Who Were Some of the Best Women Olympic Skaters?

110 Years of Women's Skating Champions

Sonja Henie
Miss Sonja Henie, 16 years old, of Norway, who surprised the skating world by defeating Miss Beatrix Loughran of the United States in the women's figure skating event at the Olympic Games.

George Rinhart/Getty Images

In the 1990s, a national survey named figure skating as American's second most popular sport. 1st place went to football. Women's skating events are among the most popular attractions for viewers of each Winter Olympics. Adults admire the combination of grace and athleticism while Children — especially young girls — dream of a future as figure skating stars.

Flashy costumes and dance moves combine with rigorous feats of strength in the figure skating events. The pairs skating and ice dancing events show women and men in partnership on the ice. Increasingly, women speed skaters captivate audiences as well.

The three standards by which early Olympic officials judged whether an event was appropriate for "ladies" were beauty, form, and appearance. But early in Olympic figure skating history, before Sonja Henie introduced ballet-like moves, and more recently, athleticism in women's figure skating also had strong appeal. Since 1960, women's speed skating, emphasizing speed, stamina, and strength, has been included in the Olympics. While not as popular as the figure skating events, the popularity of women's speed skating has been growing.

Is the popularity of women's figure skating a sign that gender stereotypes are alive and well — that women athletes are still more acceptable if they adhere strongly to traditional feminine stereotypes? Or does it just mean that many people are interested in sports that aren't about speed, strength, and a little physical violence?

Women's world championship figure skating dates back to 1902 when Madge Syers of Great Britain entered the London World Championship and finished second — just behind Swedish male skater, Ulrich Salchow. But the officials, who had not anticipated women entering the event, then barred women from the world championships. In 1905, a separate women's figure skating event was initiated, and Syers won the first two annual championships in that competition.

Women Olympic Figure Skaters

Some women Olympic figure skaters you should know:

  • Sonja Henie: Norway's "Pavlova on ice" brought ballet moves to the athletic routines. She went to Hollywood and toured in an ice revue, setting a standard many later figure skating champions followed.
  • Barbara Ann Scott: She was nicknamed "Canada's sweetheart."
  • Tenley Albright: She was the first American woman to win the Olympic gold for figure skating.
  • Peggy Fleming: She was a media darling and an early superstar.
  • Dorothy Hamill: Her hairstyle and her personality won hearts worldwide while she won the Olympic gold.
  • Debi Thomas: She lost the gold but became the first African American medalist at the Winter Olympics. After a short pro tour, Thomas went to medical school to become an orthopedic surgeon.
  • Katarina Witt: She was an East German skater who dominated the sport and was famous as a touring professional.
  • Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, and Oksana Baiul: Tonya Harding's husband and associates deliberately injured Nancy Kerrigan, her skating rival. Kerrigan was allowed a berth on the Olympic team though she had to miss the trials, Ukrainian Baiul skated to the Olympic gold past both of them.
  • Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan: They were both excellent figure skaters. They were competitors in 1998 when Lipinski upset Kwan to become the youngest medalist in the event.
  • More women figure skaters you should know about include Kristi Yamaguchi, Nicole Bobek, and Carol Heiss.

Pairs Skating

In pairs skating, male and female partners coordinate their figure skating, sometimes mirroring each other, sometimes complementing each other. Some women pairs skaters you should know:

  • Irina Rodnina
  • Ekaterina Gordeeva
  • Tai Babilionia

Ice Dancing

In 1976, ice dancing was added as an Olympic sport, with more emphasis on dance and artistry and less emphasis on specific figures than figure skating. Some women ice dancers you should know include:

  • Jayne Torvill
  • Irina Romanova

Speed Skating

Speed skating for men was added to the Winter Olympics in 1924, and women's speed skating Winter Olympics competition dates back to 1960.

Some women speed skating champions you should know include:

  • Bonnie Blair
  • Carol Heiss Jenkins