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Farragut’s Oppegard back at Olympics

For many people, your real home is where your close-knit childhood family is located.

For Peter Oppegard, a national champion pairs figure skater who won a bronze medal at the 1988 Calgary Olympics — with Jill Watson the last American figure skating couple to medal in the Olympics — his parents and several of his siblings have made Farragut home for about 29 years.

An equally successful figure skating coach who mentors the United States’ top pairs team heading into the Torino, Italy Winter Olympics for competition Feb. 11-23, Oppegard, his wife and two small children currently live in California.

However, Oppegard said the Farragut/West Knox County area “is where I call home.”

In addition, Farragut's St. John Neumann Church “means a lot to our family,” the 46-year-old skating champion said. “I just wanted our child to be baptized around family. Our family's been going there for so many years. My brothers have been alter boys. My sisters have played music in the church.”

The couple's youngest child, Sophia, 4-months old, will be baptized “at the beginning of April” at St. John Neumann, joining 22-month old Olivia, baptized at the church in Summer 2004 at 4-months old.

Family closeness extended to Calgary. “The whole family made that trip,” said Galen Oppegard, Peter's father. That included Peter’s mother, Joan, and siblings Patricia Dueber and Farragut High School graduates Peggy, Pamela, Pierrette, Paulette, Paul and Preston. “We got down close to the ice for the awards ceremony,” Galen Oppegard said.

Peter said he and wife, Karen Kwan, sister of international U.S. figure skating star Michelle Kwan, may retire in the Farragut area. “We love family, and I have a lot of family there, so we'd like to get back there, too,” he said.

With his father's scientific background “specializing in propulsion” that eventually led the family to Farragut for work in Oak Ridge, “We did a lot of traveling,” Peter Oppegard said, adding that he was born in Seattle. The family has also followed Galen Oppegard's work to California and Kansas.

“They were my strength, they definitely kept me going,” Oppegard said of his parents

Peter said he started skating at age 6. “I started competing right away, I was lucky enough to win some awards right away and it kinda wet my appetite for future successes.”

Skating both individually and in pairs since 14, “I was just so much more successful at [pairs],” Oppegard said. “I just found my calling when I became a pairs skater.”

With a close connection to West Knoxville's Ice Chalet, “My first coach ever owns that facility,” Oppegard said of Bob Unger, a West Knox Countian who also owned a rink in Huntsville, Ala., where the Oppegards lived until moving to the Farragut area in 1976, when Peter was 16.

“He was a great, great influence on me. He inspired me to work hard from the time I was a child. There were a number of girls in the class, of course, in figure skating, and he would always pull me aside and say, 'now look at these girls in the class' ... not one time do I want to see you in anything but the lead.’”

Saying the Ice Chalet “was a great place to learn but a little too small” for advanced figure skating, Peter said he “eventually ended up training for weeks at a time in Troy, Ohio.”

That began at age 11. “I was traveling away from home a lot from the time I was ten years old ... I would be gone for bunches of weeks. ... But Knoxville was always my home base where I could come back to and relax and enjoy my family,” Peter said. “Of course, my family is completely integrated in Knoxville.”

Qualifying for the United States Nationals competition at age 14, “I spent the entire year away from home ... I was difficult for me. I'm sure it was very difficult for my parents, too. That was a strain. I missed my family terribly, we're very close. ... My coach [Richard Rimmer] kinda took over the fatherhood role when my dad couldn't be there,” Peter said. “But I didn't start my international career until I was a whole lot older.”

Galen Oppegard said, “It was hard, our family's close-knit. But he's worked pretty hard.”

Approaching his mid-20s by 1984, Oppegard joined Watson in senior pairs “and nine months later we won the national title, in Kansas City,” he said, adding that after the pair had a slow competitive start, “We surprised everybody, we learned a lot quickly. We had some good coaching.”

In 1985, Oppegard and Watson also ended fourth in the world. “It was a meteoric rise,” Oppegard said.

Scoring top five in the world from 1985 to 1988, “people were kinda getting used to that,” Oppegard said, adding that at the 1987 World Championships “we were third.”

The silver medal Russian team's male member, Oleg Vasilliev, who Oppegard said remains a friend, “came back before the marks came up and said congratulations, you finally beat us. But then the marks came up and they were second,” Oppegard said of Vasilliev, who ironically now coaches the world's top team. “The Russians pushed it through.

“No American pairs team has won an Olympic medal since Jill and I.”

In Calgary, “It was really, really phenomenal,” Joan Oppegard said.

After Calgary, Oppegard and Watson won the World Professional Title “a few months after that,” then Watson left “to go back to school in Indiana.”

Oppegard continued to compete into the early 1990s, “skating with another girl [Cindy Landry] who was a Canadian skating champion,” finishing No. 2 in the world in 1992.

“I'm happy with my skating career, but I'm happier with my coaching career,” Oppegard said. “I couldn't be more pleased. I'm just glad that I can pass on all my years of experience onto other kids that can take it and have an opportunity to maybe one day do better than I did.”

As a coach, Oppegard said he's been named Choregrapher of the Year by the top professional and amateur figure skating association, in addition to being named Coach of the Year.

“I've had ten different pairs teams and singles skaters win national titles,” he said.

Peter said his top U.S. pair, Rene Inoue and John Baldwin, “have a slim outside chance [to medal] if they skate two perfect programs,” adding his pair hit the world's first-ever “throw triple-axel” in competition earlier this year.

Peter and his skaters left for Italy last Saturday.

He and Karen may leave for Farragut upon retirement.


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