Five Winter Olympians Who Forever Changed Their Sports

Considered bizarre at first, these athletes’ techniques ultimately became the gold standards for their sports

A ski jumper flashes a V. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user tpower1978.)

Sonja Henie: And it's on with the show

(Wikimedia Commons)

Back in the first part of the 20th century, women’s figure skating was a dismal affair. The skaters, in their calf-length dresses, performed a predictable series of pretty dull exercises. Then along came Sonja Henie.

Only 11 years old when she competed in her first Olympics in 1924, the Norwegian skater so impressed the judges with her moves, including a jump into a sit spin, that she ranked third in the freestyle part of the competition. But she was so weak in the compulsory figures that she ultimately finished last. 

Within three years, though, Henie won her first world championship and then, a year later, her first Olympic gold medal. She would win nine more of the former and two more of the latter and completely dominate her sport for the next decade. 

Not only did she captivate crowds with her spins—she had 19 different ones she incorporated into her programs—but she turned figure skating competition into a show. She was the first female skater to wear a short skirt and white skating boots. More importantly, Henie actually choreographed her routines, combining grace and drama to create ballets on ice.

So, the outfits, the movements to music, the storytelling on skates—they all started with Sonja Henie. 


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