A Legend From Liverpool: The Jeannette Altwegg Story
The daughter of Gertrude (Muirhead) and Hermann Altwegg, Jeannette Eleanor Altwegg was born September 8, 1930 in Coimbatore, a city in the Madras district of India. Her father, a Swiss born Briton, worked in Quilon with the Liverpool Cotton Exchange for a time before relocating the family to England when Jeannette and her brother Christopher were small children.
Jeannette learned to skate at the age of six at the Liverpool Ice Palace. It wasn't long before she showed promise. In an interview in the August 17, 1953 issue of "The Glasgow Herald", she recalled, "When I was ten I had to give up school to concentrate more on skating, and I had private schooling. I don't think I missed this at the time but later I realized that I had missed the companionship of children my age."
At the end of World War II, Jeannette's father returned to Switzerland when the Cotton Exchange was nationalized. He opened a textile factory in Winterthur. Jeannette relocated to Downe, a village in the London Borough of Bromley. When only a promising junior skater under the direction of Swiss coach Armand Perren, she was selected as a representative of Great Britain for the 1947 European and World Figure Skating Championships. She surprised everyone by finishing in the top five in both.
That September, Jeannette achieved success in another sport. She was the runner up in All-England Junior Championship at Wimbledon in lawn tennis, losing 6-3, 6-2 in the final to a Norma Seacy, the reigning Scottish junior champion at the time. Later that autumn, she claimed her first senior British skating title at Wembley, after amassing a huge lead in the school figures. It started to become clear at this point that focusing her attention solely on one sport was probably her best bet.
It was around this time that Jeannette started working with another esteemed Swiss coach, Jacques Gerschwiler. In Davos, Switzerland at the 1948 European Championships, the young skater finished fifth overall but found herself at the center of controversy in the school figures. The Ottawa Citizen, on January 14, 1948, recalled that Barbara Ann Scott "collected six firsts in the first four compulsory figures and one ninth place rating - given her by a British judge, Maj. K.S. Beaumont. Beaumont gave first-place ranking to Jeannette Altwegg, the British champion, although she appeared to be running fourth in the overall ranking." No national bias there at all, right?
Less than a month later, Jeannette and Barbara Ann Scott squared off again at the Winter Olympics in St. Moritz. In the school figures, the rivalry between Canada's sweetheart - Barbara Ann Scott - and the British skater was intense. In the February 5, 1988 issue of "The Toronto Star", Scott recalled, "The ice surface we used was surrounded by snowbanks. Jeannette's coach had a habit of standing at the side and extending a foot in the snow, close to the ice, so she'd have a target to line up her loops and keep them straight. It was a good idea but Sheldon [Galbraith] picked up on it. He'd wait until she'd started a figure and then go stand beside her coach and stick out a foot not far from his. When she'd turn, she couldn't look up to see which foot it was she was supposed to be guided by. All she could see was two of them. By the time we'd done the six figures, she was pretty mixed up." To be absolutely fair here, by all accounts five out of the six of Scott's figures were first rate and she probably would have won anyway. Jeannette did finish a strong second in that part of the competition with a score of 842.1 to Scott's 858.1. Eva Pawlik was ten points back in third. Free skating was a different story altogether. Jeannette finished a disappointing sixth. Yet, the February 7, 1948 issue of the "Dundee Courier" argued, "Miss Altwegg gave [a] masterly and polished performance. Miss [Maribel] Vinson was astonished at the low marks the British girl received." Again, the British judge placed her first, ahead of Barbara Ann Scott. Her strong finish in the figures assured her the bronze medal. She followed her Olympic bronze medal up with a fourth place finish at Worlds, again hampered by comparatively low free skating scores.
That autumn, Jeannette won her fourth and final British title. Shortly after, she finally found herself atop the podium at the European Championships in Zürich, Switzerland. The twenty year old next headed to the Palazzo del Ghiaccio in Milan, Italy. In the figures, she amassed a fifty seven point lead in figures. Even Jacqueline du Bief's masterful free skating wasn't enough to narrow the gap. Though fifth in free skating, Jeannette managed to win her first World title by four points. Eminent British judge and author T.D. Richardson commented, "Jeannette shares with Cecilia Colledge, Hans Gerschwiler and Graham Sharp the palm for school figure-skating in modern times."
On her twenty second birthday, Jeannette accepted a job as Assistant to the Headmistress of the kindergarten school in the British war orphanages at Pestalozzi Children's Village in Trogan, Switzerland. Earning one hundred and twenty Swiss francs per month (less than three pounds per week), she toiled from 6:30 AM to 8 PM every day, washing, ironing, mending clothes, scrubbing floors and doing other housework. There were twelve houses in Pestalozzi for war orphans, each with ten to eighteen children... children from Great Britain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Greece and Finland. In the August 17, 1953 issue of "The Glasgow Herald", she beautifully reflected, "One of the greatest rewards for our work is to see the alert, happy and normal expression in the eyes of children who when they came looked only hopeless and frightened - like some of the Greek children, children of bandits who had never had a home or known their parents. It is more wonderful than anything you can imagine to feel the love and confidence these children gave you, and the knowledge that they are needed. They may not say thank you in so many words, but the way they come to take you for granted and trust you - as they would their own parents - means much more."
Dennis Bird and Jeannette Altwegg. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.
While in Switzerland, Jeannette met her future husband Marc Wirz, a Swiss engineer who was the brother of Swiss Champion Suzi Wirz, one of Jeannette's perennial competitors. After announcing their engagement in London on April 17, 1954, the couple wed in a civil wedding in Bern, Switzerland in late September of that year, following this with a formal ceremony in the British church in Zürich on October 5, 1954. She cut her wedding cake with a skate blade made of English steel.
Jeannette and her family posing in front of their private plane. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.
Jeannette and Marc had four children together... and more than their fair share of adventure. They rode horses at their summer home in Majorca and took flying lessons in Bern. After earning her aviation license, Jeannette made the decision in the mid sixties to fly all the way from Switzerland to her country of birth, India. In an interview with Dennis Bird that appeared in "Skating" magazine in May of 1968, she recalled, "I was rather dubious about the trip. I wasn't too sorry when one of the engines broke down in Italy. We went the rest of the way by commercial airline. I'm sure we saw and enjoyed more of India that way that if we'd had to think about refueling stops and servicing." Jeannette and Marc ultimately divorced in 1973.
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