter. She got free dinners at numerous banquets, and cups, and life memberships in various skating clubs, of course—and fan letters from skating enthusiasts all over the continent—but she didn’t get a dog, which was, she claims, a gyp.
Mary Rose is one of three children of Mrs. Thacker and the late G. J. Thacker, until his death in 1931 a prominent grain broker in Winnipeg. As for the rest of her family, they’re rather surprised to find that they have a champion on their hands. While she could see it all coming from afar, Mrs. Thacker is still a bit bewildered. Her original idea was simply to expose her daughter to enough possible hobbies that the child would become vitally interested in something real, “so that the artificialities of life would have little attraction for her.” Mary Rose attends the usual high school parties, thinks boys as a class are so-so, but hasn’t much time to worry about them. Brimming with vitality, she doesn’t use cosmetics yet, simply because she doesn’t need to; the color is there anyway. For a youthful celebrity she is singularly unspoiled. If you meet her, you’ll find her more eager to talk about you than about herself.
“How in the world,” she asks interviewers, “does anybody ever happen to get in a business like that?”
She had more than one strange, silent interview with persons unknown to her, after she had won the North American title. They were evidently girls of her own age, who would call her on the phone.
“Hello. Is that you, Mary?” the voice would say.
“Yes.” A pause.
“How are you?” The voice would be curious, but polite.
“Just fine, thank you. How are you? And who is speaking, please?”
“It doesn’t matter . . . I just wanted to hear your voice. Well . . . good-by.”
Such is fame, even a little fame, at sixteen.
Only a couple of years ago Mary Rose used to fill in as lineman when the boys’ team of the near-by public school would be short a man for football practice. And it was she who used to give Herman, the delivery horse, a lump of sugar every day. This practice, continued down the years, became such a stubborn habit that Herman used to take the bit in his teeth, literally, and go to visit her. The driver just had to come along. Herman would nose through the gate, whinny expectantly and wait, and no coaxing or shouting could persuade him to move on.
“Could Mary Rose come out for a minute?” the driver would call, not knowing whether to be apologetic or angry. “Tell her Herman is here.”
Mary Rose would come out and give Herman his sugar, and Herman, fortified by extra calories, would charge on to the next delivery.
Most of the delivery horses on routes in that district have accepted Mary Rose’s gifts of sugar fairly regularly, also St. Bernards and terriers and poodles and miscellaneous pooches. This is all very fine, unless you happen to be Mary Rose’s mother and are trying to keep a supply of sugar in the house only to see some confounded delivery horse trotting down the street, tossing the last of it around in his mouth.
Still when you have a prodigy in the family, it seems there are some things you just have to put up with.