Playing hockey was the only time Neil Carpenter skated - until his mother took him to see an ice show.
“The very next Christmas I was gifted a pair of figure skates,” said the Orillia resident, speaking to about 20 attendees at the Sunday circle of Storytelling Orillia. “I started going to the outdoor rink at my school and beating my face in the ice, learning how to use the figure skates.”
Carpenter told Sunday's audience that once he learned how to use the figure skates, his family signed him up for the skating club in Galt, where he was born.
“I got a partner in the first year,” said Carpenter, talking about Linda Ward, who skated with him for a decade. “We both competed in singles, dance and pairs.”
Starting in 1955 as a professional skater, Carpenter and Ward went on to compete in the 1964 Winter Olympics, 1963 World Skating Championships and Canadian Championships in those years as well.
After competing in the Winter Olympics, he and Ward stayed in Europe for the World Championships, but the pair wasn’t able to compete because Carpenter caught the flu.
To get to the next level, those around him recommended he move to Toronto and find a different coach.
Knowing such a move would put immense financial pressure on his parents, Carpenter decided to withdraw from the competitive world of figure skating.
Following that career-ending move, he started teaching figure skating in North Bay, before moving to Hamilton and, eventually, to Orillia.
Carpenter has taught many figure skating champions, such as Ron Shaver, Scott Hamilton (U.S.), Susanna Driano (Italy) Ronald Koppelent (Austria) and Cameron Medhurst of Australia.
Carpenter also taught Canadian Olympian Scott Moir’s mother, her twin sister and other siblings.
Having been in the business for so long, Carpenter said, he has noticed that a lot has changed in coaching rules and the sport itself.
“They (Skate Canada) are trying to make things easy for people,” he said. “In my opinion, I don’t think the young folks are taught to work as hard as they were back in the day. That’s my opinion. I could get crucified for it, but I just don’t see the same commitment from the young people today that there was years ago.”
It’s not something the 73-year-old thinks will change in his lifetime.
But coaching isn’t just about teaching someone how to skate, said Carpenter. He said only a minor part of figure skating is about skating.
“The major part is life lessons like time, space and stress management,” he noted. “I think I’ve taught skaters more manners than I’ve taught skating.”
Local figure skater Stephanie Lamb, who took lessons from Carpenter, said she could attest to that.
“You learn how to handle pressure, you really do,” said Lamb, adding she also learned how to simultaneously juggle several life commitments. “It also teaches you self-reliance, because you’re out there by yourself. And you have to be accountable for how well you do.”
As a teacher, she said, Carpenter is very patient and frank.
“If you’re not doing something right, or if there’s something you can improve on, he will let you know,” said Lamb.
Figure skating, like any other competitive sport, said Carpenter, is a commitment you have to make.
“It starts with a desire and without the hard work and commitment it just becomes a dream,” he said. “For it to become reality, you have to put the time in; you have to stay focused. You have to commit yourself to doing what you think has to be done to get you where you want to go.”
And when you fail, he said, “You just put your skates back on and work to avoid the things you did.”
Sunday's talk was part of the weekend-long Storytelling Orillia event held at the Orillia Museum of Art and History.
Being invited to speak wasn’t something Carpenter was expecting.
“I was a little bit surprised because I just do my own thing and don’t really (talk) much about what I’ve done or what I’ve accomplished,” said Carpenter, who helps out at Rotary Place by sharpening skates for visitors. “I was honoured, but I was a bit surprised.”