Ice Network

Olympics still carry special meaning for Machado

In 1956, figure skater became first Hispanic U.S. Winter Olympian
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U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame member Catherine Machado has nothing but fond memories when it comes to her time as a member of Team USA. -Courtesy of U.S. Figure Skating

These days, life moves at a quiet pace for former Olympic competitor Catherine Machado, a member of the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame who is now retired.

With another Olympic Winter Games approaching, Machado, 81, is often asked to reflect on her experiences at the 1956 Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. On a team with numerous skating stars -- including Tenley Albright and Carol Heiss -- Machado happily embraced the lack of pressure.

In 1956, the Olympic village didn't exist like it does today, so each country stayed at a hotel of their choosing. Although Machado was able to meet U.S. athletes from other sports, her only interactions with international athletes were the skaters she saw at the rink.

She vividly remembers the opening parade, which she described as something completely different from what most have grown accustomed to witnessing.

"Now they all come in dancing and taking pictures," Machado said. "We walked in like tin soldiers and didn't get out of line. Everybody was lined up by height. The girls were behind the boys. There were only a dozen or so girls because there was just the ski team and the figure skaters. I was behind somebody that was probably 6-7 and I'm 5-2, so you can't see me in the shots."

Machado grew up in Los Angeles and trained at the Polar Palace, a popular rink that burned down in the 1960s. Although she was not aware of it at the time, she is credited with being the first Hispanic athlete to represent the United States in the Winter Olympics. Machado was allowed to choose between having either her coach or her father accompany her to Cortina, and she chose her father.

"I didn't bother to take my coach because I knew I was never going to beat Tenley or Carol," she said. "I just went and had a good time. My father loved it."

In those days, the competition was outdoors. Machado had never even seen snow before the 1955 World Figure Skating Championships in Vienna, Austria, where it fell on her and on the ice during the ladies compulsory figures.

When Machado performed her Olympic free skate, the sun was shining and she basked in the moment. By the time Albright and Heiss -- who won the gold and silver medals -- skated, the clouds had moved in.

"It got much colder later in the day," recalled Machado, who finished eighth. "I think I was the third skater out. The sun was shining and I skated probably the best I ever skated."

After retiring from competition at the end of the 1956 season, Machado toured with Ice Capades for eight years, sharing the ice with fellow Olympian Ronnie Robertson and the legendary adagio team of Phil Romayne and Cathy Steele. Upon wrapping up her show commitments, she enjoyed performing with the Lido shows in both Las Vegas and Paris. 

"We practiced every single day because there was so much pressure to skate well," Machado said. "Everybody was at the top of their game."

In 1969, Machado began her coaching career and said she'd probably still be teaching aspiring skaters had it not been for the Culver City Ice Arena closing its doors in 2014. The commute to other Los Angeles-area rinks required driving on the freeway, which she didn't want to do.

Machado -- who has one son, three grandchildren and one great grandchild -- plans to watch the skating events in PyeongChang with longtime friend Robert Paul, who won pairs gold with partner Barbara Wagner at the 1960 Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California.

In order to avoid distraction, the two plan to skip any Olympic parties so they can focus solely on the action.