The 1951 World Figure Skating Championships
Luggage label from the Hotel Duomo in Milan
Prior to the 2018 World Figure Skating Championships, Italy has only once played host to the International Skating Union's most prestigious annual competition three times. The first time was back on February 23 to 25, 1951, when the World Figure Skating Championships were held at the the Palazzo del Ghiaccio in Milan, a small, unheated indoor rink where light streamed in through high windows. A lot has changed in the last sixty seven years, and today we'll take a look back at the skaters and stories of this fascinating competition!
THE PAIRS COMPETITION
Ria Baran and Paul Falk
European Champions Ria Baran and Paul Falk arrived in Milan quite concerned about their chances as Ria had injured her spine while skating in Basel, Switzerland shortly after the European Championships in Zürich. Doctors warned her not to compete at the World Championships but she chose to disregard their orders.
Karol and Peter Kennedy. Photo courtesy H.J. Lutcher Stark Center Archives.
In a four-three split of the judging panel and by only three tenths of a point, the Germans fended off a formidable challenge from Seattle's Karol and Peter Kennedy, known affectionately to American fans as 'The Kennedy Kids'. British siblings Jennifer and John Nicks easily defeated the team that had beaten them at the European Championships - Switzerland's Elyane Steinemann and André Calame - for the bronze. Canadian Champions Jane Kirby and Donald Tobin weren't even sent by the CFSA to participate.
THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION
Though not recognized as an 'official' World Championships, the International Ice Dance Competition held in conjunction with the 1951 Milan competition was very much the real deal. Twelve teams from six nations (Austria, Belgium, Great Britain, Holland, Switzerland and the United States) participated and the unpopular ISU rule barring judges from judging skaters from their own countries didn't apply because the event was considered unofficial. Thusly, all but the lone Dutch team, Catharina and Jacobus Odink, benefited from representation on the panel of judges. In her February 2015 Skate Guard interview, Jean Westwood recalled, "In 1950, most nations at this time held their Nationals AFTER Worlds and selected their next year's World Team. In England, all their dance couples had retired, split up or turned professional. It was decided to hold a trial and select a team to enter the International Dance Competition, the forerunner of the World Dance Championship in Milan during the World Figure Skating Championships. In October, I was involved in a serious car accident while attending Liverpool University and was hospitalized for a month then had to undergo physiotherapy. The new partnership of Lawrence Demmy and myself was formed and we decided to enter the trials. It was not judged but two couples were selected - ourselves and John Slater (my previous partner!) and Joan Dewhirst. So off we went to Milan where Lawrence and I won the first competition we entered - which just happened to be the equivalent of a World Championship. It was some way to start a career!" Incredibly, Westwood walked with a cane the entire time she was in Milan. With one first place ordinal apiece, Britons Joan Dewhirst and John Slater and Americans Lois Waring and Michael McGean finished second and third. British judge Len Seagrave was the only judge to place the top seven teams exactly how they ended up finishing.
THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION
Sonya Klopfer, Jeannette Altwegg and Jacqueline du Bief celebrating after winning medals in Milan
France's Jacqueline du Bief arrived in Milan in high spirits after defeating Great Britain's Jeannette Altwegg at the European Championships but found herself incredibly psyched out by the strength of the entire American team, unable to perform even the simplest jump in her first practice. With twenty three entries, the women's school figures took over six hours. Twenty one year old Altwegg took a commanding fifty seven point lead with first place marks from every judge. Canada's Suzanne Morrow followed closely behind, followed by du Bief. A report in "Skating" magazine noted, "Five girls had to skate the final bracket-change-bracket in almost darkness, for the referee explained to Misses [Margaret] Graham, [Tenley] Albright and [Sonya] Klopfer that the fuses had blown!"
Left: Barbara Wyatt, Right: Sonya Klopfer. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.
French sensation Jacqueline du Bief dazzled in the free skate, earning first place ordinals from every judge and wowing the crowd with her double Lutz, spins and artistry. However, it wasn't enough for her to take the title from Altwegg, who received ordinals as low as eighth and ninth in the free skate from the Austrian and American judges. American Sonya Klopfer moved up to take the bronze with a strong free skate. Morrow dropped to fourth, ahead of Great Britain's Barbara Wyatt and America's Tenley Albright. Canada's second entry, Elizabeth Hiscock, placed thirteenth, nine spots ahead of Japan's Etsuko Inada. Inada had been the darling of the 1936 Winter Olympics and was considered by some as a medal hopeful for the 1940 Winter Olympics in Japan, which were cancelled by World War II. Her comeback, at age twenty seven, was nothing short of inspiring.
