Getting To Know Gersch: The Jacques Gerschwiler Story

Photo courtesy Stella Gerschwiler

"In the fog the other night, I got lost and I walk round in a circle and get back where I started. So I think immediately of skating. Yes. Now this is it. Some skaters do a clockwise turn; others do an anti-clockwise turn. They find it hard to do any other kind. Now I wonder... which way would a skater who does a clockwise turn walk if she was lost in the fog - clockwise or anti-clockwise. I must try that!" - Jacques Gerschwiler, "The Daily Mirror", December 10, 1952

"Oh, well, let me see if YOU can do it any better." - Cecilia Colledge
"Listen, my child, if I can't produce something better than I, than I'm no damn good as a teacher." - Jacques Gerschwiler (recalled by T.D. Richardson)

Jakob Gerschwiler was born September 10, 1898 in Rogwil, a municipality in the district of Arbon in the canton of Thurgau in Switzerland. He was German Swiss but (as he spent much of his later life abroad) his name was often adapted as Jacques, Jacob and Jack. Many knew him simply as 'Gersch'.

In his youth, Jacques excelled at gymnastics, athletics and tennis. In 1921 at the age of twenty-three, he began studying at the Deutsche Hochschule für Leibesübungen (German University of Physical Training) in Berlin. His studies led him to positions as an instructor of tennis and gymnastics. He discovered figure skating at the Admiralspalast, once home to impresario Leo Bartuschek's Eisballets which starred the famous German professional skater Charlotte Oelschlägel. It was at the Admiralspalast that he first became acquainted with the old Viennese School of skating, which would influence his later teachings.

After taking lessons from Bror Meyer, in 1925 he took a position as the director of skating at the Lyceum Alpineum Zwoz, an international boarding school two miles from St. Moritz. The following year, he took the ISU's Gold Test at the Kulm Rink in St. Moritz, passing with two hundred and ninety-four out of the maximum four hundred and ninety-two points. The minimum passing mark was two hundred and forty-seven. One of the three judges that presided over Jacques' test was Herbert James Clarke, who would go on to serve as the ISU's President. Jacques' only competitive success as an amateur was a win at a small Swiss competition which translated to the Championship Of The Plains.

In the mid-twenties, Jacques travelled to Paris in hopes of securing a position teaching skating there, but arriving too late in the season found the ice had melted. He stayed long enough to learn a little French before relocating to England. Visiting the Richmond Ice Rink during 'English hour', he observed English Style skaters performing their stiff 'Once Back And Q Outwards' combined figures and imagined them with their arms out, turning with their hips instead of their shoulders. It was through his exposure to English Style skating that Jacques conceived a method of teaching skating which has been dubbed The Modern English School.

Jacques decided to stay in London and establish himself as a skating instructor. He settled in Belsize Park, Camden and invited his half-brother Arnold to join him as a teacher at the Streatham and Golders Green rinks. In 1929, he began teaching a talented young skater named Cecilia Colledge at Queen's Ice Rink. During the period he was coaching Cecilia, he entered the 1933 and 1934 Open Professional Championships of Great Britain, losing on both occasions to his bitter rival Howard Nicholson. At the time, Nicholson was coaching one of Cecilia's chief rivals, Sonja Henie

Though Jacques never won the Open Professional Championships of Great Britain, he was impressed enough with the concept that he encouraged the Schweizer Eislauf Verband (SELV) to organize a similar championship in 1933. With his student Cecilia in tow, he travelled to Switzerland, entered the event and won - defeating Arnold in the process. Interestingly, though Jacques didn't get along with Howard Nicholson, he was quite chummy with Phil Taylor - the father and trainer of one of Cecilia's biggest rivals at home, Megan Taylor. Jacques actually travelled to Lake Placid to the 1932 Winter Olympic Games with the Taylor's aboard the S.S. Berengaria, the Colledge's making alternate travel arrangements.

Gersch and Cecilia Colledge

Jacques was by all accounts brilliant at teaching school figures and unorthodox in his methods of teaching free skating. Though different stories have been told, Cecilia Colledge was historically been the skater given credit for the invention of both the camel and the layback (or backbend) spins as she was the first to perform them in international competition in the early thirties. Jacques had Cecilia work with a gymnastics teacher named Miss Lee, who tied a rope around her waist, to help teach her the position for the layback. Belita Jepson-Turner, another of Jacques' exceptionally talented students during the thirties recalled, "He'd invented a machine of some kind like a brace in which we put our feet. He braced us against the wall with our feet going behind us. Well, I was very loose and it didn't take me very many days for my feet to be facing the wall on the other side of the room... but it did give me an absolutely super spread eagle. I did the spread eagle with my hip practically on the ice. The trouble was it ruined my legs for life. Many, many times later in my career I wished to heavens I could still be doing that spread eagle."

Top: Gersch with Cecilia Colledge, Pamela Stephany and Daphne Walker. Photo courtesy National Archives Of Poland. Bottom: Arnold, Hans and Jacques Gerschwiler. Photo courtesy Stella Gerschwiler.

Remaining in England during much of World War II, Jacques rotated between London rinks that weren't commandeered for war purposes, teaching classes behind blackout curtains. He taught full-time at Queen's Ice Rink alongside his half-brother Arnold and Eva Keats in 1944. Just prior to the War, he had taught at Queen's, Westminster Ice Club, and the Empire Pool, Wembley. After the War, Jacques taught almost exclusively at Streatham Ice Rink. Richmond was considered Arnold's domain... and it was where Jacques' nephew Hans ultimately trained. Hans won the World title in 1947 and the Olympic silver medal behind Dick Button in 1948.

