The 1966 World Figure Skating Championships

Held from February 22 through 27, 1966 in the open air Eisstadion of the International Skating Club in Davos, Switzerland, the 1966 World Figure Skating Championships paid homage to figure skating's compelling history at the final World Championships ever held in the popular skating destination of Davos. The event also marked the final time that both figures and free skating events were held outdoors, though the free skating competitions at the 1967 World Championships in Vienna were held on an outdoor rink.

Beat Häsler's father Georg, a longtime ISU official, took great pains in coordinating showcase displays that surrounded the rink detailing the sport's history. A who's who of skating history came out of the woodwork for the historic occasion, including Dick Button, Cecilia Colledge, Ludovika JakobssonKarl Schäfer, Megan Taylor, Daphne Walker and Manfred Schnelldorfer. Three notable figures missing were Theresa Weld Blanchard, T.D. and Mildred Richardson. Weld Blanchard's husband Charles had suffered two heart attacks so she opted to stay home in America and care for him and likewise, Mildred had fallen and injured her hip so she and her esteemed husband opted to remain in Great Britain and miss the event.

Gary Visconti. Photos courtesy Stadtmuseum Aarau.

One hundred and nine skaters from thirteen different nations participated; the event was broadcast on television to fourteen different nations. The weather was all over the place, with snow, wind, rain and sunshine all making an appearance. The Canadian team on Alitalia arlines flights to Zürich, then by bus to Davos. They stayed in the official hotel, the Hotel Belvedere. Valerie (Jones) Merrick recalled, "The events in Davos were skated on artificial ice at the outdoor main arena. There was a football field next to the arena that had natural ice and was roped off into four rink sizes where the competitors could get extra practice until the ice began to melt about 11:00 AM when the sun was very warm and very high in the sky. The days in Davos were warm and the nights were quite cold. During the practice days leading up to the competition we had some rain but fair weather most days." The rain put later put some of those secondary practice rinks out of commission, limiting training time for many of the competitors. The poor weather contributed to no less than five of the British contingent's members having to take time off due to illness. Let's take a look back at this historic event and find out what many of us missed!


Tatiana Zhuk and Alexander Gorelik. Photo courtesy Stadtmuseum Aarau.

Because they were such absolutely gorgeous and game-changing skaters, we like to think of Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov as pretty much invincible. In reality, they only managed to win their second World title by the skin of their teeth. Although they earned a healthy lead in the compulsory program with a fine performance to Léo Delibes' "Silvia", they were soundly defeated five judges to four in the free skate by their teammates Tatiana Zhuk and Alexander Gorelik and only took the gold medal in Davos by one judge and one placing. Many felt Zhuk and Gorelik, who included side-by-side double flip and loop jumps in their free program, should have won. Off the ice, Zhuk was married to the famous Soviet football player Albert Alekseyevich Shesternyov.

The winners complained about the altitude and the sun's glare off the ice. Oleg Protopopov told one Associated Press reporter, "Ludmila didn't see a thing. She was so blinded by the reflection off the ice." Interestingly, in the free skate the Protopopov's received one 6.0 for artistic impression from the Swiss judge, while Zhuk and Gorelik earned one 6.0 for technical merit from the West German judge.

Cynthia and Ron Kauffman. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Americans Cynthia and Ron Kauffman won their first of three bronze medals at the World Championships ahead of European Bronze Medallists Margot Glockshuber and Wolfgang Danne of West Germany, with a performance that included a double twist, throw Axel and split twist landed in a Russian glide.  However, they also struggled with breathing during their performance. Canada's sole entry, siblings Susan and Peter Huehnergard placed an unlucky thirteenth. Valerie (Jones) Merrick recalled, "In the short program the Heuhnergards were penalized for not performing their step sequence as described in the ISU rulebook. The step sequence was to be skated in unison. Paul and Susan skated their step in opposite directions coming together at the end. They performed the same steps but in mirror, not in shadow. The judging panel were instructed to penalize them by the referee Dr. Karl Enderlin of Switzerland. According to their coach Bruce Hyland, they were not informed by the Canadian officials at Canadians or in Davos at the practices that Paul and Susan were not skating their sequence as was required by the rules. Paul and Susan unfortunately placed last in the short program because of this misinterpretation." Two places ahead of the Huehnergard were Americans Susie Berens and Roy Wagelein. Berens reportedly fainted after skating due to the altitude.

Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov

Following the event, Oleg Protopopov remarked, "We train in Moscow always indoors. I think that if skating championships are held outdoors, the performers are not able to show their true skill, the result becomes more of a gamble and the public and the participants alike are the losers."


Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Bernard Ford lamented, "You travel so much faster on outdoor ice that if you don't adapt your usual performance to suit the conditions you would crash into the rink barrier." He did just that in practice and quipped, "I forgot to cross my fingers and crossed my legs instead." When the competition began, Ford and his partner Diane Towler, who trained under Gladys Hogg at the Queen's Ice Club, found themselves with some stiff competition.

In the compulsory dances, Bernard Ford had an uncharacteristic fall in the Paso Doble and he and partner Diane Towler found themselves a surprising fourth. After three dances, U.S. Champions Kristine Fortune and Dennis Sveum held a narrow lead, but a strong Blues allowed Towler and Ford to gain a slim lead overall. Three judges voted for Towler and Ford, three for U.S. Champions Kristin Fortune and Dennis Sveum and one for U.S. Silver Medallists Lorna Dyer and John Carrell. In the free dance, Towler and Ford blew the competition out of the water and won their first World title with the support of seven of the nine judges over their American rivals, earning marks ranging from 5.7 to 5.9. Dennis Bird described their performance as "by far the most original, with an embryo death spiral and a sit spin, and executed with style, smoothness and near-perfect timing." Their coach Gladys Hogg was fighting pneumonia while in Davos, but "gallantly struggled to give her pupils technical and moral support when they needed it the most."

Photo courtesy Stadtmuseum Aarau.

Canada's entries, twenty two year old Carole Forrest and twenty six year old Kevin Lethbridge and eighteen year old Gail Snyder and twenty four year old Wayne Palmer (all of Toronto), placed a discouraging ninth and twelfth places overall. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves recalled the event thusly: "[Towler and Ford] won compulsories despite a slip in the Paso Doble. Then [their] ankle-high one-revolution lift and half-turn mini death spiral in the free attracted attention and the gold medal... Lorna and John had fuller content, but Kristin and Dennis skated more together. Dennis Sveum received a classification of 1A from the draft board and applied for assignment to Special Services so that he could continue skating. Otherwise, he could be sent to active duty in the Vietnam War... Lyudmila Pakhomova and Victor Ryzhkin, ice dance champions of the USSR since 1964, were the first Soviets ever to enter World Dance. No Soviet judges would sit on the panel until 1970. After poor compulsories, their expressive free dance pulled them to tenth place."

Following the dance event, Britons celebrated their first victory in ice dance at Worlds since 1960 with a champagne party at the Hotel Bristol. Dennis Bird recalled, "As I was leaving the party at about two in the morning, I met Dennis Sveum in the street. 'Well,' he said, 'the best couple won.' It was sporting of him, and it accurately summed up the result."


At the 1966 Canadian Championships in Peterborough, a young Karen Magnussen had finished a surprising second in the free skate and stolen much of the spotlight - and support - from reigning World Champion Petra Burka. Magnussen placed fourth overall at that competition but Doug Kimpel, the manager of the Canadian team in Davos, lamented, "This kid will be a world beater. I only wish I could take her to Davos." It was clear before the Burka's even left for Switzerland that support for her from the CFSA was waning. Friends told Ellen Burka, "Don't even bother going to Davos." The Americans allegedly started a propaganda campaign. Canadian team member Kevin Lethbridge asserted, "They made certain everyone knew about Petra's brush at home with a 13-year old skater." Journalist Paul noted that Kimpel acknowledged that before Burka even competed, "One foreign judge was alleged to have said it wasn't Petra's year; she wasn't going to make it." In the meantime, Hugh Glynn asserted, "The U.S. was blowing its horn". Lethbridge later reflected, "We on the team should have gotten together and fought. We should have protected Petra."

Photo courtesy Stadtmuseum Aarau.

The night before the men's school figures, the Canadian women left Davos and travelled by taxi to Arosa to practice their own school figures, as the main rink was of course unavailable. Valerie (Jones) Merrick recalled, "When we woke up in Arosa, the village was experiencing a snow storm and the ice rink was covered with snow and no one to clean it for us... The ladies had very sunny weather for their event. I remember wearing pilot sunglasses with very large lenses to help with the glare on the ice during figures. There was a lot of interest in the ladies event with Petra and Peggy. Petra was competing as reigning world champion and had lost considerable weight since her win in 1965. Her style had changed with her new body and perhaps the power she had when she won was not as evident."

Petra Burka drew first to skate in the figures and seemed doomed from the start. In "Winter Sports" magazine, Howard Bass recalled, "During the warm-up before the first figure, the forward inside counter, the title defender was seen to be practicing it on the outside instead of the inside edge. Noticing this, the referee gave her two minutes in which to adapt to the right figure, for which she was mentally unprepared." All but the Canadian judge ranked Peggy Fleming first over Petra Burka in the first phase of the women's event, though Gaby Seyfert won the second figure.

