Posted 8:37 a.m. Tuesday, July 6, 2021
Gale Tanger elected to U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame
Gale Tanger owes her career in figure skating, at least in part, to her fashion sense.
Growing up in a family of winter sports enthusiasts, she used to admire the bright white skates she saw figure skaters wearing on TV.
“I’d been speed skating since I was five or six, and I told my dad I wanted to wear white skates,” says Tanger, ’68. “But my dad told me that speed skaters wear black skates, and figure skaters wear white skates. Eventually, my parents bought me white skates and gave me figure skating lessons.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Over the past 50 years, Tanger has built a reputation as one of the most influential and innovative voices in the world of figure skating. She has judged countless international competitions; contributed to six Olympics; and built lasting friendships with Peggy Fleming, Scott Hamilton and other renowned figures in the sport.
In January, it was announced that Tanger will be inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame — recognition of her outstanding career and profound impact.
“I can’t believe that I’m still alive and going into the Hall of Fame,” she jokes, noting that many people have been inducted posthumously. “I’m just so honored by it.”
Tanger’s path to becoming a judge is a prime example of a door closing and a window opening.
Tanger was a competitive figure skater when she enrolled at UWL, but because the university didn’t have an indoor rink, she found it hard to stay at the top of her game.
So she gave up competitive figure skating and focused on her studies, earning her degree in physical education. Soon after, U.S. Figure Skating reached out to her, wondering what she was doing and whether she was interested in judging.
“I was so much younger than the average judge, so part of me thought: ‘Why would I want to hang out with those people?’” she says. “But I loved skating, and it had become a void in my life. I really missed it.”
Tanger passed the tests and trials required to become an international judge.
The young girl who had dreamed of reaching the pinnacle of her sport had done exactly that — albeit in an entirely different capacity.
She spent two decades doing a combination of judging and TV work before accepting her first significant role with the Olympics.
For the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway — her father’s home country — Tanger served as the U.S. Team Leader for Figure Skating. One unexpected part of the job was managing Tonya Harding’s infamous feud with Nancy Kerrigan and the public relations crisis that ensued.
“Even though there were challenges with Tonya and Nancy, it was an incredible opportunity and a great Olympics,” she notes. “And it was such a great place for it. Where else could you have such a pristine Olympics? The snowflakes were like diamonds coming out of the air. To me, it was just wonderful.”
Tanger would go on to make plenty more Olympic memories.
She had a hand in every Winter Olympics from 1994 to 2018 — most notably as assistant “chef de mission” for the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
In this role, she helped lead the entire U.S. Olympic delegation. She had a high level of clearance that allowed her to easily move from venue to venue. If she really needed to be somewhere, she even had access to a helicopter.
“Because the bidding process takes it out 20 to 30 years, this was the only opportunity I’d ever have to serve in the Olympic Games in my home country,” she explains. “Boy, was my timing right. Without a question, Lillehammer and Salt Lake were my two favorite experiences.”
But her work was not done.
After allegations that the pairs’ figure skating competition in Salt Lake City had been fixed, Tanger was part of a five-person team that developed the new International Judging System.
It was a major undertaking, she says, but it was important to ensure fair results in the Olympics and other international events.
As her career has winded down, Tanger has retained her innovative spirit.
When COVID-19 disrupted figure skating competitions last year, she was among the early proponents of virtual events in which skaters film themselves on their home ice and judges evaluate their performances remotely.
“I had a team of 35 people working with me, and it was like finding the Holy Grail when we realized it would work,” she explains. “No one had ever done this before. But if we did it, we knew others would follow.”
Even after 50 years, Tanger’s passion for figure skating continues to burn. The sport’s constant evolution means there will always be another challenge — or, in Tanger’s view, another opportunity.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have so many wonderful opportunities in my path,” she says. “When you see one, and you think you could make a positive contribution, you just have to take it.”
Be on the lookout
Want to read more about UWL alums and faculty with connections to the Olympics? Watch for the next issue of the Lantern, coming later this summer.