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Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden were ice breakers in pairs figure skating, athletes who pushed the boundaries of the sport.

The Canadian pair did things that other skaters only dreamed about. They advanced the sport with their athletic tricks and carefully choreographed routines. They were the first pairs skaters to do a twist lift, a throw jump, a catch lift, a pressure lift, and a host of other moves, some of which became illegal later.

Bowden was also the first to lift his partner high into the air, beyond the shoulders, like the lifts seen today.

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Yet, having these talents didn't help them win gold at the 1956 Olympics at Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. They failed to reach the top of the podium because of questionable judging.

After having won two world championship titles in the years leading up to the 1956 Games, Dafoe and Bowden had to settle for silver at the Olympics in a close battle with Elisabeth Schwarz and Kurt Oppelt of Austria. The results were so close that accountants had to calculate placings down to the second-place ordinals.

Dafoe and Bowden, both of Toronto, were short of winning gold by just one second-place ordinal.

The Austrians had a history of producing top skaters in the early years of the sport, but after the Second World War, they lost all of their best skaters and coaches to North America.

"The greatest brokers of political intrigue and wheeling and dealing ... were the Austrians," Canadian coach Peter Dunfield said. "... They could only hang on by their teeth by being really tough with the people they could get in competition and really pushing them politically. Fran and Norrie got caught in that.

"The Austrians worked very hard behind the scenes to make sure the political lines of voting were structured to make sure that Schwarz and Oppelt won."

The world championships that followed were even worse. On the eve of the event, Dafoe and Bowden were told that seven judges had been drawn, one of them from a neutral country, Switzerland. But when they stepped onto the ice to compete, they saw nine judges.

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"Of course, the two judges were hand-picked," Dafoe said years later. "They were friends of the Austrians. It was game over as soon as we saw that."

Although Dafoe and Bowden had a minor flaw at the end of their Olympic routine, they skated the performance of a lifetime at the worlds. "It was as if we had wings on our feet that night," Dafoe said.

But the Austrians won the votes of five of the nine judges and the gold medal.

Afterwards, Jacques Gerschwiler, who coached the Austrians, approached the Canadians, visibly upset. "I do want to shake the hands of the true champions," he told Dafoe.

Most of the coaches at the event asked the International Skating Union at a meeting later that day to declare the competition null and void. The ISU refused.

Strangely enough, even though Dafoe and Bowden returned home and announced their retirement, the Canadian Figure Skating Association suspended them.

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The suspension prevented the pair from pursuing a post-skating career as judges for many years. "They didn't like us saying there were politics in skating," Dafoe said. "They knew we wanted to go on and judge."

Unlike many other world champions, Dafoe and Bowden had no intention of turning pro. They each had their own careers: Bowden in insurance and Dafoe as a highly successful costume designer.

"It wasn't a very easy time for us, I'm afraid," Dafoe said. "I always had a feeling of obligation. I felt I should give something back. ... This affected us for the rest of our lives."

They were told they could not judge at the same time at the world level, so eventually, Dafoe bowed out, allowing Bowden to painstakingly climb the judging ladder to the highest rungs. They had to take eight tests. Each test took two years of preparation at the time. "He was older than I was, so I felt he should be the one," Dafoe said.

When Bowden finally became a world judge, Dafoe began her quest, starting from the bottom. Ironically, Dafoe had to take a test to judge pairs skating. One day, she got a call from the CFSA, saying: "Frannie, we've got a problem. We don't have anybody who knows as much about pairs skating as you. Do you think you could write the lecture?"

She did. She listened to her own lecture, and passed the test.

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"That's how ridiculous the whole situation was," Dafoe said. "It was pretty funny. And that's what happened to us, all the way down the line. It wasn't very much fun, in all honesty. At times, it was quite hurtful."

The Canadian association told Dafoe she didn't have enough experience to judge at the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984. But two weeks before the world championships in Ottawa, they changed their minds, asking her to judge there. "At that point, I wasn't really sure I wanted to be a judge any more," Dafoe said.

But she felt she couldn't miss one of the competitors, Barbara Underhill, who had bombed at the Olympics with partner Paul Martini.

In Ottawa, Dafoe found their short program sensational. "I thought, I don't care what anybody thinks. This may be the shortest career on the face of the earth, but I'm going to put them first because I think they're the best," Dafoe said.

"I thought, 'Oh dear God, I'm going to be the only one.' "

But British judge Sally Stapleford had also placed Underhill and Martini first. Other judges placed them second or third, "because of the Olympics, I suspect," Dafoe said.

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A Soviet Union judge ranked them fourth, preferring Soviet skaters Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev. An East German judge followed suit, because an East German pair was in the mix, as well.

When Underhill and Martini skated magnificently in their long program, there was no question. They won the first-place votes of all but the Soviet and East German judges.

Now 79, Dafoe's last judging Olympics was in Lillehammer in 1994, but she also judged a Grand Prix event in Moscow to close her career.

After serving as a branch manager for an insurance company, as well as a skating judge and Canadian team leader, Bowden died on April 9, 1991, at age 64. He also had been the founding president of a nursery school for developmentally handicapped children.

Meanwhile, Dafoe's career as a costume designer was far more meteoric than her judging career.

She graduated from Central Technical School in Toronto, where one of her teachers was artist Doris McCarthy. Dafoe still stays in contact with the nonagenarian painter and has one of her works gracing her living room at her home in Jupiter, Fla.

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Artistic to the core, Dafoe attended one of the best art schools in the world, Parsons School of Design in New York. She got her first break when friend Joyce Hisey asked her to design the costumes for a skating carnival in Toronto.

Dafoe also spent 39 years designing costumes for CBC, working on programs such as The Wayne and Shuster Show. After 18 seasons, they became like a family to her, she said. Their wide-ranging skits, from baseball gigs to Julius Caesar comedies, kept her on her toes.

She also engineered the design of 650 costumes for the closing ceremonies at the 1988 Calgary Olympics and found out suddenly, after a trip to New York to buy fabric, that she wasn't going to have a workroom staff to make them.

She had only four months to get the costumes ready, so she called in all her figure-skating friends who knew how to thread a needle. Hisey, and her daughter, Ginger, managed to construct 160 headdresses, with white feathers in them.

"All the people that were connected to skating were prepared to do it for the love of the sport," Dafoe said. "It was just unbelievable. We were lucky. I'll never forget the loyalty of them. That's pretty unique."

But then, so is Dafoe.


Career highlights

Olympic silver medalists, 1956

Two-time world champions, 1954 and 1955

First Canadians to win a pairs world title, 1954

Fifth at the 1952 Olympic Games

Second at the 1953 world championships by 1/10th of a point

Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, 1955

Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, 1958

Skate Canada Hall of Fame, 1993

Four-time national pairs champions, 1952 to 1955

National dance champions, 1952

Bowden was 1947 men's singles champion, but gave up chance to compete at the 1948 Olympics to finish his master of commerce degree at the University of Toronto

Bowden was Canada's Olympic team manager for 1984 Sarajevo Games

Beverley Smith

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