Minneapolis Marvel: The Bill Swallender Story

The son of Hulda (Inenfeldt) and Carl Gustaf Swallender, Carl Gustaf William 'Bill' Swallender was born on April 22, 1908 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father was a Swedish immigrant; his mother the daughter of German immigrants. His father, a devout Lutheran, was an engineer who worked with the E.G. Staude Manufacturing Company in St. Paul. Carl Gustaf Swallender invented, among many things, an early form of voting machine.

As a young student at Edison High School, Bill excelled at tumbling and was acted in school plays. His father's death in 1928 forced him and the family's older siblings to find jobs to support their widowed mother and younger brothers and sisters. Bill worked as a stockman at a local auto parts manufacturing company and in his spare time, studied figure skating at the Minneapolis Arena. He was mentored by A.C. Bennett, the father of 1932 Olympian Margaret Bennett.

Katherine Durbrow, Arthur Preusch, Robin Lee, William Swallender, Edith Preusch and Miss Hardoldson at the 1933 Midwestern Championships. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

At the age of twenty-two, Bill won the junior men's title at the 1933 U.S. Championships. His victory was considered quite something at the time. It was his very first time competing at Nationals... and he was a working-class man from Minnesota competing against well-to-do skaters from Eastern clubs. Recalling his experience at the event in "Skating" magazine, he wrote, "Being from the Mid-West where our contact with outside skaters has been limited, I speak with modesty. With respect to the skating of figures I was particularly impressed with the general all-round ability on the part of participants to skate the figures with good form, showing that the contestants had practiced and had been well trained in fundamental principles of competitive skating. Free skating on the part of the ladies, especially, was demonstrative of good style and showmanship, with a variety of composition in their programs. I watched with a great deal of enjoyment the pair skating, noting particularly the variety of lifts, nice timing and rhythm far superior to what I have been accustomed to observe. When it cae to dance, which has received very little development in the West... it was far beyond my expectations. I was also very much interested in the novel exhibition put on by the mixed 'four' from the Boston Skating Club. I think that the performance of this four surpassed anything in this line that I have seen."

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

The following year, Bill won the Midwestern title and was praised for his "comprehensive grasp of technical difficulty and of good form." A reviewer note, "His figures were large, beautifully retraced, and the turns good. The free skating program was comprised of many of the standard difficult jumps and spins with the inclusion of some delightful dance steps and novel moves." However, he finished a disappointing fifth in the senior men's event at the 1934 and 1935 U.S. Championships and gave up his bid for a spot on the 1936 Olympic team due to a recurring knee injury and the fact there just wasn't the money to pay for his trip to Germany if he earned a spot.

Bill turned professional in the autumn of 1935, accepting a well-paying position as the very first coach of the newly-formed Kansas City Ice Club in Missouri. In February of 1937, he married Julius T. Nelson's daughter Genevieve, whom he met at the Minneapolis Arena when he was sixteen and she was ten. Genevieve had been part of a sister act in the Ice Follies.

Photo courtesy "The National Ice Skating Guide"

In the years that followed, Bill taught at the Ice Club Of Baltimore, Broadmoor Skating Club, Figure Skating Club of Chicago, Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society, Atlantic City Figure Skating Club, Detroit Figure Skating Club, Berkeley Iceland and Washington (D.C.) Figure Skating Club, as well as the hugely popular summer skating schools in Lake Placid. An intelligent, soft-spoken man with a knack for connecting with young people, Bill was widely beloved by his students. In her book "Indelible Tracings", Patricia Shelley Bushman recalled, "He had a commanding knowledge and explained everything in great detail... He thought faster than he could speak and sometimes stuttered, especially when he was excited or nervous. He told his students: 'Sometimes you might have to get me to say it twice, and get it the second time around.' His stuttering didn't slow him down nor was he embarrassed by it; one student used to mimic him, but it only made him laugh. At competitions his face became redder as his enthusiasm mounted. Sometimes he raised his voice, more in exhilaration than anger, to light a fire under his skaters. Students realized Bill's adrenaline rush stemmed from his eagerness to get on the ice. He took notes in a teaching notebook. When a student achieved a new move, he quickly wrote it down in his chart."

Ginny Baxter and Bill Swallender

Bill's very first protégé was Dorothy Snell, the runner-up in the U.S. junior women's event in 1938 and 1939. He went on to coach Ice Follies star Bess Ehrhardt and Ginny Baxter, who won the free skate at the 1952 Winter Olympic Games in Oslo and the bronze medal at the 1952 World Championships in Paris. Over the years, many of the young people he worked with went on to become great coaches and judges - skaters like Donald Jacoby, Bill Kipp, Norma Sahlin, Joy Cunningham, Edgar Newbold Black IV and Cynthia Hanson. Bill did everything for his skaters, from sharpening their skates to giving them a spare room to sleep in for a while.

Genevieve and Bill Swallender. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

In 1955 - the height of the studio rink craze - Bill opened Swallender's Ice Skating Studio in Detroit. In the summers, he closed the studio and taught with Pierre Brunet and Montgomery Wilson at the Michigan State University Ice Rink in East Lansing. At that point, his latest protégé was a talented eleven year old named Douglas Ramsay. Bill began giving Douglas lessons when he was only nine years old and soon became a second father to the young skater, taking him to baseball games and inviting him to the family home for Sunday dinners. In Douglas, Bill saw a future World Champion. The path to that eventual possibility began in 1961, when Douglas finished fourth at the U.S. Championships and earned a spot on the World team when Tim Brown, the bronze medallist, was unable to attend.

Douglas Ramsay's performance at the 1961 U.S. Championships

Tragically, both Douglas and Bill perished in The Sabena Crash in Belgium on February 15, 1961. Fifty-two year old Bill left behind his wife Genevieve and two sons, Bill and Erik. Horrifically, Genevieve learned of her husband's death not from a trusted friend or family member - but instead from a nosy reporter from the "Detroit News" who telephoned her Southfield home for a quote. Bill was posthumously inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in 2011, alongside the rest of the talented skaters, coaches and officials who perished in The Sabena Crash.

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.