The 1947 North American Figure Skating Championships

Headline from the 1947 North American Figure Skating Championships

William Lyon Mackenzie King was Canada's Prime Minister; Harry S. Truman was America's President. Though World War II had officially ended a year and a half prior, Canadians were still feeling the effects. Food rationing had only just ended a six months prior and shortages of building supplies like steel, tin and lumber did little to alleviate a growing housing shortage. Perry Como, Dean Martin and Frankie Carle and His Orchestra topped the music charts and the cost of a box of Corn Flakes was twenty-three cents.

The year was 1947 and on March 28 and 29, some of the best figure skaters from Canada and the United States gathered at the Minto Skating Club's rink on Waller Street in Ottawa to compete in the North American Figure Skating Championships. In 1943, the biennial event had been cancelled altogether and in 1945, only a women's competition was held, owing to the number of men who were either actively serving in the military or just returning to civilian life. The 1947 event marked the first time since 1941 that the men's and pairs events were contested. There were no fours entries, but ice dance was introduced to the line-up for the first time.

Advertisement from the 1947 North American Figure Skating Championships

The North American Championships were the final big event of the season in 1947, held after the World, Canadian and U.S. Championships... and hosting the event was a huge deal for the Minto Skating Club. The organizing committee, overseen by Melville Rogers, Norman V.S. Gregory and Dr. J. Alan Priestman, worked tirelessly to ensure the competition was a success. The Club was given a deep clean and decorated to the hilt. When the skaters and officials arrived, they were given silver tea service in the comfortable lounge that overlooked the rink. At the conclusion of the event, a buffet supper and dance was held at the clubhouse at the Lansdowne Park racetrack. The Club's professional, Sheldon Galbraith, kicked off the second day of competition with demonstrations of school figures and jumps and Canada's Governor-General, Harold Alexander, 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis, was on hand to present trophies and medals to the skaters. The level of skating in Ottawa that March certainly met the level of care put into the competition's organizing. Let's take a look back at how things played out!


American figure skaters Yvonne Sherman and Robert Swenning
Yvonne Sherman and Robert Swenning. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

The agreed-upon rules of the North American Championships at the time allowed for three entries per country, with a fourth from either or both countries permitted, subject to approval of the Organizing Committee. The pairs event, however, only had four entries - two from Canada and two from the United States. 

Canadians Suzanne Morrow and Wally Distelmeyer delivered a difficult and well-matched performance to earn first place marks from four of the six judges. Canadian judge Paul Belcourt and American judge M. Bernard Fox had them second and third, and Yvonne Sherman and Robert Swenning first. Sherman and Swenning took the silver and their American teammates Karol and Peter Kennedy the bronze. Winnipeg's Sheila and Ross Smith were in last place on every judge's scorecard. Morrow and Distelmeyer received the highest mark of the entire Championships - a 9.9. Curiously, scores at North Americans were out of 10.0 and both Nationals were scored out of 6.0.

From a historical perspective, the fact that the first ice dance event at the North American Championships was held in Canada is quite interesting. Waltz and Tenstep competitions had been held at the Canadian Championships for years, but the first Canadian dance title was contested just weeks prior. The winners of that event, Marg Roberts and Bruce Hyland, withdrew from the Ottawa event because Bruce had to undergo an emergency appendectomy. The only other Canadian couple entered, Joyce Perkins and William de Nance Jr. of Toronto, were cut from the competition in a preliminary elimination round. Ice dance simply wasn't as popular in Canada at the time as it was down in the States. The Silver Dances were skated at the request of the Canadian organizers.

The finals of the ice dance events had four teams, all of them American. Lois Waring and Walter 'Red' Bainbridge, the newly crowned U.S. Champions, were the unanimous choice of all six judges. The 1946 U.S. Champions, Anne Davies and Carleton Hoffner Jr., were unanimously second. Marcella May Willis and Frank Davenport of the St. Moritz Ice Skating Club took the bronze, ahead of Renee Stein and Sidney Moore of Los Angeles. 


The men's school figures were a grueling test of patience and concentration that took eight hours to complete. After all six figures had been traced, seventeen year old Dick Button of Englewood, New Jersey had a one hundred and eighteen point lead over Norris Bowden. America's Johnny Lettengarver was third. As figures counted for sixty percent of the score back then, unless Button bombed in the free skate he had the title in the bag.

