3 minute read

Sonja Henie

Youthful Champion

The intensity of Henie's commitment to skating was further intensified after competing in the first winter Olympics, in Chamonix, France, in 1924. After placing last in a field of eight, she increased her practice time to some seven hours a day. Because Norway did not yet have indoor ice rinks, she traveled around Europe to train throughout the year and benefit from the best instructors. Her new goal was the 1927 world figure skating championship. Her performance, skating "at home" in Norway's Frogner Stadium, earned her the first of ten consecutive world figure skating titles (and the distinction of being the youngest world champion until Tara Lipinski edged her out in 1997 by a margin of thirty-two days). The pretty, blond skater stood out among the competitors in a white silk and ermine skating dress that had a short skirt. Long, black skirts were the norm, being both modest and warm. But the fourteen-year-old Henie was too small to wear such heavy garb; it tended to act like a sail and tangle in her legs. Selma had designed her daughter's above-the-knee skirt with heavy fur trim to give it fullness. Beyond the garment's visual impact, it gave her the freedom to do jumps and other movements that had only been done by men. When Henie began her program, her ballet training was evident in the flourishes she made with her head and legs. She managed to tie together the elements in her routine in way that had not been done before. She also lit the entire performance with a dazzling, dimpled smile. The hallmarks of Henie's future successes were in place.

Later in 1927 Henie saw the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova dance in London. The experience inspired her to introduce choreographic design in her free skating program, an innovation that helped her win an Olympic gold medal in 1928 at St. Moritz, Switzerland. Her program also included double axels, spins, twirls, and jumps. Her innovations and unparalleled determination would fuel another ten years of amateur successes, including a still unmatched Olympic record. Henie went on to win a total of three Olympic figure skating championships: she also won gold medals at Lake Placid, New York in 1932 and at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria in 1936. The skater turned professional later that same year, after having won her tenth world championship.


1912 Born April 8, outside of Oslo, Norway, to Hans Wilhelm Henie and Selma Lochman Nielsen
1918 Receives first pair of ice skates
1921 Wins Norway's junior-level national competition
1922 Studies with private tutor to allow for longer practice sessions
1923 Wins Norwegian National Championship
1927 Sees Anna Pavlova dance in London
1927 Wins first of ten Women's World Figure Skating Championship titles
1928 Awarded Olympic gold medal in figure skating at St. Moritz
1930 Performs in New York City's Madison Square Garden in amateur exhibition
1932 Awarded Olympic gold medal in figure skating at Lake Placid
1936 Awarded Olympic gold medal in figure skating at Garmisch-Partenkirchen
1936 Wins tenth World Championship title
1936 Signs contract to skate in U.S. tour, Sonja Henie's Night,
1936 Rents Hollywood arena to woo filmmakers
1936 Signs five-year contract with Twentieth-Century Fox
1936 Appears in first film, One in a Million
1937 Begins touring in Hollywood Ice Review
1938 Rated third-most-popular film star in poll
1940 Marries Daniel Reid Topping
1941 Becomes U.S. citizen
1946 Divorces Daniel Reid Topping
1948 Makes last film in Hollywood
1949 Marries Winthrop Gardiner, Jr.
1952 Ends long relationship with promoter Arthur Wirtz and tours independently
1952 Stops appearing in arena-style shows after bleacher accident injures 250 spectators
1956 Divorced by Winthrop Gardiner, Jr.
1956 Marries Niels Onstad
1956 Retires from professional skating
1958 Appears in British film Hello London
1968 Donates modern art collection to Norway; builds Henie-Onstad Museum near Oslo
1968 Diagnosed with leukemia
1969 Dies on ambulance plane flying from Paris to Oslo

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsFigure SkatingSonja Henie Biography - Early Advantages, Youthful Champion, Chronology, Turning Professional, Film Stardom, Awards And Accomplishments - SELECTED WRITINGS BY HENIE: