Maker Of Champions: The Arnold Gerschwiler Story

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

"No fool is any good at figures - only smart intelligent people!" - Arnold Gerschwiler

"He was an incredible, wonderful man. He was by far the most important person in international figure skating ever. He was responsible for England being the foremost figure skating nation in the world. He was internationally respected, admired and copied." - Richmond Meacock, "The Times", 2003

Arnold Gerschwiler was born May 28, 1914 in Andwil, a municipality in the canton of St. Gallen in northeastern Switzerland. Though he skated on natural ice as a schoolboy, it wasn't until his older half-brother Jacques invited him to visit England in 1931 that he began pursuing figure skating seriously. Under Jacques' guidance, he practiced tirelessly at Golders Green and Streatham Ice Rinks. Within a year, he passed the National Skating Association's Gold Figure Test and turned professional. He really believed he could make a difference in the sport, and it didn't take long at all before it became apparent he was a gifted teacher.

In the autumn of 1932, Arnold accepted a position teaching in Neuchâtel. While in the canton, he passed Switzerland's first class (Gold medal) test, finished third in the country's first Professional Championships and gave a number of exhibitions that helped foster interest in the sport. Interestingly, he not only demonstrated his figure skating prowess - but also performed a barrel jumping act. The January 29, 1934 issue of "L'Express" reported that he "jumped over barrels, the number of which increased with each turn, then over a table, through a frame hung with paper, and all with a smile on his face." 

Arnold Gerschwiler barrel jumping in Neuchâtel. Photo courtesy Stella Gerschwiler.

Under Arnold's guidance, skating in Neuchâtel progressed rapidly. His first students included Madeleine Matthys, Charles Clerc, Eugène Gallino and Otto Schmid. Two promising youngsters, eight year old Doris Blanc and his thirteen year old nephew Hans, were his first star pupils. Hans won his first two of five Swiss titles prior to World War II and Doris became Swiss Champion during Wartime.

Left: Arnold Gerschwiler in Switzerland. Right: Arnold Gerschwiler on stilt skates. Photo courtesy Stella Gerschwiler.

Arnold returned to England in 1934 to teach at the newly-opened Empire Pool, Wembley and in subsequent years not only demonstrated his skill as a teacher, but his own abilities as a skater. In 1936, he finished third in the World and British Open Professional Championships. 

Hazel Carle and Arnold Gerschwiler. Photos courtesy Stella Gerschwiler.

Arnold went on to pass the National Skating Association's Gold Pairs Test with Olive Robinson, Gold Dance Test with Hazel Carle and earned the First Class Instructors' Certificate in 1940. The fact that a Swiss skater was the first person ever to hold the 'triple crown' of NSA Gold Medals in Singles, Pairs and Dance and the First Class Instructors' Certificate was (quite simply put) a huge deal.

Left: Arnold Gerschwiler. Photo courtesy "International Ice Skating Directory". Right: Arnold Gerschwiler demonstrating a handstand for an off-ice class. Photo courtesy "The Skating Times" magazine.

Arnold's decades-long association with the Richmond Sports-Drome began in 1937. He became the legendary rink's head instructor the following year. When World War II broke out in 1939, he was a member of the Swiss military reserve. He was called upon to serve, but was given permission to remain in England in civilian employment. Both he and his nephew Hans (who had followed him to England not long after he started teaching at Wembley) served as fire-watchers during the Blitz. Arnold was at the Richmond ice rink when a two thousand pound bomb fell in the engine room. Fortunately for London - and Arnold  - it did not explode. 

Violet, Arnold and Hans Gerschwiler. Photo courtesy Stella Gerschwiler.

Though wartime conditions led to several rink closures, Arnold continued to teach during Wartime and was responsible for several large ice shows that fundraised for War charities. He married the love of his life, Violet Blundell, in August of 1941. The couple later had two daughters, Stella and Claire and settled at a house on Ailsa Road, St. Margarets, Twickenham.

Hans and Arnold Gerschwiler. Photo courtesy Stella Gerschwiler.

