‘There is no secret to success, you have got to prepare.’ Sandra Bezic – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 99
Sandra Bezic, Olympian, choreographer of champions, author, TV commentator, and producer shares how she got burned out at a young age. How she created her way into choreographing, her experience working with different superstars, and the “superstar trait”, and her motivation to start the battle of blades.
Furthermore, we discuss
- Her lifelong passion for figure skating
- Her darkest moment
- Her recollection of the 1972 Olympics
- Her best moment
- How to create the magic moment, when everything is falling into place
- The “superstar trait”
- Her experience of working with Katarina Witt
- How she created the choreography for one of the toughest duels in Olympic history, the battle between Brian Boitano and Brian Orser
- How the press reacted to Sandra choreographing Brian Boitano and avoiding Brian Orser to become the first Canadian male figure skating Olympic champion
- Setting intention to getting to where you want it to get
- Her project “The Battle of Blades”
- What’s going on in Sandra Bezic’s life at this moment in time
- Her interview nomination
- Where can you find Sandra Bezic
Christian: Today I’m joined by Sandra Bezic. Sandra is an Olympian and competed in the 1972 Winter Olympics, representing Canada in figure skating. Since then Sandra has choreographed some of the top names in figure skating. She’s an author, a producer, and a TV commentator.
Sandra: Thank you, Christian. It’s pleasure to be here.
Her lifelong passion for figure skating
Christian: Sandra, looking at your CV, obviously there’s a lifelong passion for figure skating. How did it all start?
Sandra: I was three years old when my mother put me on the ice. She had dreamed of being a figure skater when she was a child. However, she was the daughter of immigrants here in Canada and they were very, very poor and they couldn’t afford ice skates for her.
I was three years old when my mother put me on the ice. I don’t remember not being able to skate.
So she dreamed of it her whole life. I don’t remember not being able to skate. My brother and I were put on the ice immediately or the minute I could walk. My brother’s older than I am. It all started when I was three.
Her darkest moment
Christian: In your athletic life, what was your darkest moment?
Sandra: Looking back, my darkest moment was at the end of my competitive career. I was very young to start on the international scene. I was 12 years old when I started competing internationally.
I was National Champion at the age of thirteen years. By 17, we had won five national titles. We had competed in the World Championships for five years and the Olympics in 1972, as you mentioned. We traveled the world competing and performing and all through that, I was also trying to maintain my schooling.
What happened, in the end, was that I was just burnt out. I was so focused and so tunnel vision that I had no life besides skating. It was wonderful, but it was still a lot for a young girl growing up.
I was National Champion at the age of thirteen years. By 17, we had won five national titles. We had competed in the World Championships for five years and the Olympics. And in the end, was that I was just burnt out. I was so focused and so tunnel vision that I had no life besides skating.
I got injured as I tore the ligaments in my ankle and everything just sort of started to unravel. I really had a tough time, it was the combination of being burnt out and being 17 years and going through the natural development that all kids go through.
I left the sport. I quit and was kind of lost. I didn’t have a sense of my identity without skates on. My life had been programmed in a certain direction, from the time I was three, really. And I had been obedient up until that time.
I performed and I was the show pony. I seemed invincible and then all of a sudden I wasn’t. At that time in the seventies, coaching was quite different and there wasn’t a support system that there is now.
I left the sport. I quit and was kind of lost. I didn’t have a sense of my identity without skates on.
I had really no one to turn to and I felt responsible for all of it. I felt like a failure. I felt like I’d let the country down. My brother and I were pair skaters. My family and everything just caved in.
That for sure was my darkest period. And it’s actually a time I don’t even really talk about that much even now. I left the sport for three years, at least. It’s sort of all vague in my mind. I basically kind of ran away from home.
Her recollection of the 1972 Olympics
Christian: And I’ve written that down, that at the Winter Olympics in 1972, you were young, you were 16 years old. And then you became a professional skater just a little bit later?
Sandra: Yes, I was actually 15 years at the 1972 Olympics. It was just before my 16th birthday. After that period where I stopped, I slowly kind of crawled back to the sport and tried to figure out where my place was. We did some performing as professionals, but not a lot.
I was 15 years at the 1972 Olympics. It was just before my 16th birthday.
At the same time, I started, I knew I didn’t necessarily want to be a coach, although I liked coaching, but what I did was I really searched for a niche that I could fill. At the time, there were really no choreographers, who were figure skaters or there were few. I certainly didn’t know any.
