J. Barry Mittan, the Electronic Photojournalist

Feel the Energy - Canada's Jennifer Robinson by J. Barry Mittan (1996)

For Jennifer Robinson, Canada's new figure skating queen, the coronation came suddenly and unexpectedly: "I dreamed a lot of dreams and they all came true in one moment. I never thought it would come this fast." Robinson's rise has been dramatic -- junior winner in 1994, senior silver medalist in 1995, senior ladies champion in 1996. Refreshing Jennifer wasn't aiming to win: "I never come to a competition with a placing in mind. I want to do the best I can for myself and the audience." She was awed by the audience reaction to her victory: "The applause was really incredible. It took me by surprise. Usually it's just my mom and dad clapping." Not any more!

But the victory was bittersweet. Robinson was thrilled to win, but then quickly saddened by what second place meant for her friend and role model, three-time Canadian champion Josee Chouinard. Jennifer hugged Josee at the medals ceremony, telling her she was sorry and trying to comfort her as both skaters sobbed. "Josee is Josee!!" exclaimed Jennifer later, eyes brimming with tears. "She's a really great skater and a good friend. She's been very supportive since I met her. We really pull for each other and have a lot of fun together." When one dream is fulfilled; another dream dies.

Robinson didn't start out to be a figure skater. Her family's history is in hockey. She's a niece of Montreal Canadiens defenseman Gaston Gingras, her younger brother Jason plays defense for the Ontario Hockey League's Niagara Falls Thunder, her father Cliff coaches youth hockey, and her mother grew up in arenas with three hockey-playing brothers. Louise Robinson really didn't want her children to grow up in arenas like she did as a child, but the close-knit family always reserved Sunday mornings to go to public skating at one of Windsor's local rinks, starting when Jennifer was only two. "I always wanted to play hockey, " says Jennifer.

Jennifer actually started her sports career in gymnastics, starting out about 5 and taking lessons until she was 8, but a trip to the Ice Capades changed her life: "I fell in love with the whole thing -- the spins, the jumps, the speed, the excitement, the crowd, everything, " bubbles Robinson. She started skating lessons with her first coach, Lori Lafferty-Vilneff at the Riverside Figure Skating Club. When it became obvious that Robinson had national-calibre talent, her mother and father sought out new coaches and found Doug and Michelle Leigh at the Mariposa Winter Club in Barrie, Ontario.

Robinson has been working with the Leighs for the last six years. She says, "They're like a second family. Michelle's like my second mom, always fixing my hair and everything." If there was one person happier than Jennifer at the Canadians kiss and cry, it was Michelle Leigh, jumping up and down and screaming when the winning marks were announced. Robinson is a very family-oriented person and says she actually has a third family - Judy and Ron Perkins, with whom she boards in Barrie.

Jennifer is not just a skater. As a high school athlete, she took after her mother, a track and field athlete who specialized in distance running, the long jump, and the high jump. Jennifer ran the 800 and 1500 meters on her high school track team. She also played as a floater between forward and defense in soccer and loves to play baseball. "I have a very competitive nature, " she says. Her goal is to compete in the 1998 Olympics: "I always dreamed of going to the Olympics, but I didn't know in what." Then she would like to do skating shows. She has already performed at Skate the Nation In London and at the opening of the new Palladium in Ottawa. "Performing brings out a different side of me. I used to be really shy."

Her prior shyness plays a role in her skating. When going for a jump, Robinson waits until the very last second before vaulting into the air right next to the boards, scaring the wits out of onlookers. "When I was young and just starting out, the other skaters went by so fast I was afraid I'd get hit, so I jumped in a corner by myself, near my coaches, " explains Robinson. "It's not a matter of speed. It's a matter of trusting myself. My lutz is really close to the boards because I'm trying so hard." Robinson is planning to work on her triple flip and her triple salchow and hopes to learn a triple axel for next season. "The triple flip is at least plausible now, but I'm not very consistent," she says. She also hopes to upgrade her speed and the rotation on her jumps.

But Jennifer is a very adventuresome soul, used to taking it to the limit. She's already tried reverse bungee jumping and wants to learn to fly a plane and go skydiving, two very compatible skills. She likes to go camping, fishing, rowing, and canoeing, especially in the spring: "It's really relaxing." She also loves animals and hopes to have horses and a golden retriever like her old dog, Chip. Jennifer goes shopping, visit museums, and goes sightseeing when she travels to skating events: "If you want to go out and do things, you can make time. My mom and dad and I visited London after Worlds last year. Vienna is the favorite place I've seen. We went to Mozart's house and to the opera house for a Tchaikovsky concert."

Robinson's other interests include music and reading, primarily novels and mysteries. "My musical tastes are very eclectic," she says. "I like Canadians like Tragically Hip, Tea Party, and Sara McLachlan." Jennifer played the alto saxophone in her school band but always wanted to play the piano and the violin: "I'm definitely going to take lessons some day." Jennifer prefers to skate to classical music but went with a Latin theme for last year's free skate, "It's really flirty. I had a lot of fun with it -- making a connection to the audience." Her exhibition number was even more flirty as the modern James Bond girl in "GoldenEye". When inventing the programs, Robinson says she and choreographer Michelle Leigh "play around with the music and the steps until I really feel comfortable."

Jennifer usually bolts onto the ice like a thoroughbred bursting from the starting gate. "I love to feel the wind," she says. In warm-ups, she frequently slaps her thighs, especially after a bad jump. She says it's her way of saying "Wake up muscles. Come on, let's go, It's time to do it now." Robinson explains that "I'm really into energy. I really feel through my hands." That's why she's planning to be a massage therapist when she's finished skating. She plans to attend Sutton Applied School for Massage Therapy part-time for the next four years. Meanwhile, she works as a salesperson at Mark's Work Wearhouse at night to earn a little spending money: "It helps keep my mind off of skating for a while."

Even though Robinson finished a disappointing 23rd at Worlds, Canada is counting on her to represent them in the Champions Series this year. As Canadian Figure Skating Association director-general David Dore said after Canadians, "Jennifer is a fighter. She's not going to say she'll be in the top ten, but the long term for Jennifer is good. It's the first time we've had a gutsy lady in a long time." He's absolutely right.

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