Arnold's influence on skating's development in England was nothing short of extraordinary. He played an important role in getting skating on television for the first time after the War, introduced Great Britain's first Zamboni and was one of the founders of the Richmond Trophy and St. Ivel competitions. The Bristol firm Stubbs & Burt even manufactured an Arnold Gerschwiler skating boot. He was known particularly as a specialist in school figures, but also did pioneering work with pairs skaters.

Group photos of Arnold Gerschwiler with his students. Photos courtesy Stella Gerschwiler.

Internationally, too, Arnold was a man of great influence. His student Michael Booker recalled, "The Gersches didn't hesitate to challenge judges. They had taught most of them." In 1952, Arnold came to teach in North America for the first time at a summer school in Stratford, Ontario. In 1968, he visited Japan and held clinics with skaters in Tokyo, Osaka and Karuizawa. Every winter, he brought his students to Davos to train to better prepare them for the harsh conditions they might encounter in international competitions.

Sjoukje Dijkstra, Arnold Gerschwiler and Joan Haanappel. Photo courtesy Dutch National Archive.

Under Arnold's direction, the Richmond Sports-Drome earned an international reputation as "a miniature United Nations". Skaters from as far away as South Africa, Australia and Japan flocked to England to work with him. Though the fact he'd worked with many champion skaters from an early age was a source of pride for him, the fact many top-level skaters went to him at the height of their careers to improve even more is also worth nothing. His students included Olympic Medallists in every colour, World and European Champions galore and the winners of over one hundred national titles in Europe and beyond. At the 1950 European Championships in Oslo, his students swept the gold medals in the men's, women's and pairs events.

Top: Sjoukje Dijkstra, Arnold Gerschwiler and Joan Haanappel. Second From Top: Valda Osborn and Arnold Gerschwiler. Third From Top: Ája Zanová  and Arnold Gerschwiler.  Fourth From Top: Maria and Otto Jelinek and Arnold Gerschwiler. Bottom: Malcolm Cannon and Arnold Gerschwiler. Photos courtesy Stella Gerschwiler.

An incomplete list of Arnold's pupils (including those he worked with for decades or days) reads like a who's who of the sport's history: Sjoukje Dijkstra, John Curry, Donald Jackson, Hans Gerschwiler, Ája Zanová, Daphne Walker, Andrea Kékesy and Ede Király, Doreen Denny, Marianna and László Nagy, Arthur Apfel, Valda Osborn, Lorraine Hanlon, Joan Haanappel, Maria and Otto Jelinek, Michael Booker, Sonia Bianchetti Garbato, Patricia Dodd, Bridget Shirley Adams, Jacqueline Harbord, Sissy Schwarz and Kurt Oppelt, Susan Jackson, Joan Lister, Elyane Steinemann and André Calame, Barbara Conniff, Dagmar Lerchová, Hellmut Seibt, Leena Pietilä, Silvia and Michel Grandjean,  Nelly Maas, Birgitta Wennström and Sture Höidén, Joyce Coates and Anthony Holles, Adrian Pryce-Jones, Adrian Swan, Nicole Hassler, Annelies Schilhan, Vladislav Čáp, Winnie and Dennis Silverthorne, Lidy Stoppelman, Carole Jane Pachl, Zsuzsa Almássy, Yolande Jobin, Moira June Macdonald, Vanessa (Simons) Riley, Hanna Eigel, Sandra Cariboni, Susan Jackson, Rita Trapanese, Peter Burrows, Daniel Höner, Ingrid Wendl, Jiřina Nekolová, Bill Cherrell, Ann-Margreth Frei, Ursula Arnold, Kazumi Yamashita, Ann-Karin Dehle, Monika Zingg, Anne Reynolds, Thelma Perry, Malcolm Cannon, Carol Stephanie Noir, Kalle Tuulos, David Clements, Luny Unold and Hans Kuster, Jill Hood-Linzee, Valerie Moon, Walter Arian, Kim Alletson and Brian Pockar. I could keep going, but I'm afraid even the Google doesn't have the space. 

Top: Arnold Gerschwiler working with twelve year old Sjoukje Dijkstra. Bottom: Sjoukje Dijkstra and Arnold Gerschwiler sharing a drink. Photos courtesy Stella Gerschwiler.

