The 1953 World Figure Skating Championships

"There was a young lady named Albright
Who in Davos did everything all right
In her figures and free
She was inspiring to see
And her friends are now full of delight.

There was a young man named Hayes
Who had the most marvellous ways
Of using his feet
So tricky and neat
That he won a great deal of praise."

- Theresa Weld Blanchard, written while flying over the Atlantic, 1953

Theresa Weld Blanchard leaving America on her way to Davos on a KLM flight. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Holland, Belgium and Great Britain were recovering after the North Sea flood which claimed over two thousand, five hundred lives and caused widespread property damage. Diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel were rocky after a bomb explosion at the Soviet embassy in reaction to Stalin's Doctor's Plot. The first colour television sets in America were being sold for over a thousand dollars a pop and songstress Jo Stafford's "You Belong To Me" was being blasted on everyone's Philco radio.

From February 8 to 15, 1953, the International Skating Club of Davos played host to the 1953 World Figure Skating Championships. The Championships were held entirely outdoors on the Club's historic thirty six thousand square yard rink. An ISU regulation sixty by forty foot section of the rink was sectioned off for the competition, but the vast ice surface and hockey rink meant that skaters of different disciplines could all practice simultaneously between the competitive events. The ice had no freezing plant and the rink was sprayed every night and morning. Resurfacing was accomplished by planing, sweeping, tractor snowplows and a 'Snow Boy' shifter.

Photos courtesy "Skating" magazine

The European skaters and officials travelled directly from the European Championships in Dortmund to Davos via train, while many of the North Americans flew through Gander, Newfoundland and Shannon, Ireland instead of England due to a wind storm. When exiting her train with other members of the British contingent, Mollie Phillips was accidentally walloped in the head with Michael Booker's skates. She spent four days in hospital but made history in Davos as first female referee at an ISU Championship, presiding over the Dance event. In "Skating" magazine Theresa Weld Blanchard recalled, "She did a splendid job, giving a very clear, thoughtful speech to the judges, first in English and then in German... On the ice, she conducted herself and the event in a dignified manner, and many complimentary things have been said about her."

History was also made with the first ISU Dance Tests ever given. Judges were Katherine Miller Sackett, Mollie Phillips and Reginald Wilkie. Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy and Joan Dewhirst and John Slater were the skaters that tested, with all passing their Bronze and the two women passing the Silver. The men didn't pass their Silver nor any of the four the Gold, because the organizers ran out of time.

Off the ice in Davos, event chairman Georg Hasler arranged for a busy week of social activities, including a reception at Town Hall with Mayor Dr. Kaspar Laely, a party in the host hotel's nightclub, formal banquet and gala awards tea. Let's take a look back at the most important aspect of this event - what happened on the ice!


After winning the 1952 World title in Paris, Ria (Baran) and Paul Falk had turned professional. The 1952 Silver Medallists, Karol and Peter Kennedy, had also moved on. The third and fourth place teams from that year, Britons Jennifer and John Nicks and Canadians Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden, emerged as favourites to take the gold in 1953.

There were ten entries in the pairs event in Davos, but there was a great difference in ability between the top four teams and the lower six. The competition was close, with three judges placing the Nicks' first, two voting for Dafoe and Bowden, one opting for Hungarians Marianna and László Nagy and another placing the Nagy's and the Nicks' in a tie. Jennifer and John Nicks became the first British pair to win the World title since Phyllis and James Johnson back in 1912 while Dafoe and Bowden's silver medal was the first for Canada at Worlds since 1948. The Nagy's took the bronze. The Swiss pair of Silvia and Michel Grandjean, under the weather with the flu, placed fourth, one spot ahead of Britons Peri Horne and Raymond Lockwood.

Writing in "Skating" magazine, Theresa Weld Blanchard recalled, "Jennifer and John Nicks were excellent. They have good pair positions with many neat moves in time to the music, good pace and fine execution. Their music was a medley of popular tunes and suited them very well. Jennifer looks thinner than last year and had a most becoming dress of white lace over pink. John wears a skating outfit of a blue slightly brighter than navy. Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden have improved both program and execution over last year and skated beautifully. All their surprise moves came off well. I believe they were the only pair to do combined spread eagles, as all the others used a spread with a spiral. It was interesting to note that all the pairs used different versions of the round the head lift that I believe Dafoe-Bowden originated... Marianna and László Nagy had some interesting lifts but impressed me as being slightly acrobatic... Their performance was ragged at times... Their music, the 'William Tell Overture', has been used often in competitions but is always good."


Dick Button's retirement paved the way for a new World Champion in men's figure skating and few doubted he wouldn't be American too. For years, Jimmy Grogan and Hayes Alan Jenkins had skated in Button's shadow and many considered them his most likely successors. In the months leading up to the Davos Worlds, Jenkins had been balancing his studies at Colorado College with his lessons with coach Edi Scholdan. Grogan only had one month to train for the competition due to his Army service.

A notable absence in Davos was Jack B. Jost, a dental assistant at an Army Hospital in Kyoto, Japan.  Due to his obligations with the American military, he turned down an invitation from Prince Takeda, President of the National Skating Union of Japan, to represent the country where he was working in Davos. He went on to win the Japanese title at the Kōrakuen Ice Palace in Tokyo the following month.

Hayes Alan Jenkins and Carlo Fassi

At least six inches of snow accumulated during the men's school figures, making it difficult for the judges to see the designs carved on the ice. The ice had to be cleared before and after each figure was traced and some wondered why the event wasn't postponed. With first place marks from five of the nine judges, Jimmy Grogan won the figures. The Belgian and the Swiss judges voted for nineteen year old Jenkins, while the British and Italian judges voted for Italy's Carlo Fassi, the European Champion. Despite botching one figure entirely, Canada's Peter Firstbrook sat fourth. A West German and Austrian skater withdrew following the figures, reducing the field from fifteen to thirteen.

Both Grogan and Jenkins had slight errors on one jump in their programs. Jenkins impressed the judges with his attention to the music, while Grogan dazzled with the variety and difficulty of his footwork. Ultimately all but the Belgian judge, who voted for Grogan, had Jenkins first in the free skate. Ronnie Robertson - only seventh in figures - was second in the free skate; Grogan third. Firstbrook fumbled two jump landings early in his program and skated more cautiously than usual.
When the marks were tallied, Jenkins was announced as the World Champion, with Grogan second, Carlo Fassi third, Ronnie Robertson fourth and France's Alain Giletti fifth. Firstbrook placed seventh, one spot ahead of Canada's second entry, Peter Dunfield. Moved by the performances of the few skaters who truly paid attention to their music, former Olympic Gold Medallist Karl Schäfer remarked, "At last we again see figure skating," putting the emphasis on 'figure'.


Ice dance medallists. Photo courtesy "Skate" magazine.

Jean Westwood and her Royal Air Force serviceman partner Lawrence Demmy were the only reigning World Champions who returned to defend their title in Davos. They faced stiff competition from fellow Mancunians Joan Dewhirst and John Slater in the compulsories. British judge Pamela Davis dared to place Dewhirst and Slater ahead of Westwood and Demmy, causing a minor controversy.

In the free dance, the American judge tied the two talented British teams but the other judges all placed Westwood and Demmy ahead, ensuring them the gold medal. As both teams were extremely well-matched, there was much discussion in the stands about who was better. Americans Carol Ann Peters and Danny Ryan took the bronze... thus making the top three the exact same as it had been a year prior!

Speaking of continuity in the results, the only movement after compulsories was the flip-flopping of the fourth and fifth place teams and the ninth and tenth place teams. No Canadian teams competed, which was perhaps wise as the Dance event at the Canadian Championships didn't yet include a free dance. Gladys Hogg had forbidden Westwood and Demmy and the Nicks siblings to ski while in Davos so they luged down one of the hills instead. The press met them at the bottom of the hill and snapped a picture.


Valda Osborn, Tenley Albright and Gundi Busch. Photo courtesy BIS Archive, Gerschwiler Family Collection.

The common system of holding National Championships after the World Championships meant that countries selected their World teams based on the results of the previous year's Nationals. 1952 U.S. Silver Medallist Frances Dorsey was still recuperating from a leg operation the previous summer and was unable to compete in Davos. Situations like these were becoming far too common, forcing skating associations around the world to send less entries or less experienced skaters to Worlds. International experience wasn't always a bad thing though. Thirteen year old Carol Heiss, an eighth grade student at Public School 107 in Queens, New York, made history in Davos as the youngest woman ever to be named to the U.S. World team. As the U.S. Junior Champion in 1952, she was named as Dorsey's replacement... and she caused quite a stir in Switzerland with her athletic prowess and youthful vigour.

