The Reigning Champion Will Defend His Title at the 2023 World Figure & Fancy Skating Championships
Shepherd Clark is a rare jewel. In addition to being an artist and an entrepreneur, he’s been skating since he was three and skating competitively on the world stage since his teen years. Shepherd is the reigning World Figure men’s Champion at 53 years old, and the most decorated skater in World Figure Sport history, having won a total of ten gold medals and two silver medals at the World Figure & Fancy Skating Championships.
But it wasn’t always like that. “As a child my figures were terrible,” recalls Shepherd, referring to the shapes that for most of the last century skaters diligently practiced etching into ice. Until just recent decades, skating compulsory figures was a make-or-break skill for medalists at all levels of competition worldwide, including the Olympics, and Shepherd confesses, “I could skate well, but my figures were so bad I almost quit.”
Then at the age of 12, Shepherd began working with new coaches, including some of Scott Hamilton’s coaches, Carlo and Christa Fassi and Don Laws. “They taught Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill and John Curry and Robin Cousins,” recalls Shepherd. “With the right coaching, my figures became very, very strong.”
So strong, in fact, he asserts with dry humor, “I have some unfinished business going on.” It’s safe to say this business is booming for Shepherd because he’s widely recognized today as the “King of Figures.”
The Rise of Shepherd’s Skating Career
Coached throughout his early years by some of this nation’s most renowned figure skating coaches, Shepherd’s skating skills became world class. He placed fourth in the 1988 World Junior Figure Skating Championships before winning silver in 1989, and he was the first skater ever to land the triple lutz/triple toe loop combination in competition.
His mainstream competitive skating career spanned many years. In 1996, he was the Finlandia Trophy Champion, the first American to ever win this title. At the U.S. Nationals in 1998, he placed fourth and was selected as a U.S. Olympic Team alternate that same year. He was also World Figure Skating Team alternate in 1998 and 1999 and placed 6th at the Four Continents Championships in 1999, the highest U.S. men’s finish that year. He remains today, the only skater in the world to ever medal in an International Skating Union World Championship skating event as well as a World Figure Sport event.
In 2020, an emotional Shepherd Clark, was presented with the World Figure Sport Society’s Suzanne Shelley Clark Award. Established in memory of Shepherd’s mother, who is known to have supported her son over a lifetime, this award is presented to especially outstanding people in the world of figure skating art. Also at the 2020 World Figure and Fancy Skating Championships, Shepard was chosen to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Figure Sport Hall of Fame.
The Birth of a New Dream
“It was 2015 when I first heard about World Figure Sport Society,” says Shepherd. “That’s when it was founded. Strange enough, although I skated from three years old to 33, I hadn’t been skating for years, and I began having these dreams I was doing figures at an important event. I was feeling nervous doing these difficult paragraph double three figures and would wake up wondering why I’m dreaming about figures. It happened more than once. So, when I got an invitation to come to Lake Placid and be there with Doug Wilson and Oleg Protopopov and all these people who came to support the mission of this new organization, I felt like I was meant to be there.”
It was the vision of the Kelly family – Karen Courtland Kelly and Patrick Kelly – who founded the World Figure Sport Society that spurred Shepherd’s dream and, ultimately, his return to competitive skating in 2016. “I made a commitment years ago that I would do whatever I could to support them and to bless their efforts. I like to refer to them as the legends of the lake, along with Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, and others who skated in Lake Placid through the years.”
Shepherd is also inspired by another of Lake Placid’s skating legends, Sonja Henie, gold medal winner at Lake Placid’s 1932 Winter Olympic Games. “As a skating historian, I recognize the uniqueness of Sonja Henie’s career achievements. She dominated in the Olympics. She dominated in Hollywood’s golden era. And she dominated in the arts and skating. Figure skating is, arguably, the most artistic sport in the world because it blends fine performance art with decorative and recording arts, all on a crystal stage. Figure skating is the jeweled sport where we dance on a crystalline surface wearing jeweled clothing and compete for gold.”
The Skating Experience in Legendary Lake Placid
Says Shepherd, “It’s a great joy to give back to Lake Placid because Lake Placid has given so much to us. The ice arenas are the finest and most legendary on the planet. With their monumental legacy, it’s surreal to me that these Olympic Center arenas even exist and that we are competing on them, continuing this legacy with such legends of the lake.”
In the months approaching the return of the 2023 World Figure & Fancy Skating Championships to its home in Lake Placid, Shepherd is working with yet another of the sport’s great legends. A World Champion and the first black person from any country to have ever won an Olympic medal, Debi Thomas, has chosen Lake Placid as the place she will return to competition, and in recent months she and Shepherd have been training and working on figures together.
“Training with Debbie has been one of the greatest experiences of my entire career,” says Shepherd. “The first time I ever saw Debbie, I was at nationals as a spectator. I was probably 11 years old, and I remember watching so many great skaters, including Tiffany Chen, Rosalynn Sumners, Elaine Zayak, Jill Frost, and others. Debi comes out to skate, and she’s absolutely brilliant. Her technique was really, really strong and she was doing the hardest stuff in that competition. Debi fought hard and worked hard and ultimately fulfilled her destiny.”
That destiny included winning the World Championship in 1986, winning three of four compulsory figures at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, and making history with Olympic bronze.
Dreams, Destiny, and Vision Fulfilled
“Now this year, in the 10th anniversary of this World Championship and the 100th anniversary of the Winter Olympic Games which began with figures, we will be there together, both of us skating to fulfill the vision of the World Figure Sport Society and these Championships.”
Given the remarkable arc of his career, one can’t help but imagine that little boy who struggled so greatly and nearly quit skating many years ago. Instead of giving up, however, he trained, worked diligently, and rose in the ranks, eventually even returning to skating years later to become the King of Figures. The talented man that little boy grew up to be is now returning to Lake Placid to defend his title once again at this 10th anniversary of the World Figure & Fancy Skating Championships.
Having earned a dozen medals for his art and his athletic performances since his return to the ice, Shephard will be back at the Olympic Center October 4 through 8 to defend his title and compete in the same Championships as his new training partner Debi Thomas. And in the making is the fulfillment of Shepherd’s own remarkable destiny.
Because no one should be denied the opportunity to witness the art, grace, comebacks, and competition at these World Figure & Fancy Skating Championships, they are free-of-charge for all spectators. Special on-ice lessons and workshops naturally require fees, but all competitive and art events are free. Registration is still required for complimentary admission. Visit this link to find the full event details, including the schedule, and to submit your registration form.