A Legend From Liverpool: The Jeannette Altwegg Story

"It was the only thing I knew how to do, and I couldn't go on doing it all my life." - Jeannette Altwegg, August 17, 1953, "The Glasgow Herald"

The daughter of Gertrude (Muirhead) and Hermann Altwegg, Jeannette Eleanor Altwegg was born September 8, 1930 in Coimbatore, a city in the Madras district of India. Her father, a Swiss born Briton, worked in Quilon with the Liverpool Cotton Exchange for a time before relocating the family to England when Jeannette and her brother Christopher were small children.

Jeannette learned to skate at the age of six at the Liverpool Ice Palace. It wasn't long before she showed promise. In an interview in the August 17, 1953 issue of "The Glasgow Herald", she recalled, "When I was ten I had to give up school to concentrate more on skating, and I had private schooling. I don't think I missed this at the time but later I realized that I had missed the companionship of children my age."

At the end of World War II, Jeannette's father returned to Switzerland when the Cotton Exchange was nationalized. He opened a textile factory in Winterthur. Jeannette relocated to Downe, a village in the London Borough of Bromley. When only a promising junior skater under the direction of Swiss coach Armand Perren, she was selected as a representative of Great Britain for the 1947 European and World Figure Skating Championships. She surprised everyone by finishing in the top five in both.

That September, Jeannette achieved success in another sport. She was the runner up in the All-England Junior Championship held at Wimbledon in lawn tennis, losing in the final to Norma Seacy, the reigning Scottish junior champion at the time. Later that autumn, she claimed her first senior British skating title at Wembley, after amassing a huge lead in the school figures. It started to become clear at this point that focusing her attention solely on one sport was probably her best bet.

It was around this time that Jeannette started working with another esteemed Swiss coach, Jacques Gerschwiler. In Davos, Switzerland at the 1948 European Championships, the young skater finished fifth overall but found herself at the center of controversy in the school figures. The Ottawa Citizen, on January 14, 1948, recalled that Barbara Ann Scott "collected six firsts in the first four compulsory figures and one ninth place rating - given her by a British judge, Maj. K.S. Beaumont. Beaumont gave first-place ranking to Jeannette Altwegg, the British champion, although she appeared to be running fourth in the overall ranking."

Less than a month later, Jeannette and Barbara Ann Scott squared off again at the Winter Olympics in St. Moritz. In the school figures, the rivalry between Canada's sweetheart - Barbara Ann Scott - and the British skater was intense. In the February 5, 1988 issue of "The Toronto Star", Scott recalled, "The ice surface we used was surrounded by snowbanks. Jeannette's coach had a habit of standing at the side and extending a foot in the snow, close to the ice, so she'd have a target to line up her loops and keep them straight. It was a good idea but Sheldon [Galbraith] picked up on it. He'd wait until she'd started a figure and then go stand beside her coach and stick out a foot not far from his. When she'd turn, she couldn't look up to see which foot it was she was supposed to be guided by. All she could see was two of them. By the time we'd done the six figures, she was pretty mixed up." Despite these antics, Jeannette finished a strong second in that part of the competition with a score of 842.1 to Scott's 858.1. Free skating was a different story altogether. Jeannette finished a disappointing sixth. Yet, the February 7, 1948 issue of the "Dundee Courier" argued, "Miss Altwegg gave [a] masterly and polished performance. Miss [Maribel] Vinson was astonished at the low marks the British girl received." Again, the British judge placed her first, ahead of Barbara Ann Scott. Her strong finish in the figures assured her the bronze medal. She followed her Olympic bronze medal up with a fourth place finish at Worlds, again hampered by comparatively low free skating scores.

After being beaten in the early rounds in a second trip to Wimbledon in September 1948, Jeannette gave up competitive tennis and focused her attention solely on skating. Her decision paid off. She won her second British title in the autumn of 1948 and in the early months of 1949 claimed the bronze medal at both the European and World Championships. Shortly after the World Championships, she contracted the mumps and was off the ice for some time.

Photo courtesy National Portrait Gallery. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons International License.

In the autumn of 1949, Jeannette won her third consecutive British title at the Empress Hall at Earl's Court, London. After claiming silver behind Ája Vrzáňová at the 1950 European Championships in Oslo, Norway, she returned to England for a rematch at the World Championships at Wembley's Empire Pool. Finishing less than a point behind Vrzáňová in the school figures, she took to the ice for the free skate in front of a crowd of nine thousand and fell fourteen points behind, yet managed to win the silver over France's Jacqueline du Bief on the basis of her outstanding figures.

Though Jeannette was best known for her excellence in figures, she was no slouch as a free skater. She performed Axels and double jumps in both directions - something that is rarely, if at all, seen today - and was well known for her 'Diesel' (or toeless) Lutz jump, which she included in all of her  performances.

In the autumn of 1950, Jeannette won her fourth and final British title. Shortly after, she finally found herself atop the podium at the European Championships in Zürich, Switzerland. The twenty year old next headed to the Palazzo del Ghiaccio in Milan, Italy. In the figures, she amassed a fifty-seven point lead. Even Jacqueline du Bief's masterful free skating wasn't enough to narrow the gap. Though fifth in free skating, Jeannette managed to win her first World title by four points. Eminent British judge and author T.D. Richardson commented, "Jeannette shares with Cecilia Colledge, Hans Gerschwiler and Graham Sharp the palm for school figure-skating in modern times."