First of all, the coaches did all the choreography. Choreographers were very rare. And then if there were choreographers, they were usually from the dance world. We worked with a jazz dancer and then another ballet dancer.
So I thought about what I could offer that’s unique to me. And so I decided to put the word out to coaches in the area that I would be willing to help them as a choreographer and that’s how it started. At the same time, I was still performing a little bit and so I was just finding my way.
Her best moment
Christian: What was your best moment as an athlete?
Sandra: It’s interesting because it’s all kind of a blur for me. It’s like it was another person, but my best moments were the moments when, as a performer, you hit that sweet spot.
There wasn’t necessarily a particular moment, but that moment that you strive for, that happens every once in a while, where it all comes together and your body and your emotions and your connection as a performer with the audience all come together. It is like you’re invincible for those few minutes.
That moment that you strive for, that happens every once in a while, where it all comes together. It is like you’re invincible for those few minutes.
Competitors experience that and that’s what keeps you going. I had some of those, so I wouldn’t say just one moment, but that moment – that moment – and that’s the kind of moment that I try to give now to my students or the people at choreographing or people with whom I work.
How to create the magic moment, when everything is falling into place
Christian: So everything is falling into place and it’s an interesting one. What do you think contributes to that moment?
Sandra: Yes, it’s when the stars align. What contributes? Training, training, training, training, training. It’s the preparation and then it’s the ability to let go and trust that preparation.
It’s the preparation and then it’s the ability to let go and trust that preparation.
So it’s the ability to be in the moment. You have to find that Zen place where you think exactly the right thoughts at that moment. However, that takes training because you need to have no doubts and then be open to that experience and not second guess yourself.
There are little voices that go on in your brain and there’s this side and then there’s this side and then there’s this side. You will hear your coach’s voice and then you hear your mother’s voice. It’s blocking that out and finding that inner strength.
There is no secret to success, you have got to prepare.
But it really does block it out. I believe a lot of people are born with the ability to hit that sweet spot more easily. I do think it’s trainable, but for everybody, there’s basically no secret to success. You’ve got to prepare.
The “superstar trait”
Christian: You mentioned a few interesting points that I’ve noted down for later questions, but it fits very well here. You said some people have the innate ability, and you worked with some of the greatest stars in figure skating.
You had Katarina Witt, Brian Boitano, Jamie Salé, who was interviewed here as well, but also other Olympic champions. What would you say they all have in common? Is there some kind of a “superstar trait”?
Sandra: Yes, I believe there is. I think it’s self-knowledge. They know who they are and where they need to go mentally to find that sweet spot. They, at their core, simply know.
There’s a real difference between the gold medalist and everyone else.
It’s pretty amazing. And there is a difference. There’s a real difference between the gold medalist and everyone else that I’ve seen.
Her experience of working with Katarina Witt
Christian: Talking about superstars, I always was fascinated by Katarina Witt. I was nine years old when I saw her competing at the 1984 Olympics, and because of the nature of the sport of figure skating, where you have to be so gracious, but on the other side, it’s athletic ability to do these incredible things. She had that combination like no other.
Sandra: She’s remarkable. I actually just saw her. She came to Canada, just before COVID. A network is producing a television special about her life and she wanted to interview me.
She wanted me part of the show ad so she and her producer came to visit for a day. So we spent a day together and it was just so nice to see her again. We are dear friends.
I first got to know her, actually after Calgary Olympics 1988, when she became a professional. Then I worked with her from that point on and when she returned to the Olympics in 1994. But we were lifelong friends.
She’s remarkable. She’s certainly one of a kind. Tough as nails, but still joyous. That’s the thing about Katarina. She had such innate confidence and joy that comes with that, it’s such an inspiration to be around her.
That’s the thing about Katarina. She had such innate confidence and joy that comes with that, it’s such an inspiration to be around her.
She’s been consistent throughout her whole life where she always finds the silver lining in any circumstance. She doesn’t take herself seriously, she takes herself seriously at the moment.
She takes her work seriously, but she doesn’t take herself seriously. She’s very quick to laugh at herself and see the humor in her character. So she’s a remarkable champion.
- In case you don’t know, who Katarina Witt is, check out the documentary of Katarina Witt: The Diva on Ice with a huge heart (Unfortunately, the Olympic Channel doesn’t allow me to embed videos on other websites, so you have to hop over to Youtube to check it out.)
