NORTH SMITHFIELD – You may know her as an advocate for seniors, or as a face in local government from her time leading North Smithfield as town administrator.
But to those in the world of competitive figure skating, Linda Thibault is a gold medalist, preparing to perform before thousands of spectators for her second time at the age of 78 – a chance to match skills against skaters from across the globe.
Thibault was raised in North Smithfield and notes she got her start on the ice at a young age. But it was only in recent years – when most athletes her age would be slowing down – that she took the hobby to the next level.
“I’ve always skated. I grew up as a pond skater,” said Thibault, noting she got her first nice pair of custom-fit ice skates around age 73, after decades of gliding on hand-me-downs. “You would get some Sears Roebuck skates that were too big, and put extra socks in them.”
It’s a hobby she later passed down to her children, and when her daughter was 10-years-old, it was Thibault’s advocacy the led to the launch of the town’s first girls figure skating program.
In the late 1970s, she served as the first vice president of the North Smithfield Youth Hockey Association, while her husband volunteered as a hockey referee. Mike Lovett was the high school athletic director then, and the program served as a feeder for the North Smithfield High School team. Practices were held in the ice rink on Route 146.
“We were there all Sunday afternoon into the evening,” Thibault said, noting that at the time, “We were very much a hockey town.”
As her daughter’s skating skills improved, Thibault hired a professional trainer, and time at the rink was spent watching the private lessons.
“That’s when I realized I was skating, but I wasn’t doing it properly,” Thibault said.
Inevitably, of course, Thibault’s children grew up, and long hours once spent in the rink became free time.
“We finally got warm again,” she said. “Then along came grandkids.”
Soon, it was Thibault’s grandson who was learning to skate – and her daughter who was teaching the classes.
“That’s when I got back on the ice again,” said Thibault.
The now grandmother joined an adult skating program.
“We were back in the rinks again,” she said of the Thibault clan.
But it wasn’t until around ten years ago – in her late 60s – that Thibault says she, “got serious,” about skating, after decreasing her work hours from 50-hours-a-week, to part time.
In 2018, she entered the Ice Sports Industry’s World Recreational Championships at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, Mass., an international event that’s attracted some 10 million competitors over its 63 year history. Skating to Martina McBride’s “In My Daughter’s Eyes,” Thibault, with daughter Kimberly Schaefer and granddaughter Lily Schaefer, performed a three-generation program.
“It was very emotional,” she said. “It was quite a lovely program, and the judges thought so too. We won a gold medal.”
Lily was a senior in high school at the time.
And Thibault offered a second individual performance, competing with technical elements in ice dancing. A professional nurse who graduated college in her mid-30s, Thibault had never been one to follow age conventions. Still, performing in a world competition for the first time at age 73 in front of thousands of people was a lot.
“When it was time for me to be out there alone I did kind of freak out a little bit,” she said. “That was scary because I was all by myself out there. I’ve done a lot of things in my lifetime in front of people, but skating was a different thing. I was nervous.”
The new competitor got those nerves under control – and took home a second gold medal.
“When I think back I say, ‘you had a lot of guts,'” she said.
Thibault now skates once a week at Sharper Edge Skating School in Concord, Mass., taking lessons with a coach every Wednesday morning, and sometimes a second session in the afternoon. After her lessons, she sticks around to help teach kids as young as two.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “By the end of the day, I’m cold.”
Her daughter Kimberly also still coaches and became national referee. Lily helps out when she’s home from college, where she skates with the UMass Amherst Synchro Team.
And next year, when the ISI championship returns to the region with an event in Boxborough, Mass. in August, Thibault plans to join the Dutch Waltz & the Canasta Tango competitions.
“There’s people coming from everywhere,” she said. “It’s a pretty big deal. I’ll be skating a lot next summer to prepare.”
She’ll turn 79 before the event, putting her among the oldest competitors.
The active resident, also a former town council president, still stays involved in local government, advocating on behalf of creation of a dedicated center to help keep other members of the town’s older population stay active as chairperson of the Senior Advisory Committee. She also tap dances, and seems unlikely to slow down anytime soon, referring to the sometime grueling figure skating training as her, “me time.”
“She works me very hard,” she said of her coach. “I enjoy it. I stay strong.”