Sports History I Never Knew: The First Double Axel in the Olympic Games

Sonia Henie, the “Golden Girl”

It was the free-skating event, the final program of the competition at the 1936 Winter Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany. Sonja Henie knew that she was in trouble.

The “Golden Girl,” Norwegian-born winner of the skating competitions in the previous two Olympics at Lake Placid and St. Moritz, was the big favorite for a three-peat. But in the previous program, the compulsories, a young upstart from England named Cecilia Colledge, nearly bested her. Henie threw a temper tantrum and ripped the judges’ scoring sheet off the wall, claiming she had been cheated.

Colledge, at age 11 in Lake Placid, was the youngest woman ever to compete in the Olympics. She was the first woman to execute a double-rotation jump in competition, a salchow at the 1936 European championships in Berlin. She also invented the camel and the layback spins and the one-foot axel jump. Henie had never faced such a challenger.

Cecilia Colledge, 1937

The two were close on points going into the free-skating program. Colledge went first, and she was superb, using all the creative and exciting leaps and spins in her repertoire. Henie had to be better, or her gold-medal streak would end.

And that’s what the Golden Girl did. She topped Colledge with a double “Axel Paulsen” jump. Invented in 1882, it was so risky that it had never been tried in the Olympics. Paulsen was world champion speed skater from 1882 to 1890. He also invented modern speed skate, with the blade fixed to the boot.

In the double Axel Paulsen jump, the skater takes off in a forward direction from one foot, rotates one and a half times in the air, and lands backwards on the opposite foot.  Henie took the chance; she leapt, spun, landed on her skates, and ended with a split and a cover-girl smile. She kept her gold medal.

After Germany’s propaganda triumph in the 1936 Olympic Games, the skaters went their separate ways. Henie went pro – officially, as she’d made a lot of money with “amateur” exhibitions in Europe already. She came to America in 1937, became a U.S. citizen in 1941, and made 47 million dollars in film and through skating exhibitions.

Axel Paulsen

Henie also acquired a massive collection of diamonds.  She turned her back on her countrymen and refused to contribute to the resistance fighters who were battling Nazi occupation.  She also became the biggest booster of a new-fangled ice-grooming machine invented by an American named Frank Zamboni. She ordered two for herself; if she was going to skate at your arena, you had to have your own Zamboni.

Colledge returned to England and continued to compete as an amateur. She drove a civilian ambulance in London during the blitz. Her brother Maule became a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. He never returned from a September 1943 mission over Berlin.

Colledge became a professional skater in the late 1940s, appearing in ice shows. She settled in the United States and coached elite athletes at the Skating Club of Boston from 1952 to 1977. She died, at the age of 87, in 2008 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Colledge never married and had no survivors.

And what of Axel Paulsen? He returned home and, after the death of his father, took over the family coffee shop until his death in 1936. The daring jump he invented is now known as the axel – just as all ice groomers are now Zambonis.

Now you know the rest of the story.

Sonia Henie’s touring Zamboni

Henie and her Zamboni, in photo autographed for inventor Frank Zamboni.

The double axel jump

Sonia Henie and George “Superman” Reeves, 1954

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