The 1949 World Figure Skating Championships
Held from February 16 to 18, 1949 in Paris, the 1949 World Figure Skating Championships marked the first time an international figure skating competition was held in France since the country had hosted the 1936 World Championships where Sonja Henie had won her tenth and final World title. The event was hosted at the glass-roofed Palais des Sports, an elegant indoor rink with seating for fifteen thousand.
Edi Scholdan and Eva Pawlik boarding a train enroute to Paris. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.
The American team stayed at the Hotel Napoleon, near the The Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile. They had a difficult time making their way to the Palais des Sports, as many taxi drivers refused to travel across the Seine at night. Interestingly, the pairs and women's competitions were judged by a panel of seven and the men's event by a panel of five. As the 1949 Canadian Championships were scheduled at the exact same time, Canadian skaters didn't make the trip and the absence of Barbara Ann Scott (who had retired from competition) was certainly felt. The show went on without Canada's Sweetheart and the event turned out to an incredibly memorable one. Let's hop in the time machine and take a look back at the skaters and stories that made this competition so fascinating!
THE PAIRS COMPETITION
Karol and Peter Kennedy in 1949
Twelve teams from eight countries contested the 1949 World pairs title. Hungary's Andrea Kékesy and Ede Király were victorious with first place ordinals from all seven judges, but American siblings Karol and Peter Kennedy were huge hits with the Parisian crowd. The top two teams were miles above the rest of the field and the battle for bronze proved to be a four-way race separated fittingly by exactly four points.
Americans Anne Davies and Carleton Hoffner narrowly edged three brother/sister teams - Hungary's Marianne and László Nagy, Austria's Herta and Emil Ratzenhofer and Great Britain's Jennifer and John Nicks - for the third spot on the medal podium. In "Skating" magazine, Harold G. Storke remarked, "The real surprise of the evening... was the marvelous performance of the Anne Davies-Carleton Hoffner pair. Their sparkle, smoothness and speed left no doubt in the minds of the judges - or of the crowd - that their third place was richly deserved. A little more 'contents' and they will be serious contenders for the title."
The Kennedy's wouldn't have made it to Paris that year had it not been for the interest shown towards their skating by one General Mark Clark. On March 19, 1949, the "Spokane Daily Chronicle" reported, "General Clark, possibly in the interest of having the talented twosome skate for occupational soldiers [stationed] in Europe, arranged to have them flown to Paris via MATS (military air transport service)." Though the children of a successful dentist, the financial strain of having two kids in skating had forced the Kennedy's to approach the owner of a Washington state arena for help fundraising the cost just to get the siblings to D.C. to board the MATS flight.
Photo courtesy Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek
In the free skate, the judges were hard-pressed not to make Dick Button top banana. They unanimously gave him marks that once again led him to the top of the podium, including one 6.0, and were impressed with his lively, athletic free program. After performing the first double Axel in competition the year previous, he'd added another trick to his arsenal - a double loop/double loop combination. In his 1966 book "Konståkningens 100-åriga historia: utveckling, OS-VM-referater, intervjuer och berättelser", Gunnar Bang praised Button's performance in Paris thusly: "What a flight, what color, what tone and rhythm. [Clearly] a guy with humor, in contrast to their competitors, who mostly seemed to be a tad [lacking] in this context." The silver medal went to pairs winner Király and the bronze to Rada. In sixth and eighth places were a young Hayes Alan Jenkins and Carlo Fassi.
THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION
With no Barbara Ann Scott in sight, Austria's Eva Pawlik was a heavy favourite to take the gold in Paris. However, in the school figures Czechoslovakia's Ája Vrzáňová took a commanding lead with first place ordinals from five of the seven judges. The Austrian judge placed Pawlik first and the British judge placed Jeannette Altwegg first. Eva's result in the figures was still commendable, considering she was still quite weak after a hospital stay immediately following the European Championships (which she'd won) due to a case of acute appendicitis.
Yvonne Sherman, Helen Uhl and Virginia Baxter
Although American Yvonne Sherman held her own with Europe's best skaters, teammates Virginia Baxter, Andra McLaughlin and Helen Uhl found themselves buried in the standings. Though many of her American teammates opted to take advantage of the convenience of air travel, Virginia Baxter and her mother didn't care for flying, so they had come to Paris aboard the Queen Mary.
Eva Pawlik's son Roman Seeliger explained, "The difference in points between Pawlik and Vrzanová was narrow, so Pawlik was still the favourite. Her strength had always lain in the free programme. She was only third in the school figures at St. Moritz one year before. It was the free program that earned her the Olympic silver medal."
While practicing following the figures, Pawlik's broke the heel of one of her skates. Seeliger claimed, "The judges did not allow her to try the shoes of a companion to get familiar with a new feeling of skating. Sabotage was supposed but not proven. As a result of the shortages in Austria, Pawlik unfortunately had no second pair of skates, so she could not compete in the free programme. That was the greatest disappointment in Eva Pawlik's career."
Ája Vrzáňová won the title with a spirited free skating performance that included a double Lutz jump and Yvonne Sherman moved up to take the silver ahead of Jeannette Altwegg and Jiřína Nekolová. The wonderfully artistic Andra McLaughlin proved to be a huge crowd favourite and an emerging French star named Jacqueline du Bief who moved up from sixteenth to ninth gained attention for a different reason.
In her autobiography "Thin Ice", Jacqueline du Bief recalled, "I began to feel the effects of my resistance to the instructors of fthe big foreign schools. These gentlemen could never see the pupils of other people do well without a certain amount of displeasure, and from that moment they began ‘to take an interest’ in me. When I say ‘in me’ I ought rather to say in my faults, in my mistakes, which they remarked on as forcibly as they could, pointing them out to anyone who might have failed to notice them for themselves. This was certainly not very nice for me but it was encouraging; it was a good sign, and more than any compliments it proved to me that I was beginning to take on some importance and was no longer considered just an uninteresting debutante. It was at the close of these competitions that I received my first invitations to give exhibitions abroad."
Ája Vrzáňová receiving a congratulatory kiss from Dick Button
As all proper competitions do, the 1949 World Championships ended with a party. In his book "Dick Button On Skates", Dick Button recalled, "Following the tournament, Pierre de Gaulle, Lord Mayor of Paris, and brother of General Charles de Gaulle, gave a reception for Miss Vrzáňová, Andrea Kékesy and Ede Király, pairs winners, and me."
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