August 26, 2023 at 9:00am
Listen to the Article
Article by Elena Ferrarin
Northbrook Park District
Debbie Stoery has trained figure skaters who went on to compete in the Olympics and others who were the first in the world to perform technical elements in competition.
And yet, Stoery says, her greatest achievement in her 53 years as a professional figure skating coach has been teaching life skills to hundreds of students, mostly at the Northbrook Sports Center. “It is our difficulties that define us,” said Stoery, 71, who received the Professional Skaters Association’s 2023 Shulman Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Stoery said she has loved her time at the Northbrook Park District, where she’s had a chance to introduce figure skating to countless families. “Most people who are signing up their kids for classes at the Northbrook Sports Center have never skated themselves,” she said. “They recognize that when their children achieve success in an individual sport like skating, it enhances their self-esteem and can counter the toxic effects of social media.”
Sports Center Skating School Coordinator Laila Schlesinger said Stoery’s accomplishments and vast knowledge are an invaluable asset to the park district.
“Debbie is the human encyclopedia of figure skating” said Schlesinger, a friend and colleague who’s worked for the park district for nearly 50 years. “She has extensive experience in preparing skaters for reaching their goals. She is able to break down skating skills in ways that every type of skater is able to understand and correct.”
Stoery’s parents moved to Northbrook when she was 1, and her mother, an accomplished figure skater, put her in a snowsuit and single runner blades at 18 months, when the only ice option in town was the outdoor Tower Rink. When she was 8, her parents started driving her two hours each way to Rockton, Illinois, so she could train at the Wagon Wheel Ice Palace. Eventually, her parents became instrumental in establishing the Sports Center alongside Joe Doud, the park district’s first executive director. Before the facility was built, however, Stoery suffered a serious knee injury requiring surgery at the age of 14.
“As a result of my accident, I have been laser focused on health and safety, and designed my college education at Northwestern University as a sports science major before there was such a thing,” said Stoery, who started coaching as a senior at Glenbrook North High School. “My students are empowered to prioritize their own health throughout their lives. Without our health, we cannot be of service.”
Glenbrook North’s 1970 valedictorian, Stoery went on to an acclaimed career that includes becoming the youngest coach on Team USA in the early 1980s and being among few coaches in the world who hold the highest PSA rating, the master rating, in freestyle, choreography and skating skills.
Her students have qualified for more than 30 international competitions including World Figure Skating Championships and World Junior Figure Skating Championships, and more than 40 U.S. National
Championships and U.S. Junior Championships. In 2000, she was the only American singles coach of two U.S. national champions, and the following year she was the only American singles coach with students in both the World and Junior World Championships.
She also had a significant impact in the development of Olympians Caryn Kadavy (1988), Nicole Bobek (1998), Melissa Gregory (2006), all of whom she trained at the Northbrook Sports Center, as well as Evan Lysacek (2010). Northbrook’s most accomplished figure skater, Bunny Blake, was her student from beginner level to the 1980 World Junior Figure Skating Championships.
Stoery is especially proud of her four students, including Kadavy, who first performed a new technical element in competition. “That’s more important that winning the Olympics,” she said, “because, in any sport, you are giving a great gift to all athletes in the world to be the first by breaking a time barrier or creating a new skill.”
Over the years, she perfected the art of listening and connecting with her skaters, she said. Her goal is to empower her skaters to improve during their own practice time, which builds their self-respect and increases their enthusiasm.
She loathes negativity, eschews jealousy and considers herself to be honest but not critical. She is also mindful of the language she uses, insisting that skaters discuss “competing with” rather than “competing against” opponents. “I emphasize wishing that all competitors do their best and that the judges are the ones who sweat it out. There is no honor in winning unless everybody does their best.”
Stoery lost her first husband to MRSA infection. In October, she will marry August “Gus” Locallo, a Northbrook Park District volunteer baseball coach who was inducted into the district’s Volunteer Hall of Fame in 2022 and will be celebrated at an Induction Ceremony on Aug. 28.
“We both love what we do and want to keep doing it,” she said. “We celebrated his 74th birthday in June and my 71st in April. We are both very mentally sharp and in reasonably good health, and we deeply appreciate that and our ability to give back to our community.”