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Adirondack Attic: skater Sonja Henie

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We continue our series, the Adirondack Attic, with Andy Flynn. NCPR is collaborating with Andy and his sources at the Adirondack Museum and other historical associations and museums in the region to bring local history stories to air.

Today, Andy Flynn visits the Lake Placid Olympic Museum, and the Sonja Henie "Perfection on Ice" exhibit. Henie was a world champion ice skater from Norway who won a gold medal at the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid.

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Reported by

Andy Flynn
Adirondack Correspondent

Alison Haas showed Andy some of the famous artifacts from the world of figure skating. Sonja Henie was a three time Olympic champion from 1928, 1932 and 1936 representing Norway. Sonia Heney competed in Lake Placid in 1932 and won the gold medal, her second of three gold medals. Many of the items in the Lake Placid Olympic Museum are from Sonja herself. When she was only 11 years old, Henie first competed in the 1924 Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix, France, where she finished in last place. But that last place finish really propelled her drive for excellence and wanting to succeed. She really had a passion for gold.

The exhibit is broken down into four different sections: Artistry and Beauty, Passion for Gold, Technical Athleticism, and the Business and Fame of Figure Skating.

Alison and Andy examine the Artistry and Beauty section, in which there are a few very colorful items. The flashy colors and the sequins in this case really catch the eye. The dress in the case from Sonja was a really good example of the tighter dresses that she preferred to wear. She was one of the first figure skaters to really change the way figure skating was seen on the ice. It really became an entertainment sport. The dresses became a little shorter and a little more revealing. It enabled the figure skaters to perform more easily and dramatically. You could really start to see their intricate moves on the ice.

But figure skating started out more as a technical sport. In the early 1930s, jumping started to become more than simple waltz jumps. Sonia’s moves were more single jumps, but she could do everything. She was really known for her spins and her technique. Sometimes she was referred to as the “Human Top.”

Alison and Andy examine another dress in the case. This particular figure skating dress was worn by Linda Fratianne during the 1980 Olympic Winter Games. She often rivaled with Annette Poetsch of Germany. And in the ’80 games, Fratianne turned to fashion designer Bob Mackey in the hopes of edging out her competitor. He designed this very petite red spandex dress with a little chiffon skirt and red bedazzled sequins. This dress was originally a loan to the museum from Linda Fratianne, and recently she gifted it to the museum. But she asked us to return the tiny pouch that was hidden underneath the dress in the left shoulder. It contained several good luck charms and was blessed by the pope. She had that pinned in her dress to bring her good luck.

Sonja Henie also had a charm in a different display case, a rabbit’s foot. When she had heard about the American custom of carrying a rabbit’s foot for good luck, she began carrying one herself. She also believed that it would help her continue her winning streak in women’s figure skating.

After the Olympics, she went on to become a movie star. A lot of the older generation will really gather around the Sonja Henie exhibit because they recall watching all of Sonja’s movies. She starred in about 11 films in total, and at the height of her career she was actually number 3 at the box office behind Shirley Temple and Clark Gable.

As we head into another winter Olympics this year in Russia, Sonja Henie is really an inspiration for many, in that when she went to her first Olympic games she finished in last place at the age of 11, and then went on to the next Olympics and won gold three times in a row. No matter where you are in the rankings, it’s an inspiration to see that she is still one of the most famous figure skaters, and no one has challenged her title of three Olympic gold medals and ten consecutive world championships.

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