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An Interview With Colleen O'Connor and Jim Millns and Doreen Denny

A Chat With the 1976 Olympic Ice Dancing Bronze Medalists and Their Coach


Doreen Denny, Sarah Fuller (Jim's Student), Jim Millns, and Colleen O'Connor - September 22, 2012

Doreen Denny, Sarah Fuller (Jim's Student), Jim Millns, and Colleen O'Connor - September 22, 2012

Photo Courtesy Jim Millns
Colleen O'Connor and Jim Millns won the bronze medal in ice dancing at the 1976 Winter Olympic Games. They are considered one of the most successful ice dance teams in U.S. history. The O'Connor-Millns ice dance team was coached by 1959 and 1960 World Ice Dance Champion, Doreen Denny. In September of 2012, O'Connor, Millns, and Denny took the time to chat with About.com's Guide to Figure Skating, Jo Ann Schneider Farris.

Tell me about your early skating days.

Colleen: I grew up in the Chicago area and I was first an artistic roller skater. I began roller skating when I was seven years old. By the time I was ten years old, I had won roller nationals in juvenile dance. I actually won a lot of other roller skating titles including titles in fours, pairs, and freestyle. I won roller nationals in junior dance too.

I started ice skating when I was thirteen years old, and did both roller skating and ice skating until I was sixteen. My roller skating partner, Wayne Searle, joined me on the ice. I competed in pairs and dance in both roller and ice skating during my teen years.

Jim: I first skated on my grandmother's backyard pond in Toledo, Ohio. When I was twelve years old, my grandmother took me to her ladies coffee club at an indoor ice rink. At that rink, I saw a boy named Duane Macki practicing. (Duane was the runner-up to Tim Wood in the 1964 U.S. national junior men's figure skating event.) I was in awe of Duane. What he did I thought was incredible, and I approached him during that ladies coffee club session and we became friends. Duane inspired me to become a figure skater. I did singles first, was introduced to pairs, and also ice dancing. I was actually a gymnast first and a skater second. I played hockey in college by the way!

How did your journey to the top of the ice dancing world come about?

Jim: Colleen and I actually competed against one another in the silver dance (now called junior dance) level. Every weekend, when I was in college, I went to the Wagon Wheel in Rockton, Illinois to skate with Janet Lynn. Janet Lynn's coach, Slavka Kohout, wanted her to practice ice dancing with a partner to improve her skating, edge, and stroking skills. I was honored to be given the chance to skate with the US National ladies champion! Who would refuse such an offer?

On one of the weekends I was in Rockton, which was actually an ice dance weekend, Colleen and I skated together. We were told we looked great together and were encouraged to form a partnership. I was already scheduled to spend my last year of college in England, and Colleen said she always wanted to visit and skate in England, so off we went to England to train.

Colleen: I went to that dance weekend because Janet Lynn's father called me to tell me that some new Czech ice dance coaches were teaching at the Wagon Wheel. He encouraged me to come for that ice dance weekend to check things out. I wanted to finish up some of my ice dance tests, so it seemed like a good idea.

Brian Monahan was there and encouraged me to do a Westminster Waltz with Jim. After we did the Westminster, Brian exclaimed, "It's a match made in heaven!" We knew we needed to skate together!

I know British ice dance coaches have had a history of producing some of the world's best ice dancers. Who coached you in England?

Colleen: We worked with "Bernie" Bernard Ford. I always wanted to go to England and work with him. He was a five-time world ice dance champion. Those seven or eight months with him are months I have always treasured. Throughout our skating career, we continued to work with him off and on.

After you left England, did you automatically start working with Doreen?

Colleen: We first went to the Wagon Wheel and worked with the Czech ice dance coaches that were on staff there. We even took some ice dance lessons from Slavka Kohout.

How did you end up at The Broadmoor with Doreen then?

Colleen: When I was in high school, I lived in Denver and took ice dance lessons from US ice dance champion, Kristen Fortune. On the weekends, I would go to Colorado Springs to skate. I saw Doreen teaching then and I said to myself, "Someday I am going to take lessons with that woman!"

Doreen: I will never forget the day Colleen called me. I was on the ice teaching on a public session at the old Broadmoor World Arena and was told I had a phone call. Colleen asked if I'd be interested in teaching her and Jim. Of course, I accepted the offer!

Tell me how you became ice dance champions. It seemed like it was almost like magic!

Jim: I'll never forget our first lesson with Doreen. She asked us to stroke together. She then told us our stroking was too noisy and that we had to stroke for a week with the goal of not making any noise. Doreen told us that if we made any noise in a week, she'd make us do nothing but stroking again for another week. Colleen was so determined to fix what Doreen asked us to do that we stroked and stroked for hours and hours.

