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The 1951 U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Held from January 31 to February 3, 1951 in conjunction with Seattle, Washington's centennial celebration, the 1951 U.S. Figure Skating Championships marked only the second time in history that America's national competition was held on the west coast, the first being the 1947 competition in Berkeley, California. A successful five thousand dollar bid from a new civic events group called Greater Seattle, Inc. allowed the crowds to show up in droves at the Seattle Ice Arena. The media had a field day as the best skaters in the U.S. showed up to compete. A unique feature of the 1951 U.S. Championships was live commentary. Announcer John Heater from the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club educated spectators by microphone during the competition as to the in's and out's of what they were watching. It was almost like television commentary ahead of its time... minus the television. 

Speaking of commentary... in the senior men's event, a twenty-one year old Harvard junior we all know and love named Dick Button took home his sixth consecutive U.S. title. The February 3, 1951 issue of The Toledo Blade noted that "Button went into the night's free skating competition with only a slim [3-2] lead over 19-year-old Jimmy Grogan of Colorado Springs. Grogan, who had to watch from the sidelines in 1950 with two cracked ankles, dipped, twirled and spun in the air like a ballet dancer. A few minutes later Button came out. He swooped from one end of the shiny surface to the other with a dazzling display of triple-turn leaps, splits, glides and tip-toe spins." In third was eighteen year old Hayes Alan Jenkins from Cleveland, Ohio, ahead of future famed coach Don Laws. In his book "Dick Button On Skates", Uncle Dick explained that in Seattle, "For the first time I was unable to train properly for a championship. I had been heavily pressed for time to skate at Harvard and only in the nick of time was able to present a new jump, a 'double axel-double loop' [combination]... Perhaps with some thanks to this double axel-double loop I defeated Grogan's most determined threat to win by seven places to eight. That meant that three judges gave me first place and two put Grogan on top. It couldn't have been closer."

With the retirement of two time and reigning senior women's champion Yvonne Sherman, it was sixteen year old Sonya Klopfer of Brooklyn, New York who rose to the occasion to take the title ahead of Tenley Albright of the Skating Club Of Boston and Virginia Baxter of the Skating Club Of Detroit. After the school figures, reported the February 1, 1951 Ellensburg Daily Record, "Sonya Klopfer took a lead over Tenley Albright of Boston with 946.4 points to 932.7. Four judges placed Miss Kopfer and another placed her second in school figures. Miss Albright drew three seconds, a first and a third. Only the placings of the top three judges are counted." She held her lead through the free skate to clinch the crown.

Perhaps the biggest story of the 1951 U.S. Championships however was the courageous performance of three time and defending U.S. senior pairs champions 'The Kennedy Kids' Karol and Peter Kennedy, hometown favourites that moved on to represent the Broadmoor Skating Club. The February 5, 1951 edition of the Lewiston Daily Sun noted that "Peter, 23, bedfast with a high-fever virus infection of three days, mustered enough strength to complete the routine with his sister, then collapsed briefly in his dressing room."

In "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves explained that in the ice dance competitions, "the new qualifying restrictions reduced the number of couples in Silver Dance, but the number of couples in Gold Dance increased. The handsome couple, Carmel and Ed Bodel, had waited it out long enough to gain the title in Gold Dance. Both had been encouraged by friends to skate, he in 1938 and she in 1942. They had joined up as partners in 1945. Their goals included developing their free skating and improving their compulsory dance interpretation. The two-year partnership of blonde Caryl Johns and tall, dark Jack Jost swept Silver Dance over seven other couples. They also won Junior Pairs. Such success in two events required six or seven hours of practice a day in singles, pairs and dances after they had graduated from high school. Caryl's mother, a speed skater, had her studying tap dance and ballet at the age of five, but Caryl switched to figure skating after seeing Sonja Henie. Caryl had passed the Seventh Figure Test and four Gold Dances. Jack had passed the Eighth and all but one Goldd Dance, which he termed the 'pretzel twister', the Viennese Waltz. Jack also held his school's singles title in tennis." Six couples competed in the Gold Dance event, the silver medallists being Virginia Hoyns and Donald Jacoby and the bronze medallists Carol Ann Peters and Danny Ryan, who was sadly later one of the victims in the 1961 Sabena Crash.

The junior women's title went to one of Seattle's own, fifteen year old Frances Dorsey. Chicago's Noel T. Ledin won the novice men's title. Dorsey was a sophomore at the Helen Bush School who enjoyed horseback riding and skiing, while Ledin was a sixteen year old student at the Luther Institute in Chicago who played football and baseball. The novice women's crown went to an eleven year old upstart from New York named Carol Heiss, who moved up from a second place finish after the school figures behind Georgianna Sutton of Los Angeles for the win. Heiss was in her sixth year of public school on Long Island.

Dudley Richards

The junior men's title went to a young Harvard schoolmate of Dick Button's, Dudley S. Richards of Boston. Third was a young David Jenkins. Richards' win in Seattle was actually a brilliant comeback story. At Harvard, Richards was a roommate of none other than Edward M. Kennedy. Kennedy, in his memoir "True Compass", recalled what made Richards' 1951 title win so incredible thusly: "I started off lucky with a great roommate: a slim, sandy-haired boy named Dudley Richards. I'd casually known Dudley from summers in Hyannis Park. He and his older brother Ross were good sailors. Ross had sailed against Bobby and given him all my brother could handle. Dudley's passion was ice skating, and by his early teens he was a top Olympic prospect. But at sixteen he'd seemingly shattered that dream: diving into water that was shallower that he'd realized, he suffered a broken back. He recovered, but only after two years of intensive physical therapy, during which time he did not skate at all." In a February 21, 1951 article in The Harvard Crimson, Richards called Dick Button "very inspiring" and said that "he really made me work, both by professional advice and by telling me I could do well." Sadly, ten years later, Richards would also perish in the Sabena Crash.

Great footage of Dick Button skating in an Olympic Team fundraiser at Madison Square Garden in 1951

The annual Oscar L. Richard awards for greatest artistry in free skating for men and women went to Hayes Alan Jenkins and Gloria Peterson of Seattle. The Bedell H. Harned trophy, which was awarded to the club whose skaters won the most points over the course of the entire competition, was won by the Skating Club Of Boston. The Broadmoor Skating Club finished a close second. The U.S. Championships may have returned to Seattle in 1960 and 1969, but it has been over four decades since the competition has been held in The Emerald City. So a word to all of you wise Skate Guard readers in Washington state: I think it's probably soon your turn, isn't it?

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":