From its beginnings as a pre-historic form of transportation to gravity defying jumps of incredible athletes, skating on ice has come a long way. Its history is as fascinating as it is charming, and in the last 100 years, Lake Placid skaters and events have had remarkable influence on its overall development.
It was more than 5,000 years ago that Scandinavians first took to the ice on crude blades they fashioned from the shin bones of large animals. They were the first to do what would have resembled skating, though because their “blades” were completely unsharpened, they had to use poles to propel themselves along the ice. There was no art or sport involved; it was more a matter of survival. Simply a mode of winter transportation.
It wasn’t until about 800 years ago that iron blades were used. The Dutch forged skate blades and sharpened their edges, mounting them to small wooden platforms that could fit under one’s boots.
Then in 18th Century Britain, as people began enjoying more leisure time, they began etching circles and other figures into the ice. That’s when figure skating was born. It’s also where the sport got its name. The first ever figure skating club was formed in 1740 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and a few decades later, a book titled “A Treatise on Skating” was penned by Robert Jones offering guidance on the construction of skates, the methods for attaching them, and advice for learning to skate as well as details on maneuvers for advanced skaters. Remarkably, the full text of this oldest surviving book on ice skating is available online.
As the art and sport of figure skating developed, the patterns skaters traced into the ice helped demonstrate their skill in making clean, round turns. In fac, by the first half of the 20th century when competitions finally became popular, these “compulsory figures” accounted for 60 percent of skaters’ score at events worldwide. Though the importance of these figures declined in the mid-1900s, they remained a key part of competitive skating until 1990.
In 1908, figure skating became an Olympic sport, surprisingly, at the Summer Games. Those Games were much longer than most, lasting from April to the end of October, as the figure skating events were held many months after the other events had ended. Naturally, when the Winter Olympics was first organized in Chamonix France in 1924, the sport made its debut there with three separate events – men’s singles, women’s singles, and pairs skating. Swedish skater Gillis Grafstrom won the men’s event, Austrian Herma Szabo the women’s, and Austrians Helen Engelmann and Alfred Berger the pairs competition.
Figure Skating in Lake Placid
As skating was gaining a foothold in other parts of the world, pioneers in the tiny mountain village of Lake Placid saw the remarkable resources around them and began turning winter into fun and sport. They began sliding, and skiing, and skating, and it wasn’t long before they took to racing one another. Those impromptu races inspired the earliest winter sport competitions in what would eventually become known as the winter sports capital of the world.
Ski jumps and a speed skating venue were built, and a ski association was formed. Then, in February 1921, a major international ski jump competition was held in Lake Placid drawing 3,000 spectators, nearly 1,000 more people than the recorded Village population at the time. It was the first major sport competition ever held in Lake Placid and set the stage for a successful bid for the 1932 Winter Olympics.
Among the most famous and most successful figure skaters to ever take the ice was 1932’s gold medal winter Sonje Henie. It was her second of three Olympic gold medals in figure skating, and she went on from here to become a Hollywood icon and international celebrity starring in a series of films made from 1937 through 1941. That year in Lake Placid, Austrian Karl Shafer won gold in the men’s division, and French stars Andree Brunet and Perre Brunet won the pairs competition.
Lake Placid’s notoriety grew quickly, and local talent combined with the modern new indoor ice arena built for the 1932 Games began attracting additional skaters. One of those was Dick Button. As a young man, Button came to Lake Placid to train with legendary coach, Gustav Lussi. Together they astonished the World with incredible, never-before-seen athletic feats, such as the first ever double axel, the first triple loop jumps, the innovation of the Flying Camel, and other moves. These feats also included an uninterrupted winning streak the likes of which has never been repeated – Two Olympic Gold Medals, Five World Championships, Three North American Championships, and the only non-European man to ever be crowned European Champion.
In those early years, Lake Placid was well-known for supporting creativity in skating, having produced elaborate theatrical productions since the 1930s. Dick Button’s exposure to these shows are likely to have played a key role in his passionate pursuit of artistic, theatrical on-ice performances, which served to transform skating more fully into a form of dance. He will forever be remembered not only as a champion but as one who revolutionized the art and sport of figure skating. After retiring from competitive skating Button became an Emmy-Award Winning Olympic Commentator and Producer who throughout his life, he invested his time, energy, and talent to foster a brilliant legacy of artistic companies with repertoire and standing.
Remarkably, Dick Button’s skating journey began 80 years ago right here in Lake Placid in the very arena where so many athletes of all levels train yet today. Many of the world’s greatest figure skaters beyond Sonje Henie, Gustave Lussi, and Dick Button have competed or trained in Lake Placid, including Maribel Vinson Owen, Ludmila Belousova, Oleg Protopopov, Scott Hamilton, and more. And history keeps happening here! Even just las summer, Ilia Malinin wrote a new page in skating history by successfully landing for the first time ever a quad axel in competition.
This tiny village’s long history, two Winter Olympic Games, and many national and international competitions through the decades have made Lake Placid stand out as one of the best, and certainly one of the most legendary and most beloved places to skate anywhere on Earth. Local skater and writer Christi Sausa even recently penned a new book on the history of figure skating in Lake Placid, which is available at the independent book seller, Bookstore Plus on Main Street in Lake Placid.
Skating Figures Today
That original art of etching figures into the ice that gave figure skating its name is no longer a part of most major competitions. The International Skating Union discontinued the skating figures as a portion of their competitions in 1990, and the last Olympics to include compulsory figures in the scoring was in 1988.
However, one Lake Placid family – Olympians Karen Courtland Kelly and Patrick Kelly – held a vision of reviving both figures and the deep connections in the sport with the art of figure skating, and in 2015, they founded the World Figure Sport Society. The following year, they staged in Lake Placid the first ever World Figure and Fancy Skating Championships. That event brought back figures competition as well as skating on black ice, which was the original color of ice surfaces when the sport was first created, before the surfaces of indoor rinks were painted white beneath the ice. The black tint to the ice also allows spectators and judges to better see and interpret the results of skaters’ figures performances.
Now in its 10th year, the World Figure and Fancy Skating Championships are returning to their home in Lake Placid. As this competition October 4 through 8, 1988 bronze medalist, Debi Thomas, the last Olympic figures champion, will make her return to competitive skating and perform figures once again. This 10th edition will be especially poignant as it will include not only the art and sport of figure skating but also combine those fluid art performances with fine art displays to offer a unique combination of a world-class skating competition and a cultural celebration with a festival atmosphere.
Says Olympic skater and World Figure Sport Society President Karen Courtland Kelly, “The World Figure and Fancy Skating Championships is as much a fine art festival as a skating competition.” In addition to the skating competition on black ice, the five day festival includes such spectacles as Dorothy Hamill’s antique jeweled skate blade exhibition, other fine art exhibits, and even a Crystal Skating Ball and Lake Placid Skaters Reunion.
Because organizing such rare opportunities to see professional skating artists perform figures in competition is a passion for event organizers, they are making admission free-of-charge for all spectators. While the special on-ice lessons and workshops naturally require fees, all the competitive and art events are free for everyone. Registration is still required for complimentary admission. Visit this link to find the full event details, including the schedule, and to submit your registration form.