As the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway neared, it was all business for Jeannette. With Jacques Gerschwiler, she developed a new program to Offenbach's "The Tales Of Hoffmann" and decided to forgo the British Championships and focus her attention on the end game. After handing Jacqueline du Bief another defeat at the European Championships in Vienna, she headed to Oslo well-trained and ready to give it her best shot although she'd injured her knee.

Photos courtesy "Skating World" magazine

Despite a fourth place finish in the free skate behind Virginia Baxter, Jacqueline du Bief and Tenley Albright, Jeannette's strong score in the school figures was enough to earn her the Olympic gold medal in her final competitive performance. It was the only individual gold medal that Great Britain won in those Games in any sport. Her victory provided a boost of morale to the people of Great Britain; a piece of wonderful news in a world of rationing and reconstruction. After winning, she performed in the closing ceremonies of the Games. She gave what was to be her final skating performance on April 23, 1952 in front of a full house at Kingsway Rink, Dundee, Scotland.

After winning her Olympic title, Jeannette made an unorthodox choice by refusing to turn professional. The February 23, 1952 issue of the "Sydney Morning Herald" exposed the reasoning behind her decision: "Jeannette and her Scots mother were taking tea when a cable arrived from the Music Corporation of America which confirmed a 2,000 pound a week offer to tour the world. Jeannette said: 'No thanks. Not for a million pounds. I've retired from competition skating. I want to get married and have children. What's the good of making a million? Tax would take most of it. I would get ideas far beyond me. I would have to keep up a position quite unnatural to me and waste a lot of money entertaining a lot of people I wouldn't like. Besides, I'm not a dramatic skater. I could never do popular music hall stuff. I'm not interested in luxury. I never had a pair of skating boots made for me until I came second in the world championship three years ago. A friend ran up the costume in which I won the Olympic title. You don't need lots of money and facilities to reach the top. It was the top for me and the end of all my sports ambition when I saw the Union Jack raised before that international crowd of 30,000 people on Wednesday night.'"

In April of 1953, Jeannette was honored by Otto Mayer of the International Olympic Committee with a special diploma for her refusal to become a professional and became (on the recommendation of Sir Winston Churchill) Commander Of The British Empire in a June 11, 1953 birthday celebration for Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace only nine days after the Queen's Coronation. She went to Winterthour, took a course in children's welfare and watched 1953 World Championships in Davos from the stands, remarking in the February 15, 1953 "Toledo Blade" that "Tenley [Albright] is the only one who is putting down some standard."

On her twenty-second birthday, Jeannette accepted a job as Assistant to the Headmistress of the kindergarten school in the British war orphanages at Pestalozzi Children's Village in Trogan, Switzerland. Earning one hundred and twenty Swiss francs per month (less than three pounds per week), she toiled from six-thirty in the morning until eight at night every day, washing, ironing, mending clothes, scrubbing floors and doing other housework. There were twelve houses in Pestalozzi for war orphans, each with ten to eighteen children... children from Great Britain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Greece and Finland. In the August 17, 1953 issue of "The Glasgow Herald", she beautifully reflected, "One of the greatest rewards for our work is to see the alert, happy and normal expression in the eyes of children who when they came looked only hopeless and frightened - like some of the Greek children, children of bandits who had never had a home or known their parents. It is more wonderful than anything you can imagine to feel the love and confidence these children gave you, and the knowledge that they are needed. They may not say thank you in so many words, but the way they come to take you for granted and trust you - as they would their own parents - means much more."

Dennis Bird and Jeannette Altwegg. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

While in Switzerland, Jeannette met her future husband Marc Wirz, a Swiss engineer who was the brother of Swiss Champion Suzi Wirz, one of Jeannette's perennial competitors. After announcing their engagement in London on April 17, 1954, the couple wed in a civil wedding in Bern, Switzerland in late September of that year, following this with a formal ceremony in the British church in Zürich on October 5, 1954. She cut her wedding cake with a skate blade made of English steel. It wasn't her last encounter with skates.

In 1960, Jeannette laced up once again to give her final performance - an exhibition the grand reopening of the Liverpool Ice Rink. In "Skating World" magazine, Dennis Bird recalled, "She has only skated once or twice in the last couple of years, but she showed that much of her supreme ability remains... As Jeannette said, the mind runs on into the old, familiar routine but the body doesn't follow with its former readiness. Anyway, seeing once more her stylish free skating, and her carefree dancing with her father, was a happy experience which brought back many memories of a glorious period in the history of British skating."

Jeannette and her family posing in front of their private plane. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Jeannette and her husband Marc had four children together... and more than their fair share of adventure. They rode horses at their summer home in Majorca and took flying lessons in Bern. After earning her aviation license, Jeannette made the decision in the mid sixties to fly all the way from Switzerland to her country of birth, India. In an interview with Dennis Bird that appeared in "Skating" magazine in May of 1968, she recalled, "I was rather dubious about the trip. I wasn't too sorry when one of the engines broke down in Italy. We went the rest of the way by commercial airline. I'm sure we saw and enjoyed more of India that way that if we'd had to think about refueling stops and servicing." Jeannette and Marc ultimately divorced in 1973.

Following her divorce, Jeannette settled in Bern, Switzerland. Notoriously declining numerous interview requests in the decades that followed, she finally acquiesced and gave a select few when she attended the 2011 European Championships in Switzerland at the invitation of the organizers of the event. When Jeannette passed away on June 18, 2021 at the age of ninety, she was the oldest surviving Olympic Gold Medallist in women's figure skating.

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