Sweden's Syers: The Elna Montgomery Story

Photo courtesy Sveriges Centralförening för Idrottens Främjande Archive

Born on October 23, 1885, in Stockholm, Sweden, Elna Charlotta Elvira Montgomery was the daughter of Frans Otto Vilhelm Fabian Montgomery, a bookkeeper and office manager for a machine company, and his second wife, Lydia Wilhelmina Lamberg. 

Right off the bat, I know what you're probably thinking. Montgomery? That doesn't sound very Swedish. The last name Montgommerie was actually adopted by Elna's father's ancestors in the early eighteenth century. Over the years, it got anglicized. 

At any rate, Elna was the youngest of Frans and Lydia's five children. She had one brother, named Bertil Wilhelm, and three sisters: Ellen Maria, Edith Hilbur Wilhelmina and Willy Helena Leonora. The family had ties to the Finnish nobility and was well-off enough to employ a live-in servant.

Elna joined the Stockholms Allmänna Skridskoklubb at the age of fourteen in 1900, studying both school figures and free skating under the watchful eye of coach Henrik Petersson. That same year, she placed second in her very first competition. Like Madge Syers, Lili Kronberger, Muriel Harrison, Dorothy Greenhough-Smith and several other prominent female skaters of the early twentieth century, Elna found herself in the position of being forced to compete against men - or not at all. She did just that, winning a youth competition in 1901 and going up against male skaters in the 1905 Nordiska Spelen (Nordic Games) held in her home city. She also skated pairs with a man named Erik Amundson.

Elna Montgomery at the 1908 Swedish Championships. Photo courtesy Sveriges Centralförening för Idrottens Främjande Archive.

In 1906, when the Swedish Championships were held in Gothenburg, Sweden, a separate competition for women was held for the first time in the country. With little competition, Elna easily won. However, the event wasn't recognized as an official part of the competition. She had to wait until 1908, the year women were first allowed to officially compete in the event, to be recognized as Sweden's first women's champion. In actuality, she won the 1908 event in Karlstad by default, because she was the only woman brave enough to enter. Her win set in motion a long standing tradition: women from SASK dominated the women's event at the Swedish Championships every single year until 1936. 

Following the 1906 Swedish Championships, Elna travelled to St. Petersburg, where she won a bronze medal in an international competition held in the Russian city. She did all of this while holding down a job as a stenographer.

Later that year, at the age of twenty-two, Elna once again made history when she entered the women's figure skating competition at the 1908 Summer Olympic Games at Prince's Skating Club in London, England. Along with tennis players Anna Märtha Vilhelmina Adlerstråhle and Elsa Wallenberg, she became one of the first three women in history from Sweden to ever compete at the Olympic Games. She was the very first female figure skater, or athlete in any winter sport, for that matter. 

Elna just missed the medal podium at the 1908 Olympics, placing fourth behind Madge Syers, Elsa Rendschmidt and Dorothy Greenhough-Smith. Commentary from "The Fourth Olympiad, the Official Report of the Olympic Games 1908" by Theodore Andrea Cook noted that Montgomery struggled on the third compulsory figure, the change loop, and in the free skate, "skated first, and, save for a slight fall owing to a slip when attempting a toe-step, she skated steadily and well, though her programme did not contain any items of difficulty."

Elna Montgomery and Zsófia Méray-Horváth. Photo courtesy Sveriges Centralförening för Idrottens Främjande Archive.

Although she never competed in any official events at the World Championships, Elna remained active as a skater after her Olympic appearance. She finished third in her second appearance at the Nordic Games in 1909, behind Elsa Rendschmidt and Zsófia Méray-Horváth. That same year, a figure skating exhibition was held in conjunction with the Swedish Speed Skating Championships. She performed alongside Ulrich Salchow and British pairs skaters Phyllis and James Johnson for a visiting class of physical education students, imploring them to recognize the beauty and athleticism of the sport.

In Gothenburg in 1912, Elna won her second and final women's title, decisively beating two future Olympic Medallists: Magda Mauroy (Julin) and Svea Norén. She made history for a third time that year when a pairs competition was first included in the competition. Surprise, surprise... she won that too. Her partner was none other than Olympic and World Medallist Per Thorén. She took one final stab at the Swedish title in 1916, but by that point, Mauroy and Norén were establishing themselves as her successors. She won the silver medal and retired from competition.

Anna Hübler, Elsa Rendschmidt, Elna Montgomery and Lili Kronberger

As quietly as she made history that has been all but forgotten, Elna got married to Copenhagen-born Allan Bäckman, moved to Malmö, and continued to skate for pleasure. Swedish skating historian Lennart Månsson informed me that she even once staged a comeback of sorts: "As late as 1924, at the age of 38, she entered the Danish National Championships as a guest skater, outside of the official competition. Her result would have earned her second place."

Widowed on August 28, 1956, Elna passed away in Båstad, Skåne, a small village in the south of Sweden, on June 13, 1981, at the age of ninety-five. At the time of her death, she was the oldest surviving figure skater who competed at the 1908 Summer Olympic Games in London.

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": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.