The thermometer was at zero when the women's school figures began, but as the morning progressed the sun came out and it got warmer. By the afternoon, right after seventeen year old Tenley Albright had finished her rocker, the sun went behind the mountains and the temperature plummeted about twenty degrees again. European Champion Valda Osborn had the lead after the first figure, the counter. The February 14, 1953 issue of "The New York Times" recalled, "The duel between Miss Albright and Miss Osborn threatened to convert the competition into an international scandal when two judges began feuding with their score cards as weapons. British judge Miss [Mollie] Phillips took to giving very low marks to the American girl and very high ones to the British competitor, all out of proportion to the scores carded by the five other 'neutral' judges. The American judge, [Alex] J. Krupy, retaliated by playing the same game - high marks for the Yank and low ones for the British athlete. The crowd of 500 caught on and booed and cried 'shame!' when the results were posted. The chief referee, Dr. [James] Koch, stepped in and sternly lectured the judges after the second figure was skated. From then on, everyone's scoring was pretty much the same." All but the German judge, who voted for second place Gundi Busch, had Tenley Albright first after figures. Valda Osborn was third, followed by twenty two year old Canadian Suzanne Morrow, Carol Heiss, Vevi Smith and Margaret Anne Graham. Albright's thirty point lead gave her competitors little room for error in the free skate if they wanted to catch up.

Zürich's Hans Huber acted as the announcer in Davos and lamented, "The compulsory figure standard seems to be lower than before World War II. What struck me most about the compulsory figures was that many skaters have no swing at all; it seems that this important attribute of figure skating has been lost. Forgetting that correct tracing is a product of correct position and movement, skaters no longer perform their figures with that feeling for movement and muscular memory which is developed by long, continuous tracing."

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

High winds and biting temperatures coupled with the altitude made for a dire situation when the women took to the ice for the free skate. A light snow halfway through the event made things even more challenging for the competitors. Still, a crowd of four thousand braved the elements, clapping all the way and booing any judge who dared to give a low mark. Among the spectators were eight Soviet 'observers' and Mrs. Henry Wainwright Howe and Ruth Banks of the Skating Club of New York, who had travelled to Davos with Willy Böckl's private touring group. Reviewing the fashions of the top women's competitors in "Skating" magazine, the latter duo remarked, "With the temperature 8 degrees above zero at 10:30 AM, one has to wonder about the suitability of most of the dresses. They were beautiful, of course, but not designed for outdoor skating... For this reason we would give our vote to Gundi Busch of Germany, who wore a soft blue-gray angora knit dress with buttons down the front of the blouse. It was accented with a red elastic clincher belt, red wool gloves, and a red baby bonnet. The flare of the skirt was perfect for spins and revealed matching gray pants."

Gundi Busch (left) and Valda Osborn (right)

Britons Erica Batchelor and Elaine Skevington both collapsed under the strain of the weather conditions. The February 16, 1953 issue of the "Dundee Courier" claimed, "They had to be carried from the rink after being overcome to fall sobbing on the ice. The crowd gave them sympathetic applause as they were helped away, but both soon recovered and went back to their hotels to rest."
Gundi Busch missed two jumps early in her program and her music ran over the specified time frame. Valda Osborn, who wore a metallic apple green dress, also missed a couple of landings. Morrow, dressed in black velvet, suffered an unfortunate fall. Thirteen year olds Carol Heiss and Yvonne Sugden rose to the occasion, but it was Tenley Albright who unanimously won the free skate with Heiss second and Busch third. She skated in a shocking pink wool jersey dress with matching gloves to an Offenbach piece. Her winning program included the double Axel, double toe-loop, double loop and double Salchow. Her only error was a slight slip on a flying spin.

When the scores were tallied, Tenley Albright was announced as World Champion, making history as the first American woman to earn the title. Gundi Busch was a strong second, but the placings of the next three women couldn't have been closer. Carol Heiss had twenty seven ordinal placings, while Valda Osborn and Suzanne Morrow tied with twenty eight. Four judges voted for Osborn to win the bronze; three for Heiss. None voted for Morrow, though the Canadian judge had her second. Heiss also had a higher point score than Osborn (176.67 to 176.21) but Osborn's majority of third place ordinals was what earned her the bronze.

Jeannette Altwegg, the previous year's Olympic and World Champion, was there to watch and congratulate her successor. The rink ushers had a time keeping unaccredited photographers off the ice, many audience members rushing to snap a picture of Tenley Albright. Theresa Weld Blanchard recalled, "We were amused to see Dr. [Hollis] Albright being pushed around until rescued by Walter Powell and allowed to use the precious last ten feet of film he had saved, hoping for just this occasion."

Tenley Albright and Hayes Alan Jenkins in Davos. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Following the event, both Carol Heiss and Tenley Albright gave exhibitions in Switzerland and Paris before returning home to train for the North American Championships. When Albright arrived in America, she was greeted at an airport and taken to a vantage point where she could view a parade in her honour. She then was given an official welcome from her home town at the Newton High School auditorium and a gala reception at The Skating Club Of Boston. The Canadian skaters had to rush home for their National Championships.

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