Jeannette Altwegg, who has died aged 90, was the final British girl to win an Olympic particular person ice-skating gold medal – on the 1952 Winter Video games in Oslo. Her uncommon and celebrated triumph, on the age of 21, would usually have led to a profitable skilled profession – or at the very least one other couple of tilts on the Olympics as an novice. However the truth is Altwegg opted shortly afterwards to depart skating altogether, taking on a home place at a house for youngster refugees in Switzerland earlier than getting married and elevating 4 kids. When she unexpectedly got here again into the general public eye in 2011, she defined unapologetically that “my household has been, and is, my profession”.
Nonetheless, Altwegg additionally revealed that damage had performed an element in her disappearance. “I tousled my knee in my final yr of competing and at the moment they weren’t in a position to function on it as they’re now,” she mentioned. “In a method it’s good to cease once you’re at your peak. It’s good that you just don’t go on and on.”
Regardless of the deserves of Altwegg’s choice to give up, her shock early retirement was undoubtedly a giant loss for British skating. Apart from Olympic gold, she had gained the world title in 1951, was European champion in 1951 and 1952, and will have continued to be a worldwide drive over the subsequent decade. No British girl has come near successful an Olympic particular person gold in determine skating since her victory, and the one different to have matched her achievement was Madge Syers, who gained the women singles on the London Olympics in 1908, the primary yr that ladies’s determine skating was an Olympic occasion.
Altwegg’s mom, Gertrude (nee Muirhead), was from Scotland and her father, Hermann, was a Swiss nationwide. She was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in India, the place Hermann labored with the Liverpool Cotton Alternate. However the household moved again to the UK when Jeannette and her brother, Christopher, had been nonetheless younger.
She discovered to skate on the age of six on the Palace Ice Rink in Liverpool and inside 4 years she had proven such promise that her dad and mom had taken her out of faculty for personal tuition targeted across the skating rink. By the age of 16 she was representing Nice Britain within the European and world determine skating championships of 1947, ending fourth and fifth respectively.
Additionally a superb tennis participant, in the identical yr Altwegg was runner-up within the singles on the British junior championships at Wimbledon, elevating questions as to which sport she may select to pursue. However her thoughts was made up in 1948 when she gained the primary of her 4 senior British determine skating championships after which went on to take one in all solely two medals gained by Nice Britain at that yr’s Winter Olympics in St Moritz, with a bronze within the ladies’s singles after an particularly good efficiency within the obligatory figures.
Altwegg’s power at all times lay in these obligatory figures – a now defunct ingredient of determine skating wherein opponents had been judged on their means to hint exact shapes within the ice. Though on no account a mechanical skater, she was much less formidable within the free skating ingredient of competitors, which put extra emphasis on aptitude and creative invention than it did on self-discipline and management.
Though she grabbed one other bronze on the 1949 European championships in Milan, low free-skating scores disadvantaged her of a medal on the 1949 world championships in Paris, the place she completed fourth. However her sound temperament by no means allowed her to get upset when there have been setbacks. The next yr she upgraded to silver at each the European and world championships, and in 1951 she gained gold at each by amassing big factors leads within the figures that made up for any shortfall within the free skating sections.
Altwegg retained her European title in Vienna in 1952, after which she went straight to Oslo for the Winter Olympics. Working along with her Swiss coach, Jacques Gerschwiler, and attempting to disregard issues along with her knee, she developed a brand new free skating programme set to Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, which she hoped would offer a extra strong basis than earlier routines.
After posting a robust rating within the figures, nevertheless, she may nonetheless handle solely fourth place in her weaker occasion, though ultimately she had simply sufficient factors to win gold forward of the American Tenley Albright (silver) and Jacqueline du Bief of France (bronze).
Altwegg’s was the one medal of any description gained by her nation in these Winter Video games, and served as a welcome morale booster in postwar austerity Britain. However the win proved to be her remaining aggressive efficiency, and after a celebratory demonstration on the Kingsway Rink in Dundee, she consigned her skates to the cabinet.
There have been loads of profitable gives on the desk, together with a £2,000-a-week contract from the Music Company of America to star in a worldwide ice dancing tour. However Altwegg was not tempted. “No thanks, not for one million kilos,” she advised the Sydney Morning Herald. “I’m not taken with luxurious. I wouldn’t prefer it. In addition to, I’m not a dramatic skater. I may by no means do fashionable music corridor stuff.” Her ambition, she mentioned, was “to get married and have kids” – and so she did.
Made a CBE in 1953, Altwegg spent a lot of that yr in Winterthur, Switzerland, taking a course in kids’s welfare, after which she accepted a job on the Pestalozzi Youngsters’s Village for orphaned youngster refugees, in Trogen. Incomes the equal of lower than £3 per week, she labored from 6.30am to 8pm each day, serving to to look after the kids whereas additionally washing, ironing, cleansing flooring and doing common housekeeping.
In Switzerland she met Marc Wirz, an engineer, who was a brother of the Swiss skating champion Susi Wirz, one in all her former sporting rivals. They had been married in 1954, after which she left her job to boost their kids. The household had a snug existence in Switzerland; there was a summer season home in Spain, driving, leisure golf and tennis, and he or she discovered to fly. The wedding resulted in divorce in 1973 and, after resettling in Berne, Altwegg declined all interview requests for the subsequent 4 a long time, even when she was inducted into the World Determine Skating Corridor of Fame in 1993.
In 2011, nevertheless, she did settle for an invite to attend the European determine skating championships in Switzerland, throughout which she emerged briefly into the sunshine. In numerous press interviews she revealed, amongst different issues, that being taken out of faculty to focus on her skating had made her develop up too quick and left her lacking the companionship of youngsters her personal age. It was maybe this that influenced her later choice to depart the game so early to focus on household life.
She is survived by her 4 kids and 13 grandchildren.