Thursday, 3 September 2015

The 1939 New Zealand Figure Skating Championships


In 1987, the New Zealand Ice Skating Association celebrated its fiftieth jubilee with a wonderful historical document written and published by Rhona Whitehouse. In it, I was fortunate enough to read a deliciously obscure yet fascinating account of the country's very FIRST National Championships which were held in July of 1939 at the Manorburn Dam in Alexandra "on a magnificent icefield covering sixty acres and extending two miles and a-half." A description of the scene taken from the July 23, 1939 edition of the Otago Daily Times sets the scene quite descriptively: "A more picturesque setting could hardly be imagined. From the rocky crags forming a natural grandstand, the spectators looked across a basin of sun-drenched ice, on which, between events, about 1,000 skaters wove an animated pattern full of colour, the skates flashing in the sun. On the brown slopes above were grouped the 300 cars, trucks and other vehicles which, with the help of taxis, brought most of the participants to the scene, the remainder arriving on bicycles or on foot. It was a perfect day, and the refreshment booths did a roaring trade in hot pieces and saveloys." Keep in mind, of course, that as New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere, the seasons would of course be inversed and June through August would serve as the country's winter. Winters would be a hell of a lot more seasonable than we would be used to here in Canada. We're talking a high of sixteen and a low of seven Celsius so pretty balmy compared to what I am used to here in the winters to say the least. The weather was noted as particularly mild even for the locale and time of year so the ice on the flooded field was not as thick as usual. The Otago Daily Times noted that "uncertainty as to when the ice would be bearing prevented a larger entry from the north, but there was a high standard of performance. The Central Otago skaters were too good for the visitors."

Competitions were held for both men and women in both speed and figure skating. In the seven entry men's figure skating event, the victor was A.W. Robertson of Oturehua, who fended off a formidable challenge from B. Hjelstrom to take the title. G.J. Rivers of Alexandra finished third. The ladies champion was Sadie Cameron of Alexandra, who outskated Miss N. O'Kane, Miss N. Hall and Mrs. J. Gilkison of Dunedin to take the gold. Whitehouse noted that "very few skaters could do free skating and the figures required for the championship were elementary. They were Forward Outside Eight, Forward Inside Eight and Change of Edge starting on either foot." The results were indeed based only on school figures... so if Trixi Schuba had a time machine and an aunt in New Zealand she could have gone back and mopped the field with the competition without question. What made Sadie Cameron and A.W. Robertson's wins so impressive was that both skaters were self-taught. Robertson had no coaching whatsoever and learned to figure skate on dams and ponds. Cameron was twenty five when she entered the 1939 National Championships and learned to skate on "rickety ice." According to Whitehouse, the "only tuition she had was from an elderly Swedish gentleman who told her to 'lane ophir' (lean over). She said skaters had no idea about legs, body or shoulder position." Even though the figures both Robertson and Cameron skated to win their National titles were novice, by today's standards it is pretty incredible to think of a skater winning a National Championship of any sort without ever being coached, isn't it?

The onset of World War II in 1939 meant that these National Championships of New Zealand would prove to be the last until 1946 but the very humble beginnings of skating in a country you don't always associate with winter sports serve as a reminder that every story starts somewhere and builds from the ground up.

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