Figure Skater Sonja Henie, Global Phenomenon Part 2: The Close Call in Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Cecilia Colledge
British skater Cecilia Colledge

In February 1936, there was universal expectation that Sonja Henie, aka The Ice Queen of Norway or The White Swan, would win her third gold medal in the women’s individual figure skating competition at the Gamisch-Partenkirchen Winter Olympics in Germany.

After all, Henie was just 23, and had already won the previous 2 Olympic and previous 9 world championship figure skating competitions. But up-and-comers, as always, are always nipping at the heels of champions. According to sports-reference.com, a 15-year-old Brit named Cecilia Colledge burst onto the scene by being the first female figure skater to execute a double Salchow, propelling her to victory at the European Championships only three weeks before in Berlin, Germany.

Additionally, Colledge had such strong appeal that Henie was no longer the only darling on ice. According to this article in The Independent, the powers-that-be in Nazi Germany were fans:

Sonja Henie_1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympics_Hitler
Sonja Henie at the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympics, meeting der Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler

The British team manager, T.D. Richardson, wrote that the 40,000 spectators who filled the outdoor stadium to capacity, included Adolf Hitler and other top Nazis. “Goering, in particular, could not keep his eyes off Cecilia. He asked me all about her on several occasions.”

After the first part of the competition – compulsory figures – Henie was ahead. But to the Norwegian’s surprise, not by much. Henie was not pleased.

In 1936 in the twin villages of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany, Colledge was only a few points behind Henie after the school figures section. The closeness infuriated Henie, who, when the result for that section was posted on a wall in the competitors’ lounge, swiped the piece of paper and tore it into little pieces.

Fortunately, in the free skating part of the competition, Henie may have gotten the star treatment. While the first place competitor should skate last, it might follow that the second place competitor would skate second to last. Instead, Colledge was asked to skate second of the 26 total number of skater. As The Independent states, in the subjective world of figure skating, there is a distinct advantage to skating later in the day.

The early start was seen as a disadvantage, with the audience not yet whipped into a clapping frenzy and the judges known to become freer with their higher marks as the event proceeded. (Years later, a fairer, staggered draw was adopted to counteract this situation.)

Additionally, as sports-refernce.com details, Colledge’s nerves may have gotten the best of her, as she fell early in her free skate program, resulting in a good, but not great average score of 5.7. Henie, who benefited from the energy and excitement of a crowd waiting to see the Ice Queen crowned champion for a third time in a row, skated without error, well enough to maintain her hold on first, and the golden medal.

 

Sonja Henie_1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympics
Sonya Henie competing at the 1936 Winter Olympics

 

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