Cecilia Colledge: Champion figure skater
Monday 21 April 2008
Cecilia Colledge, the youngest ever Olympian at 11 years and 73 days, a record she earned in the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid and still held at her death, was born into a world of privilege destroyed when she was a teenager by the hostilities of the Second World War, which cut short her blossoming career as a top figure skater.
Skating was always a sport containing some subjective judging, with controversy rarely absent from the top events. In 1936, many believed that the younger, more athletic Colledge should have won the Olympic gold instead of the Norwegian Sonja Henie. (Henie retired that year after claiming her 10th world title, having been unbeaten in the sport for 10 years.)
In 1936 in the twin villages of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany, Colledge was only a few points behind Henie after the school figures section. The closeness infuriated Henie, who, when the result for that section was posted on a wall in the competitors' lounge, swiped the piece of paper and tore it into little pieces.
The draw for the free skating came under suspicion after Henie landed the plum position of skating last, while Colledge had to perform second of the 26 competitors. The early start was seen as a disadvantage, with the audience not yet whipped into a clapping frenzy and the judges known to become freer with their higher marks as the event proceeded. (Years later, a fairer, staggered draw was adopted to counteract this situation.)
While Henie's greatest technical feat was two consecutive single axel jumps (each 1 rotations), Colledge was the first woman to execute a double rotation jump in competition, a salchow, which she first accomplished in the 1936 European championship in Berlin, prior to the Olympics.
The British team manager, T.D. Richardson, wrote that the 40,000 spectators who filled the outdoor stadium to capacity, included Adolf Hitler and other top Nazis. "Goering, in particular, could not keep his eyes off Cecilia. He asked me all about her on several occasions." When asked for her opinion of her silver medal, Colledge could not be shaken from her opinion: "The skaters have their job to do and the judges' theirs."
She had said, however, earlier in an interview for a television show, Reflections on the Ice, that her mother had made her wear a silver dress which was inappropriate. "Who wears silver in the afternoon? And for when you are skating for gold? I wanted to wear my lovely, lucky green velvet outfit."
As expected, the following year, 1937, Cecilia became only the second Briton to win the Ladies World Figure Skating Championship, which was held at the Empress Hall in London. The first had been Madge Syers-Cave, who claimed the title in 1906 and 1907 in the first two championships set up for "Ladies". (They were organised only after she had wrecked havoc by entering the 1902 world championship which had no clause excluding women. She finished second in a field of four and a ruling was immediately passed stating that the original event was for men.)
In 1938, Colledge was dethroned in the world championship by a fellow Briton, Megan Taylor. Only one other Briton has won this title – Jeannette Altwegg in 1952. Though Colledge won the 1939 European title, she did not compete in the world championship that year because of an Achilles tendon injury, and Taylor successful defended the title.
Taylor and Colledge were the clear favourites for the 1940 Olympics, but the Games were cancelled, and their lives changed completely. Taylor fled to perform in ice shows as far away from Britain as she could get, while Colledge joined the Mechanised Transport Corps, driving an ambulance in London.
Colledge's only sibling, an older brother, Maule, who had learned to fly before the war, joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve immediately war broke out. He served with 139 "Jamaica" Squadron until 14 September 1943, when his unarmed Mosquito aircraft failed to return from a mission over Berlin. His name is honoured on the Runnymede Memorial.
Magdalena Cecilia Colledge was born to a domineering mother, Margaret, daughter of Admiral J.W. Brackenburg, and Lionel Colledge, an ex-Royal Navy surgeon who became world-renowned for his work on cancer of the larynx. They lived on Upper Wimpole Street in central London.
In 1928 Mrs Colledge was invited by the mother of the US skating champion Maribel Vinson, to join her at the Ice Club, Westminster, which had opened the previous year. The club was hosting the Ladies and Pairs World Championships though not the mens' event, which took place in Berlin. The royal family attended.
Vinson finished second to Henie in the small field of six ladies but their efforts were enough to inspire the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, and Cecilia Colledge, to ask for skating lessons. Mrs Colledge threw herself into making her daughter the new Henie, which included installing the Swiss skating instructor Jacques Gerschwiler into their home.
When Cecilia took part in the 1932 Olympics, the entire British contingent comprised four young girls. The oldest, Mollie Phillips, aged 15, became the first woman to carry the Union Jack in an Olympics. Taylor, who was only a few months older than Cecilia, finished seventh; Colledge eighth; Phillips ninth; and Joan Dix 10th in the field of 15.
In 1946, Colledge won her sixth national title in the first British championship held after the war but immediately turned professional and appeared in an Ice Revue at the Stoll Theatre in London. After her father died in 1948, Colledge and her mother went to the United States where she appeared in a show at the Roxy Theatre in New York.
She was then offered a teaching position in Lake Placid where she had competed in her first Olympics. From there, she joined the Skating Club of Boston, then the most prestigious training facility in the United States, where she taught from 1952 until her retirement in 1995.
She never married, but from time-to-time wore a brooch fashioned from RAF wings willed to her by a colleague of her brother's who also lost his life in the war. When asked if she would return to Britain, Colledge said, "There was nothing left for me there except unhappy memories." However, her will specified her wish to be cremated and her ashes to be brought back to Britain to be placed in the family plot.
Colledge is remembered as the inventor of the backbend (now called layback) and the catch-foot pull-up parallel (now known as camel and one-foot Biellmann) spins which are basic tools of every top level competitors' routines. "They were my mother's idea," Colledge said. "She took me every Wednesday afternoon to a woman in Streatham who had been a circus performer and she pulled me in every direction. I hated it. It hurt. But people liked the lovely spins I was eventually able to do."
Magdalena Cecilia Colledge, figure skater: born London 28 November 1920; died Cambridge, Massachusetts 12 April 2008.
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