Jacques and Arnold congratulating Hans Gerschwiler after he won the 1947 World Championships. Photo courtesy Stella Gerschwiler.

Jacques played an important role in the education of other coaches. It was he who taught Miss Gladys Hogg when she transitioned from rollers to the ice. It was also he who acted as one of the founders of the Ice Teachers Guild in 1936, later known as the Imperial Professional Skating Association and British Ice Teachers Association. He often gave seminars on figure technique to Swiss coaches. In May of 1939, he became the first person to pass the NSA's First Class Instructor's Test. 

Jacques teaching skaters at Streatham Ice Rink in 1952. Photo courtesy The Jepson-Turner Private Family Collection. Used with permission.

When the SELV developed a Skating Coach Diploma in 1948, Jacques' methods of teaching figures were an important part of the exam. T.D. Richardson recalled, "In my mind 'Gersch', as [he] is known throughout the civilized skating world, is directly responsible for the improvement in the general accuracy of the 'general tracing' and for the uniformity of the turns which characterizes modern school skating, and I would go so far as to say that the 'still' change of edge was brought to perfection under his tutelage." Jacqueline du Bief recalled that he was "keen on pure technique, at the cost of individuality and the spectacular."

Jacques teaching skaters at Streatham Ice Rink in 1952. Photos courtesy The Jepson-Turner Private Family Collection. Used with permission.

Jacques' list of students was staggering, to the say very least. In addition to Olympic medallists Sissy Schwarz and Kurt Oppelt, Cecilia Colledge and Jeannette Altwegg and professional star Belita, he taught Carlo Fassi, Edi Scholdan, Yvonne Sugden, Joyce and Colin Bosley, Olive Robinson, Karin Iten, Sally Anne Stapleford, Bridget Shirley Adams, Patricia Pauley, Barbara Wyatt, Beryl Bailey, Susi Wirz, Jacqueline Harbord, Fiorella Negro, Pat Devries, Constanza Vigorelli, Günther Tyroler and Nancy Hallam.

Bridget Shirley Adams, Jacques Gerschwiler, Susi Wirz and Beryl Bailey in Switzerland. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

Jacques also worked on figures with Denise Biellmann and Gretchen Van Zandt Merrill and gave lessons to Grace and James Madden. He told once told reporter Peter Thomas, "I also trained Lord Templewood to skate when he was fifty-five - and he got a medal too. I [coached] old ladies and gentlemen, little girls and boys of four. I am very happy man... I am glad I didn't stay as a schoolmaster in Switzerland. I would have missed so much happiness."

Left: Jacques Gerschwiler. Photo courtesy "The Skater" magazine. Right: Charles Landot, Jacques Gerschwiler and Cyril Beastall. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

Jacques' male students were expected to wear suits; women dresses. Cecilia Colledge was made to go to bed early and was forbidden from smoking and drinking coffee, tea and alcohol. Cornered in a restaurant by a reporter from "The Daily Mirror" in 1952, he said, "It is not such an easy life, ice skating. Why, most girls get up at six o'clock in the morning to get to Streatham ice rink by eight o'clock. That is why I am not so worried about losing these girls for boyfriends. What boyfriend wants to be told at nine o'clock that the outing is over because the girl has to go to bed? All these girls, they write to me after I let them go. But me - I don't reply to letters. I hate it. They ask me questions. If I don't reply they know the answer is 'Yes'. And Christmas cards - I never send them. I telephone my girls. I like talking to them much better."

Top: Jacques, Cecilia Colledge, Arthur V. Hopkins, Ája Zanová and Arnold Gerschwiler at Richmond Ice Rink in 1950. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.. Bottom: Gersch teaching a Swiss student in 1972

Later in life, Jacques returned to Switzerland. Until the age of eighty-five, he served as a consultant to the SELV. On his seventieth birthday, he was honoured with an engraved golden signet ring with the letters SELV and his initials. Nigel Brown recalled, "Upon receiving the ring, Gersch could not resist remarking that the 'S' looked like a bad change of edge; the 'E', a poor three; the 'L', a false start on the forward inside edge'; and the 'V', a bad three-turn." In 1977, he collaborated with Otto Hügin on an instructional book called "The Technique Of Skating".

Gersch and Karin Iten

In his golden years, Jacques lived at the Hotel Moderne in Geneva and had a second home in Baden-Baden. He enjoyed gambling in Monte Carlo and Biarritz and a kept a notebook 'full of numbers'. In 1952 he joked, "It is just a system. I have devised it so that when I go to Monte Carlo for a holiday I never lose anything [yet] never make a great deal. But who knows? One day I might break the bank." When his health declined, he moved into the Résidence Notre Dame near St. Gervais. He told reporters he wanted nothing to do with the skating judges he called "scoundrels" and remarked, "It takes an elephant skin in this sport of intrigue."

Honoured with an induction to the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in 1976 and a lifetime achievement award from l'Association Suisse Des Journalistes Sportifs in 1984, Jacques passed away in Geneva on May 4, 2000 at the ripe old age of one hundred and one, making him one of very few skaters who lived to be over the age of one hundred. He was posthumously inducted into the Professional Skaters Association Hall Of Fame in 2004.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Once asked what his greatest accomplishment was, Jacques said, "I think it was when I encouraged [Jeannette Altwegg] to marry the right man." At the time of his death, Dieter Ringhofer recalled, "That he has a sister who is still alive, his friends learned only in recent years. Jack Gerschwiler had not wanted to see her before. As gracious as he could [be], he could be so vindictive. He also did not want to make public his departure. '[There] should not be made a fuss over me.' Only after his cremation was [his sister] allowed to be informed."

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