Peoria Profile

Linda Branan: Skating to Success
by Kelli Lawrence
When Linda Branan began coaching figure skaters in central Illinois back in 1971, getting all the way to the Winter Olympics with one of them never entered her mind.

“I just really wanted to be a good coach, bringing skaters up to the level they wanted to skate,” Branan recalls of those early days. “As far as thinking about the Olympics, or anything like that, no… I never did think that far, at least not with those kids.”

So it went for nearly 20 years, from the Pekin Memorial Ice Arena, to the Logan Ice Center in downtown Peoria, to the Owens Center where Branan currently coaches. But when she took on a 9-year-old named Matt Savoie in early 1990, her career—her whole life, really—was destined to change forever.

“He was just a really exciting kid,” she says of Savoie, now 26, whom she has so far coached all the way to three U.S. Bronze Medals and a spot on the 2006 U.S. Olympic Team. “I never had to push him, never yelled at him… he could motivate himself so well (without it). He just listened so well. He’d do whatever you told him to do.”

One thing she never told him was how she thought he had the “it” factor—the quality separating the excellent skaters from the merely above average; the talent that’s taken Branan and Savoie to competitions around the world ever since Savoie won the U.S. Junior Men’s title in 1997. “I knew for a long time that he had it, but I just kind of kept it to myself,” she says now. “The older Matt got, the more he could see that he was going places… but he would never admit (he might be at) the Olympics. Meanwhile in the back of my head, I’m thinking ‘that boy, he’s so good...’”

Though Savoie’s natural ability and work ethic obviously account for much of his success, it is Branan’s steady yet ever-changing role in his life that has harnessed his talent in the best ways possible. It started with teaching him the all-important basics of the sport, but once she realized he was to go far beyond what she knew at the time, Branan didn’t hesitate to find others—the right others—to work with him. (Savoie’s current coaching team includes Rockford’s Gene Heffron, as well as choreographer Tom Dickson and dance coach Kathy Johnson, both in Colorado Springs.) “I was never afraid to let other coaches work with my kids… I never thought about losing them (as students),” she said. “I just wanted to better them if I could.”

Branan wouldn’t just line up assistance for Savoie; she’d be present at every session, learning right along with him. Her husband Larry Branan, who is also president of the Illinois Valley Figure Skating Club, points to this as the sort of thing which separates her from other coaches. “When Linda first got Matt, I’d say she was just an average coach,” he said frankly. “But she learned a lot of stuff by listening, and watching what (the other coaches) were doing. Linda was never threatened by another coach’s ability to show her something. It was that simple.”

For Marina Savoie, Matt’s mother, Branan’s reassuring nature makes the difference. “I remember Matt would get the double axel (jump), and then he’d lose the double axel, and then, oh my God, it was just horrible, he lost the double axel, and he was never going to get it back. But it was Linda’s constant repetition of ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to come back’… ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it’…she provides the emotional support that skaters need to succeed.”

Emotional and moral support was what Branan gave most as she accompanied her most accomplished student to the Winter Olympics this past February. And when Savoie turned in a seventh place finish—with his best score yet in an international competition—Branan found herself besieged with e-mails, phone calls and numerous speaking engagement requests for Savoie upon her return. After all, she’s more than his coach; she’s also his unofficial agent. It’s been that way for years, though Savoie’s tendency to shy from the spotlight made it a relatively easy job for Branan. The Olympics changed all that—Savoie remained one of the most recognizable faces in Peoria throughout this past spring and summer—Branan reports he’s unassuming of his “celebrity” status. “This summer I had him autograph a poster for a friend, and when I asked if he had a pen, he said ‘Yeah, I just happened to start carrying one around because I figured I really need one (for autograph purposes)…’ some six months after the Olympics! That’s so funny. That is so Matt,” she said with a laugh.

As most fans know, Savoie is currently a student at Cornell Law School. It’s the first time he’s put skating on hold to focus entirely on his studies; it’s also the first time he’s lived away from home. Having coached him for all 17 years of his career, Savoie’s absence from the Owens Center is quite a “first.” “I still go out there looking for him, even though I know he’s not going to be there,” she said with a sigh. “It’s been really tough. But I need this year of rest. I don’t even want to go to competitions. I just need to stay at home with my family!”

In fact, competitions aren’t on the horizon for any of the young people Branan currently coaches—a roster which includes Bradley students, as well as those commuting from Springfield and Chicago. Branan’s plans now are about helping them pass respective freestyle tests, advancing from one level to the next. “I like my kids to set goals, to have something to work towards,” she said. But she doesn’t see any of her students getting as serious about the sport as Savoie did.

“At this point in my life at 61, it’s hard to imagine having another student like Matt,” she said. “But if somebody really wanted to fight to get somewhere (in figure skating), I could do it again in a New York second.” tpw