That's how we trained. We did patterns and patterns of compulsory pattern dances without stopping over and over again. Perfection was our goal. We had been 4th in the country before coming to Doreen. No one expected us to rise to the top and win the US ice dance title, but Doreen demanded perfection and we worked so well together.

All we did was connected to Doreen. It was like we were a united trio.

Doreen, did you train Colleen and Jim to their national titles and world and Olympic figure skating medals with just one 30 minute lesson a day six nights a week?

Doreen: In those days, the ice dancers that trained at The Broadmoor skated in the middle of the night. I started teaching at about 11 pm and finished at four in the morning. When Colleen and Jim were my last lesson of the night, once in awhile I taught them longer than thirty minutes. I was on a pretty tight schedule.

I worked on choreography on the floor at home. I knew what I wanted to accomplish with them before I arrived at the rink at night.

What are some of the highlights of your competitive career?

  • 1974 U.S. Championships - 1st
  • 1974 World Championships - 7th
  • 1975 U.S. Championships - 1st
  • 1975 World Championships - 2nd
  • 1976 U.S. Championships - 1st
  • 1976 Olympics - 3rd
  • 1976 World Championships - 3rd

Tell me a bit about your Olympic memories.

Jim: I will never forget what a camera man said to me just before we were about to do our free dance. He said, "Are you aware that over 500 million people are watching you?" When I first stepped on the ice, that was all I could think about! After we began performing our our free dance, I was able to concentrate on my skating.

We were also so busy at the Olympics. We had to keep training even after we won our medals since we were scheduled to compete at the 1976 World Figure Skating Championships.

Colleen: I thought it was very cool to see the American flag go up with two Soviet flags when we were awarded our medals. I was sad we couldn't participate in the Opening Ceremonies since we had to compete the next day.

Doreen: I felt that Colleen and Jim's Olympic medals were my Olympic medals too since ice dance was not an Olympic event when I won the 1960 World Figure Skating Championships. It felt a bit like I was redeemed.

What was life like after the Olympics?

Jim: We did the traditional tour of skating champions. Actually, we did not get that much attention during the tour, but on our way home, in May of 1976, we were recognized on a plane and in an airport in Paris. It hit us then that we'd really done something special. We also went to the White House and were honored there. That "time of fame" was short though. By the time the summer Olympics came around, the world's attention was on other athletes.

Tell me about your professional skating careers and about your life today?

Jim: Colleen and I didn't want to skate in a big touring show like Ice Follies or Ice Capades. When we were offered a chance to be in a show that showed off pure skating, we knew it was right for us. That show eventually became known as Toller Cranston's show and that show went on Broadway. I'm very proud to say that we were part of the concept that eventually became the theory for shows like Stars On Ice.

We did some other professional appearances after that. I then did some coaching. Finally, I decided to go back to school to get a Master's Degree in computer science in order to get a "real job." I worked for GTE (now Verizon) in Florida and I met my wife in Florida. I have five children and six grandchildren. I did some international judging for awhile, but it was too hard on my family. Seven years ago, I retired from my "real job" and now I'm back teaching skating. I am in my sixties now, but still partner my students through gold ice dances. I also serve as a US Figure Skating sectional ice dancing technical specialist.

Both Colleen and I speak to school groups sometimes and show off our Olympic medals. I am President of Florida Olympians and I am on the board of the US Olympians Association which is the part of US Olympic Committee that represents the athletes who have competed in the Olympics.

Colleen: After skating with Jim, I did more professional skating. I toured with the big shows and and skated with other partners. I am married to John Towill, who I met during the time Jim and I trained in England. My husband is a British junior ice dance champion and a busy synchronized skating coach. We live in New Jersey. John and I both coach skating full-time.

Doreen: I raised my two children and continued to coach ice dancing. I am one of the coaches who taught Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert who won the US Ice Dance title in 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, and 1985. I continue to live and coach in Colorado Springs.

What are your thoughts on the ice dancing of today? Are you happy with the changes ice dancing has gone through?

Doreen, Colleen, and Jim: We all are sad to see the pattern dances phase out, but we are grateful that pattern dances are part of solo dance events.

Jim: There is no way that we can compare the kind of free dance we did with the free dance that is done today. What we did then was very different.

Do you have any advice for today's aspiring skaters?

Jim: Always start with a dream. Find your passion. If that passion is skating, keep working towards a goal. If you achieve one goal, reach for another. Keep setting new goals. Set new goals to achieve. Once you are content, that's where it ends.
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