Jeannette Altwegg obituary

Last British woman to win an individual ice-skating gold medal at the Winter Olympics

Jeannette Altwegg, who has died aged 90, was the last British woman to win an Olympic individual ice-skating gold medal – at the 1952 Winter Games in Oslo. Her rare and celebrated triumph, at the age of 21, would normally have led to a lucrative professional career – or at least another couple of tilts at the Olympics as an amateur. But in fact Altwegg opted shortly afterwards to leave skating altogether, taking up a domestic position at a home for child refugees in Switzerland before getting married and raising four children. When she unexpectedly came back into the public eye in 2011, she explained unapologetically that “my family has been, and is, my career”.

However, Altwegg also revealed that injury had played a part in her disappearance. “I messed up my knee in my last year of competing and at that time they were not able to operate on it as they are now,” she said. “In a way it’s good to stop when you’re at your peak. It’s nice that you don’t go on and on.”

Whatever the merits of Altwegg’s decision to quit, her surprise early retirement was undoubtedly a big loss for British skating. Aside from Olympic gold, she had won the world title in 1951, was European champion in 1951 and 1952, and could have continued to be a global force over the next decade. No British woman has come close to winning an Olympic individual gold in figure skating since her victory, and the only other to have matched her achievement was Madge Syers, who won the ladies singles at the London Olympics in 1908, the first year that women’s figure skating was an Olympic event.

Altwegg’s mother, Gertrude (nee Muirhead), was from Scotland and her father, Hermann, was a Swiss national. She was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in India, where Hermann worked with the Liverpool Cotton Exchange. But the family moved back to the UK when Jeannette and her brother, Christopher, were still young.

She learned to skate at the age of six at the Palace Ice Rink in Liverpool and within four years she had shown such promise that her parents had taken her out of school for private tuition focused around the skating rink. By the age of 16 she was representing Great Britain in the European and world figure skating championships of 1947, finishing fourth and fifth respectively.

Jeannette Altwegg winning gold in the 1951 European figure skating championships.

Also an excellent tennis player, in the same year Altwegg was runner-up in the singles at the British junior championships at Wimbledon, raising questions as to which sport she might choose to pursue. But her mind was made up in 1948 when she won the first of her four senior British figure skating championships and then went on to take one of only two medals won by Great Britain at that year’s Winter Olympics in St Moritz, with a bronze in the women’s singles after an especially good performance in the compulsory figures.

Altwegg’s strength always lay in those compulsory figures – a now defunct element of figure skating in which competitors were judged on their ability to trace precise shapes in the ice. Although by no means a mechanical skater, she was less formidable in the free skating element of competition, which put more emphasis on flair and artistic invention than it did on discipline and control.

Although she grabbed another bronze at the 1949 European championships in Milan, low free-skating scores deprived her of a medal at the 1949 world championships in Paris, where she finished fourth. But her sound temperament never allowed her to get upset when there were setbacks. The following year she upgraded to silver at both the European and world championships, and in 1951 she won gold at both by amassing huge points leads in the figures that made up for any shortfall in the free skating sections.

Jeannette Altwegg surrounded by photographers in 1952, after winning gold at the Olympic Games in Oslo, Norway.
Jeannette Altwegg surrounded by photographers in 1952, after winning gold at the Olympic Games in Oslo, Norway. Photograph: Hulton Getty

Altwegg retained her European title in Vienna in 1952, after which she went straight to Oslo for the Winter Olympics. Working with her Swiss coach, Jacques Gerschwiler, and trying to ignore problems with her knee, she developed a new free skating programme set to Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, which she hoped would provide a more solid foundation than previous routines.

After posting a strong score in the figures, however, she could still manage only fourth place in her weaker event, although in the end she had just enough points to win gold ahead of the American Tenley Albright (silver) and Jacqueline du Bief of France (bronze).

Altwegg’s was the only medal of any description won by her country in those Winter Games, and served as a welcome morale booster in postwar austerity Britain. But the win proved to be her final competitive performance, and after a celebratory demonstration at the Kingsway Rink in Dundee, she consigned her skates to the cupboard.

There were plenty of lucrative offers on the table, including a £2,000-a-week contract from the Music Corporation of America to star in a worldwide ice dancing tour. But Altwegg was not tempted. “No thanks, not for a million pounds,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald. “I’m not interested in luxury. I wouldn’t like it. Besides, I’m not a dramatic skater. I could never do popular music hall stuff.” Her ambition, she said, was “to get married and have children” – and so she did.

Made a CBE in 1953, Altwegg spent much of that year in Winterthur, Switzerland, taking a course in children’s welfare, after which she accepted a job at the Pestalozzi Children’s Village for orphaned child refugees, in Trogen. Earning the equivalent of less than £3 per week, she worked from 6.30am to 8pm every day, helping to care for the children while also washing, ironing, cleaning floors and doing general housework.

In Switzerland she met Marc Wirz, an engineer, who was a brother of the Swiss skating champion Susi Wirz, one of her former sporting rivals. They were married in 1954, after which she left her job to raise their children. The family had a comfortable existence in Switzerland; there was a summer house in Spain, riding, recreational golf and tennis, and she learned to fly. The marriage ended in divorce in 1973 and, after resettling in Berne, Altwegg declined all interview requests for the next four decades, even when she was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1993.

In 2011, however, she did accept an invitation to attend the European figure skating championships in Switzerland, during which she emerged briefly into the light. In various press interviews she revealed, among other things, that being taken out of school to concentrate on her skating had made her grow up too fast and left her missing the companionship of children her own age. It was perhaps this that influenced her later decision to leave the sport so early to concentrate on family life.

She is survived by her four children and 13 grandchildren.

• Jeannette Eleanor Altwegg, ice skater, born 8 September 1930; died 18 June 2021


Peter Mason

The GuardianTramp

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