The 1954 World Figure Skating Championships
The women's podium in Oslo in 1954
From February 16 to 19, 1954, many of the most prominent skaters of the fifties gathered at the Bislett Stadion in Oslo, Norway - the old stomping crowds of Sonja Henie herself - for the most frigid World Figure Skating Championships on record. It was so cold, in fact, that Canadian coach Sheldon Galbraith actually intentionally stood in front of the thermometer so that his pupils couldn't see just how dangerously low the temperatures were. Despite the subzero Scandinavian conditions, skaters from Austria, Canada, France, Great Britain, Switzerland, United States and West Germany all claimed medals that year at the venue used for the 1952 Winter Olympic Games and the stories that remain are timeless, fascinating and inspiring. Let's take a little look back, shall we?
THE PAIRS COMPETITION
Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden
The first gold medals awarded at the 1954 Oslo Worlds were won by Canada's Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden... and they won them in absolutely frigid temperatures. "The ice was so incredibly hard that our skates squeaked," recalled Dafoe. "We felt as if we were skating on glue. Since we couldn't wear gloves, our hands froze and we couldn't feel anything - particularly on the lifts." Despite conditions that skaters today would assuredly balk at, the students of Sheldon Galbraith persevered to win first place votes from five of the seven judges. They became the first Canadian pairs team in history to win a World title, defeating Swiss siblings Silvia and Michel Grandjean and Austrians Sissy Schwarz and Kurt Oppelt in the process. Quoted in David Young's 1984 book "The Golden Age Of Canadian Figure Skating", the late Bowden recalled the emotional impact of the team's first victory at Worlds thusly: "It's not just the medal. It's the fact that you're representing your country - that the flag is over your head, and you put it there. It sends a shiver up and down your spine." Dafoe didn't have a shiver down hers afterwards. After competing, she rushed to the women's restroom where Silvia Grandjean gave her a swig of brandy to warm her up.
THE MEN'S COMPETITION
A young David Jenkins
After the school figures, defending champion Hayes Alan Jenkins of Akron, Ohio led the pack with 514.1 points and nine placements. Twenty two year old Jimmy Grogan was only one tenth of a point behind with 514.2 and eight placements. They were both well ahead of a tiny fourteen year old from France named Alain Giletti. In the free skating, Jenkins repeated as champion with 178.28 points to Grogan's 175.22. Giletti ended up third, followed by another fourteen year old, Jenkins' younger brother David. Ronnie Robertson of Long Beach, California was fifth. "The Schenectady Gazette" noted, "Experts predicted a nip-and-tuck duel between [Jenkins and Grogan] but despite obvious nervousness and a spill at the start of the program, Jenkins put on a sparkling exhibition. Grogan, reputed a brilliant free skater, presented a fine program, but his performance lacked the usual lustre." Another American, Dudley Richards, had initially been slated to compete at the Oslo Worlds after finishing in third in the 1953 U.S. senior men's competition, but he was drafted in the Korean War and missed the event altogether. In light of a neck injury, he ended up being assigned to skate at the Casa Carioca instead. Sadly, he was among the victims of the 1961 Sabena Crash. Not everyone was thrilled with the 'new' athletic trend in men's figure skating inspired by Dick Button. Former Canadian Champion and CFSA President Melville Rogers lamented, "In nearly every case the highlights of the programs were obtained or in some cases attempted to be obtained by acrobatic tricks rather than by beautiful or expert skating."
Tenley Albright, Hugh Graham and Maribel Vinson Owen. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection. Used with permission.
THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION
Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy
Conditions in Oslo for the ice dancers were even worse than they were for the men and the pairs. Jean Westwood recalled, "I remember smiling in the mirror to freeze the expression before skating outside in twenty six below weather." With partner Lawrence Demmy, the defending champions were first unanimously on the scoring sheets of every judge in the four compulsory dances, followed by teammates Nesta Davies and Paul Thomas. Carmel and Edward Bodel of Berkeley, California were a strong third. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On The Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves noted, "Snow during the compulsory Foxtrot and American Waltz slowed the dancers. It snowed so hard that several couples had trouble maintaining their bearings in the Foxtrot. If they could not see where they were going, how did the judges see them? Then the sun shone down on the Quickstep and Blues, lightening the steps of the dancers and the hearts of the spectators... The standings in the compulsories remained the same after the free. Westwood/Demmy looked like champions through the entire proceedings. Britain's Nesta Davies and Paul Thomas, fourth in 1953, came closest to the champions in rhythm and edging to end second, although their free dance seemed too compact and repetitive. U.S. Judge Margarette Spence Drake placed them sixth overall. Many preferred the true skating to music of Barbara 'Bunty' Radford and Ray Lockwood, but Davies/Thomas had a six-point lead in compulsories over the new British couple. The sticktuitiveness of Carmel and Ed Bodel finally paid off. Skating the best free dance they ever performed, they finally edged one of the ubiquitous British couples for third place. Austrian Judge Hans Meixner had the Bodels fifth overall, and the Swiss Judge, Eugen Kirchhofer, had them fourth. The other three judges placed them third." After claiming yet another World title, Westwood and Demmy and the fifth place American pair, Virginia Hoyns and Donald Jacoby, took and passed the first two ISU Gold Dance tests in history."
Twenty absolutely freezing young women from eight countries braved the elements in hopes of claiming the "ladies" crown in Oslo. Defending champion, eighteen year old American Tenley Albright was the leader after the school figures, followed by Gundi Busch of West Germany and Erica Batchelor of Great Britain.
In an interview in the December 21, 1954 issue of the "Chicago Tribune", Busch described how the tides turned in her favour: "I trailed Tenley Albright (defending champion from Boston) by three points after the compulsory figures. Only once before had the champion been dethroned in the world meet. It didn't look hot for me, because Tenley is best at the free skating, where you can go all out. So I went all out, and at the end, five of the seven judges voted for me for first place over Tenley." Busch was incorrect in her assessment that a defending champion had been dethroned only once before. It had actually happened twice in the women's event at the World Championships (1927 and 1938) but her victory was certainly a rarity that even she claimed to be surprised by.
Tenley Albright's loss in Oslo was largely owing to an uncharacteristic fall. Maribel Vinson Owen, covering the event for "Sports Illustrated" magazine noted, "Tenley went into a combination axel and double loop jump and promptly stunned the stadium and herself by inexplicably falling flat. Tenley went through the rest of her free program in a trance. She never really recovered." On her first attempt, seventeen year old Canadian Barbara Gratton was only two ordinals away from a medal. Sadly, it would be her only appearance at the World Figure Skating Championships.
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