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Blades of Glory: Skaters Who Changed the Sport

Now that the 2010 Winter Olympics are underway, the world will once again become embroiled in the glamour, the intrigue, and the illusion netting that typify professional ice skating. While few people could name the winner of the 1994 biathlon, skating gets big television and pop-culture coverage. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the on- and off-ice drama of figure skating, and the sport has provided some of the Olympics’ most amazing moments. But while a great deal of showmanship and flamboyance go into the skating performances, underneath all those sequins are incredibly talented and hardworking athletes, many of whom are trailblazers in their sport. 

Ulrich Salchow – First Olympic Medalist
Ulrich Salchow was a Swedish figure skater who dominated in the early twentieth century. He won the world championships ten times (a record he still holds), and in 1908, when the first Olympic figure skating events were held in London, he won the first gold medal in the sport. In 1909, he invented a jump where the skater takes off from the back inside edge of one skate and lands on the back outside edge of the other skate—a jump that is still called the Salchow.

Madge Syers – First Female Gold Medalist 

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (cc)

In the first figure skating championships, women did not compete. In 1902, Syers entered the contest anyway, because the rules did not explicitly prohibit female participants. After she won second place, the judges amended the rules to bar females from the event. But by the 1908 Olympics, the rules had changed again, so that women were allowed to enter, and the UK native became the first woman to win the individual competition, competing in an ankle-length dress. At the age of twenty-seven, she was also the oldest female gold medalist. 

Theresa Weld – First American Woman to Earn a Medal
Weld competed in the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, where she earned the United States its first medal, the bronze. She might have scored higher, except that the judges penalized her for adding a surprising element to her program: a single jump, which she was the first female competitor to attempt in competition. The jump she performed was the Salchow, invented just eleven years earlier. 


Sonja Henie – Skating’s First Celebrity


Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (cc) 

Norwegian Sonja Henie dominated skating in the 1920s and ’30s, winning gold medals in three successive Olympics: 1928, 1932, and 1936. She became a professional touring skater and eventually a Hollywood actress. Henie’s choice of short skirts and white boots became the standard fashion for female skaters, a style that still dominates today. 

Dick Button – First Triple Jump
Nowadays, skaters are expected to execute back-to-back jumps with multiple rotations, but before the 1952 games in Oslo, nobody had attempted a jump with three spins. Dick Button performed a triple loop, which earned him the first of his gold medals and the first championship title by an American. He was also the first person to earn back-to-back gold medals and, at age eighteen, the youngest male champion in history. 

Tenley Albright – First Female American Gold Medalist

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (cc) 

Before skating was an American powerhouse, Albright was the first American woman to win the competition, held in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, in 1956. She retired immediately after her Olympic victory, after which she attended Harvard and became a surgeon. 

Terry Kubicka – First on-Ice Backflip

In 1976, Kubicka was the U.S. men’s champion and was the first person to successfully perform a triple Lutz. At the Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, he performed the first complete back flip in competition, but the judges decided not to give him any credit for the maneuver. Officially, they claimed that since a back flip had to be landed on both feet, it was not a legitimate “jump.” After Kubicka performed the flip in that year’s world championships, it was banned from competition altogether. Today, any skater who does a back flip at the games is disqualified. 

Torvill and Dean – First Perfect Score

At the 1984 games in Sarajevo, English ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean became the highest-scoring skaters of all time when they performed their version of Ravel’s Bolero during the free skate. Under the previous scoring system, they received twelve perfect 6.0 scores—one from every judge—for their artistic expression. No individual or pair skater has ever matched their achievement. 

Debi Thomas – First and Only African American Medalist
Only one African American figure skater has ever earned a medal at the winter Olympics. Debi Thomas, also the first African American woman to win the world championships, took home the bronze medal from the 1988 games in Calgary. After she retired from competition, she attended Stanford and Northwestern Universities and became an orthopedic surgeon. 

Tara Lipinski – Youngest-Ever Champion
Most female Olympic figure skating champions have hovered around eighteen to twenty-two years of age. In 1998, fifteen-year-old American Tara Lipinski became the youngest gold medalist in the history of the sport when she won at the Nagano games. 

As skaters get younger, stronger, and more aggressive, they push the sport into more advanced realms of technical ability. As the world tunes in to Vancouver this month, everyone will be watching and waiting to see if any of the competitors debut a new, previously untested maneuver. Whether it’s a quadruple axel or a spin sequence, someone is always waiting in the wings to take their place in history.

Allison Ford

Allison is a writer and editor who specializes in beauty, style, entertainment, and pop culture. She was part of the editorial team at DivineCaroline (now for more than three years. She loves makeup, sparkly accessories, giraffes, brunch, Matt Damon, New York City, and ice cream.

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