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The Human Touch

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AS THE MUSIC ENDED, NICOLE Bobek dropped to her knees on the ice at Lausanne, Switzerland, and buried her face in her hands. She had just finished out of contention for a medal at the World Figure Skating Championships, but that wasn’t the source of her grief. Carlo Fassi, the celebrated coach who brought her to the worlds, had died of a heart attack two days before.

Bobek said later, “I told Carlo I tried and that I loved him.” She wasn’t alone. Fassi’s death at age 67 sent a shock wave through the insular world of figure skating. Peggy Fleming, one of his four Olympic gold medalists (the others were Dorothy Hamill and British skaters John Curry and Robin Cousins), says, “He touched more of my life than I had ever thought. Carlo had the ability to reach into our heads and draw the talent out of us.”

Fassi’s secret, it seems, was offering his charges unconditional support, along with an extended family that included Christa, his coaching partner and wife of 37 years, and their two sons and one daughter. Cousins says he chose Fassi as his coach not because he could turn him into a champion but because of “promises that I would be leaving my family to join his.” Adds Bobek, 19: “He took the place of being a dad. If I was dating, he wanted to know who it was—and he wanted to meet him.”

A native of Milan and a bronze medalist in the 1953 world championships, Fassi, whose fractured English would remain a source of humor among pupils and friends, came to the U.S. to help rebuild the national program after top American skaters, coaches and judges died in a plane crash near Brussels in 1961. In 1968 he produced his first Olympic champion in Fleming. Eight years later Hamill and Curry struck gold, and Cousins won in 1980.

For Bobek, at least, the choice of a future coach is clear—Christa Fassi. “She has Carlo in her heart,” the skater says. “I know that when I am with her, he is always around.”