A Conversation with Heather Kemkaran-Antymniuk

Heather Kemkaran was three years old when she first stepped onto an outdoor rink. 

Canada’s Heather Kemkaren competes in the figure skating event at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.(CP Photo /COA)

Her neighbour, Mr. Black, in the small town of Strathclair, Manitoba – northwest of the City of Brandon – offered to teach Kemkaran and her brother to skate. Kemkaran’s dad agreed and made an outdoor rink.

Little did the Kemkaran family know those first steps would lead to two Canadian titles and a trip to the Olympics.

First, those steps lead to the local skating rink so her parents could curl. While they curled, Kemkaran and her brother took lessons at the rink.

Now known as Kemkaran-Antymniuk, she laughed as she retold the story in a telephone interview. “It was a means of child care.”

“I loved to skate,” said Kemkaran-Antymniuk. “The love of skating was so deep, but it was effortless.”

As she grew up, Kemkaran-Antymniuk went on a cross-cut journey from Winnipeg to Vancouver to Colorado and finally to Toronto. When she was 11, she trained under Gordon Linney at Winnipeg Winter Club. Two years later, she and her mom headed to Vancouver to train under Dr. Hellmut May. In 1974, Kemkaran-Antymniuk travelled to the Denver, Colorado to skate at the World Arena Ice Hall under Carlo Fassi.

“I didn’t even know it, but it was an audition,” said Kemkaran-Antymniuk.

Fassi told her to do triples, so Kemkaran-Antymniuk did a triple Salchow and a triple toe-loop. Fassi came back to Kemkaran-Antymniuk’s mom and said, “Yeah, she can skate.” Fassi agreed to take her on as a student.

In Colorado, Kemkaran-Antymniuk skated with the likes of Dorothy Hamill and Robin Cousins.

“I knew Scott Hamilton. I got to skate with all these people,” said Kemkaran-Antymniuk.

However, Kemkaran-Antymniuk still needed a Canadian coach, and Fassi sent her up to Ellen Burka of the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club. Burka coached her daughter, Petra Burka, to a world championship in 1965 and an Olympic bronze medal. Burka also trained Canadian men’s champion, Toller Cranston

“Toller was such a pioneer in artistry,” said Kemkaran-Antymniuk. “And Ellen (Burka) helped bring that out in my skating.”

Kemkaran-Antymniuk split her time between Toronto and Colorado. Between the two coaches, Burka and Fassi, they would draw out a national level skater.

Fassi was a master in figures according to Kemkaran-Antymniuk. He helped perfect her compulsories in Colorado while Burka refined her artistry in Toronto.

“Burka was a very, very strict woman,” said Kemkaran-Antymniuk. “I appreciated strict.”

Burka never spoke about her past – no one knew she was a Holocaust survivor according to Kemkaran-Antymniuk.

“She’s an incredible woman,” Kemkaran-Antymniuk said. “I think she’s one of the most wonderful coaches ever.”

When it came to interpretation of the music, Burka would tell Kemkaran-Antymniuk “just do what you feel.”

Kemkaran-Antymniuk believes this is what’s missing from skating today.

“Our spins went with the music,” she said. “We skated to the music.”

She and her daughter watched YouTube videos of skaters such as Janet Lynn. Kemkaran-Antymniuk’s daughter remarked: “Mom, they skate so free!”

“There’s something to be said for skating in my era,” said Kemkaran-Antymniuk.

In 1977, Kemkaran-Antymniuk went to her first worlds in Tokyo, Japan after she placed second to Lynn Nightingale at the Canadians. In Kemkaran-Antymniuk’s world debut, she placed 13th.

Ottawa JournalAfter Tokyo, her mom asked, “Are you ready to retire now?” Kemkaran-Antymniuk wasn’t. She wanted to win the 1978 Canadian championship and a trip to the worlds in Ottawa.

A goal Kemkaran-Antymniuk accomplished. At 19 years old, she won her first Canadian title and the right to represent Canada as its champion on home soil in 1978. 

“After all that work … sense of accomplishment … sense of relief,” said Kemkaran-Antymniuk.

Kemkaran-Antymniuk placed 12th in Ottawa and, again, her mom asked, “Are you ready to retire now?”

Kemkaran-Antymniuk wasn’t ready to turn professional or hang up her skates. She wanted to repeat as champion, plus the Olympics were around the corner. 