How she created the choreography for one of the toughest duels in Olympic history, the battle between Brian Boitano and Brian Orser
Christian: Talking about the 1988 Olympics, you choreographed for Brian Boitano, who ended up winning that competition and to this date, it’s still one of the toughest duels in Olympic history between Brian Boitano and Brian Orser.
If you do choreography, how do you start? What’s the thought process and how do you put something into place for people who don’t understand figure skating that well?
Sandra: Figure skating choreography is specific because you’re building a vehicle for competition. Every choreographer has their own way of approaching it and there’s no right or wrong, it’s just your way.
But what I try to do is find the core essence of that skater and what their goals and dreams are and their character personality traits, and bring that out in the performance. I find a vehicle, whether it’s a story or just a piece of music that connects to them, to their core self, and I try to build material that is authentic and genuine.
I try to find the core essence of that skater, what their goals and dreams are, and their character personality traits, and bring that out in the performance.
That way they really take ownership and it really is intended to be a vehicle for their dreams. So when Brian and his coach came to me we had under a year, I’d never worked with him before and he came to me after the World Championships in 1987.
So we had eight to nine months to find this. I studied him. I studied the way he moved. I studied how he responded to things to figure out what movements and what style looked best on him.
The thing that really I was taken with was his size. He’s not extremely tall, but taller than the average figure skater. He’s probably around maybe 5”10′ [178 cm], but his skating was larger than life.
When Brian and his coach came to me we had under a year, and I had never worked with him before. The thing that really I was taken with was his size., his skating was larger than life.
So I wanted to make programs for him that were as large as he was in practice. He was also very shy, so in a way, I gave him characters that he was able to hide behind, but they were still revealing his true self.
When I work, there are so many layers. There are two sides. There’s the whole technical side of laying out a program so that technically it can be exact. Every jump is placed where it needs to be placed and paced where it needs to be paced.
There are ebbs and flows and breadth and times to rest and times to push. It has its technical arc, but then for me, I need a creative arc. I need the artistic arc. I need to take the audience and judges on a journey – on an emotional journey.
So those two things have to work together and the skater has to own it. They have to believe in it, feel it, breathe it, train it, and own it.
Check out Stars on Ice Sandra Bezic Profile, which shows Sandra’s work as a choreographer
It’s a journey and it’s also daunting because it’s not like you’re just doing a piece of choreography that goes out there. It has an impact on somebody’s career and that’s daunting. When I do it, I take it very, very seriously and you become obsessed with trying to get it right.
It’s a journey and it’s also daunting because it’s not like you’re just doing a piece of choreography that goes out there. It has an impact on somebody’s career and that’s daunting.
Christian: I guess that’s also a trademark of the successful people around an athlete that they take it very, very seriously. The athlete has to or they take ownership of the performance of the athlete.
Sandra: Yes, you have to take ownership yourself, as the coach, choreographer, and director, but then you also have to teach them to take ownership and then once they do, it’s like the trainer wheels are off and they ride away.
How the press reacted to Sandra choreographing Brian Boitano and avoiding Brian Orser to become the first Canadian male figure skating Olympic champion
Christian: Talking about this Olympics, I have a bonus question for you. The Winter Olympics 1988 were in Canada. Brian Orser was supposed to be the first Canadian male figure skating Olympic champion. You are Canadian and you did your part to prevent that. Was there any kind of resentments, animosities, or criticism after that?
Sandra: You know how the press is; they come in every four years. There’s a certain core press who follow skating all the time and then there’s the press that comes in every four years for the Olympics.
The press that came in every four years looked at it, in a way, not from an educated point of view. They just thought that I was a Canadian helping an American and tried to make a bit of a story of it.
But in fact, the skating community knows that we are pretty borderless, coaches and choreographers work with all nations. Brian Orser already had a choreographer of his own who happened to be American. The press kind of forgot that part of the story because we were in Canada.
We are pretty borderless, coaches and choreographers work with all nations. Brian Orser already had a choreographer of his own who happened to be American. The press kind of forgot that part of the story because we were in Canada.
But it wasn’t bad. It was minimal and it was from those who don’t know really the sport. In the end, it was all about the performance and both men were extraordinary both nights.
And what Brian Orser did was remarkable. He had so much pressure on his shoulders going into that competition and he was outstanding. He just happened to be competing against Brian Boitano who had the performance of his life. And that was the difference. It was like that.