Peggy Fleming (left), Sheldon Galbraith and Valerie Jones (right) in Davos. Photos courtesy Valerie (Jones) Bartlett.

If the figures were a decisive win for Peggy Fleming, the free skate was another matter entirely. The West German judge tied Petra Burka and Gaby Seyfert, while the East German judge tied Seyfert and Fleming. The Canadian, Austrian and British judges placed Seyfert first, while the American, Japanese, French and Czechoslovakian judges all opted for Fleming. Although the free skating ordinals were a little more all over the place, Fleming's win over Seyfert and Burka was certainly decisive... a whole thirteen points decisive! She performed her trademark spread eagle/double Axel/spread eagle sequence, earned a standing ovation and one 6.0 for her effort. Fleming credited her mother's drive for her to focus on the task at hand and Carlo Fassi's coaching for her victory. Quoted in the March 7, 1966 edition of "Sports Illustrated", a proud Fassi exclaimed, "It is her determination that makes Peggy great. She has an excellent disposition which makes her forget a bad practice in 10 minutes. But at the same time, she learns from her mistakes. There is no doubt in my mind she is the best in the world."

Peggy Fleming

Some blamed Petra Burka's loss on the fact that it was her first time competing outdoors, some a twenty five pound weight loss on a crash diet, some said she omitted a jump and two-footed another and others argued she outskated Peggy Fleming. In her interview, Burka reflected, "It's too bad that people seem to remember my loss more than my championship. You know, losing was even better for me, as a person, than winning. I learned more by losing - about life in particular."

Although Canada's Valerie Jones and France's Nicole Hassler struggled in the free skate, they managed to hold on to the fourth and fifth spots ahead of Czechoslovakia's Hana Mašková, Hungary's Zsuzsa Almássy and Japan's Miwa Fukuhara. Tina Hoyes placed fourth in the free skate with the only double Axel/double loop combination of the event, but placed ninth overall after a disappointing showing in the figures. Canada's third entry, Roberta Laurent, placed fifteenth of the twenty entries. Austria's Regine Heitzer did not compete, having announced her retirement following that year's European Championships in Bratislava.


During the men's school figures, twenty one skaters from thirteen countries had to endure not only the scrutiny of steely eyed judges but inclement weather while they traced their threes and loops. The men's school figures were skated during a windy snowstorm which covered the ice with heavy, wet snow and obscured the tracings, making the job of the judges particularly challenging. Efforts to sweep and resurface for some skaters and not others raised eyebrows. In his book "Winter Sports", British sportswriter Howard Bass asserted that "after completing one figure on particularly rough ice, Donald Knight, the Canadian men's champion, looked aghast when he saw the next competitor was about to commence his figure on a shining patch of ice freshly cleared by the mechanised resurfacer. He protested in vain to the referee. Other skaters, while trying to concentrate on the accuracy of their tracings, were disturbed by moving ice sweepers only a few feet away. The participants often found the ice bumpy from the snow left where the judges had been standing. Sometimes the judges had to examine figure tracings which were partly obliterated by the new snow." Knight, whose ordinals in the school figures at the 1965 World Championships in Colorado Springs were mostly in the first, second and third place range, received one third place score from Canadian judge Suzanne Francis. The rest of the judges had him down around seventh place. West German judge Eugen Rommenger had Knight (the reigning World Bronze Medallist) all the way down in twelfth place. In the end, seven of the nine judges all placed European Champion Emmerich Danzer first in the school figures. The other two placed him behind his teammate Wolfgang Schwarz. One of the two judges who opted for Schwarz, Canadian judge Suzanne Morrow-Francis, placed Danzer fifth and alleged he stopped three feet from the center on his first figure a total of three times and was held up by a backroom deal involving the Austrian and West German judges. In the February 24, 1966 edition of "The Montreal Gazette", America's Scotty Allen admitted the weather "was terrible" and that he "didn't see a thing" and Danzer claimed "the snow was so dense" that he thought he "wouldn't be able to see anything."

But the snow wasn't the only problem! Jay Humphry recalled, "My most indelible memory of that competition was that the Zamboni broke down in the middle of the men's figures competition. By the time we got to the fifth and sixth figures were doing the figures over ice that had been used three or four times, both for competition and then for practice. It was impossible to see the centers where figures were started and as the day went along several skaters had to actually hop to keep up speed on the bracket change bracket figure which was done last. After it was over I am pretty sure they judged the figures on the first few that were done on good ice and then if you looked reasonably in control later on, you kept you place as marked earlier. I never did chat with any of the judges in later years as to what they did or how they judged the competition. I do recall Charlie Snelling coming to the figures event with black under his eyes like a football player, as the sun was really bright. His coach Marcus Nikkanen was not sure it was good idea, but Charlie did. Eventually the black ran down Charlie's cheeks as the day progressed."

