He’s skated with Peggy Fleming in a command performance at the White House for President Jimmy Carter. He skated with, and briefly dated, Dorothy Hamill. He’s performed in the Ice Capades chorus line. He’s been a star on ice at the Sheraton in Fort Lauderdale. For years, he commuted to that job from his place in Miami.
But Robert Strong, now 65, is proud to call Graceville home. He’s lived here since 1983, in his house about five miles south of the Graceville Civic Center.
He may be best known in these parts as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. After he retired from skating and eventually moved here, he ran a 500-household route in Graceville full time for 15 years, and covered it as a substitute carrier for five years before that.
He settled here for the long term during what was supposed to have been a brief residency while he studied at the old Baptist Bible Institute, now known as the Baptist College of Florida.
He said he was infatuated with the local area from the start.
“I came out of the Miami traffic grid. I fell in love with the peace and quiet here,” Strong said. “Instead of a hectic lifestyle, I found a wonderful new way of life. People would say hello or good morning when they met me down the aisle of the grocery store. In Miami, you daren’t speak to a stranger; they might cart you off and take you away,” he joked. “It was the friendliness and the pace that I was smitten with.”
Strong grew up in Massachusetts, but spent his entire adult life in south Florida when he wasn’t on tour across the United States or in Canada. At the age of 17, right out of high school, he went on the road with the Ice Capades, having moved to this state when his grandparents retired to the Miami area. His dad had to sign his contract because he was too young to make the legal agreement on his own.
He skated in the Ice Capades chorus line for about a year, but moved on after the show switched to a format in response to the disco era, a change he couldn’t ultimately live with because it to a large extent cut down on or eliminated the kinds of routines that allowed him to do the axels, splits and several other maneuvers that he loved to perform. They had been his specialty. On the regulation rinks, he had performed on a surface of 200 feet by 120 feet.
But then he moved on to a different venue with a big challenge. There, he learned the meaning of downsizing. That’s when he started performing for the Sheraton in Fort Lauderdale. In that venue, he had a skating surface of just 20 feet by 30 feet.
The resort hotel chain offered an after-dinner ice show at its restaurants back then. It was a cabaret style presentation and it was in this venue that Strong would be the highlight star. Here, he honed skills that many Olympians never achieve, managing to maneuver around a small rink and highlight his performance using height to compensate for the smaller space he had to work within.
That’s where he was discovered by the movers-and-shakers in his sport and tagged to perform for President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalyn Carter.
Because he was known by then for his special skill on same size small rink that was created for the president’s ice show, he was asked to skate with Peggy Fleming for the first family. Strong called Fleming “fearless,” an Olympic icon who welcomed the challenge of the smaller surface and already had some experience on the size. And that performance would open other doors for Strong, opportunities that kept him skating around the country until he retired in his 30s.
“From that day on, I was Mr. Famous,” Strong said. “All kinds of doors opened up, I got higher pay and when the show closed for the season I could work full time at rinks, teaching. I went from being a nobody to a star.”
Strong said he never considered making a run at Olympic medal. “My parents were on the low end of the middle class and it was better to skate for money than ask my parents to invest five years of their hard-earned money to get me ready for just a maybe chance to win a gold medal. It’s a pursuit for affluent households. These Olympians start very young and it’s a very expensive thing to train all those years. For me, that made no sense. And once you skate professionally you can’t compete in the Olympics. That decision I made at 17, to join the Ice Capades, is one I don’t regret one bit, but it sealed off the Olympic option,” he explained.
During his years as a professional skater, he joined Dorothy Hamill on the ice at Lake Placid during some of her training. She hadn’t yet reached her Olympic stardom, but was a regional and national champion at the time. The two kept company for a short period, he said, but it was quite an innocent courtship as he was close to 20 and she was 15 at the time. This was in 1970, when he was between shows, after the Ice Capades and before his Sheraton gig began.
Now that his profession years of skating are past, Strong hasn’t given up the sport for pleasure. He has a synthetic rink in his yard. It’s even smaller that his Sheraton stage, measuring just 11 feet by 15 feet, fitted under a carport-like roof.
Skating there keeps his muscled toned and keeps him generally fit between trips to larger rinks around the region. At Sandestin, he skates recreationally at the Village of Baytowne Wharf resort during the winter-only season there, where the rink measures 50 feet by 70 feet. He skates in Montgomery, Alabama, and at a rink in Pensacola, as well.
Even though he’s no longer paid for his advice to other skaters, he gives it just the same. He said sharing his knowledge brings him great joy.
“I love it,” he said. “I’d teach in a minute if anybody opened a rink around here. I don’t think that’s going happen in my lifetime, but it really makes me feel good to help a young person or anyone, really, who’s got a problem on the ice. If they ask me to help them straighten something out, if I see an opportunity to help, I’m all about it.” He worked for the Polar Palace as a skating instructor in Miami for a time after his retirement from performance, and the rewards of being a teacher proved to be rich for the soul, he said. Even though age has caught up to his body and made it impossible to do the big jumps and high-air moves he loved so much, like the Arabian cartwheel, he can still spin a “tornado” with the best of them, still do all the other spins and still do all the basic jumps in his sport, like the single axle, the loop, the flip, the Salchow, as well as a series of ballet-style moves. His body may no longer allow him to perform the triple axel, but the body and mind still know what it takes. He can help younger, more limber skaters get their foundational moves in order so that they can achieve it.
When he’s not skating or running personal errands in town, the divorced father of one daughter spends a great deal of time with his third great love in life -- music. After he retired from skating, he played keyboards at functions for various clubs and at some point along the way he bought a harp and learned to play that. His organ and his harp are displayed side by side, bringing harmonious refuge of warmth to the home of a man who has spent so much of his life on ice.