Setting intention to getting to where you want it to get
Christian: I wanted to dig a little bit into something. I saw in an interview, you said after your athletic career, you made a conscious decision to become a choreographer. And you just outlined a little bit of that.
What I wanted to know is in recent years, we have heard a lot about setting an intention and the rest will follow. But I guess we forget the part of there has to be some work put in.
You set an intention and within one year you had one of the top Canadian teams, I think that you choreographed, right? So how did you work from setting the intention towards getting to where you want it to get?
Sandra: That’s interesting. I never thought of it that way. Obviously, I’m aware of setting intentions now. I never applied it to what I actually did. But I guess I did.
But what was easy for me was it was serendipitous in a way and maybe when you put yourself out there, the energy of the universe just takes you. I called coaches and told them that I was available. I told them I’d come and do what they want. They knew I would work with them and partner with them to do whatever they needed.
Maybe when you put yourself out there, the energy of the universe just takes you. I called coaches and told them that I was available.
Within under a year, Louis and Marijane Stong phoned me because they were about to start working with the Canadian pair champions, Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini. Louis Stong was to be their coach. He didn’t want to do it by himself. He heard that I was out and about.
I was recently retired. I was a pair skater, so it made perfect sense. He called me to see if I would collaborate with him.
And it was really ideal for me because I was actually more comfortable working at the elite level than I would have been with younger skaters. This was at a level that I was completely familiar with as I’d been competing all these years. It’s all I knew.
So I very much knew what it needed to feel like to compete, to be comfortable with your choreography, with your material, to compete at your very best. So, in fact, it was very easy for me to fly into that top-level because that was home.
It was serendipitous. He gave me the call, I said, yes, of course, and off we went and that’s where I learned parallel with Barb and Paul. We started a friendship and a professional relationship.
We went through everything together and we still text each other through COVID. We’re very, very close. So I was very lucky.
So yes, in fact, I did set an intention and it did work. That’s good to know. You see, I’m not a linear thinker. I’m all over the place. I bounce.
Christian: You’re a choreographer, right?
Sandra: I’ve got both sides. I can be very organized. As a producer, you have to be organized but for me to get there my mind ping pongs, and I know that about myself. So, I’m not sure that I’ve ever set intentions, but maybe I should try.
But I’m always open to new ventures and new ideas. I love new experiences. I love to be scared to death to try something that I’ve never done before. So, whenever the phone rings, I say yes before I even think sometimes.
Christian: Okay, cool.
Her project “The Battle of Blades”
Christian: Talking about being a producer, you are producer and co-creator of “The Battle of Blades.” For those ones who don’t know, can you describe in a few words what “The Battle of Blades is”?
Sandra: “The Battle of the Blades” is a reality series in Canada. It’s something that my life partner and I created together and we took the idea of “Dancing with the Stars”, but we applied it to us Canadians. We combined ex-NHL retired hockey players with top female figure skaters who are pair skaters and ice dancers and we created the “Dancing with the Stars” like series.
It’s live. Our first was 10/11 years ago and it became the highest-rated original series in Canada, in history; it’s still and it just captured the Canadian imagination. Our two sports are figure skating and hockey.
Certainly, hockey players are our heroes, and the opportunity to watch these hockey players skate as figure skaters, without their uniforms and everything was really compelling to the public and the underlying reason for all of this was for charity. Each of the pairs wins a certain amount of money for their charity of choice and the winners win a hundred thousand dollars.
Check out a small Battle of The Blades – Jamie Sale & Craig Simpson (both have been interviewed here as well)
- also check out the interview ‘Your thinking creates your feelings, your feelings create your actions and your actions create your results.’ With Olympic champion Jamie Salé and ‘Don’t waste a day on things that are unimportant.’ With 2-time Stanley Cup champion Craig Simpson.
So in the process, we’ve raised millions of dollars. Our series stopped and started a few times, so we’ve had five, but we’ve raised significant amounts of money and attention for Canadian charities.
So that also is a very Canadian kind of character trait. It all kind of just worked. It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s just something we cooked up in our kitchen.
Christian: Yes, that’s now my follow-up question. Did you realize there was a demand for such a show or was it something that you just wanted to do because you were passionate about it?
Sandra: It was just a fun idea. We had been watching Dancing with the Stars that had just started in the States. My life partner was a hockey and sports agent.
