Coach Fenn a big loss for speedskating
When Shani Davis was a young speedskater starting to open eyes with his talent and potential, he didn’t feel a sense of belonging on the U.S. team. He was an African-American from Chicago, an outsider who felt little support from the speedskating establishment. Then he met Bob Fenn. The longtime Milwaukee-based coach took Davis under his wing at the Pettit National Ice Center and helped the speedskater reach great heights as a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the career leader in World Cup points.
“Bobby was a pillar of confidence because at the time I worked with him, I was alone,” Davis said Wednesday. “When Bobby came along I had that support, that person who believed in me. He was a fighter, a New Yorker, and he instilled that in me at a young age. I really needed him.”
Davis was Fenn’s most accomplished
athlete but the coach known affectionately as “Roscoe” was willing to help any skater who walked through the doors at the Pettit Center, his home away from home.
“He would take on anybody,” Davis said. “To have his knowledge bestowed on me, I was really lucky. He was the best guy you could have in your corner.”
Fenn, a fixture on the ice for decades and a man known for his selfless dedication, big heart and booming voice, died unexpectedly at his Waukesha home Sunday. He was 73. “It’s unbelievable what this man did for the sport,” said Mike Greenland of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who trained under Fenn as a teenager and became a close friend. “I’m a basket case. Everybody is.”
Fenn was one of my favorite people not only in speedskating but in all of sports. He was opinionated,
honest and direct, qualities that didn’t always endear him to U.S. Speedskating because he was frequently critical of the federation. But it was never malicious. He was only looking out for his skaters.
Fenn also gave me one of my all-time favorite quotes. When I wrote a piece at the 2014 Winter Olympics about the hugely disappointing performance of the U.S. long-track team, he told me, “It’s like the collapse of the Roman Empire.”
I saw him just a
month ago at the Pettit Center and, as usual, he talked up the skaters he was coaching, especially Theron Sands of Champaign, Ill., who is trying to make the Olympic team at 53.
“He was a great motivator,” Sands said from Salt Lake City, where he is competing for a spot on the U.S. World Cup team. “Bobby considered me capable of winning the 10K and that’s what I’m working for. In some ways it will be a more difficult road for me now but I am going to be more focused because
I am totally dedicating this to him.”
Fenn was born in Manhattan, N.Y., and was a world-class speedskater in his youth. He won gold and bronze medals at the shorttrack world championships in 1976, though he almost never talked about it.
“Only us old-timers know this,” Greenland said.
A longtime union carpenter, Fenn helped build the Pettit Center and then spent thousands of hours on its ice, stopwatch and clipboard
in hand, helping skaters get more out of themselves than they thought possible.
“He was incredibly good to and for so many young and aspiring skaters and families,” fourtime Olympian Dave Cruikshank wrote in a text message. “His passion and commitment to our sport was unmatched. He’s going to be missed immensely.”
Visitation will be from 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20 until the time of service at 7:30 at Harder Funeral Home, 18700 W. Capitol Drive.