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Never did such an accomplished figure skater fly so far under the radar as 1964 Olympic bronze medalist Petra Burka.

She was 10 or 11, with only a few lessons under her belt, when veteran coach Osborne Colson told her mother, coach Ellen Burka, that she should pay attention to her daughter. The kid had talent, he said.

But it wasn't easy for Ellen Burka, a single mother. She was trying to bring up two daughters and if she taught Petra, it would cut into time she needed to coach others to pay the bills. And how would she ever pay for extra ice time, too?

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But little Petra could do things that other women could not at the time. A natural and superior jumper, Burka became the first woman to land a triple jump at a competition at the Canadian championships in 1962, when she was only 15. It was a triple Salchow.

But more astonishing than that was her ability to watch others, soak in what they did, then repeat it, with little instruction.

"I had an athletic body," she said. "And I was a quick learner."

As a young teenager, Burka was watching Donald Jackson, her hero, practising triple Lutzes at a Toronto rink. She was incredibly lucky to see this because eventually Jackson became the first skater in history to land the difficult jump in competition. He landed only five clean ones in his lifetime.

It was a jump beyond the pale. After Jackson landed his first and only competition Lutz at the 1962 world championships, it took 12 years for another male to land it again.

And at the time, women didn't attempt any triple jumps, let alone a Lutz, considered one of the most difficult of jumps. Women did well to land a good double Axel.

Burka did double Axels with ease. Once, she landed 10 double Axels in a row. She taught herself how to do them. Her mother was astonished to see Petra announce one day that she could do a double Axel, because she had never taught her one. And Petra delivered. One day, after Jackson attempted a triple Lutz in practice, Burka announced: "I can do that."

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And she did. Perfectly. At first shot. Just for fun. Just because she wanted to.

It was more than 20 years later that a woman, Denise Biellmann of Switzerland, landed a triple Lutz in competition. Burka never tried it in competition.

In the beginning, Burka was having difficulties just finishing high enough at the Canadian championships to earn a trip to the world championships. Always, she was mired in low compulsory figure marks.

Her mother finally figured they needed a big trick in her free-skate routine to catch the attention of judges. "We needed ammunition," as Petra put it.

When Burka landed a triple Salchow at a Canadian championship in 1962, she made big headlines across the country. "Canada girl does world first," the Toronto Telegram read.

"It was a big deal," Petra said.

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The strategy worked wonderfully. Burka finished second at that Canadian championship and earned the world championship spot.

So off both of them went to attend their very first world championship in Prague in 1962. "I didn't have the foggiest," Ellen Burka said.

Both were greenhorns. "Don't expect too much," Ellen told her daughter.

Based on the kind of marks she got at home for compulsory figures, Ellen figured Petra would end up last, and that she should just try to do what she could in the free skate.

Burka finished 14th on the first figure, then 11th, then seventh, eventually climbing all the way to fourth by the time she finished her sixth and last figure. (Figures counted for 60 per cent of the final mark at the time.)

The Burkas were astonished, even though Petra had been doing the same figures at home. It was the first time they saw a pattern: that Petra got higher marks internationally than she did at home.

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Then, Petra finished second in the free skate, to finish fourth overall at her first world championship.

She was a big hit in Prague. The local newspapers dubbed her "the jumping sensation from Canada." Burka did the triple Salchow again in Prague, but she didn't need the triple Salchow after that.

Skaters received no support at all in those days. Ellen Burka had to buy three tickets to Prague, one for herself, for Petra, and her other daughter, Astra, who she couldn't leave at home alone. She also struggled with having to buy extra ice time to coach Petra.

One skating parent came to her rescue. Toronto Maple Leafs co-owner Stafford Smythe, whose daughter was in Burka's school, offered Petra a chance to skate at Maple Leaf Gardens at 7 a.m. every day. The hockey players didn't show up until 9:30 a.m.

"He was very nice to me," Ellen Burka said.

Sometimes, the players would arrive to practise early and cheer on Petra. "The players loved Petra," Ellen said. "They'd also try to do compulsory figures, with their hockey skates on, tracing over her figures.

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"Eddie Shack did a good loop change loop," she said with a laugh.

When Petra went to the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, she was separated from her mother for the first time and she relished it. She lived in a dorm, slept on a primitive straw mattress and met athletes from other sports.

"It was an adventure," Petra said. "I was totally on my own. I enjoyed my independence."

"She wanted to get rid of her parents," Ellen said.

One morning, Petra looked at her mother while preparing to practise figures and said she didn't want her mother there. "What are you doing?" Ellen asked her. "I am your coach, after all."

Nobody could find Petra one day when it came time to do an exhibition. Nobody had told her she was expected to skate. A police car returned, sirens blaring, with the skater in tow. She had hurriedly put on her skates in the car and arrived just as they were announcing her name.

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Petra became the first Canadian to skate in the Soviet Union, doing a two-week tour in Moscow and Kiev. The Russians secured a quick visa and flew Petra to Moscow on a special plane.

After Burka won the 1965 world championship and finished third in 1966, she retired to tour North America and Europe for three years. Wanting to get on with her life, and not live on the road, Burka worked at various jobs: in promotion for both the Canadian Figure Skating Association and for Sport Canada, as Fletcher Markle's assistant and a CBC researcher for a year or two, before getting into the commercial film industry for 15 years.

Markle was best known in Canada for his CBC documentary series Telescope, which examined the Canadian image.

Burka returned to coaching full-time ("You just can't stay away from skating," she said), and since 1999, has been a skating consultant and team leader for Skate Canada.

In the past year, she's been on the road for 82 days, flying all over the continent, advising and supporting developing and senior skaters.

"There's lots of travelling, but I love it," she said. "When I get near an airport, I get excited."

***

Career highlights

Canadian junior champion, 1961

Canadian senior champion, 1964 to 1966

World champion, 1965

Two-time world bronze medalist

Olympic bronze medalist, 1964

Lou Marsh Trophy, 1965

Canada's top female athlete, 1964 and 1965

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