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Nadja Franck, The First Queen Of Finnish Figure Skating

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

"I have never seen a lady skate with such ease and so gracefully; her toe spins were charming to witness, and she had the good taste not to skate figures that were not graceful." - Douglas Adams, "Skating", 1892

Born April 15, 1867 in Helsinki, Finland, Nadja Franck (Nadeschda Antipin) was the daughter of Wasili and Maria Antipin. The Antipin family were believed to have originally come to Scandinavia from Kiev but by the time of Nadja's birth both of her parents were Finnish citizens and her father was a successful merchant. Young Nadja and her sister (also named Maria) were among the eighty female members of the Helsingfors Skridskoklubb. In its early days, the club was better known for its speed skaters than its figure skaters but Nadja soon proved to be one of the club's most proficient at the latter. As a teenager, she received training from John Catani and Rudolf Sundgren, two of Scandinavia's most decorated figure skaters.

Top: Nadja Franck. Bottom: Nadja Franck, Rudolf Sundgren and an unidentified skater. Photo courtesy Sveriges Centralförening för Idrottens Främjande Archive.

Eleven years after the Wiener Eislaufverein in Vienna held one of the first known competitions for female skaters, Nadja's club followed suit and the teenage trailblazer entered and won. The following year, she married a merchant named Johan Gustaf (Gösta) Franck. Sadly, only five years later her husband died at the age of twenty eight. Rather than give up, the tragedy only spurred the young widow's resolve to excel in 'a gentleman's sport' even more.

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

She taught skating to other young women in Finland and travelled to France in 1895 and 1897 to give exhibitions and teach skating with her sister Maria at the Pôle Nord artificial ice rink. In January 1898 - less than a month before the World Championships were held in London for the first time - she gave an exhibition at the National Skating Palace at Hengler's Circus. The January 29, 1898 issue of "The Wheelwoman" raved about her skating (and outfit) thusly: "Nadja Franck's skating is a perfect treat. I have never seen such a graceful performance in my life - I gazed and gazed and never got beyond her feet. Jack told me afterwards he never took his eyes off her pretty face under the simple little black Astrakhan cap, and someone else described most graphically her lovely French gown of soft grey embroidered with white, so between us all you can picture a bewitching tout ensemble!" Her exhibitions were even accompanied by a live band playing a waltz. This was obviously well before Lili Kronberger popularized the concept of interpreting music at the 1911 World Championships.

Here's where things get really interesting. In 1899, the Stockholms Allmänna Skridskoklubb in Sweden included a contest for women in a massive competition that included both figure and speed skating events. A who's who of Scandinavian skating took part in the affair, including Catani, Sundgren, Norway's Alfred Naess and Stockholm's Ivar Hult. Three members of The Skating Club in London - Algeron Grosvenor, W.F. Adams and Douglas Adams - even made the trip to study skating in the Swedish Style and gave donned their top hats, cast an orange on the ice and gave an exhibition of combined figures in the English Style.

Top: Alfred Naess and Nadja Franck in 1899. Photo courtesy Norsk Folkemuseum. Bottom: Nadja Franck teaching skaters in Finland.

After watching her coaches Sundgren and Catani place first and third in the men's event, Nadja nervously took to the ice. The first woman from Finland to ever compete internationally then went on to decisively trounce three talented women from Stockholm and Gothenburg... on their own home turf. With one hundred and eighty two points to Anna Weibull's one hundred and fifty three, Nadja earned herself gold jewelry and the club's gold medal and became the first woman to win an international figure skating competition in Scandinavia.

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

A turn of the century history of Stockholms Allmänna Skridskoklubb noted that her performance was of a quality that it had never been seen "before or since" and that she "has done something so beautiful and elegant in her skating. In her skating she avoided carefully all the movements and figures that do not harmonize with female pleasure. You never saw her do daring jumps or crisp bends in the free leg. She was soft and comfortable... Her program consisted chiefly of spirals... a tasteful polka-mazurka that earned her major acclaim and splendid carriage." The interesting part? Sundgren, Catani and our leading lady had all given both exhibitions and lessons in skating. As amateurism was serious business at the time, there was debate as to whether or not the lessons Nadja had given others were for monetary gain. The March 7, 1899 edition of the Finnish newspaper "Pori" defended her, stating that she "exercised the sport for her own pleasure and was an amateur in the true sense of the word." Right after her amateur status was questioned, Nadja remarried to a bank teller named Väinö Hjalmar Rafael Sandqvist, bid adieu to competitive skating and embarked on a turn of the century 'tour' giving exhibitions in Helsinki, Turku, Satakunta, Vyborg, Tampere and even Russia. In one 1905 exhibition in Porvoo, she even teamed up with Sakari Ilmanen to give a demonstration of pairs skating.

While practicing in 1909, Nadja collided with speed skater Oscar Mathisen while he was training for a five thousand meter race. She suffered a broken arm and was badly bruised and decided it was time for her to put her performing days behind her. Opening a skating school in Helsinki with Thyra Brandt, she passed on her knowledge to a whole new generation of Finnish skaters. Nadja passed away on January 7, 1932 in Helsinki, the same city where she took her first steps on the ice.

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":