Olympic Gold Medallist Sjoukje Dijkstra recalled working with Arnold in her delightful 2014 interview with Allison Manley on The Manleywoman SkateCast: "He was good at figures, but he was good at the free skating too. He had his methods and his ways, and patience. And especially when you're very young - you have to be careful with children, with their bones. You can't start doing too many difficult jumps too soon, because the bones are still soft. But he had a very good way. Sometimes he had to say, that's enough now, because I wouldn’t give up. But other times he would make me so cross because he said, you're not trying at all. And I was really trying very hard... He really knew how to teach his pupils, and he had a very good way. He could get through to you in a nice way. With figures, too, he had certain ways that you will never forget it and you will never do it again. Like with the push-offs in the figures, sometimes you would keep your foot on the ice and there would be a line on the ice. He wouldn't get mad or anything. If he saw you – he would give lessons to other pupils, but he could still see the others and what they were doing — he would call you over. He did that to me once, and he said, listen, can you go to the office and get me a pair of scissors. So I said, okay, thinking, well, that’s a waste of time, me going over to get a pair of scissors. But I went to the office and said to Betty - that was the secretary there - could I have a pair of scissors please? And she said, yes, who wants them? And I said, well, Mr. Gerschwiler asked me to get them for him. So I got them and went to him and said, here, Mr. Gerschwiler, the pair of scissors. And he said, good. Now take those scissors and go and cut your push-offs. So you would only do that once and never again, you would never forget to lift your foot off the ice."

John Curry, Arnold Gerschwiler and Patricia Dodd. Photo courtesy "Ice Skate" magazine.

Over the years, Arnold didn't only teach champions. He was one of the first instructors in England to develop a large-scale learn-to-skate program for youngsters. He was also one of the few instructors that had that the privilege of rubbing shoulders with - and teaching - both high society and royalty. 

Valerie Hobson and Arnold Gerschwiler working on a skating scene for the film "Great Expectations". Photo courtesy Stella Gerschwiler.

Arnold gave lessons to Prince Charles and Princess Anne, and was later received by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace and Princess (now Queen) Beatrix of the Netherlands. He also gave lessons to Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Air Force, during World War II and taught several prominent actors and actresses how to skate for film scenes, among them Claire Bloom, Valerie Hobson, James Mason and Patricia Roc.

Left: Arnold leading an off-ice training class. Bottom: Arnold overseeing a patch session. Photos courtesy Stella Gerschwiler.

Arnold took his job extremely seriously and expected his students to put in the same effort he did. He ran a tight ship, and during patch sessions you could hear a pin drop. Never one to shy away from speaking his mind, he shared some of his values about coaching in an 1965 interview for "Skating" magazine: "Figure skating needs good, conscientious coaches for the future. To any amateur considering teaching, my first advice would be to accept an instructional job in a small club or public rink where he has the opportunity of learning how to teach. He should keep his first job for two to three 'apprenticeship' years, during which time he could prove to himself whether he can cope with teaching, is capable of accepting a bigger job, and has had success with his pupils. I think that this skater should devise a definite program so that he can build a beginner to championship caliber. A good foundation in skating is also a necessity. The all-important understanding between teacher and pupil at championship level can only be accomplished after years of working together. I have found that when a pupil has been with me for a short time he always reverts to his old method of approach when under pressure at a championship. There is nothing more irritating for a teacher than to have all his work thrown overboard in a few minutes! All the World Champions I have taught have been with me for several years prior to their successes. My nephew Hans Gerschwiler I taught from the outset, Ája Zanová for five years, and Sjoukje Dijkstra since she was nine. Profiting from my years of accumulated experience, Sjoukje improved right up to the last championship in which she competed. Valda Osborn, who passed her NSA Gold Medal at nine, started skating with me at the age of three. Later, I had to reteach her the various movements so that she, being older, would understand their purpose."

For his contributions to the sport, Arnold was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in 1985. He retired from coaching when Richmond Ice Rink closed in 1992, and was bestowed the Order Of The British Empire (OBE) in 1997. In 2003, at the age of eighty-nine, he returned to Switzerland one last time to visit his life-long friend Karl Enderlin. On August 22, 2003, not long after his return, he suffered a heart attack and passed away at Cheam, Surrey. Though it's hard to really put into words the scope of Arnold's contributions to the sport, the fact he taught literally hundreds of champions speaks for itself. 

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":