Figure Skater Sonja Henie, Global Phenomenon Part 1: The Competitor

She was still relatively unknown to the world. But at the 1927 figure skating world championships, the young Norwegian managed to be thick in the middle of controversy. Sonja Henie, at the age of 14, won her first world championships, the five judges deciding 3 votes to 2 that young Henie was the best.

Unfortunately, the optics were poor as three of the five judges were Norwegian, and their votes carried the day, as explained in The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics 2014 Edition. As a result of Henie’s victory, the International Skating Union came to their senses and created a rule that there can no longer be more than one judge from a single country at an international competition.

A year later, Henie showed she needed no partisan assistance at the 1928 Sankt Moritz Winter Olympics. Henie was not considered a favorite as the field was strong with 20 skaters, and yet she won handily, making her the youngest figure skater to win gold at the age of 15.

To get to that level, she clearly had to get started early. Her father, Wilhelm Henie (pronounced like “penny”), was a good athlete who competed as a speed skater and a cyclist, and so encouraged his children to take up sports. At the age of 4, according to this Vanity Fair article, Sonja Hennie was on skis. At the age of 5, she took up ballet, as well as skating, and much to her parents’ surprise, she won a children’s skating competition on borrowed clamped-on blades.

Once Sonja and her parents realized that she was a natural on ice, they placed her on a diet and a program. The diet was “raw eggs and rare steaks,” a lifetime delight, and the program was three hours practice in the AM and two hours in the PM, sans school. Thanks to the resources of her furrier father, figure skating and ballet coaches were at little Sonja’s service.

Sonja Henie was at the 1924 Chamonix Winter Games competing against 7 others, including world champion and eventual gold medalist Herma Planck-Szabo. Despite the small field, Henie finished dead last in eighth place. At the incredibly young age of 11, half the age of the gold and silver medalist and a third of the age of the bronze medalist, Henie was clearly a bit over her head. She was said to have repeatedly skated to the rinkside asking for her coach’s advice during her routine.

Sonja Henie_1924 Chamnoix Winter Olympics
Sonja Henie at the 924 Chamonix Winter Olympics

But the transformation of Henie, from rough to polish, began in those four years between Chamonix in 1924 and St. Moritz in 1928. According to the Vanity Fair article, in addition to the considerable improvement in her technical skills, Henie re-created not only her own image, but the image of the figure skater as beauty and art personified.

Here was a huge visual shift—from masculine to feminine, from prose to poetry. Just as the ballerina’s pointe shoes were pink, suddenly the female ice skater’s boots were white, redolent of fairy and folk tales, of youthful purity and Nordic power. Sonja had single-handedly pulled figure skating into the realm of metaphor—and where there is metaphor, there can also be art. In “The Pavlova of the Ice,” film footage shot in 1928 (and available on YouTube), she is skating outdoors, her slow-motion leaps and spins set against snow-dusted mountains that are nothing short of Wagnerian.

The most significant part of this “visual shift” was parting ways with long skirts that all the women skaters wore to very short ones. Not only was Henie’s short skirt stunning and sensational to spectators used to more modest wear, it was revealing in ways that showed off the power and technical level of her spins and spirals, “and allowed her to perform tricks – the single axel, for instance – that had previously belonged to male skaters.”

Sonja Henie_1928 St Moritz Winter Olympics
Sonja Henie at the 1928 St Moritz Winter Olympics

At the age of 23, she had been to four Olympics, won three gold medals in three consecutive Olympiads, and 10 consecutive world championships in a row, and was arguably one of the most famous people in the world. And yet, her rising star was yet to hit its zenith.