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A cool legacy

Skating, competing and teaching others on ice is Herman woman’s legacy

It could be said that Connie Brunkow lives to skate and in essence, skates to live. Her history on the ice is long, and her legacy is proud. She was raised in a supportive family who all had a competitive edge.

Soon after Connie’s birth in Terrace, Minn. her family moved to Minneapolis. “I was born in the height of the Great Depression, and we moved where work could be found,” she explained. The family, which included five kids, grew up in south Minneapolis. Connie would tag along behind her brothers as they walked the block from their house to Sibley Park. She’d strap on her hand-me-down skates and spend hours on the ice. When big brother Gene was asked to join a speed skating team in 1943, 10-year-old Connie soon followed. At one time all five kids were competing on the Bearcat Legion Speed Skate Team at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis. At 10 years of age she won her first competition, winning a brand new pair of silver skates.

“Back then, everyone skated,” Connie said. The ball field at Sibley Park was flooded for winter (this included four diamonds), and the skating began. The flooded fields were used for all types of skating. There was hockey. There was room for figure skating.  And, the “long blades” came out to practice the rigors of speed skating. Hours and hours of skating. Purely for the love of skating… outdoors.

Through her years at Roosevelt High Connie participated in competitive speed skating at Powderhorn Park. Through her racing-against-the-clock years, from the age of 10 on up, the team of girls wore blue satin shorts over their blue tights (Connie explained this as their “uniform”). By the time she turned 16 Connie had become a member of the Minneapolis Figure Skating Club and was paying for classes and private lessons with babysitting money and her job at Sears. During this time the family’s Olympic history began.

It was for the 1952 winter games in Oslo, Norway, that her brother Gene’s opportunity came up. She explained, “He was 21 and on the U.S. Speed Skating Team. He went to the trials in 1951, in anticipation and preparation for the Oslo games that would be in 1952. Then the Korean War began, and he was drafted instead.”

Gene’s time came four years later and Connie was there, supporting her brother on the sidelines. She watched him compete in his first Olympic games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, in 1956. She earned her travel dollars by working at Sears and an insurance company.

In 1960 the winter games were held in Squaw Valley, Calif. and Connie was again a spectator, watching her brother Gene speed skating on the “long track,” racing against the clock in the 10,000 meters. Although there were still no women’s speed skating teams for Olympic competition, Connie was not disillusioned. She had already begun teaching and coaching young skaters, enjoying her passion on the ice. At the time “everything was strictly amateur, including the coaches’ role, so we were not paid,” Connie explained.

And then, another passion came along. Connie married Orville Brunkow in 1961. She was no longer in the city. Instead, true love had taken her to a new life, and a farm, near Herman, Minn. “Here I was, 24 years old, a newlywed, and on a farm! I never dreamed I’d be on a farm!”  While raising a family of four, Connie’s husband Orville kept her passion for skating alive by building her a beautiful ice rink on the farm. “It was amazing,” she smiled, “My husband was an absolute gem. He knew I needed it.” Soon all the neighborhood kids were flocking to their ice. In the off season the family was involved in 4-H, and Connie was a leader (both on the ice and off) for several years as her family grew up.

The family loved their skate time on their skating rink, yet there was a time, too, when Connie’s children wanted to be part of a larger skating world. For eight years Connie and Orville made the trip with their four children in tow, every winter weekend, to Lake Nokomis, where her kids and their cousins skated and competed. The trips provided family skating time, as well as family connections, in the city.

It was during this time that local community education programs began to call, and Connie soon found herself on the ice in Morris, Elbow Lake, Herman and Chokio. “Every day after school, five days a week, I was teaching. I loved it. I’d shovel the snow off the ice, and I’d be on my knees in the snow, tying skates on children. Teaching basic skills, form and rhythm…and teaching kids enthusiasm for the outdoors.” For Connie, the community education programs were at the right place at the right time.

Connie is now more commonly recognized in the skating community as a coach and teacher with the Alexandria Figure Skating Club where she has been active for the past 25 years. Since 1989, three times a week, October through March, she travels from her farm near Herman to Alexandria, teaching and coaching kids anywhere from 3 years of age on up. She teaches basic skills, competition and testing. She teaches classes as well as private lessons at the Runestone Community Center.

Today, Connie and Orville have celebrated 53-plus years of marriage and enjoy time with their three daughters, one son, 11 grandchildren, numerous nieces and nephews, and grandnieces and nephews, all of whom skate to some extent or more (including Amy Peterson,  daughter of Connie’s sister Joan, who has competed in five Olympic games as a speedskater and brought home two silvers and a bronze medal and brother Gene, who until recently served on the International Skating Union (ISU) Board, and in 2002, was an official who presented medals to winners on the long track in Salt Lake City). Gene’s daughter, Susan, competed in the Junior World competition and coached the world team. Some of her students in Alexandria are Connie’s grandchildren.

It’s no doubt that Connie’s legacy of skating continues. She has witnessed changes in the sport, for both speed skating and figure skating.  She has seen international and Olympic rules change. She has watched girls take off their figure skates to become hockey players. She fights for the rights of all skaters and advocates for good “ice time” for all. A new generation of skaters is growing, and Connie is a part of the action.

Thinking back to her years of growing up, outdoors on a flooded baseball field, Connie reflected, “I’ve seen so many changes, but most of the basics still apply. It (the sport) takes having a pair of skates, supportive parents, and an encouraging family. It may take a club membership. One thing is certain, it requires a certain amount of ‘push’…of challenge and growth. I learned that you want to be there when ‘they’ (students) fall down, but you can’t let them become too dependent on you to pick them back up.  When you see other skaters you realize you have to work harder to earn a place in competitive sports, and you understand that it takes a family to encourage you when you’re thrown in the whole mix of things.” Connie Brunkow, on the ice and in the mix of things. This is her legacy.

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