Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Famed Coach, at 83, Still Mentoring Talent

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Famed Coach, at 83, Still Mentoring Talent

Article excerpt

OMAHA, Neb. -- In a sport in which champions named Peggy, Dorothy, Katarina and Michelle have defined excellence and grace over the past half-century, there has been only one Mr. Nicks.

Born to a British sporting-goods store owner in 1929, John Nicks laced up his first pair of skates at 10 or 11 as a favor to his father, who was trying to figure out if there might be a market for figure skates in the seaside town of Brighton.

Since that day, world wars have come and gone, the Iron Curtain fell and nations dissolved and formed anew. But there hasn't been a time that Nicks's world didn't revolve around an ice rink.

At 83, he has competed in two Olympics (1948 and 1952) and coached skaters in 11 Winter Games. And should his current protege, reigning U.S. champion Ashley Wagner of Alexandria, Va., perform to her potential at this weekend's U.S. Figure Skating Championships and back it up with a solid showing at the world championships in March, Nicks likely will make the 2014 Sochi Games the final Olympics of an illustrious career.

"He sat me down and said, 'Dear, I've been saying I'm going to retire for 20 years!' " Wagner said this week, invoking a decidedly "upstairs" Downton Abbey accent in recounting Nicks' reply when she asked about rumors he was weighing retirement. "I think that man loves to stir the pot! You never know what he's going to do; he keeps you on your toes. Maybe it's good for me."

By all accounts, Nicks (universally addressed in the sport as "Mr. Nicks") has been terrific for Wagner, 21, who is roughly the 1,200th skater he has coached in 51 years of mentoring champions such as Peggy Fleming, Tai Babalonia and Randy Gardner, Sasha Cohen and countless contenders.

According to Todd Sand, who won three U.S. Championships in pairs with his wife Jenni Meno under Nicks' tutelage, the veteran coach's genius starts with building confidence in his pupils. For the past eight years, Sand, along with his wife, has coached alongside Nicks and developed an even greater appreciation for his gift of knowing precisely what buttons to push to coax performances out of youngsters with differing temperaments, strengths and weaknesses. …

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