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LaBrake stays connected to Lake Placid

July 26, 2019
By CHRISTIE SAUSA - Correspondent , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Native Lake Placidian Jeff LaBrake, an elite competitive figure skater, ice show performer and coach who has traveled the world, returns to his hometown every summer to share his love and knowledge of skating with a new generation of skaters at the Olympic Center.

"I have so many wonderful memories of skating in Lake Placid," LaBrake said. "I don't think I can narrow it down to just a few."

An elite figure skater, ice show performer and coach, LaBrake is a Lake Placid skating celebrity. Those walking through the Olympic Center's 1932 Jack Shea arena hallway can even see him and his partner, sister Leanne LaBrake Matos, in the Skating Club of Lake Placid's Hall of Fame, where local skaters who have achieved a US Figure Skating gold medal test and have met other stewardship criteria earn a spot of distinction on the board.

Article Photos

Jeff and Leanne LaBrake compete in a Lake Placid summer event. The date of the photo is unknown.
Photo provided

But before becoming enamored by figure skating, LaBrake was just another local kid trying different sports.

"I was a kid who switched from sport to sport when I was little," LaBrake said. "I tried downhill skiing and ski jumping because my older brother Mike did both. I played little league baseball too, but never finished any of the sports because I got bored. Until I saw my sister Leanne in a local ice show and I told my Mom, 'I want to do that!'"

Jeff's mother Aline was reluctant due to Jeff's tendency to lose interest in the other sports, but Jeff, the middle child in a family of five kids, was insistent.

Fact Box

Career highlights

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LaBrake and LaBrake

1976 - North Atlantic Novice Pairs Champions

1976 - Eastern Novice Pairs Silver Medalists

1977 - North Atlantic Junior Pairs Champions

1978 - North Atlantic Junior Pairs Silver Medalists

1978 - Eastern Junior Pairs Champions

1978 - U.S. National Junior Pairs Bronze Medalists

1979 - North Atlantic Senior Pairs Champions

1979 - Eastern Senior Pairs Pewter Medalists

1979 - U.S. National Senior Pairs Competitors

Jeff LaBrake

1980 - North Atlantic Junior Men's Champion

"I told her I really wanted to skate, and she told me to wait a year and if I still wanted to skate, then she would buy me a pair of skates. I waited an entire year and then I got a pair of skates and it was like I was born to do it," LaBrake said. "I was 7 years old when I started, and just knew this is what I was supposed to be doing."

So started LaBrake's figure skating career. He received a scholarship of six lessons from the Skating Club of Lake Placid that first year, and he was hooked. LaBrake would receive a scholarship from the Club almost every year after, which no doubt helped him go on to elite competition and ice show stardom.

LaBrake's foray into pairs skating started shortly after he started skating. Skating Club of Lake Placid coach Barbara Colby encouraged Jeff and Leanne to skate together as a pair team at 7 and 6 years old, respectively, to perform as fairytale characters Hansel and Gretel in the Skating Club of Lake Placid's holiday ice show "Fairytales," in February 1968.

The LaBrakes took lessons from Club coaches Barbara Colby and Leila McKellen during the first few years of their careers. Current skaters in the Skating Club might remember Colby, who was still coaching as recently as several years ago at the Olympic Center, where she was a favorite among adult skaters for her renowned skating technique lessons. McKellen was coaching in Lake Placid for decades and also owned a boarding house for skaters, called McKellen's Pine Lodge on Greenwood Street. Her son Gordie, who also trained in Lake Placid, went on to win three U.S. National titles from 1973 to 1975.

The LaBrakes would soon meet Jack and Joan Devitt, who remained their coaches throughout the rest of their skating careers. The Devitts, a husband-and-wife ice dance team, who had trained in Lake Placid in 1949, moved to Lake Placid in 1969 and soon began working with the LaBrakes.

Training in Lake Placid offered some unique advantages that other towns couldn't match, particularly the school's flexibility in allowing skaters to train during the school day.

"During the school year I would go to school, but during lunch, gym or study halls, I was allowed to go to the rink to train and then back to school to finish the day and then back to the rink until dinner time which we always had as a family, when my Dad came home from work each night. Then sometimes, it was back to the rink after dinner," LaBrake said. "I was also very lucky to have been able to go to school K-12 in the school right next door (now the Lake Placid Middle-High School) to the rink and be able to train throughout my competitive years and just walk next door."

In the summer, the Olympic Center was one of only several rinks in the country that offered plentiful skating sessions from early in the morning until late at night.

"In the summer, I remember being able to go to the beach with my best friend Timmy Torrance for the day, go home for dinner and then to the rink for 6:10 p.m. patch (figures) practice, and then three freestyle sessions, two pair sessions and two dance sessions, most time finishing after midnight or 1 a.m.," LaBrake said

The support afforded them by the Skating Club and the local community, the excellent coaching and abundant ice time provided the LaBrakes with all they needed to succeed. They skated together for over a decade, winning countless qualifying competition titles and competing in the 1979 U.S. National Championships together in the Senior Pairs event. Although there are many competitive highlights, LaBrake considers a few to stand out above the others.

