Modern figure skating is deeply indebted to Sonja Henie (1912-1969), one of the greatest athletes of this century. She was the first skater to incorporate the principles of ballet into her routines and the first woman to perform spins and jumps. Through her live ice shows and a series of Hollywood movies, Henie enlarged the audience for figure skating and transformed it into a thrilling entertainment.
Born April 8, 1912, in Oslo, Norway, Henie was blessed from the beginning with every attribute a skater might need. Her father was a wealthy fur salesman and a former amateur cycling champion who encouraged his children to compete. Her mother was willing to travel all across Europe with her to find coaches and outdoor ice rinks. Private tutors were hired to educate her while she concentrated on her skating. Her talent was evident from a very early age.
Henie entered her first Olympic competition in 1924, when she was 11 years old. Because she was still a child, she competed in a knee-length skirt, rather than the calf-length outfits the older women wore. Her fur-trimmed costume afforded her greater ease of movement, and she performed some moves that were downright shocking for the time, including a jump into a sit spin. A surprised panel of judges awarded her third place in the free style portion of the competition, but her poor showing on the compulsory figures lowered her score dramatically. She finished in last place.
Far from being discouraged, the youngster poured all her energies into skating. In 1927, at the tender age of 14, she won the first of ten consecutive world championships. No other skater before or since has dominated the sport as thoroughly as Henie did between 1927 and 1936.
Soon after winning her first world championship, Henie saw a ballet performance by Russian great Anna Pavlova. The young Norwegian was profoundly influenced by Pavlova's artistry, and she tried to incorporate ballet-style choreography into her skating routines. At the time this was a brave departure from convention, and audiences loved it. Henie's sense of drama, athletic perfection, and graceful, balletic performances wrought a permanent change in figure skating and paved the way for today's skating superstars.
Henie won Olympic gold medals in 1928, 1932, and 1936 before retiring from amateur skating. At the height of the Great Depression she had become an international star with enough clout that she could announce that she planned to be in motion pictures. The idea of an ice skating movie might seem quaint today, but Henie starred in a number of them, most notably One in a Million, the story of a skater's rise to Olympic glory, and Thin Ice. Typically, Henie films were short on plot and long on her trademark skating routines. In an era before television, these films were an introduction to skating for millions of American viewers.
Within a year of turning pro, Henie had earned in excess of a quarter of a million dollars. She became a millionaire by 1940, an accomplishment that outstrips even the male athletes of her generation. With her sunny personality and obvious love of skating, Henie popularized the sport and served as a role model for American skating hopefuls of both sexes, including Dick Button, Tenley Albright (the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal), and Carol Heiss.
When live television began to cut into the film industry, Henie stopped making movies and returned to traveling ice shows. For a time she had her own company, Sonja Henie's Hollywood Ice Revue, but an unfortunate bleacher collapse at one of her shows caused the venture to fold. After that Henie could be seen in other ice shows and on television specials. Gradually her appearances dwindled, and in 1956 she retired.
Dividing her remaining years between homes in Norway and the United States, Henie lived happily with her third husband, Niels Onstad. In the mid-1960s she developed leukemia and spent the rest of her life fighting the disease. Her death in Los Angeles, California on October 12, 1969, robbed the skating world of one of its brightest stars. By today's standards, Henie's routines were almost ridiculously simple, her jumps far from spectacular. Her contribution to skating is secure, however, because she combined all of the elements so important to the sport today: high drama, athletic prowess, and star power. A champion in her own day, she has become a legend in ours.