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The incredible stories that Gerty Desjardins can share

For the past 52 years, Gerty Desjardins has called Las Vegas home.

This seems all too appropriate, given just how entertaining a life the original queen of the Sudbury figure skating scene has lived.

Preparing to celebrate her 79th birthday in August, Desjardins can still spin a tale with the best of them - and there are no lack of tales to be told.

Though she would not take skating lessons until the age of nine, the only child can share some early recollections, courtesy of her mother. The latter is now one year shy of her 100th and “still kicking”, in the words of her daughter, at the Elizabeth Centre in Val Caron.

“I started skating on double runners; I was maybe five years old,” recalled Desjardins. “My mother reminded me about a little carnival that I had skated at - they were all outdoors at the time. We arrived late, but they let me skate and I won.”

Still, it was not as a solo artist where the northern Ontario athlete would truly make her name.

“I have the cutest picture of Moe (Lafrance) and I in Sundridge - we were so young,” she said. “We would do dance as well as pairs when we skated in the north. The dutch waltz was the first dance that you learned. We did that and won in Sundridge, but I think Moe said that there were only two couples there.”

It was, in fact, as a pairs team that Lafrance and Desjardins would eventually represent Canada at three sets of World Championships, before she would turn professional. To reach that point, however, would require a little travel. Sudbury may have been the original base, but their training was honestly spread right across the province.

“In the winters, at one point, we really didn’t have anyone in Sudbury who was teaching us, so we kind of taught ourselves,” said Desjardins. By this stage, a foundation had been set, ironically through a more northerly off-season jaunt. “I think when I was 11 or 12, I started going to Schumacher (McIntyre Arena) for summer skating,” she stated.

“Because I was going, Moe decided to come up and we started taking pairs lessons from Sheldon Galbraith.” Coach for the Canadian skating entry at the Winter Olympics in 1948, 1956 and 1960, Galbraith had worked with the likes of Barbara Ann Scott and Donald Jackson.

By their late teens, the local pairs tandem had made the move to follow the World Figure Skating Hall of Famer to the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club. Competing at the Canadian Juniors for the first time in 1959 in Rouyn Noranda, Desjardins and Lafrance would ascend to the top of the podium the following year in Regina.

At the senior level, however, Canada was the envy of the world when it came to pairs skating.

Joining the up and coming northern duo were the likes of Maria and Otto Jelinek (world champions in 1962) and Debbi Wilkes/Guy Revell (bronze medallists at worlds in 1964). The competitive dynamics were fascinating.

“Debbi and Guy and Moe and I were rivals,” said Desjardins. “We weren’t really rivals with Maria and Otto, just because they were better than both of us.”

Such was the high esteem and friendship that Gerty would develop with Maria Jelinek that the latter would not only serve as the maid of honour to her skating competitor, but was also on hand in Sudbury in 2007 when Desjardins was inducted into the local Sports Hall of Fame.

Not to mention the fact that all three pairs teams were on hand in Prague, in February of 1961, the year the World Skating Championships would be cancelled following an airline crash that took the lives of the entire United States skating team.

“We had competed at the North American Championships that year and faced the Americans in Philadelphia,” Desjardins recalled. “We (Team Canada) flew from Philly to New York to take our plane to Prague. They (Team USA) took a bus to get on the Sabena flight. We were in the air, en route to Amsterdam, when they went down in Brussels.”

The drama, however, had only just started to unfold.

In 1948, the Jelinek family had fled Czechoslovakia, eventually settling down in Oakville. While Canadian officials were able to obtain a release of citizenship to allow the young siblings (Maria and Otto) to compete in Prague (in ‘62), their parents were not allowed re-entry into their country of origin.

As such, it was Desjardins’ mother who had more or less been entrusted with keeping an eye on the still young skaters as the team landed into the surreal setting that was the airport in Prague.

“The army greeted us with guns and grabbed all of our passports, which scared the heck out of us,” recalled Desjardins. “Then, we’re whisked into the terminal and all of a sudden, all of the Czech people surround Maria and Otto. We thought they were doing something to them because Maria started to cry.”

“It turned out that she had just been told that all of the Americans had been killed.”

Twelve months later, Desjardins and Lafrance were back in Prague, finishing sixth in the world. In the winter of 1963, it was off to Cortina d’Ampezzo (Italy), a bittersweet yet memorable conclusion to the amateur career of the proud Sudbury natives, climbing two more spots up the rungs and producing a best ever fourth place finish at Worlds.

“The conditions were awful,” said Desjardins. “We skated outdoors and at 9:00 p.m. - my blades were squeaking, that’s how cold it was.” It was their final performance. “At the end of 1962, Moe had started coughing up blood. He was diagnosed with a disease where the veins in your lungs normally have capillaries at the end, but he didn’t have any.”

“The exertion of skating would cause the vessels to burst.”

“It broke our hearts, but especially him, because at least I could move on.”

Desjardins would do just that, for many years to come.

“There wasn’t any money in amateur skating, so it made more sense to go pro,” she explained. “Everyone joined the show right away.”

The show, as it were, would involve committing to either the Ice Capades or Ice Follies, both of which engaged the services of Desjardins over the years. It was there that she would meet her husband, George Verbiwski, a slapstick ice skating comedian who would move on to work as a stage technician at most of the showrooms on the Vegas strip.

If Las Vegas was her home, the world was the stage for Gerty Desjardins.

At various times, she teamed with either Guy Revell, and later Richard Dwyer, performing to capacity crowds in both North America and across the globe. “Even as amateur skaters, we had a little flair,” said Desjardins with a laugh.

“We (she and Revell) did a Spanish number that was pretty clever. It started with a black lace dress overtop of a red outfit. When the lace came off, I was dressed all in red, I put on a beret and we did a french number to Edith Piaf.”

There is something larger than life to the manner in which Desjardins recalls moments of her past.

“When we moved here, Vegas was run by the mob,” she said of her home for the past half century plus. “But if you weren’t in competition with them and didn’t do anything, they didn’t bother you. They were fabulous.”

And this from a 1982 party that gathered the who's who of the skating world for Richard Dwyer’s 50th birthday. “We get a call at Richard’s place from Dubai, asking us to do a world tour,” Desjardins began. “We left LA and flew to London, and then from London to Dubai. We skated in Dubai, and we always used to stay and teach the kids a little bit during these stops, kids that were mostly ex-patriots.”

“From there, we flew Cathay Pacific, with brief stops in India and Thailand, to Hong Kong. From there, we were off, back to Los Angeles. We went completely around the world. Isn’t that neat? I just love that story - that’s one of my highlights.”

In a life full of highlights, it’s been one of many that Gerty Desjardins can still share with zest and laughter - and all with a certain northern Ontario charm.