Ice skating icon Ron Ludington remembered fondly by students

Ron Ludington brought his 1959 Worlds medal and 1960 Olympic bronze to show the children attending last year’s summer skate camp at the Patriot Ice Center in Newark. Submitted photo/Patriot Ice Center

By Joanna Wilson

Special to the Delaware State News

NEWARK — In a coaching career that spanned six decades of U.S. Figure Skating history, Ron Ludington taught children, champions and even a chimpanzee, as well as mentoring new generations of coaches.

Born Sept. 4, 1934 in Boston, ‘Luddy’s’ extraordinary life ended the morning of May 14 in his adopted home state of Delaware, where he lived and taught for 50 years, leaving skaters, coaches and friends around the country to miss and mourn him.

“He was so real,” said Jecilyn Stanley of Dover. “He’d say, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but get it right! You can do this!’ But I was never afraid of him — I just respected him so much.”

One memorable day, the 16-year-old competitive skater was struggling with her jumps.

“He said, ‘It’s your job to stand up. It’s my job to fix your jumps,’” said Stanley. “Well, I ended up standing up — and I got my double axel.”

Humor was always part of Luddy’s teaching toolbox.

Instead of “keep your head up” when busting a skater for looking down, he’d study the ice, pause and say, “Did you find it yet? You won’t find it, because I picked up all the quarters off the ice this morning.”

In addition to his humor and endlessly patient determination, Ludington also brought a lifetime of experiences.

“Luddy told the best stories,” recalled Jecilyn’s mom, Traci Stanley. “He had a story for every topic.”

His favorite was about Sam, the chimpanzee he spent six months training to skate in ice shows. The story was invariably followed by a characteristically gruff but somehow always encouraging comment: “So if I can teach a chimp to skate, I can teach YOU!”

And teach he did, training a star-spangled list of American skaters to 66 national titles as well as numerous world and Olympic championships and medals. His star students included 1998 Olympic champion turned popular skating commentator Tara Lipinski, as well as her commentary partner Johnny Weir.

An unlikely start, Luddy’s first pair of skates had wheels. He competed in “rollers” until he was about 17, when he decided to change to ice, since roller skating is not an Olympic sport.

Ludington and his first wife, Nancy Rouillard, became four-time national pairs champions (1957-1960) and world bronze medalists in 1959, capping their competitive career with a bronze medal in the 1960 Olympics.

The medal was presented by no less than Walt Disney.

Ron Ludington high-fives skater Meryl Shackett from Lincoln University, Pa. at the Patriot Ice Center. Submitted photo/Mark Peirce

He also squeezed in a 1958 U.S. Junior Nationals silver medal with ice dance partner Judy Ann Lamar.

In a double twist of fate, Ludington cheated death, not once but twice.

In February 1961, during his first year as a coach, U.S. figure skating was devastated when the plane carrying almost the entire team of coaches and skaters to the World Figure Skating Championships in Brussels crashed, killing 73 on board.

Neither Ludington nor his students could afford a plane ticket to go on the trip. He lived to help rebuild U.S. figure skating in the aftermath of the tragedy, going on to attend more than 40 World Championships.

Ludington’s second brush with death came on Halloween 1963, when he was in the audience for a Holiday on Ice performance at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum.

With just three minutes remaining in the show’s finale, a blast of orange flame suddenly shot 40 feet in the air on the south side of the arena when a rusty propane tank exploded. The accident left 74 dead and more than 400 injured.

Just a few seats from the affected area, Ludington was among the survivors, helping to sort out the victims as the ice surface became a temporary morgue.

Around 1970, Luddy moved to Delaware to teach at the Skating Club of Wilmington, a venture so successful that his all-night coaching marathons — to squeeze in all his students — became the stuff of legend.

“We taught all day and night, ‘till about 4 in the morning,” Luddy recently recalled. “Well, the governor got wind of this and said to me, ‘You can’t be teaching these kids all night.’ So he set out to get a rink built for training figure skaters in Delaware.”

The ultimate result was the University of Delaware’s two-rink complex. It housed the nationally and internationally-known Ice Skating Science Development Center, where Ludington served as director from 1987-2010.

After hanging up his own skates around 2000 — “my balance wasn’t any good and it was time to quit,” he explained — Luddy presided over the university’s Olympic-sized ice from a tall wooden stand, orchestrating his students like a conductor.

During those years, Ludington coached hundreds of the country’s most promising skaters, as well as skaters from around the world who came to Delaware to train with him.

In addition to Lipinski, the many American Olympians he trained included sibling pairs teams Kitty and Peter Carruthers, and Natalie (Catron) and Wayne Seybold; and ice dancers Carol Fox and Richard Dailey, and Suzanne Semanick (Schurman) and Scott Gregory.

Many of his former students became coaches, and several shared the boards with him over the years.

During his self-proclaimed “retirement” and up until his passing, Luddy continued teaching students of all ages and levels at the Patriot Ice Center in Newark. The facility is a second two-rink complex just a few blocks from the University of Delaware.

There, he was known for his uncanny ability to watch the whole rink at once while teaching, smiling or giving a word of encouragement to passing skaters without missing a thing.

Ludington with one of his students, Jecilyn Stanley of Dover. Submitted photo

Ludington still occasionally traveled to competition with his high-level students. Regardless of age, level or excuses, he never let anyone he taught off the hook until he was satisfied they had learned and given him their best.

Last summer, high school teacher and adult skater Carmen Natrin and her 12-year-old daughter, Maria, signed up for the summer skating academy at the Patriot, driving up from their home near Milford.

“Each day we had a different coach,” Natrin said. “When it was Luddy’s day, it was fun time. When teaching us spins, he would say ‘You are traveling so much, you need a suitcase.’

“Ever since, when our spins are off center, Maria and I joke, ‘Oh, your spins are traveling, you need a suitcase.’ Those words are his legacy to me, and I will always think of him.”

Ludington held a Masters Teaching Rating with the Professional Skaters Association in all disciplines — figures, freeskate, ice dance and pairs. He also served on the President’s Committee on Olympic Sports under President Ford and was a member of the Board of Directors of the United States Figure Skating Association for 10 years.

Since 1975, he was a member of the Delaware Olympic Committee.

His mark on the sport also includes pioneering the pairs throw jump — the first was an axel — and creating an international level ice dance, the Yankee Polka.

His coaching honors included:

1988: Ice Skating Institute of America Coach of the Year

1990: Professional Skating Association Coach of the Year

1993; United States Figure Skating Association Hall of Fame

1993: World Hall of Fame in Figure Skating

2000: Delaware Sports Hall of Fame

2002: Professional Skaters Association Coaches’ Hall of Fame

2004: Ice Skating Institute of America Hall of Fame

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Joanna Wilson is a free-lance writer living in Dover.