The world over, Canadians are famous for their humble, non-showy ways, but I don’t believe I’ve ever interviewed anyone nearly as accomplished and at the same time as modest as the King of the Blades, Don Jackson.
The world champion figure skater, took the first in the Prague competition in 1962, the first Canadian to do so.At only twenty-one years old, Jackson landed the first triple Lutz jump in international competition. That same day he landed three more on one foot. Men’s figure skating was changed forever. When the judges held up their scores –the highest ever awarded during the World Championship—Jackson received a standing ovation from the 18,000-strong audience.
I watched his performance in the National Film Board’s documentary about Jackson and I could still feel the energy and glory of that accomplishment. When I asked Don how it felt at the time, he reminded me that in those days, he couldn’t know if he’d won or not. “I didn’t see the marks on a screen and until my name was announced, I didn’t know,” he said, the excitement about his performance still in his voice.
Don was on the ice to do his best, as he explained to me, as he had done before and has continued to do ever since.
When I asked Jackson how he’s kept so young, he answered plainly. “I am seventy-six, no matter what.” But he did admit that he remains in “pretty good shape, although one leg is a little tricky.” At seventy-six, Don Jackson is coaching young skaters, and appearing in promotional videos with Kurt Browning for Home Equity Bank.
Age hasn’t taken him off the ice or away from his fans. “In May 2016, Jackson appeared in a couple of Stars on Ice shows in Canada, performing a duet with Kurt Browning. His part included an Axel jump and a waltz jump.”
Jackson’s calendar is packed. He and his wife Barb moved back to Don’s hometown of Oshawa-Whitby, the locale where Don launched his skating career. The couple wished to be near their family, particularly their grandchildren.
In 1948, when Don was only eight years old, his mother dressed him in a snowman’s costume for his Oshawa school’s competition, and then borrowed a pair of skates for her son to compete in a race. He won first prize for his costume while soon embarking on a skating career that changed not only his life, but also the way Canadians regard figure skating.
Back then, figure skates for boys weren’t even manufactured so Don’s mother improvised, buying her son a second-hand pair of skates and putting a sock over the boot of the skate to make the skates resemble a man’s.
In fact, Pat Jackson, Don’s mother, played a huge role in encouraging her son’s talent and like most mothers who believe in their kids, she did everything in her power to provide him with the opportunity to excel. Don’s father worked at General Motors and his mother took a full-time job as a secretary so Don could train with the best.
He lived in New York City and trained along with members of the American figure skating team. “Jackson was coached by Pierre Brunet in New York City, where he lived with the family of 1960 Olympic Champion Carol Heiss.”
In 1959 and 1961, he took firsts in the North American championships along with four firsts from 1959 to 1962 in the Canadian championships. In 1960, he placed third in the Winter Olympics.
During the 1962 world competition in Prague, Pat Jackson was in the audience and Don recalls her telling him she closed her eyes when he was landing the triple Lutz.
After the World Championships, Don left amateur sport to skate for the Ice Follies. It was hard work. He did 420 performances a year. Don recalled: “In the 1960s the rules of amateur sport were that a skater could only make about $35 at shows. I couldn’t go back to the Olympics; I needed to support myself.”
Don’s recipe for success is as straightforward as his talk. He admitted he is a competitive person and he says with some glee “I enjoyed what I was doing, had natural ability, good coaches and parents who were behind me.”
It doesn’t take long to figure out that Don believes in hard work and being true to himself. I imagine he hasn’t changed that much from the eight year old kid, dressed as a snowman, who won the first prize at an Oshawa school, or the young man who opened his routine in Czechoslovakia with a triple Lutz and then assuredly went on to land three more and win the Gold.
I learned a lot about aging gracefully from Don Jackson in the short time we talked. For all the advice we retirees (or near-retirees) receive about staying young, most of it focuses on the practical, diet and exercise, which is only part of the mix. No one really investigates what it means to be young at heart and to age gracefully, with dignity and purpose. Possibly those traits are much too illusive to study. Whatever this magic combination is about, Don Jackson is the best example I know.