Headline from the 1947 North American Figure Skating Championships

Dick Button gave an outstanding performance in the free skate, but was somewhat upstaged by his fifteen year old teammate Jimmy Grogan, who earned a thundering round of applause from the capacity crowd of six thousand. Grogan's performance moved him all the way up from near the bottom to second. Wally Distelmeyer also gave an excellent show, moving up to take the bronze. Norris Bowden dropped to fourth; Johnny Lettengarver to fifth. Two other Canadian entries, Roger Wickson and Gerrard Blair, rounded out the field of seven. In his book "Dick Button Skates", Button recalled, "I found relief from the nervous atmosphere of competition by loosening my skates and playing the piano while waiting my turn to perform."


Photograph of Barbara Ann Scott and Dick Button, Olympic Gold Medallists in figure skating
Barbara Ann Scott and Dick Button. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Seven talented skaters competed in the women's event in Ottawa, but there were two notable absences. The first was Nadine Phillips of Toronto, a three time medallist at the Canadian Championships, had planned to compete but tragically died at the age of nineteen on February 24. The second was Gretchen Van Zandt Merrill, the bronze medallist at the World Championships in Stockholm and reigning U.S. Champion. The organizers hadn't received word as to whether or not Merrill was entering until about a week prior to the event. The Canadian press, who'd just assumed she was competing, had already printed articles about a showdown between her and Barbara Ann Scott. When it was learned she hadn't sent in an application, they reported that she was scared of going up against Scott. In reality, she'd planned to take a vacation to California after the U.S. Championships all along.

Fresh off her victory at the World Championships in Ottawa, eighteen year old Barbara Ann Scott was the heavy favourite at her home rink, where she trained for seven hours a day. She'd placed sixth at her first North Americans in 1941 and won the 1945 title in New York City at the age of sixteen. Twenty one days before the event began, she was famously gifted a canary colored chromium four-door Buick convertible with the license plate '47-U-1' by the City Of Ottawa. She ultimately had to return the roadster to Mayor Stanley Lewis that May to keep her amateur status, after Avery Brundage (the chair of the U.S. Olympic Committee) informed the IOC and press. Though the controversy over her gift hadn't yet become a news story when the event in Ottawa began, there were already grumblings that 'the Americans' were out to get Scott, paving a clear path for Gretchen Van Zandt Merrill to win Olympic gold in St. Moritz in 1948.

Headline from the 1947 North American Figure Skating Championships

To the surprise of no one and delight of her coach Sheldon Galbraith, Barbara Ann Scott executed near-flawless figures to earn a one hundred and twenty five point lead over her closest rival, Bud Wilson's pupil Janette Ahrens from St. Paul. The conditions weren't ideal. The ice was hard and the rink cold, but it was a heck of a lot better than skating outdoors. In "Skating" magazine, Minto Skating Club member Patricia Kennedy wrote, "There was little applause as the large group of spectators watched each figure carefully, and the silence seemed broken only by the rattle of the overhead wire heating the 'toaster' - Minto's device for removing old tracings during a competition."

Headline from the 1947 North American Figure Skating Championships
North American figure skaters Wally Distelmeyer, Suzanne Morrow, Barbara Ann Scott, Dick Button, Lois Waring and Walter 'Red' Bainbridge
Top: Headline from "The Windsor Star" celebrating Barbara Ann Scott's win. Bottom: (Left to right) Wally Distelmeyer, Suzanne Morrow, Barbara Ann Scott, Dick Button, Lois Waring and Walter 'Red' Bainbridge. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Barbara Ann Scott expanded her lead by over thirty nine points in the free skating, dazzling the audience alike with her blue lamé dress, blurred spins and big double jumps. The judges unanimously placed her first. Janette Ahrens settled for silver, ahead of Yvonne Sherman, Suzanne Morrow, Eileen Seigh, Marilyn Ruth Take and Shirley Lander. Eileen Seigh gave one of the best free skating performances of the night, and the Ottawa crowd - showing their impartiality - booed the low marks given to her by one of the Canadian judges.

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