"I have never seen a lady skate with such ease and so gracefully; her toe spins were charming to witness, and she had the good taste not to skate ﬁgures that were not graceful." - Douglas Adams, "Skating", 1892
Born April 15, 1867 in Helsinki, Finland, Nadja Franck (Nadeschda Antipin) was the daughter of Wasili and Maria Antipin. The Antipin family were believed to have originally come to Scandinavia from Kiev but by the time of Nadja's birth both of her parents were Finnish citizens and her father was a successful merchant. Young Nadja and her sister (also named Maria) were among the eighty female members of the Helsingfors Skridskoklubb. In its early days, the club was better known for its speed skaters than its figure skaters but Nadja soon proved to be one of the club's most proficient at the latter. As a teenager, she received training from John Catani and Rudolf Sundgren, two of Scandinavia's most decorated figure skaters.
Eleven years after the Wiener Eislaufverein in Vienna held one of the first known competitions for female skaters, Nadja's club followed suit and the teenage trailblazer entered and won. The following year, she married a merchant named Johan Gustaf (Gösta) Franck. Sadly, only five years later her husband died at the age of twenty eight. Rather than give up, the tragedy only spurred the young widow's resolve to excel in 'a gentleman's sport' even more.
She taught skating to other young women in Finland and travelled to France in 1895 and 1897 to give exhibitions and teach skating with her sister Maria at the Pôle Nord artificial ice rink. In January 1898 - less than a month before the World Championships were held in London for the first time - she gave an exhibition at the National Skating Palace at Hengler's Circus. The January 29, 1898 issue of "The Wheelwoman" raved about her skating (and outfit) thusly: "Nadja Franck's skating is a perfect treat. I have never seen such a graceful performance in my life - I gazed and gazed and never got beyond her feet. Jack told me afterwards he never took his eyes off her pretty face under the simple little black Astrakhan cap, and someone else described most graphically her lovely French gown of soft grey embroidered with white, so between us all you can picture a bewitching tout ensemble!" Her exhibitions were even accompanied by a live band playing a waltz. This was obviously well before Lili Kronberger popularized the concept of interpreting music at the 1911 World Championships.
Here's where things get really interesting. In 1899, the Stockholms Allmänna Skridskoklubb in Sweden included a contest for women in a massive competition that included both figure and speed skating events. A who's who of Scandinavian skating took part in the affair, including Catani, Sundgren, Norway's Alfred Naess and Stockholm's Ivar Hult. Three members of The Skating Club in London - Algeron Grosvenor, W.F. Adams and Douglas Adams - even made the trip to study skating in the Swedish Style and gave donned their top hats, cast an orange on the ice and gave an exhibition of combined figures in the English Style.
Alfred Naess and Nadja Franck in 1899. Photo courtesy Norsk Folkemuseum.
After watching her coaches Sundgren and Catani place first and third in the men's event, Nadja nervously took to the ice. The first woman from Finland to ever compete internationally then went on to decisively trounce three talented women from Stockholm and Gothenburg... on their own home turf. With one hundred and eighty two points to Anna Weibull's one hundred and fifty three, Nadja earned herself gold jewelry and the club's gold medal and became the first woman to win an international figure skating competition in Scandinavia.
Nadja teaching skaters in Finland
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