Valerie (Jones) Merrick later recalled, "Mr. Galbraith showed me films of this after the event. There were long squeegees that had three to four men pushing them to clear the ice for a competitor to skate their figure. By the time the Judges had finished judging that figure they had to squeegee the ice again. At one point the Zamboni broke down while flooding the ice and was parked at one end of the ice. The competition continued."

Wolfgang Schwarz in Davos. Photo courtesy Stadtmuseum Aarau.

In contrast, the weather was outstanding during the men's event. Though Japan's Nobuo Sato gave one of the most spirited performances of the event, he fell on a triple Salchow, which Emmerich Danzer managed to land. Despite struggling with the altitude late in his program, Danzer gave a fine performance that also featured two double Axels and a double Lutz.  He took the win in the free in a five-four split over America's Gary Visconti, who also landed a triple Salchow and more than one double Axel. Wolfgang Schwarz, who missed a triple toe-loop and double Axel in his free skate, relied on his strong showing in the figures to give him a one placement edge over Visconti for the silver, and Danzer won the gold.

Emmerich Danzer. Photos courtesy Stadtmuseum Aarau.

Canadians Donald Knight, Jay Humphry and Charles Snelling ended up seventh, tenth and eleventh. Although four judges ranked Visconti in a tie for first or first on his own in the free skating, the only judge to rank him first overall was Suzanne Morrow-Francis. She was criticized for her decision at a judge's meeting and then later suspended for a completely different matter: the fact she had apparently shown national bias by placing all three Canadian men higher than their final placements... and Gary Visconti first. Ironically, Visconti was an American... not a Canadian.

Not everyone was thoroughly impressed with the calibre of men's skating in Davos. In the April 1966 issue of "Skating" magazine, Dick Button bemoaned, "The men's free skating performances were marked by unpointed toes, unstretched legs, bent backs, a notable lack of spinning ability and very little interest in relating choreography to music."

Gary Visconti. Photo courtesy Stadtmuseum Aarau.

In his book "Falling For The Win", Gary Visconti recalled the event thusly: "As I remember it, my start order for the long program was thirteenth (Carol Heiss' favorite number) out of something like 28 competitors. I do remember stepping off the ice (no security, no kiss and cry area) right into the arms of my new biggest fan, Monica Torriani. Her mom ran the music room and her father was a famous Swiss Olympian, ice hockey player and skier. Monica herself was an elite skater. Well, flowers came my way at the hockey rail, and then a fan threw something for me to catch. I missed and it went on the ice as the next competitor went out. It was a little Swiss Troll, with 'Einstein' crazy green hair. Even Dick Button was surprised. I guess this was the first toy tossed in fan appreciation, ever! He proudly sits on my desk today. When my marks went up just after my performance, they were all 5.8s and 5.9s. I could not imagine who could or would do much better. It didn’t seem fair to the 15 other skaters, but I was proud and completely happy. My standing in preliminaries was fourth so a medal seemed in sight. I could hold my head up high now! Even though I was not the U.S. Champion, I was now on the podium at Worlds!"

The real story in the men's event in Davos was that of the fourteenth place finisher. After turning in a good performance to Giuseppe Verdi's "Nabucco", East Germany's Ralph Borghard snuck away from his hotel and went to the West German consulate in Zürich, where he asked for and received a West German passport. Gary Visconti, who helped him escape, recalled in his book "Falling For The Win" that "the big challenge was to get Ralph out of sight of his Communist chaperones. We managed to do just that by hosting an athletics celebration at the hotel and distracting them so much that they had no idea that he was missing." Borghard escaped by train to live with his father in West Berlin.

Ralph Borghard 

The competition ended with a lavish banquet on the Sunday evening after the women's free skate. Prizes were awarded, dancing was had by all and a midnight buffet was served. Kristin Fortune recalled, "There were ice or butter sculptures to show off each kind of food, and every type of food imaginable was served. There was an excellent band that played mostly polkas."

In today's fast-paced world, many view figure skating competitions with a certain detachment. "64.64, 66.21, 130.85, 4th place," read the tweets. The further down the rabbit hole of fanatical quantification figure skating drifts, the more we seem to overlook its humanity. The pair who missed their shuttle from the hotel to the rink and barely made their warm-up group; the skater who was more worried about their bootstrap breaking than back loading their program. The stories behind the skating are what people ultimately remember more than the math, and if we don't take the time to observe and preserve them, we are missing a big piece of the puzzle. The 1966 World Championships certainly had some fascinating stories indeed.

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":