One felt that some of the pundits of the period thought there was something not quite proper in Gillis’ skating, and I well remember once when judging a competition in which Sonja was competing successfully of course one of the acknowledged, greatest authorities of the day saying to me: That isn’t skating you know, that’s nothing but a puppet show, a marionette entertainment. Nevertheless, the moment these two appeared, the modern free-skating programme was born. Then came an epoch in which, had he lived, Arthur Cumming would have gloried, an epoch wherein the influence of the ballet and music was to have full sway, and, with the help of the skating technicians, produce the wonderful athletic art of modern free skating. It was in the 1924 Olympic Winter Games, however, that we witnessed the second impact of transatlantic skaters on the whole sport. Since Jackson Haines, to whom we owe the very beginning of the artistic side of skating, there had been nothing either creative or interpretative from over there. But now we were to see the first results of the pioneer work of Irving Brokaw and of the war-time teaching of Bror Meyer, and the result was indeed startling to say the least and it left nobody with brains and perception in any doubt as to the shape of things to be expected from across the water. In the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Winter Games American skaters such as Beatrice Loughran, Theresa Weld Blanchard, Nathaniel Niles, Maribel Vinson, Sherwin Badger, and the Canadians, Cecil Eustace Smith and her pair-partner Melville Rogers, Constance Wilson and her brother Montgomery twelve times undefeated North American champion and now teaching in Boston S.C. displayed an impressive style which, in a new way, and obviously with a deep knowledge of what they were after, proved sufficient to secure high places in these events. They had not broken with tradition on the contrary, their basic technique was in the classic manner but they had freshened it with all the vivacity and uninhibited imagination of the New World.
At this period, winning the ladies Worlds in 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925 and 1926 we had Frau Herma Plank of Vienna (afterwards Frau Jaros-Szabo), who had also won the ladies Olympic Competition at Chamonix in 1924, and who is the only skater, in all history, to win two different kinds of World Championship; for in 1925, with Ludwig Wrede, she was victorious in the World Pairs. Rather short, but immensely powerful, I shall never forget her performance in the blizzard at Chamonix in the ladies Olympic event: she went into the full force of the wind like an express train, nothing could stop her. She is one of the greatest skaters that has ever lived. It was in these games that we first saw a funny little red-cheeked, eleven-year-old child who was destined to revolutionise women’s skating, to set the fashion and indeed to create an era. Her name? Sonja Henie, winner of ten World, six European, and three Olympic Competitions.
Here I must tell a little story about her. At Chamonix in 1924, on account of the rain and sleet and generally shocking weather, the big rink was completely out of action, and all of us, speed skaters, about thirty in number, figures-skaters, perhaps about fifty, and the hockey players, teachers, coaches, trainers and so on, were compelled to use the Curling Rink, which was about 50 by 15 yards (at the most). The reason there was a curling rink at these Winter Games was that the country holding them is always entitled to include a sport of its own choosing. In 1924 the French chose Curling and for another more recent example let me give the year 1952, when Finland held their Winter Games in Oslo, the Norwegians, exercising their prerogative, gave us their modern version of the old game of Bandy, from which modern ice hockey has sprung, and which is a pretty accurate translation of land hockey to ice. Anyway, there we all were, cautiously trying out the ice, when to everyones consternation into the midst of this tightly packed, adult, rather austere assembly there rushed and I mean really rushed this plump, apple-cheeked child, dressed in a very short, red, fur-trimmed outfit. Full of unbounded confidence Papa and Mamma standing proudly at the side in she bounced, bang into the middle, and leaping in the air came down on the most glorious sit spin imaginable. Consternation reigned! What is this? some of us said. Is it the Olympic Winter Games or is it a kindergarten? Some created quite a fuss, and a few of us, looking on at this amazing child, tried to see into the future.
Between The Wars
Part 3
Between the Wars (Part 4). Between the Wars Index.