But the next season wasn’t so kind to Kemkaran-Antymniuk. After a coaching change to Louis Stong, she lost her title to Janet Morrissey – the Canadian silver medallist the previous year. That year, Canada could only send one woman to the 1979 World Figure Skating Championships in Vienna, Austria – and it would be the Canadian champion.

“It was devastating to lose it (the title),” said Kemkaran-Antymniuk. “I set incredibly high standards.”

Kemkaran-Antymniuk made the decision to return to Burka.

“I knew Ellen Burka could create something.”

It was worth the effort. Kemkaran-Antymniuk regained her title at the 1980 Canadian championship – the Olympic year.

“Truly, the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Kemkaran-Antymniuk. “It was either you do it, or you don’t.”

The Canadian champion was sent to the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.

“I wanted to experience it all,” Kemkaran-Antymniuk said.

Kemkaran-Antymniuk said she was hanging out with Steve Podborski and Ken Read, otherwise known as the Crazy Canucks. They marvelled at the European skaters as they played soccer in the snow.

Kemkaran-Antymniuk witnessed history, witnessing the United States vs. Soviet Union hockey game, dubbed the Miracle on Ice.

“I thought, boy, that was fun!” she laughed.

The late folk musician Harry Chapin, known for his hits Cat’s in the Cradle and Flowers are Red, sought Kemkaran-Antymniuk out at Lake Placid after she skated her short program.

“He asked me, ‘Are you that little Canadian girl?’” said Kemkaran-Antymniuk. “And I said, ‘Yes, yes, I am!’ ”

“And he said ‘I thought so, I just watched you skate … you’re really good.’ ”

Kemkaran-Antymniuk still has the dresses she wore in 1980 – the flambé orange for her short and the ocean blue with the jewels for her long. In 1992, she temporary donated both to the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame for an exhibit. A woman from Turkey fashioned the costumes. The jewels back then could easily weigh a skater down.

“It was very heavy jewels,” laughed Kemkaran-Antymniuk. “I had to learn how to skate in it (the dress).”

Kemkaran-Antymniuk thought it would be “protocol” that she would attend the Olympics in Lake Placid and the World Championships in Dortmund, West Germany. She found out soon after the Canadian championships that wasn’t the Canadian Figure Skating Association’s plan.

“I was contacted by the CFSA, and later notified by letter,” said Kemkaran-Antymniuk.

She wasn’t told who was attending in her place, though she suspected it was Tracey Wainman. At the age of 12, Wainman won the bronze medal at the 1980 Canadians. Wainman was also coached by Burka.

“I had to carry on,” said Kemkaran-Antymniuk. “My biggest challenge was to continue to train and I did.”

Kemkaran-Antymniuk and Wainman have seen each other many times over the years.

“We don’t harbour any resentment,” said Kemkaran-Antymniuk. The two skaters opened the Air Canada Centre together.

Kemkaran-Antymniuk was also invited to the recent 100th anniversary of the Canadians in Ottawa, however, she wasn’t able to attend because she was on vacation.

After the Olympics, Kemkaran-Antymniuk turned professional. She skated in the Labatt Pro-Skate tour. Kemkaran-Antymniuk thought about staying in the sport a little longer.

“(But) I wasn’t completely convinced that was the best thing for me,” she said. “There had to be a reality check,”

Throughout her career, Kemkaran-Antymniuk maintained her education through correspondence. Her dad was a doctor and her brother followed his footsteps.

And Kemkaran-Antymniuk became a lawyer.

Kemkaran-Antymniuk remained in the sport for a long time as a coach and technical specialist. But between her law practice and figure skating, it became a difficult balance.

“It was hard,” Kemkaran-Antymniuk said. “I had a good run at it.”

Kemkaran-Antymniuk said people are still leery about bringing up the 1980 Worlds around her. She recounts how some people felt so bad for her after what happened when she was already over it.

Kemkaran-Antymniuk would just think “I’m in university, I’m working on my under-grad, I’ve moved on.” If it were an either-or situation, no question, Kemkaran-Antymniuk was glad she was sent to the Winter Games in Lake Placid.

“I fulfilled all of my goals and accomplished a lot,” said Kemkaran-Antymniuk. “Life goes on.”

“I do hope deep in my heart, people will remember me for some of the skating.”

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