100 years since the birth of Sonja Henie

Sonja Henie

By Olga Fluegge,
special to World Figure Skating

100 years since the birth of the famous Norwegian and world figure skater Sonja Henie were celebrated on April 8, 2012.

Sonja Henie (1912-1969) was the three-time Olympic champion (1928, 1932.1936), 10-time World Champion (1927-1936) and 6-time European champion (1931-1936). She was the most titled single figure skater in the world, even hundred years later. Henie won more Olympic and World titles than any other ladies figure skater. After the end of her competitive carrer she became a film star. At the height of her acting career she was one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood.

Her father, Wilhelm Henie was a high level athlete in the past and owned a prosperous fur factory in Norway. He was fully engaged into daughter’s skating career since her early childhood. Already at the age of nine Sonia trained for six hours daily. In addition, she took ballet lessons from the best choreographer of Oslo Love Krohn, who has worked with famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. In the summer time she skated and trained at the ice rinks, which were placed in high mountains of Switzerland. She also had an opportunity to train at the prestigious ice rinks of England. So she had an access to the ice during all year round. In the preparation of the skater in the 20th years were invested about 20.000 dollars, which is considered as a very huge sum in the prices of those years.

Sonja Henie, famous figure skater

Sonja Henie was very strong in compulsory figures. In her free skate programs she showed an unprecedented synthesis of ballet and sport, including there elements from the show. In addition, she confidently performed jumping elements, such as Axel, Lutz, Salchow and Rittberger, and combined spins.

The first great success came to her in 1930 at the World Championships in the United States, where ladies finals of the competition were visited by 14,000 spectators. The keen interest of the public drew the attention of American business. “This huge turnout of spectators … was the fist dramatic proof that skating, without embellishments of props, scenery or speсial effects, could be a major arena attraction. It was an eye-opener to promoters and officials as well.” wrote Arthur Goodfellow in his article “When the World´s first came to America” in the Skating magazine.

In 1933 she was first drawn to the thematic program on the ice, skating to the music of “The Dying Swan” in imitation of Anna Pavlova. Besides Sonja was considered as a trendsetter in figure skating. She shortened skating skirts, began using paillettes as jewels, wore elegant hats, introduced white skates for women and used the recording discs as a background for music programs. Thanks to Sonja competitions among women gained a great popularity among the audience.

In 1936, after the competitive career, she has performed with great success in the ice show “Hollywood Ice Revue” and starred in several Hollywood movies: “One in a Million”, “Thin Ice”, “Happy Landing”, “My lucky star”, “Sun Valley Serenade”. She also wrote an autobiography “The wings on my feet”.

Sonja Henie in Hollywood Ice Revue ice show

The most significant contribution of Sonja Henie to the development of figure skating is that she turned a conservative sport for wealthy men of Europe into a very popular sport for the girls from middle-class in the United States and Canada. Interestingly, that before the year of 1924 the world championships for men and women were held separately, but the women were able to quickly and successfully integrate into this environment and this happened with a help of Henie. She became a role model for young people, while making a commercial skating entertainment for the general public.

Additional sources:

Goodfellow, Arthur: „When the World´s first came to America, „Skating“ 1981/58;
Henie, Sonja: “Wings on my Feet”, 1940;
Hampe, Matthias: Stilwandel im Eiskunstlauf: eine Ästhetik- und Kulturgeschichte 1994.

WFS - An independent online sports magazine