The Gillis Grafström Story, Part One

"Back in the day" when I was a drag queen, you'd quite often hear the phrase "it isn't who doesn't it first, it's who does it best" tossed around. More often that not, the person saying it was trying to justify the fact they'd stolen their act from someone else to anyone who'd listen.

In the figure skating world, the club of repeat Olympic Gold Medallists is a pretty exclusive one... and if you are talking three-peat's, only three skaters in the sport's history can make that claim to fame. We all know Sonja Henie was one of them - she was the first female to do it! With two different partners, Irina Rodnina dominated pairs skating in the seventies and stood atop the Olympic podium in 1972, 1976 and 1980. Perhaps lesser known to modern audiences though is the first person to do it, and the only man... devilishly handsome Swede Gillis Grafström, who won Olympic gold in 1920, 1924 and 1928 and followed those gold medals up with a silver in 1932 for good measure. I couldn't think of a better skating legend to be the subject of one the blog's first two part profiles. This, part one, will talk about Grafström's competitive career and part two will focus on the man himself.

On June 7, 1893 in Stockholm, Sweden, Anna Charlotta Grafström (nee Börjesson) gave birth to Gillis Emanuel Grafström. The father was Claes August Grafström, a property owner. Young Gillis took up skating at an early age like most and was a member of the Stockholm public skating club (SASK), where he competed in his first competition at the age of fourteen. Making fast progress, he was Sweden's junior men's champion only two years later. He became a senior men's skater in 1911 and in 1912 in Gothenburg won the silver medal behind that year's European Champion Gösta Sandahl, an early success that brought a lot of due attention upon the promising young skater. An account by Olof Groth from the National Archives of Sweden states that as a young athlete he was "the most successful figure skater skating has ever known and one of the cleverest. He learned much of Ulrich Salchow, especially in the school skating but never reached his extraordinary racing mood... He was an artist and an eccentric with a sometimes exuberant boy temper... He carried himself throughout with consummate grace." Finishing his studies at the East reallärov and KTH, Grafström made his first of only four trips to the World Championships in Helsinki in 1914, where Sandahl won his only World title. The World Championships would be cancelled for the next several years due to World War I and during that time, Grafström was busy winning a trio of senior men's titles in Sweden and honing his craft with dedication and precision.

Photo courtesy National Archives of Poland

I think it is prudent to talk about why Grafström's career focus was on the Olympics and not in winning scores and scores of World titles like Salchow. Steve Milton's well researched book "Figure Skating's Greatest Stars" explains that he was "a fervent believer in the Olympic ideal". He made his first of four Olympic appearances at the 1920 Summer Olympics, where he decisively won the title with first place finishes in both school figures and free skating, besting ten time World Champion and 1908 Olympic Gold Medallist Ulrich Salchow in the process, whose disappointing free skating effort dropped him all the way from second in the figures to fourth place overall. One of Grafström's blades actually during those 1920 Games and he actually had to go shopping in downtown Antwerp for another pair... which ended up being those old fashioned skates with the curly toes. Hardly the MK Blades of today and he managed just fine!

Two years later in his hometown, Grafström would win his first of three World titles (the other two being in 1924 and 1929, both in England). In 1924, he would also win his second Olympic title (and first in the Winter Games) in Chamonix, France. During those Games, he was quite ill with influenza and actually finished second to Willy Böckl in the free skate but his strong lead in the figures gave him the advantage overall. The following year, he'd move to Germany to study architecture at the Technical University Of Berlin. His new training bases would be the Volkspark Friedrichshain and the Bornstedter See when it was frozen.

Grafström became the first and only man to win three Olympic gold medals in 1928 at the Winter Games in St. Moritz, where he managed wins in both figures and free skating despite ice conditions so poor due to unseasonably warm weather. They were so bad in fact that red markers had to be staged around the outdoor surface to mark the especially tricky parts. Less than two months after he won his third Olympic gold medal, his father sadly passed away. Perhaps pushing his luck and going for an incredible fourth go at glory in 1932, Grafström would be handed his first and only Olympic defeat by Austria's Karl Schäfer, who himself would win two Olympic gold medals. It would really be a case of comparing apples with apples as both skaters were by all accounts very musical and cognisant of creating complete programs with thoughtful interpretation of music but Grafström skating one incorrect figure and a collision with a photographer during his free skating performance would unfortunately be his undoing. He'd have to settle for silver in Lake Placid and it would be his last competitive performance.

Grafström was one of the first competitive skaters of his era to recognize the importance of skating to music and crafting a nuanced, cohesive package of a program. Maribel Vinson Owen once stated that he skated "almost superhumanly to music". Groth stated "nor has anyone been dancing so easy on the ice and so rhythmically and musically smooth"; T.D. Richardson said his "personality combined the greatest knowledge of the art skating possessed by any living soul, with a rare intelligence, intense artistic feeling, perfection of technique and supreme athletic achievement." In her superb book "Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport" (which was an invaluable source in researching this particular blog), Mary Louise Adams too lauded his excellence: "His edges were sublime. His technically innovations, like the change-foot-spin, complex. Other skaters found his performances spell-binding; they were clean, subtle, and erudite. (He) was the skater's skater. There was nothing of the spectacle or the showman about him." Even John Curry felt his style was in the tradition of the Swedish sensation.

The final thing I want to talk about in part one of this profile are Grafström's  technical innovations to figure skating. In addition to the change foot spin, he also invented the flying sit spin, the forward inside spiral and the back outside edge "Grafström-pirouette". In addition, he was the first man to perform the double Salchow jump in the twenties and the first man to perfect the single axel on figure skates. Not too shabby for a skater who was also like THE school figures skater of his era... definitely well rounded!

Gillis Grafström, Julius B. Nelson and members of the Minneapolis Figure Skating Club in 1932. Photo courtesy Hennepin County Library.

Now that we've taken a good old fashioned (literally) in depth look into the competitive figure skating career of this skating legend, time for a break! The next Skate Guard blog will look a bit more into the man behind the three Olympic gold medals. You don't want to miss it!

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