"There were so many (highlights), but I guess winning the titles of Junior Pairs Champion in the Eastern Sectional Championships held in Philadelphia, placing third in the United States Championships (in Junior pairs) held in Portland, Oregon in 1978 and winning the 1980 Junior Men's title in the North Atlantic Regional Championships held in Lake Placid were the top achievements," LaBrake said. "I feel blessed that I was lucky enough to train on the same ice with the likes of Gordie McKellen, Dorothy Hamill, Janet Lynn, Toller Cranston, John Misha Petkevich, Jim Sladky and Judy Schwomeyer."

The LaBrakes skated together until 1979, at which point Leanne chose to retire, while Jeff continued skating singles for two more years. In 1980, he became the North Atlantic Junior Mens Champion, and on Aug. 1, 1981, skated his final performance as an amateur in one of Lake Placid's Saturday Night Ice Shows, a tradition that continues today. He had decided to start a new phase in his skating career: show skating.

On Aug. 3, 1981, he started rehearsals with Ice Capades East Company in Duluth, Minnesota, staying with them for nine years. He then went on to work in shows in Amusement Parks but also continued touring and performing around the world. A highlight of his show skating career came in 1988, when he skated in an Ice Capades Television Special for ABC TV in which he skated and danced with legendary actress Rita Moreno, who is one of the few artists to have won all four major annual American entertainment awards: an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony.

Later, LaBrake skate onboard five of the Royal Carribean Voyager Class Cruise Ships for over six and a half years.

LaBrake was "in show biz," skating in ice shows from 1981 until 2011. It seems that the secret behind longevity in the show skating world is being adaptable.

"My experience as a show skater was pretty extensive and I tried to be as versatile as I could be," LaBrake said. "I started in the chorus with an understudy written in my contract, but worked my way up the ladder to include skating by myself as a soloist, as a pairs skater and as an adagio skater. I had 35 different partners in my career. Sometimes my partners didn't want to leave their boyfriends, sometimes they got engaged. One girl who I skated with, who was married, became pregnant so I ended up moving on and finding a new girl to skate with."

LaBrake was grateful for the many experiences show skating offered him.

"I was lucky to be able to skate in shows with almost every Olympic and World champion - from Peggy Fleming to Oksana Baiul - and to be able to perform all over the world in some of the most amazing places," he said.

The transition to coaching wasn't abrupt. LaBrake started coaching the first summer he came home on a break from Ice Capades and would coach amateur skaters whenever he had a break from performing. He decided to coach full time in 2011 after retiring from performing in ice shows.

Currently living in Miami, Florida, LaBrake returns every summer, bringing several skaters from Miami with him to train on the historic 1932 rink. He has done this for the past five years.

Two of those skaters, siblings Lerah and Aurora Pfeiffer, 13 and 10 years old, respectively, enjoy skating in Lake Placid with LaBrake.

"It is so cool to train with him on his home ice and to perform in the ice shows that launched his career," Aurora said. "I landed my axel jump here, and I really love skating here. The history, the ice, the coaches - it's all so fun and I learn so much."

"The ice is amazing here," Lerah added. "My spins have gotten a lot better, and I'm working on my double jumps."

Back at home, LaBrake coaches 25 to 30 skaters, mostly children but also adult skaters. Karen Gann and James Gann, who have worked with Jeff LaBrake when he was in Lake Placid and whose primary coach was Jack Devitt, can attest to his skill coaching pairs for adult skaters.

"He's the most experienced Adagio pairs skating coach in the world and I have the utmost respect for his knowledge, skill and experience," Kan said. "I love working with Jeff."

LaBrake approaches coaching as only a veteran ice show skater can, and draws on knowledge taught by other elite coaches.

"I think my coaching style derives from teaching good technique and control, and passing on my passion for performing so my students learn to 'sell it' to the judges or audiences," explained LaBrake. "My coach Jack Devitt, along with Ron Luddington and Canadian coach Kerry Leitch were the biggest influences on me."

Now, LaBrake reflects on how fortunate he was to experience Lake Placid's skating history for himself, and appreciates the opportunity to return to Lake Placid annually.

"There was so much history just entering the 1932 rink, and it was so amazing to be skating in Lake Placid back in the day," LaBrake said. "I am lucky that almost my entire family still lives in and around Lake Placid and the family continues to grow. I have 14 nieces and nephews, 17 great nieces and great nephews with two more on the way.

"I am always so proud to bring my skaters back to Lake Placid, not only to skate, but to experience the amazing history of the town, the beauty of the mountains, lakes and village and the friendliness of the locals."

 
 
 

 

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