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The 1955 World Figure Skating Championships

Hayes Alan Jenkins and Tenley Albright

Held from February 15 to 18, 1955 at the Wiener Eislaufverein in Vienna, the 1955 World Figure Skating Championships marked the first time since 1937 that the World Championships were held in Austria. Although World War II ended ten years earlier, Allied soldiers from France, the Soviet Union, America and the UK still had a visible presence in the occupied city. Despite the fact it snowed almost every day, capacity crowds of up to sixty-five hundred spectators turned out to watch the free skating events that chilly February. In between events, they may have danced to the latest hit, Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock", to keep warm.

In attendance were a team of eight Soviet 'observers' led by Alexander Tolmachev, the head of the Figure Skating Federation of Moscow. They came to the event to study "international figure skating technique", with the idea in mind of sending skaters to the 1956 Winter Olympic Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo.

A murder of photographers taking pictures of Hayes Alan Jenkins. Photo courtesy Bildarchiv Austria.

The poor weather affected both practices and competitive events in Vienna. In her book "Indelible Tracings", Patricia Shelley Bushman noted, "Officials cleared the snow off the ice every fifteen minutes for... still, the snow caked under the skaters' blades, stopping them dead in their tracks."

Willie Frick, Tenley Albright and Maribel Vinson Owen in Vienna. Photo courtesy Dr. Tenley Albright, Elee Krajlii Gardner (personal collection). Used with permission.

To prepare for the event, Maribel Vinson Owen took Tenley Albright, Hugh Graham and several of her other students to Grossinger's Catskill Resort Hotel in New York, which had an outdoor rink. Maribel coached, wrote for "Sports Illustrated" and the Associated Press in Vienna. She was up early every morning for practices and up late at the bar with the other reporters every night. After she went back to her hotel room, she could be heard pounding away on her typewriter. 

If you're wondering what Maribel might have been writing about, look no further... we're going to hop in the time machine and take a look back at this exciting competition!


Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

The first three compulsory dances (Fourteenstep, American Waltz and Quickstep) were skated in a blizzard, and though crews busily swept the ice, the Wiener Eislaufverein kept getting smaller as snow was packed around the outside. The wind kept blowing the dancers off their pattern and a decision was made by the referee to postpone the final dance, the Tango, until the following day. Despite the trials and tribulations, Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy managed to take a commanding unanimous lead in the first phase of the competition over two other British couples, Pamela Weight and Paul Thomas and Barbara Radford and Raymond Lockwood. Three American teams, Carmel and Edward Bodel of Berkeley, California, Joan Zamboni and Roland Janso of Los Angeles and Phyllis and Martin Forney of Hershey, Pennsylvania, sat in fourth, fifth and sixth places.

Westwood and Demmy's luck didn't last. In the warm-up prior to the free dance, they had a collision with another team. Westwood was knocked unconscious and attended to by doctors. Demmy left the ice. Mere minutes later, they returned to capture their fifth and final World title, if you count the 'unofficial' dance competition held at the 1951 World Championships... which you really should. The French and British judges actually tied Westwood and Demmy and Weight and Thomas in the free dance, but with compulsories counting for sixty percent of the score, you could hardly call things close. Radford and Lockwood took the bronze in what was the first British sweep of the medals at the World Championships in any discipline.

Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy in 1955. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Skating to a Wurtlizer organ rendition of Ray Henderson's "The Birth of the Blues", Canada's Lindis and Jeffrey Johnston placed a disappointing eleventh, with marks in the free dance that ranged from eighth to fifteenth place. One of the factors that may have hurt them was the fact that year was the first time the free dance was included at the Canadian Championships. The Johnston siblings actually won the 1955 Canadian title on the strength of their compulsories, having received only one first place ordinal in the free dance.


Hayes Alan Jenkins signing autographs. Photo courtesy Bildarchiv Austria.

