From Turns to Toe Loops

Olympian Mark Cockerell puts Columbia on figure skating map



Jeff Amberg

When Katie Zabinski received an email from former Olympic figure skater Mark Cockerell one year ago, she was unsure of what to think. The world-class athlete wanted to know if there might be a place for him at Columbia’s only indoor ice rink. Katie, who serves as figure skating director for the Plex HiWire Family Fun and Sports Center’s arena in Irmo, decided to give him a call.

“I was so shocked that he wanted to come to Columbia. I thought maybe it was a scam,” Katie says. The two spoke on the phone, and Katie quickly realized this decorated skater was not scamming anyone. He was simply looking for a welcoming place to pursue his passion: coaching the next generation of figure skaters.

Mark, 55, is the 1976 World Junior champion, the 1978 Nebelhorn Trophy silver medalist, 1981 Ennia Challenge Cup silver medalist and a five-time U.S. senior national medalist, winning a senior bronze in 1983 and in 1984 and a silver in 1985, plus six World Championships with one gold and two bronze medals. In his nearly five decades on the ice, Mark has traveled the world, skating for a variety of audiences — from children to dignitaries, judges, and Walt Disney fans.

And now, he calls Columbia home.

“When I first met Mark, I was honestly just so excited about how involved he wanted to be as a coach; he constantly has new ideas and a lot of motivation to work hard,” Katie says. “I knew right away he would be a great fit for our staff and our skaters; we really did need a coach like that. It’s been a pleasure, and I’m grateful. I know he had other offers on the table that he turned down to come here.”

Born and raised in Burbank, California, Mark started taking figure skating classes at age 7, several years older than the age most Olympic-caliber athletes first set foot on the ice. “My parents signed me up for classes, and I’m not really sure why, other than just to keep me busy so my mom didn’t have to drag me shopping,” Mark says, laughing.

Soon, Mark’s parents started hearing how talented their son was and that he had Olympic potential, but they were not sure if they were just being buttered up by coaches or if the flattery held merit. One weekend, when Mark was 9, they drove him to an arena in Van Nuys, California, to get a second opinion. They approached an instructor, and after chatting for a while, Mark’s parents set up an audition to see if he would be interested in coaching their son. “That coach turned out to be none other than Frank Carroll, who was regarded as the greatest figure skating coach on the planet,” Mark says. Frank is best known for having coached skaters Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek to winning the World and Olympic Figure Skating Championships. “I was very lucky to have trained with Frank,” Mark says. “I got good fast, and by 13, I had already won Junior Worlds.”

The young skater’s parents traveled as much as they could to see him perform, though Mark learned to be independent from a young age in his skating career. “I came from a poor family; my parents made sacrifices I wouldn’t wish on anybody,” Mark says. “It was hard, but at the same time, it’s a massive part of what drove me to keep going and to not give it up.”

Mark continued to train hard through adolescence and into adulthood, and though he earned a number of titles and medals, he tends to recall now the in-between moments in the arena, pushing himself to be better.

“I remember being told repeatedly that it was impossible to do a quadruple jump, and I was bound and determined to do it,” Mark says. “I was doing them on a regular basis in 1981 and ’82, and after I stopped, I don’t think anyone tried it for another 10 years. There was another couple of guys out there working on them at the same time, and we pushed each other.”

In 1984, Mark traveled to Sarajevo, in what was then Yugoslavia, to compete in the Winter Olympics. Though he did not win a medal, he says he will never forget the feeling of representing his country on such a large stage. “Once you get in those games, you can always say that at one point, you were one of the best athletes on the planet,” Mark says. “You take it in and try to remember everything about the experience.”

Mark went on to tour with Disney on Ice from 1985 to 1989 and again from 1990 to 1992. “I had an absolute blast,” Mark says of his time skating for audiences around the globe. His favorite stop?

“Japan — the people are insanely fabulous. It was just a great experience. It is their culture; everyone is very respectful to everybody; they are incredibly polite,” Mark says. “When you compliment them about something they have or clothes, they will give you the same item as a gift. I once asked an older lady directions to the building we were skating in as I was lost, and she jumped on her bike and led me and three other skaters to the building; it was easily three miles, yet she was so happy to do it. So I returned to her home and gave her family all tickets to see the show.”

He continues, “And last but not least, nobody in Japan takes what is not theirs, and this impressed everyone in our company. We even left some money on a table in an ice arena there and came back the next day, and it was still there; people do not steal. I have been to Japan many times, and it’s just a beautiful culture.”

Reflecting on his career, Mark is grateful for his time as a competitor and a performer, citing these experiences as having prepared him to instruct young skaters. “I always wanted to be a coach. I knew my life would be skating,” Mark says.

When Veronika Bacot met Mark at the Plex HiWire arena, she knew immediately she wanted her daughter to train with the former Olympian. Fourteen-year-old Sasha Bacot had been making quite a bit of progress in her sixth year of skating, and it was time for a new coach, one who would take her to the next level in her sport. Mark had just started a summer skating program at Plex HiWire when he caught the Bacots’ attention. Initially, Sasha opted to participate in two weeks of the summer program, but ended up attending seven weeks.

“We were really impressed with the way he was working with kids, the way he was giving instructions, and how he really showed he cares about them,” Veronika says. “It was clear he is concerned about what is best for the skaters. When Sasha skates with him, he is mindful of her and does not want her to be hurt.”

 

Sasha has been training with Mark for nearly a year, and Veronika has been most impressed with the improvement in her daughter’s confidence, on and off the ice. Mark has made it clear he wants Sasha to provide input on her training and feel comfortable having dialogue with him during lessons.

Mark knows the mental barriers young skaters must push through to continue practicing and competing. “You go through moments of self-doubt, wondering if you have what it takes or if you’re doing enough,” Mark says. “I was lucky I had a coach who believed in me. You need to know your coach believes in you and that your parents believe in you — it weighs heavily on athletes, especially at such a high level. It’s hard to believe in yourself.”

Chris Johnson has been the arena manager at the Plex HiWire Family Fun and Sports Center for almost three years. He acknowledges the arena’s good fortune in snagging a coach like Mark, with international accolades and decades of experience. And though Chris says Plex HiWire and Columbia are not on the ice skating map, he believes Mark might just be what the arena and the city need to get them there.

“Participation has fallen off in the past few years,” Chris says. “But with Mark on board, we are really hoping he will create a draw to younger skaters to come in and have the chance to work with someone at that kind of level.” And so far, it seems to be working. Enthusiasm and lesson enrollments are up, and the phone keeps ringing — mostly from word being spread around town by families and students who have experienced the magic of joining Mark on the ice.

“When he’s out there skating and coaching in his USA Olympic jacket, you can definitely feel it,” Chris says. “And with the Winter Olympics coming, the excitement is building.”

For Mark, the choice to move to Columbia was easy. Though he grew up around Los Angeles, he has never been a big-city person. “I love fishing and being near the water,” Mark says. When he returned from a two-year coaching stint in South Africa, he knew he wanted to settle for a while in a balmy, mid-size American city where he could spread his love of skating. Columbia just seemed to fit the bill. “I spend my life in winter sports, but I hate being cold,” Mark says, chuckling at the irony.

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