On one of those rare occasions when he was also watching that show, he looked at me and asked if I think that we both could ever do this with hockey players and figure skaters. I told him that if it had a greater purpose and if there was a charity involved.
My life partner looked at me and asked if I think that we both could ever do this with hockey players and figure skaters. I told him that if it had a greater purpose and if there was a charity involved.
I didn’t want it to be a gong show. I didn’t want it to be salacious in any way. I didn’t want it to be like that. I wanted it to be more meaningful and powerful. So, it was just an idea.
We wrote it up. We had a relationship with television producers – a production company with whom we had made several specials and in Canada. There have been lots of skating specials, TV specials, and that kind of thing that I had choreographed or produced, or was involved with in some way.
So we took it to them and together, we went to the networks and CBC immediately loved the idea, but it took three years for them to finally green light us. So it took quite some time. It’s an expensive show, and it took a lot of time and planning, and it’s a monster.
It’s a real monster because the series itself lasts seven or eight weeks. We train for a month prior to that. And we look after them like the elite athletes that they are. We make sure that they’re surrounded by the best coaches and choreographers and that it’s 100% safe when these big guys are now in figure skates, lifting these women.
But it seems to work. And then we did four – I can’t even remember. We did four seasons and then they put us on hiatus because there were governmental changes and CBC is a government network and they lost some of their funding and so we thought it was over after that.
Just last season they came back and asked if we could bring it back. So we did one more season last September, and now because of COVID, we’ll see. So that’s the long story.
What’s going on in Sandra Bezic’s life at this moment in time
Christian: So what else is going on in Sandra’s life at this moment in time?
Sandra: A lot of productions now are up in the air because of COVID. We don’t know where this is all going to take us. I had a number of shows or small tours internationally that were to happen, that were either canceled or delayed.
I love to work on productions. I love to do live shows as well as television shows – to create them. We had made two in Spain in December 2018 and 2019.
Now with Spain and everything that they’re going through, it’s heartbreaking some of the arenas that we trained in are the arenas that are now being used as morgues and it’s heartbreaking. So I do hope that we’re able to return and somehow give back.
It’s such a beautiful country and its beautiful people and it would be nice to be able to give back in some way. So yes, I have these shows that are maybe, maybe not like everybody else.
So what am I doing right now? I’m painting my basement and organizing my closets and reading, and also emotionally up and down, like everybody else, and trying to take this time. But I also waste many days, I’m sure, like everybody else.
It’s not been easy for anybody, but we’re some of the lucky ones. It hasn’t touched us and our immediate families. So we’ve been very, very lucky.
Her interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone for an interview?
Sandra: This is a question I hadn’t thought of. Another choreographer is David Wilson and he’s another Canadian. It’s interesting that so many Canadians have become choreographers.
But David Wilson choreographed Yuna Kim, who is the first Korean Olympic Champion and she brought figure skating to Korea and is an extraordinary woman. David and I just did a show in Korea last spring, actually, for Yuna.
He has been instrumental in many skaters’ lives. Joannie Rochette, who was an Olympian at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics as well and lived through that incredible performance where her mother had passed away just several days before her Olympic performance and she won a medal.
Christian: I saw that one.
Sandra: Yes. He worked with Joannie, with Yuna, with Javier Fernandez who brought figure skating to Spain and he’s one of the leading choreographers. So, in solidarity with other choreographers, I would nominate David Wilson.
Christian: Cool, thanks.
Where can you find Sandra Bezic
Christian: Where can people find you?
Sandra: I have a website that I report during Sochi Olympics. I blogged during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics because it was the first Olympics and I don’t know how many that I wasn’t attending and I didn’t know what to do with myself at home.
So I wrote a blog and I’ve got this website, but I haven’t looked at it since 2018. I’m really, really bad at that. I tweet. My handle is just Sandra Bezic. I started on Instagram and so I dabble with that. I have about two followers on Instagram. I don’t have any followers. But maybe after your show, thousands will follow – Sandra_Bezic
Christian: I actually do follow Katarina Witt, and I think in one story, she mentioned your name. So if she can’t get you more followers don’t expect too much from me.
Sandra: That’s true. Well, yes, that’s because she was here. And so we were Instagramming about each other, tweeting about each other. That’s true.
Sandra Bezic’s Social Profiles
Christian: Sandra, thanks a lot for your time.
Sandra: Thank you very much and you take care. Stay healthy.