It took Carol Heiss Jenkins two and a half years to master the double axel. Two and a half years of jumping, and often falling, on hard ice.
In 1953, she learned that multiple attempts and falls can eventually lead to success: That year she was the first skater to land a double axel. In 1960, it won her a gold medal at the Squaw Valley, Calif., Olympics.
Jenkins, then Carol Heiss, began skating when she was 4 years old in Long Island. When the weather warmed up and she could no longer skate on a pond, she kept asking to skate, so her mother took her to the Brooklyn Ice Palace. Later, when she wanted to work for sought-after coach Pierre Brunet, she had to master the single axel to get his attention. He would end up being her coach for 15 years.
All of this adds up to the lesson she’s taught her skaters for decades as a coach in Northeast Ohio: Determination leads to success.
“The ice is so hard,” she says. “But the first thing they learn is how to fall, so they can pick themselves back up. But there are hundreds of falls over the years.”
Jenkins came to Akron in 1960 with her husband. After her Olympic (she also won a silver medal in 1956) and film (she starred in the 1961 film Snow White and the Three Stooges) careers ended, she was asked to be the coach at a new Akron ice rink in 1978. Three hundred kids came to learn how to skate that first Saturday after it was advertised that Jenkins would teach. Although temporarily overwhelmed, she organized them in groups, grabbed a microphone and made it work. After that, she began coaching at least four times a week.
These days, Jenkins coaches skaters between ages 7 and 19 at Winterhurst Ice Rink in Lakewood, her home away from home for 30 years. “They all come with a dream of making the Olympics, or the world team, or making nationals,” she says.
But it’s a long, grueling road to the Olympics, and teaching patience is the most difficult lesson. Not that she hasn’t been successful. Jenkins has coached Olympians Jenni Meno, Timothy Goebel, Jill Trenary and Tonia Kwiatkowski, and current Olympic hopeful Parker Pennington.
“She’s willing to try anything to help you achieve your goals,” Kwiatkowski says. Jenkins uses props, making skaters practice with water bottles and weights in their hands to get a feel for the power of centrifical force. She uses video to record their routines and offer critiques.
As Jenkins, 70, teaches teens, with their ups and downs during tumultuous years, her responsibilities extend beyond the rink. When her students struggle with life issues, such as a parent having cancer, she offers a listening ear; when they struggle with homework, she helps them with their papers.
Her experience undergoing hip-replacement surgery five years ago spurred her to begin giving motivational talks to senior citizens about aging gracefully, and she shot a promotional video for the Cleveland Clinic on the subject.
Even around her current students, she is a role model for healthful eating. “I’ve traded doughnuts for walnuts,” she laughs.
She also remains supportive of former students, like Kwiatkowski, whom she took to dinner during a difficult divorce. Kwiatkowski saw Jenkins as a mother figure during coaching and at least 20 trips abroad. “She wanted me to be a well-rounded person,” she says of Jenkins, who accompanied her to Venice, Italy, and Hiroshima, Japan, where the two went to a museum to experience the city’s culture.
Kwiatkowski’s career reached its pinnacle in 1998, when she was ranked sixth in the world — thanks in no small part to Jenkins. “[She] definitely helped me make it as far as I could in skating,” she says.