My husband and I moved from neighboring Winter Springs, empty nesters looking for a close-knit community to fill the empty space left behind when our kids flew the coop. We chose Sanford because it had that feeling we were longing for, and we were not disappointed. We bought on 16th but lived for a short stint on Oak as our house was going through some renovations, which is when we met our lovely neighbor, Val, an elegant woman who towers over most with the grace of a swan. Val is British, like my husband, so naturally, they hit it off famously. As we got to know Val, we realized her past was like a book chock- full of interesting stories rich with history.

Val’s great-granduncle, William Holman Hunt, is the artist of one of the greatest religious images of the 19th Century, Light of the World, which is still displayed on the altar of the Middlesex Chapel of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and is replicated in hundreds of churches throughout the world. Her dad, Alfred Hunt, was chief of police in London and a highly valued confidant to none other than Winston Churchill.

With a love for figure skating, Val and her former husband, Peter Burrows, were three-time British Pair Champions. This led them on their path to the Olympics, but they were unable to compete due to an injury sustained by her partner. As a result of her successful skating career, she was involved in the production of a British TV show called “Hot Ice & Cool Music,” which she speaks of proudly. The show featured figure skaters and rock bands, much like our version of “American Bandstand.” Val fondly remembers auditioning musical talent and signing checks for performances by The Rolling Stones, Englebert Humperdink, and even an English rock group called The Beatles.

With all this history and deep roots in England, you are probably wondering what would bring Val to America. Well, it was a tragedy. But not her tragedy — it was America’s tragedy. In 1961, Sabena Flight 548 en route to Belgium was carrying the entire U.S. skating team, along with family members, friends, coaches, and officials. The team was on their way to the World Figure Skating Championship in Prague when the plane crashed on approach to Zaventem Airport killing all 72 people on board. The International Skating Union conducted a poll and canceled the competition out of respect for the U.S. team. This horrific loss was devastating to the United States, and they would have to rebuild their entire team.

As a true champion, Val heard that calling, which was the motivation that brought Val, her husband, and their son to America in 1966. Her husband was more involved with helping the U.S. in rebuilding their team when they first arrived while Val continued growing and raising their family to six children in total. However, Val was not too busy to assist in the training of a young Olympian hopeful by the name of Dorothy Hamill. Armed with decades of training and expertise, Val was instrumental in creating one of the most beloved champions on ice of all time, whom the media dubbed “America’s Sweetheart.”

Today Val is known and loved by many in our community. She loves animals of all kinds and takes care of many of our furry little family members. I jokingly tell her she probably has more keys to houses in Sanford than a realtor, to which she would agree. Her granddaughter, Erin, refers to her as the “Weiner Walker,” and even has a cup engraved with the endearing name because of Val’s love for her three Dachsunds, which she rescued.

Perhaps those of you who know Val learned a little something you didn’t know before because like a “True Brit,” she is very humble. She will persistently remind me of her “stiff upper lip,” while confronting everything life throws at her with style, grace, and always with a smile, despite that lip to which she often refers. I truly feel lucky to call Val my friend, and so fortunate that she shared with me her illustrious past. She is an amazing woman, and I am in awe of her strength and beauty.

People make a community. And while you may not have an Olympian living next door to you, you could very well have a champion, because champions are many things to different people. Write to me at champions@MySanfordMagazine.com about your hero, so I can come “Knock, Knock…Who’s IN there???”

Photo: Valerie Hunt, winner of the 1960 Pairs Championship of Ice Skating

IN LOVING MEMORY OF VALERIE J. TULIP (VAL) September 24, 1944–August 16, 2019

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