The men's school figures were skated in high winds and freezing temperatures. Frequently, skaters were thrown off balance by gusts of wind. One skater was even almost brought to a standstill when the winds faced him. All but the French judge had twenty-two year old college student Hayes Alan Jenkins, the two-time defending World Champion, in first. The one vote Jenkins didn't receive went to France's Alain Giletti, who finished second, some thirty points ahead of another American, Ronnie Robertson. 1936 Olympic Gold Medallist Karl Schäfer was in attendance, pointing out that though the weather conditions were less than ideal, they were the test of a good skater. Schäfer remarked, "Skating is, after all, a winter sport."

The winds prevailed during the men's free skate as well. Hayes Alan Jenkins recalled, "You had to really push and pump if you were going upwind; if you had it downwind it pushed you to the opposite end of the rink too fast. You tried to jump at an angle so you didn't jump directly into the wind. You made those adjustments constantly and instinctively." David Jenkins remembered, "The wind used to whistle through the stadium so that skating against it was like trying to skate up a mountain... The ice sometimes got so cold that it... cracked, leaving cracks an inch or so wide."

Skating a technically demanding program brilliantly, Ronnie Robertson received first place marks across the board in the free skate... including a perfect 6.0. Skating to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", Hayes Alan Jenkins also delivered an outstanding performance, as did his fourteen year old brother David. All three earned standing ovations for their efforts. Robertson wasn't able to make up enough ground to unseat Hayes Alan Jenkins and finished second in the second American sweep of the men's podium at Worlds in history, the first being in 1952 in Paris when Hayes won the bronze behind Dick Button and Jimmy Grogan. All three of the 1955 medallists were coached by Edi Scholdan at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. With three mistakes, Giletti dropped from second to fourth with ordinals as low as tenth and eleventh in the free skate from the West German and Czechoslovakian judges. Karol Divín of Czechoslovakia, in his first appearance at the World Championships, placed an impressive fifth. Canada's sole representative in the men's event, Charles Snelling, placed eighth behind British skater Michael Booker and Austria's Norbert Felsinger.

Ronnie Robertson. Photo courtesy Bildarchiv Austria.

Following the men's event, a correspondent for the "Neue Wiener Tageszeitung" made a point of criticizing the American men for the difficulty they faced in contending with the inclement weather. They wrote, "In the western world ice skating has turned into something that is done in heated and air-conditioned hall rinks. Ice skaters, therefore, are more like hot house plants than winter sportsmen. In the rough winter air, the enthusiasm of the Americans wilted away, and they did not feel so much like showing their high class skating. When gusts of wind swept over the ice during the performance of the second school figures the boys, who are used to drawing their circles without interference, were desperate. On the other hand, the Central European open air ice rink skaters, put up quite well with the unsatisfactory conditions."


After winning the World title in 1953 at the age of seventeen, Tenley Albright of Newton, Massachusetts lost her World title in 1954 to West Germany's Gundi Busch. Though Busch had since turned professional, Albright wasn't without her challengers in Vienna. In addition to Ingrid Wendl and Hanna Eigel, two young specialists in compulsory figures from Austria, the pre-med student faced stiff competition from her fifteen year old American teammate Carol Heiss. However, in the figures, Albright took a commanding fifty point lead over Eigel and Wendl... and Heiss placed fifth.

Judges closely examining one of the women's school figures. Photo courtesy Bildarchiv Austria.

In the free skate, Albright skated brilliantly to Mischa Spoliansky's score from the 1948 film "Idol of Paris", earning several 5.9's and over one hundred and ninety points. Unanimously first on every judge's scorecard in both the figures and free skating, she reclaimed her spot at the top of the World podium in one of the most resounding wins of her career. Following the competition, she announced, "It is the biggest thrill of my life. Losing something makes you appreciate it all the more."

Top: Carol Heiss, Tenley Albright and Hanna Eigel. Bottom: Tenley Albright. Photo courtesy Bildarchiv Austria.

The skaters ranked second through tenth were separated by less than eleven points. Heiss, a student of Pierre Brunet, moved up from fifth to earn the silver with an outstanding free skating performance that included a double Axel. The fact she was only ten points behind Albright overall was a credit to her ability as a free skater. Heiss' mother had made the trip to Vienna despite just getting out of the hospital, where she'd had cancer-related surgery. She was in tremendous pain but never missed a single practice. That April, she went back to the hospital for another operation. She passed away in October of 1956, having had the opportunity to see Carol win her first World title live the following year. 

