Obituary of Jeannette Altwegg | Figure skating

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Jeannette Altwegg, who died at the age of 90, was the last British woman to win an individual Olympic gold medal in ice skating – at the 1952 Winter Games in Oslo. His rare and celebrated triumph, at the age of 21, would normally have led to a lucrative professional career – or at least some other Olympic Games appearances as an amateur. But in fact, Altwegg soon after chose to quit skating altogether, taking up a job as a maid in a refugee children’s home in Switzerland before marrying and raising four children. When she unexpectedly returned to the public eye in 2011, she explained without apologizing that “my family has been and is my career.”

However, Altwegg also revealed that an injury played a role in his disappearance. “I injured my knee in my last year of competition and at that point they weren’t able to operate like they are now,” she said. “In a way, it’s good to stop when you’re at your peak. It’s good that you don’t go on and on.

Whatever the merits of Altwegg’s decision to quit, his surprise early retirement has undoubtedly been a great loss to British skating. Besides Olympic gold, she had won the world title in 1951, had been European champion in 1951 and 1952, and could have continued to be a global force over the next decade. No Briton has come close to winning an individual Olympic gold in figure skating since winning, and the only other to match was Madge Syers, who won the women’s singles at the London Olympics in 1908, the first year in which the female figure skating was an Olympic event.

Altwegg’s mother, Gertrude (née Muirhead), was Scottish and her father, Hermann, was of Swiss nationality. She was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in India, where Hermann worked with the Liverpool Cotton Exchange. But the family returned to the UK when Jeannette and her brother, Christopher, were still young.

She learned to skate at the age of six at the Palace Ice Rink in Liverpool and by four years she had shown such promise that her parents had taken her out of school for private lessons focused on the ice rink. At the age of 16, she represented Great Britain at the 1947 European and World Figure Skating Championships, finishing fourth and fifth respectively.

Jeannette Altwegg won gold at the 1951 European Figure Skating Championships.

Also an excellent tennis player, in the same year Altwegg finished second in singles at the British Junior Championships at Wimbledon, raising questions about the sport she might choose to play. But her decision was made in 1948 when she won the first of her four UK senior figure skating championships, then won one of only two medals Britain won at this year’s Olympic Winter Games. there in St Moritz, with a bronze medal in the women’s singles after a particularly good performance in the forced figures.

Altwegg’s strength still resided in these imposed tricks – a now defunct element of figure skating in which competitors were judged on their ability to trace precise shapes on the ice. Although she was by no means a mechanical skater, she was less formidable in the free skating element of competition, which emphasized artistic flair and invention more than discipline and control.

Although she captured another bronze medal at the 1949 European Championships in Milan, low scores in free skating deprived her of a medal at the 1949 World Championships in Paris, where she finished fourth. But his healthy temper never allowed him to get upset when there were setbacks. The following year, she moved to silver at the European and World Championships, and in 1951, she won gold at both, racking up huge points ahead in the numbers that made up for any shortcomings. to be won in the free skating sections.

Jeannette Altwegg surrounded by photographers in 1952, after winning gold at the Olympic Games in Oslo, Norway. Photograph: Hulton Getty

Altwegg retained her European title in Vienna in 1952, after which she went straight to Oslo for the Winter Olympics. Working with her Swiss trainer, Jacques Gerschwiler, and trying to ignore knee issues, she developed a new free skating program based on Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, which she hoped would provide a more solid foundation. than the previous routines.

After posting a good score in the numbers, however, she could still only manage fourth place in her weakest event, although in the end she had just enough points to win gold ahead of American Tenley Albright ( silver) and Jacqueline du Bief de la France (bronze).

Altwegg’s was the only medal of any description won by his country at these Winter Games, and served as a welcome morale booster in post-war austerity in Britain. But victory turned out to be her last performance in competition, and after a celebratory display at Kingsway Rink in Dundee, she put her skates back in the closet.

There were plenty of lucrative offers on the table, including a £ 2,000 a week contract from the Music Corporation of America to go on a world ice dance tour. But Altwegg was not tempted. “No thanks, not for a million pounds,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald. “I am not interested in luxury. I wouldn’t like it. Also, I am not a dramatic skater. I could never do popular music hall stuff. Her ambition, she said, was “to get married and have children” – and she did.

Made a CBE in 1953, Altwegg spent much of that year in Winterthur, Switzerland, taking a course in child welfare, after which she accepted a job at the Pestalozzi Children’s Village for orphaned refugee children. , in Trogen. Earning the equivalent of less than £ 3 a week, she worked 6.30am to 8pm daily, helping to look after the children while washing, ironing, cleaning the floors and doing general housework.

In Switzerland, she met Marc Wirz, an engineer, who was a brother of Swiss skating champion Susi Wirz, one of her former sporting rivals. They married in 1954, after which she quit her job to raise their children. The family led a comfortable existence in Switzerland; there was a summer house in Spain, horseback riding, recreational golf and tennis, and she learned to fly. The marriage ended in divorce in 1973 and, after relocating to Bern, Altwegg refused all interview requests for the next four decades, even when she was inducted into the World’s Hall of Fame. figure skating in 1993.

In 2011, however, she accepted an invitation to attend the European Figure Skating Championships in Switzerland, during which she briefly emerged from the light. In various press interviews, she revealed, among other things, that being taken out of school to focus on her skating made her grow up too fast and made her miss the company of children her age. Perhaps this is what influenced his later decision to leave the sport so early to focus on family life.

She is survived by her four children and 13 grandchildren.

Jeannette Eleanor Altwegg, ice skater, born September 8, 1930; passed away on June 18, 2021


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