It seemed like a harmless enough acquiescence to the pleading of the Sudbury Skating Club at the time.
It was the early seventies and Wendy Philion (then Piccolo) was only a year or two removed from her competitive skating days, studying Commerce at Laurentian University with an eye on a career in accounting.
The SSC had two coaches on the go but were in desperate need of another. The native of Levack, however, the young woman who made the move in town as a skater before the age of ten, had no real vision or inclination to pursue any interest in remaining in the sport as a coach.
Philion eventually relented, initially agreeing to help out two days a week, a schedule which expanded slightly while she was still in school. But even as she agreed to remain aboard for one extra year, post graduation, even as she had enjoyed the experience of having one of her young athletes capture a title at Sectionals, the soon-to-be retired local icon in the sport could not fathom looking back some day on a coaching career that now spans parts of no less than eight different decades.
Still, there was little if any doubt that Philion took quickly to figure skating.
“I started in Levack, where we had natural ice inside a building,” she recalled. “But I could only skate in Levack in part of December, and January and February. After that, if you had a hot day, the ice would start to melt and you would have ruts, just like playground ice.”
“I loved figure skating and my parents saw that. Sudbury had ice on Sunday afternoons, Copper Cliff in the morning. To make the trip worthwhile, my mother would drive me in and I would skate at both clubs.”
While she enjoyed a measure of success, falling one placement short of qualifying for nationals on one occasion, the combination of having a coach whose life commitments simply did not allow her to accompany Philion to qualifying events, along with the skater’s own personal mindset, one which garnered joy in merely being out on the ice, not particularly captivated by a driven desire to top the podium, very much shaped her skating life through her teenage years.
“It was just about me wanting to go out and skate, but not with aspirations of moving on,” said Philion. “My fondest memories are the trips to Sectionals, taking the train from Sudbury to Thunder Bay and sleeping overnight in a berth. They had the dining car and the dome car. As a kid, that was really thrilling.”
Truth be told, there was an inner peace that embraced Philion on the ice, a relatively stress-free environment that would offset the intensity that she felt within her world of academia. “Skating was my relief from being a very high achieving student at school,” she confessed. “Even during exams, I never stayed home, away from skating.”
“I went out and skated for an hour or two and then I came home and studied. That was my break.”
Still, summer camps in Schumacher along with acquaintances across the north laid the foundation for connections that would come in handy as just one more year of coaching led to another, then another, then another.
For someone driven to excellence in the classroom, there was little reason to coach, long-term, if it was not accompanied by a willingness to completely immerse herself into developing to her max in the role.
“I had decided if I was going to coach, then we were going to get better, we were going to become competitive,” said Philion, who would make a trip to nationals along with a qualifying skater for a stretch of 25 consecutive years or so, beginning with Rob Lenarduzzi in 1979.
“There were no NCCP courses when I began to coach – it was trial by error, so to speak.”
Off ventured Philion, spending a summer at the Toronto Cricket Club and observing the work of Hall of Fame coach Sheldon Galbraith and others. “That was my NCCP. That was me, breaking out of Sudbury and going beyond. I was making my own way, wanting to gain knowledge, not afraid to leave Sudbury and seek expertise.”
“I’m really proud of that,” she added. “We’re known now, on a national stage.”
The truth is that there is much to be proud of, even as the sport evolved over time. Our discussion weaves its way through a variety of different aspects of the sport, technical components that have come and gone and returned once again.
“Some of the basics, especially in figures, I still use today,” said Philion. “Figures went, but we still need edges and turns for the quality of skating.”
Venues have come and gone and been altered notably along the way.
“Stanley Stadium (in Copper Cliff) had a warmth about it, with all of those wooden beams and stuff,” she reminisced. “I loved that about it. And nostalgically, I loved going back to Sudbury Arena, where we spent so many years.”
The passing of years are marked by so many memories, thoughts of so many people. “I love that I’ve built friendships through my students,” said Philion. “I love that there is a whole book full of people who would come back and visit me when they are in the city.”
“I cherish that.”
“But I’m ready to retire and do other things,” she added. “I still love skating and I’ll go to big events and what not, keep contact with the friends that I am closest with in the sport.”
There just won’t be a one more year come this time next year.