Button, Richard Totten ("Dick")

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BUTTON, Richard Totten ("Dick")

(b. 18 July 1929 in Englewood, New Jersey), first American figure skater to win both an Olympic gold medal and the World Championship; he is credited with introducing the modern, athletic style of skating and has been described by many as the best men's figure skater of all time.

Button was the third son of George Button, a businessman, and Evelyn Bunn Totten, a homemaker. A student at the Englewood School for Boys, Button started skating using borrowed skates. At age twelve, he asked for a pair of skates of his own. Assuming he wanted to play hockey, his father bought him hockey skates. When Button told him that he wanted to figure skate, his father promptly traded the hockey skates for figure skates and got his son a teacher. At that time Button was short and overweight. The teacher, confronted with the pudgy boy, stated that he would become a figure skater "when Hell freezes over." Button's father replied that if his son wanted to be a figure skater, so be it, and he would provide the best lessons and opportunities.

The best teacher was Gustav (Gus) Lussi, a skating coach in Lake Placid, New York, and Philadelphia. Button and his mother spent the summer of 1942 in Lake Placid, where he started lessons. At the end of one month, Button failed all his tests, but by the end of the second month, he had passed all three figure skating examinations. Years later, Button remarked, "I was very determined and didn't let defeat discourage me. I made myself into a figure skater with work. I wasn't born to it."

In 1943, Button, now a slender and agile fourteen-year-old, entered his first competition, the Eastern States Novice Championship, and finished second. In his next competition, in April of the same year, he became the Middle Atlantic Novice Champion. In 1944 he won the Eastern States Junior title and the United States Novice Championship title. The following year, he won the United States Junior Championship. At age sixteen, in 1946, he became the United States Senior Champion, the youngest figure skater to hold that title in American skating. Button would win that title for the next six years (1946–1952).

Characteristic of Button's skating was innovation. He and his coach developed moves never before seen in the figure skating community. Some of his jumps and spins were so unusual that judges did not know how to respond to them. A case in point is the response to his performance at the 1947 World Championship in Stockholm. In this competition, Button added a new element to the well-known camel spin by jumping into it. For years afterward, this was called the Button camel. His power-packed free skate program astounded everyone. Sportswriter Oscar Soederlung called Button's skating "something revolutionizing in the art of figure skating—technically the most fantastic performance ever seen here." Button's skating was not only powerful but graceful as well. A Swedish newspaper stated, "Button skated as though he were wearing ballet shoes instead of skates."

Although the crowd and the press loved Button, and he finished with the highest point total, three of the five judges voted Hans Gerschweiler of Switzerland the better skater. Under international rules, Button finished second. Lussi told the press that Button's "stuff" was too new for the judges and claimed that the judges were "so goggle-eyed" watching Button that they forgot to mark their score cards.

In January 1948, just two weeks before the Olympics, Button entered the European Championships and defeated Gerschweiler for the gold medal. Button was the first American to win the European figure skating title—and the last, because the following year Americans were barred from competition. Skating with "boldness and abandon" in his free skate program, Button came from behind in the compulsory figures to win. The crowd, informed by a Prague newspaper that audiences in the United States whistle to show their appreciation, whistled its approval of Button's performance.

Two weeks later, on 5 February, in Saint Moritz, Switzerland, Button won the Olympic gold medal after receiving the highest point total in the history of the event to that time. Although he had a comfortable lead over second-place Gerschweiler, Button did not play it safe in the free skate. Two days earlier, he had successfully landed a double axel, a move that requires two-and-a-half turns in the air and that had never been achieved in competition. Although the ice was not ideal for such a feat, Button performed it successfully. At age eighteen, he was the youngest men's Olympic figure skating champion.

A week later, on 13 February, in Davos, Switzerland, Button won the World Championship in "one of the most brilliant performances ever seen on European ice," according to the New York Times. Button was the first American to win the men's World Figure Skating Championship and would win the title the next four years. He was the only skater to capture what could be considered the grand slam of figure skating, winning the United States, North American, European, World, and Olympic championships all in the same year.

While Button competed, he kept up his studies, graduating from the Englewood School for Boys. He was accepted by Yale, but Yale would not allow him to take time off to skate competitively; Harvard would, providing he kept his grades up. Button entered Harvard in fall 1948 and in February 1949 successfully defended his world title in Paris. After his free skate program, which included three successive double axels, the crowd gave him a five-minute ovation. He averaged 5.9 points out of a possible 6, and one judge, as quoted in Newsweek, stated, "I've never seen anything like it—and no one else has, either."

In 1949 Button received the prestigious James E. Sullivan Award, which honors the best amateur athlete in the United States. He was the only figure skater to win it. Button receiving the award signified that figure skating was, at last, considered a major sport in the United States.

For the 1952 Olympics, Button treated the audience to a triple loop, the first triple jump performed in competition, and won his second gold medal. After the Olympics, he became a professional skater; he also graduated from Harvard in 1952 and enrolled in Harvard Law School. Button appeared with the Ice Capades, fitting his schedule around his studies until he had earned his law degree in 1956. He married skating coach Slavka Kohout on 10 March 1973, with whom he had two children. They divorced in 1984.

Although Button no longer competes, he has remained involved in skating. Since 1962 he has shared his expertise on figure skating as a commentator on ABC's Wide World of Sports and the station's coverage of the Winter Olympics. His work as an expert analyst for televised figure skating competitions earned him an Emmy in 1981. According to author Christine Brennan, through his broadcasts, Button educated the American public about figure skating. "He took the nation by the hand and led it into the sport." Button also has written two books on skating: Dick Button on Skates (1955) and Instant Skating (1964). Through his company, Candid Productions, Button was the driving force behind a series of new competitions for professional skaters, beginning in 1973 with the World Professional Figure Skating Championship. Other events for professional skaters promoted by Button include the World Challenge of Champions.

Reflecting on Button's skating, Olympic champion figure skater Tenley Albright told Sports Illustrated, "Dick showed us how boundless the possibilities were in skating." Button was an innovator who introduced moves that male skaters had never done before. In an effort to explain how Button revolutionized the sport, Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie said that it was as if "someone had run a four-minute mile five years before someone actually did it."

Christine Brennan, Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating (1996), includes material on Button, as does Bill Libby, Stars of the Olympics (1975). Regarding the World Championship in Stockholm, see "Swedish Press Hits Award of World Title in Figure Skating to Swiss over U.S. Star,"New York Times (16 Feb. 1947). Concerning the World Championship in Paris, see "Buttoned Up," Newsweek (28 Feb. 1949). William Leggett, "He Was Right on the Button," Sports Illustrated (23 Feb. 1976) discusses Button's contributions as a TV commentator, and Jack Craig, "Button an Imperious Sage," Boston Globe (10 Feb. 1995), explores his skating and television careers. Good articles include Mark Kram, "U.S. Skating's First Ice-Breaker: Button Has Been a Pioneer First on the Rink, Then Off," Philadelphia Daily News (2 Jan. 1998); Philip Hersh, "Fifty Years Later, Dick Button Still a Force," Chicago Tribune (31 Mar. 1998), and Mark L. Lund and Lois Elfman, "Dick Button: Man of the Century," International Figure Skating 5, no. 6 (Jan./Feb. 2000).

Marcia B. Dinneen

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