Hanna Eigel took the bronze, less than two points ahead of Ingrid Wendl. Erica Batchelor, who finished fifth, received a third place ordinal from the American judge, while Carole Jane Pachl, who finished sixth, received a third place ordinal from the Canadian judge. Canadian reporters felt that the fact that Pachl had drawn first to skate in her group had made the difference between her finishing third and sixth. While in Vienna, she received an offer to turn professional and skate in one of the British ice pantomimes, which she promptly declined as she wanted to compete in the 1956 Winter Olympics. Tacoma, Washington's Patricia Firth finished seventh, ahead of the UK's Yvonne Sugden, Canada's Ann Johnston and California's Catherine Machado. Holland's Sjoujke Dijkstra placed dead last in her first trip to the World Championships, but caught the eye of the Canadian and American judges, who had her thirteenth and fourteenth.

Miroslava Nachodská

After the competition, Czechoslovakian skater Miroslava Nachodská told Soviet guards she "only wanted to go out and buy a lipstick". Instead, she took a taxi to the city's American Refugee Center, with a plan of defecting to America. In a press conference after her defection she said, "In Czechoslovakia I might be considered as having had everything a person could hope for. Like few others in the country, I was well paid, I could travel, I could sometimes buy things abroad. I was nationally known. I had everything but freedom and security. I felt like a bird in a cage who had the freedom to move about the cage, but not beyond... [Defecting at Worlds] was my big chance because I was not considered politically reliable and had not been permitted to perform in the West since 1947." Maribel Vinson Owen's student Dudley Richards, on leave from performing at the Casa Carioca in Garmisch-Partenkirchen as part of his service with the U.S. military, helped sneak Nachodská out of the city to Linz and got her a job in the revue. The incident had long-reaching implications. The following year when the American team came to Europe to compete in the Olympics and Worlds, they were hassled by Communist officials at the airport "in retribution" for Nachodská's defection. A complaint had to be lodged with the Czechoslovakian federation. Senator (later President) John F. Kennedy investigated the incident.


Though they tied in ordinal placings, Canada's Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden beat Austria's Sissy Schwarz and Kurt Oppelt by one sixth of a point in a five-four split of the judges panel in the pairs event. Newspapers claimed it was "the closest margin ever recorded in world competition". Hungarian siblings Marianna and László Nagy took the bronze medal ahead of Americans Carole Ann Ormaca and Robin Greiner and Canadians Barbara Wagner and Bob Paul. The Czechoslovakian pair of Věra Suchánková and Zdeněk Doležal, who placed sixth, received the most wide-ranging marks in the event. The Czechoslovakian judge had them third, while the Italian judge had them twelfth and dead last.

Barbara Wagner and Bob Paul

As in the other disciplines, the pairs contended with some pretty hellish weather conditions, including icy wind and pelting snow. Frances Dafoe recalled, "The snow was falling so fast that the rink had to shovelled before each pair. With no place to put the snow except around the sides, the ice surface shrank in size after each program and it was difficult to tell where the ice ended and the snow bank began. One of the problems of skating in snow is that the pretty soft white stuff builds up under your blades and slows your speed. We were also dealing with a highly volatile political situation as we were competing in the hometown of our closest competitors."

Despite the fact that the Austrians suffered a fall late in their program, the Viennese press was infuriated by Schwarz and Oppelt's loss. The Communist newspaper "Der Abend" even went so far as to headline one news article "Scandal In The Figure Skating Championships" and write that the Austrians were "the real champions" and that the American had been hailed with snowballs. There certainly was enough snow around that the audience wouldn't have had to look far to make that happen, so who knows?

Photos courtesy "Skating" magazine

Following the competition, a number of the competitors including Dafoe and Bowden went on an exhibition tour of Europe. Skaters performed in three Swiss cities, two Italian cities and Paris, France. After returning, Dafoe and Bowden skated in several carnivals and defended their North American title. With the 1956 Winter Olympic Games fast approaching, the best skaters of 'the Atomic age' barely had time to sit down.

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 figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":