From Brussels To Antwerp: Three Belgian Skating Pioneers

Belgium... maybe the first thing you think of is Georges Remi's delightful cartoon Tintin, or maybe it's an ice cold bottle of Stella Artois. Perhaps still the first thing that comes to mind is Agathie Christie's famous mustachioed gumshoe, Hercule Poirot. Whatever that association may be, it's most likely not figure skating. Though Belgian figure skaters have enjoyed fine success in the previous two decades - take Kevin van der Perren and Jorik Hendrickx for example - it hasn't been since 1948, when Micheline Lannoy and Pierre Baugniet claimed Olympic gold and their second World title, that a Belgian figure skater has won a major ISU figure skating competition. Today on the blog, we'll meet some of three extremely talented men who put Belgian figure skating on the map in the early twentieth century!

FERNAND LEEMANS


The first men's skater from Belgium to win a medal at the European Championships was named Fernand Leemans. He accomplished this feat way back in 1947, finishing second to Switzerland's Hans Gerschwiler and Czechoslovakia's Vladislav Čáp. Leemans actually remained the only Belgian man with that claim to fame for the rest of the twentieth century. It wouldn't be until 2007 when Kevin van der Perren won the first of his two European medals that a men's skater from that country would reappear on the podium.

Who was Fernand Leemans anyway? Well, he was born on September 13, 1925 in the town of Brasschaat in northern Belgium. His opportunities to compete internationally were obviously limited by World War II but he won an incredible fourteen national titles in his home country as both a singles and pairs skater. In addition to his 1947 medal win at the European Championships, he appeared at the 1948 Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz and 1948 World Championships in Davos, finishing in eleventh place in both events.

What made Leemans' career so unique was that at the same time he was competing internationally as a figure skater, he was also competing at an elite level in roller skating. From December 5 to 7, 1947, Leemans was in Washington for the World Amateur Roller-Skating Championships, where he won the bronze medal in the men's event and the gold medal in the pairs event with his partner Elvira Collins.


In 1948, Fernand turned professional. An article from "The Billboard" on July 28, 1951 (when he and Collins were signed as headliners in the roller skating tour Skating Vanities Of 1952) offered a more detailed perspective on the team's scope of experiences: "Elvira Collins and Fernand Leemans, 22 and 25, respectively, who either as a team or individuals hold 35 titles, also were signed. They had been starring in a Scandinavian skating revue which toured Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Egypt, India, Singapore, Hong Kong and throughout Europe. Collins and Leemans have been working together for 13 years on rollers and ice." After the Skating Vanities tour, Leemans laced up his ice skates once again to perform solo as part of the cast in the Gay Paree show at the Roxy Theatre in New York City, where he skated alongside Jerry Decker, Margo Moore and the Roxy Choraleers and reunited with Collins to join the ice show at the Terrace Room in the Hotel New Yorker. The December 13, 1952 issue of "The Billboard" noted, "Collins and Leemans opened with a smooth 'Gay Nineties' routine, and displayed clever footwork and some cute dance steps that were quite attractive. However, they came over most effectively on their second time around, featuring in their 'Wild Twenties' act some beautifully performed lifts and head spins and graceful footwork. The team projects warmly whenever they are on the ice, adding to their effortless skating with appealing sight bits and gestures that add much charm. The male half of the act, Fernand Leemans, also did a solo, which came over in good style." It was in New York City that the two long time partners would part ways.

Jiřina Nekolová and Fernand Leemans. Photo courtesy Dr. Roman Seeliger.

After his taste of the Big Apple,Fernand returned to Europe to skate pairs with fellow European Medallist Emmy Puzinger in the Wiener Eisrevue in Vienna for several years. While with the popular Austrian show, he even appeared in three skating films from 1956 to 1964: "Symphonie In Gold", "Traumrevue" and "Die große Kür". After his retirement from the Eisrevue in Vienna, he moved to Barcelona, Spain, where he taught skating for over twenty years. He passed away on June 3, 2004 at the age of eighty nine, leaving behind a fascinating and forgotten balancing act of two impressive careers - on rollers and ice skates.

