Friday, 7 August 2015

The Great Danes: Pioneers In Danish Figure Skating

Credited with introducing the ice sports of bandy and hockey to the people of Denmark is a Briton named Charles Goodman Tebbutt, who was also a DUTCH speed skating champion in 1887. That said, Jackson Haines' European tour brought figure skating into the consciousness of the Danish people prior to Tebbutt's impact on ice sports in Denmark and in 1869 and 1870, the country's first skating clubs were formed: Kjøbenhavns Skøjteløberforening (KSF) and the Frederiksberg Skating Association. People flocked to the frozen moats in Copenhagen, such as the Christianshavn, in the late nineteenth century in increasing numbers to skate their hearts out. It was during that pioneering period in Denmark that figure skating competitions were held in conjunction with speed skating races. Nigel Brown's authoritative 1959 book "Ice-Skating: A History" notes "it was in Denmark just after the middle of the nineteenth century when the title of 'artistic skating competitions' was billed in conjunction with speed contests; but after the usual series of speed races for men and women, which included a race backwards of more than a mile, the artistic part of of the programme terminated the competition and took the form of an obstacle race. To negotiate the twelve stumbling-blocks placed upon the ice at various intervals was undoubtedly considered an art, and neither a game, nor a race!"

Charles Goodman Tebbutt

The first Danish Figure Skating Championships were held in 1912, the same year the Danish Skating Union was formed. The men's figure skating title was won that year by a Mr. H. Meincke, the ladies title by Gerda Iversen and the pairs event by Inger Morville and Folmer Søgaard. These national figure skating competitions were held semi-annually in the country (largely because the country was dependent entirely on the weather with no artificial ice rinks to be found) but it wouldn't actually be over twenty years until a Danish skater would make an appearance internationally. Esther Bornstein was Denmark's first international competitor when she travelled to London, England for the 1933 European Championships, where she placed tenth of the eleven ladies competing. The winner that year was who else? Sonja Henie. Bornstein also made an appearance at the following year's European and World Championships, with similarly disappointing results.


The country's first breakout success story would be in Per Cock-Clausen, who won an incredible
thirteen Danish men's titles over a twenty three year span from 1940 to 1963 as well as four Nordic skating titles as well. He competed against Dick Button at both the 1948 and 1952 Winter Olympic Games and it was during the forties that the number of skating clubs in Denmark grew to twenty, a result both of Cock-Clausen's pioneering success in the sport and the harsher winters that allowed for more natural ice suitable for skating to form. Cock-Clausen was undefeated in Denmark throughout his incredibly long skating career, was responsible for the coaching of younger skaters at the Frederiksberg Skating Association and also worked to build the sport as a member of the Danish Skating Union's board as well at the same time he was competing. He wrote several books about the sport including "Skojtelob", "Konstakningens" and "Asien og verdensmagterne" and actually went on to be a successful surveyor and politician.

Cock-Clausen's success saw a greater rise in Danish skating's popularity. Harry Meistrup and Alf Refer dominated the pairs scene in the country from 1940 to 1963, with different partners successively winning every pairs title in the same twenty three year span that Cock-Clausen dominated the men's event. Unfortunately, after this heyday, the popularity of Danish skating seemed to dwindle a bit and it wasn't really until the eighties and early nineties when World Professional Champion Lorna Brown worked with skaters like the late Lars Dresler that the country again made a real impact internationally. An interesting anecdote to those who may not know: U.S. Champion and World Medallist Todd Sand was the 1982 and 1983 Danish men's champion!

In my interview with Michael Tyllesen, he talked about the evolution of skating in Denmark from the eighties to today: "Back in the eighties, The Danish Skating Federation had a training center for the most talented skaters in Denmark. When I was twelve years old, I got the offer from the Danish Skating Federation to live and train at the training center. It meant that I had to move away from my parents and live in another city in a big house with five of Denmark's biggest talents. A family would take care of all of us and make dinner and so on for us. They lived on the first floor and all the skaters lived in basement and all skaters had their own room. We went to normal school in the day and skated together before and after school/work. We had a national coach and a choreographer to teach us. Besides the ice time, we had to do off-ice, weight training, dancing, running and stretching. We even got massage once week, so we had everything we needed. We paid a small amount each month for living and training at the training center and the rest was paid by the Danish Federation. I lived at the skating center for four years then it closed down. It was very expensive to run for the Danish Skating Federation and many skating clubs didn't like that 'their' skaters were taken away from their own coach. I'm so lucky I got to live and train at the skating center and having some good skaters to look up to and train with in a professional environment. We had everything we needed to become good skaters. Some of all the best skaters we have had in Denmark ever are from the time where the Skating Center existed and I would never have achieved the results I have, if I wouldn't have lived there. It's very difficult to make good skaters in Denmark these days. It's a small country. We do have quite a lot of ice rinks, but we have to share the ice time with ice hockey. All skaters pay a monthly fee to the club and then the trainers give group lessons, so all the skaters have to share the lessons. Not all clubs allow private lessons and the talents are spread between the different clubs instead of all the talents training together at the same place. The sport has also become very expensive, so not all the skaters/parents can afford what it requires if you want to be on a high level. The Danish Skating Federation doesn't really support the skaters with much money anymore. In Denmark, we have something called TEAM DENMARK, which is an organization who support all the best athletes in Denmark. You need to be a 'TOP ELITE' sportsman/woman and place around the top ten at Europeans or the top 15 at Worlds to get money support from them. I was lucky that I got a lot of money and support from Team Denmark and the Danish Skating Federation from I was twelve years old until I finished my amateur career in year 2000, because my parents would never be able to pay all the money it has cost for my skating. In the nineties, when I started competing at Europeans and Worlds, I combined my training in Denmark with four summers in Edmonton, Canada and later four summers and also winters in Lake Arrowhead, California, which was great."

Looking at Danish skating today, you see a country with some very promising prospects. Skaters like Pernille Sørensen, Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sørensen are all making their own impacts on skating in the country and abroad and the future couldn't look brighter... and all of that success is built on an early foundation built in a Scandinavian country whose plunge into the sport wasn't perhaps as carefree as Norway or Sweden's but is just as interesting nonetheless.

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