In her book "Thin Ice", Jacqueline du Bief recalled, "I had worked very hard that year and had greatly hoped to win and when I awoke the day following the competition and realized that everything had to be started all over again and that my chances in the Olympic Games the following year were greatly damaged, I felt a very serious temptation, which pursued me for several weeks, to throw it all up. Luckily, Madame Vaudecrane was there. She reinflated me and made me understand how great would be her personal disappointment if I were to stop now, after so many years of hard work and such great effort."
THE MEN'S COMPETITION
Twenty one year old Dick Button of Englewood, New Jersey might have been the defending Olympic and World Champion entering the 1951 World Championships in Milan, but his third World title win was anything but a walk in the park. In his book "Dick Button On Skates", he recalled, "For me, 1951 was a year I had to keep on my toes. My third year at Harvard found me more immersed in college activities than ever before. Christmas vacation forced me out of a minor role in a Hasty Pudding show that was touring the East Coast and into a stiff ten-day practice session at Lake Placid. But exams and term papers displaced January’s skating session and I had only three days of intensiﬁed practice before the National Championships at Seattle started the year’s competition. With Milan and the World Championship only three weeks off, I had to measure up to beating not only European challengers but also the Americans who had done so well at Seattle. It was important for me to do well at Milan in 1951, for if I lost, I would be in a poor position to retain my Olympic championship the following year."
Poster from the 1951 World Championships
By the time Dick Button arrived in Northern Italy via Zürich, he was exhausted. When he checked in at the Duomo Hotel, near Milan's Teatro alla Scala, his temperature was 102 and his "knees felt no stronger than damp spaghetti." Tenley Albright's father gave him a series of penicillin shots and ordered him to bed. Eventually, he started training even though the fever hadn't subsided. He recalled, "the days passed quickly and when the competition began I was once again ofﬁcially listed as the American champion defend- ing a world crown. The school ﬁgures made a long and tedious grind through the ﬁrst day of competition. I can only repeat the trite axiom that practice pays. Through the years, much as I disliked school ﬁgures, I had never slighted practice on the involved etchings which carry 60 per cent of the scoring. Even though I had called on the reserve of knowledge I had acquired through those years, I was wilted when the day was done. But what a relief I felt when I heard my ﬁgures were the best in the tournament. I had a margin of 72.1 points over Hellmut Seibt, European champion, and officials told me they believed that to be a record advantage for recent skating. I could only feel a tremendous conﬁdence for free skating; but yet not enough to keep me from heading straight home to bed. Dr. Albright had advised me to eschew practicing my free skating program, and to conserve energy for the one performance I had to do before the judges. I was nervous when I took center ice for the start of the free skating, more nervous perhaps than I have been before or since. I didn’t know when I might run down. My knees shook a little at the start. I told myself angrily that this was just a hang-over from the fever; a competitor after his fourth world title couldn’t be nervous! But everything moved into place as the music started and the program went well. Triple-double-loops, double-Axel-double-loops, and jump-spin combinations followed each other in a secure if not conﬁdent program." Among his very few errors was a fall on the second jump in a double loop/double loop/double loop combination.
Dick Button easily won the men's title with first place ordinals from all but Swiss judge Eugene Kirchhofer, who placed him third in that segment behind his teammates Hayes Alan Jenkins and Jimmy Grogan. Nineteen year old Grogan's athletic performance earned him second place ordinals across the board in the free skate, more than enough to overtake Hellmut Seibt for the silver. Jenkins, Dudley Richards and Don Laws placed fourth, fifth and seventh while Italian Champion Carlo Fassi placed an impressive fifth. 1951 Canadian Bronze Medallist William Lewis - Canada's sole entry in the men's event - placed a disappointing ninth in a field of eleven. Hayes Alan Jenkins' performance, which included a double Axel, was hailed as one of the best in the event. Eminent British judge and historian T.D. Richardson raved, "Young Hayes Jenkins skated the fullest free program I have ever seen. There were movements from as far back as [Henning] Grenander woven into the double what-have-yous in a most fascinating matter."
In her book "Thin Ice", Jacqueline du Bief recalled how the audience reacted to the marks of one unnamed contestant in the men's event in Milan thusly: "Everyone shouted, whistled, gesticulated, called his neighbour to witness and in a few seconds a veritable avalanche of cries of 'Banditto!' from hundreds of angry thoughts was hurled at the judges - to the great joy of all the competitors." One has to wonder which skater's performance so moved to the Italian crowd to such a protest.
Following the competition, the Federazione Italiana Sport del Ghiaccio put on a lavish ball at the newly constructed Duomo Hotel to honour the skaters who participated in the first World Championships ever held on Italian soil. The American team won a trophy that was donated by Italian President Luigi Einaudi for the team who accumulated the most points. Trophies were given out and every skater received some sort of reward. Dick Button recalled, "The gift to the two competitors who came in last was a beautiful woolen blanket and a bottle of liquor. The comments of those receiving them were only questioning glances that asked whether their skating needed a shot from the bottle, or their performances had been inert enough to require the warmth of a blanket."
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