FREDDY MÉSOT 


Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Born May 25, 1905 in Sint-Niklaas, a city in the Flemish province of East Flanders in Belgium,
Frédéric "Freddy" Alexis Edwardus Alice Mésot held the distinction of being the first singles skater from Belgium to compete at the Olympic Games. He did so in Chamonix, France in 1924, placing ninth of eleven men who competed... just ahead of future ISU President Herbert Clarke of Great Britain. Following his Olympic appearance, Freddy won the Belgian men's title and competed in a series of small international competitions between French and Belgian skaters that alternated between Antwerp and Paris in the late twenties.

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

The tall brown-haired, blue-eyed skater who spoke both English and French didn't reappear at a major international competition until 1936, when he placed eleventh at the European Championships in Berlin, Germany and tenth at the World Championships in Paris. In 1937, he moved up to tenth at the European Championships and eighth at the World Championships before opting to turn professional and wisely, get out of Europe.

Freddy Mésot and Ernst Baier

At the age of thirty four in November 1939, Freddy arrived in New York aboard the SS Normandie from Le Havre with his twenty seven year old Brussels born wife Emma. He joined Guy Owen, Maribel Vinson Owen and Karl Schäfer in the "Gay Blades" revue for a time, skating pairs with Canada's Mary Jane Halstead. He then took up jobs coaching at the Skating Club of New York, the Timmins Porcupine Figure Skating Club, Granite Club, Schumacher Summer Skating School, Bronx Riverdale Ice Skating Club and the Playland rink in Rye, New York.

At the first 'official' meeting of the Professional Skaters Guild Of America held during the 1950 U.S. Championships in Washington, D.C., Freddy was appointed as the Eastern representative for the organization. In this capacity, he worked alongside Maribel Vinson Owen and Edi Scholdan. In 1971, he was named by the ISI as Man Of The Year and nine years later, on October 31, 1979, he passed away in DeKalb County, Georgia at the age of seventy four.

ROBERT VAN ZEEBROECK


Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

Robert 'Bobby' van Zeebroeck was born on October 31, 1909 - Hallowe'en -  exactly seventy years to the day before Freddy Mésot passed away. His father Eduard van Zeebroeck, an avid sportsman from Brussels, passed away at age fifty four when Robert was only two years old. Raised by his widowed mother, he started skating at the age of six and soon, through practice in Antwerp and St. Moritz, Switzerland, honed his craft.

Though competent in school figures, Robert excelled in free skating and was known for his high flying single jumps and fast spins. Like Freddy Mésot, he was a regular in the annual France versus Belgium international competitions of the mid to late twenties and even once defeated Pierre Brunet in one of these events. In 1925, he won the Belgian men's title and the Waltz title with one Mademoiselle Lauwers. The following year in Antwerp he repeated as Belgian men's champion and took the Waltz title with a new partner, Mademoiselle Schiffelers.

That same year, Robert made his debut at the European and World Championships. At these events, judges from Finland, Switzerland and Germany recognized his talent as a jumper and spinner, placing him in the top three in free skating. In 1927, van Zeebroeck passed the first class test of the Swiss Skating Federation in St. Moritz under the auspices of the Club des Patineurs de Lausanne and the St. Moritz Skating Club and took up pairs skating with Josy van Leberghe. That winter, at eighteen years of age he entered the Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz. Though he placed only sixth in pairs skating with van Leberghe, he surprised many by skating away with the bronze medal behind Gillis Grafström and Willy Böckl. Two judges even had the relatively unknown teenager in first place in the free skate and in winning the bronze, he defeated Karl Schäfer, Pierre Brunet and Bud Wilson. It was Belgium's first medal in Olympic figure skating, and to date the only one in singles figure skating.


Figure skating historian Gunnar Bang noted, "Both in the compulsory and free departments, he proved to be a skater of great [talent]. He did the most beautiful Axel Paulsens and quick pirouettes that distinguished him in all respects. He said [he gave] great verve in everything he untertook; this is why his overall third place is no surprise." Interestingly, like Mésot, Robert all but disappeared from the international skating world until 1936, when he returned to place tenth at the 1936 European Championships in Berlin. Opting to withdraw from the Winter Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and World Championships in Paris, he instead thrilled audiences that autumn in Paris with an exhibition at the Palais des Sports with Vivi-Anne Hultén, Erich Erdös, Edi Scholdan and Liselotte Landbeck. After placing a disappointing ninth in his final international competition, the 1938 World Championships in Berlin, he retired from skating, later going on to coach for many years at the Murrayfield Skating Club in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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