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Throwback: Henie – the child prodigy who reinvented figure skating and won Olympic gold

Norwegian ice-skater Sonja Henie (1912 - 1969) on the ice at Chamonix during the Winter Olympics.   (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Feb 15th, 1928

Sonja Henie was that rarest of athletes – one who reinvented her sport.

Born in Oslo in 1912 to an heiress mother and champion speed skater father, Henie was a prodigy for as long as anyone could remember. She became Norway’s national champion at the age of nine and competed in the first Olympic Winter Games, in Chamonix, France in 1924, at the age of 11 – although she did finish last.

Watching the legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in London in 1927 proved to be the seminal moment in her career. Henie was mesmerised and vowed to introduce the same artistry and choreography to her own routines.

Emboldened, she won the first of her 10 World Championships titles in Davos, Switzerland in 1927, and the following year she went to St Moritz as one of the stars of the Olympic Winter Games, even though she was aged only 15 years and 10 months.

With her blonde hair, sparkling brown eyes and petite frame, Henie had film star looks, and performed with a speed and athleticism never witnessed before.  She stepped onto the ice accompanied by the sound of a rink-side orchestra broadcast through faulty speakers.

Her routine utilised the entire space of the rink and incorporated pirouettes, axels, salchows, loops and waltz jumps. Six of the seven judges put her in first place, with only the American judge disagreeing, favouring his compatriot Beatrix Loughran instead.

Nevertheless, Henie was the clear winner, with Fritzi Burger of Austria in silver medal place and Loughran in bronze.

At the Olympic ball, Henie wore pink carnations sent to her by the King of Norway. A star was born.

Henie, who went on to win two more Olympic gold medals, later explained why she loved skating so much: “It is a sense of power, of command of distance and gravity, and an illusion of no longer having to move because momentum is carrying you.”


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