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Barbara Ann Scott

By Alexandra Stevenson

Barbara Ann Scott was born on May 9, 1928 in Ottawa, Canada, the daughter of an army colonel and began skating at the age of six to become one of the most famous skaters of the 20th Century. She died of natural causes at the age of 84, on September 30, 2012 with her husband of 56 years, Tom King, at her side. This interview was taken with Barbara Ann Scott in 2008.

It’s hard to believe the tiny, vivacious blonde standing in the pitiless glare of the noon-time Florida sun is really Canada’s sweetheart. Surely this must be a celebrity look-alike. (Barbara Ann Scott turned 80 on May 9). This smiling, upbeat person appeared to be, at most, in her fifties. What 92-pound octogenarian could still fit into the skating outfits she wore posing for the covers of Life and Time magazines over sixty years ago?

Scott smiles when she looks at these photos. Those outfits were considered the height of fashion then but they were so subdued compared to today’s flamboyant sparkling creations.

“We didn’t have the stretch materials they have today,” she says. “We had to be so careful to make sure there was enough material to cover properly with our arms and legs pulling this way and that. It took an expert seamstress make them look pretty. Today, of course, in comparison, they look bulky and ugly. But we had to work with what we had.

“And it had to be long-sleeved and warm because we competed outdoors. There wasn’t much glitter because you weren’t supposed to look like a show skater. It took an expert seamstress to make them look pretty. Today, of course, in comparison, they look bulky, but we had to work with what fabrics we had – mostly wool.”

Minus their boots and blades, skaters always look smaller off the ice but, even so, isn’t this person too short to be the fabled Scott?

Scott laughs and shrugs, as if life is playing a joke on her, “I am shrinking. You do when you grow old. I was 5’3” and now I’m only 5’1½.”

That shrinkage is usually accompanied by a dowager’s hump but her back is ramrod straight. What is her secret?

“I don’t have one. Jane Powell (the movie star) gave me the best advice I ever had. She told me that every time I reach a stop light while driving I should pull in my abdominal muscles, sit up straight and hold my breath till the light changed. And I still do.”

(Powell, starred in many musical comedies including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.)

It is difficult to describe the extent of Scott’s fame. Today, celebrities are made overnight courtesy of television, and there appears to be a never-ending stream of people who are “famous for 15-minutes”.

A Far Different Era

Scott’s position was not only the product of talent, poise and great charisma. These attributes, of course, were essential. But, in addition, the country was looking to forget the atrocities, deprivation and honor of the war and celebrate youthful achievement and prospects of a far better future.

All international competition had ceased at the beginning of World War II. The World Figure Skating Championships resumed in 1947 after 7 years. The Olympics in 1948 were the first since 1936.

During this suspension, Sonja Henie’s very popular movies had sparked an enormous public interest in the sport. And the focus of the fans became this new star who dominated the scene in 1947-48, Barbara Ann.

Canada’s “golden girl” became the first North American woman ever to win the world figure skating title, which she did twice. She remains the only Canadian to win a figure skating Olympic gold in singles.

Scott will always be the only woman to sweep all four of the only international championships available in 1948 - North American, European, Olympic and World. (Non-Europeans were subsequently barred from that championship. The North American meet between the US and Canada died in 1971 and was succeeded eventually by the Four Continents championships which began in 1999.)

Scott still remembers all the details of those long ago contests. “In Davos, (Switzerland -Europeans), it was 20 below and the ice was as hard as cement! And in Stockholm, (Sweden, Worlds) it was bitter cold and the wind made my eyes water, which made it hard to see the tracings in the (compulsory) figures. You had to be able to read the wind and choose your bit of ice for the figures wisely so it didn’t bring you to a complete stop!”

Her Freeskate was set to music by Delibes from the ballet Coppelia. She received one 6.0 in Davos and two in Stockholm. After Worlds she did some exhibitions. There were vestiges of the war everywhere.

“I was taken to a radio station at one point and to get to the studio I had to go along a corridor that was pock-marked with bullet holes. And you saw many ruined buildings. The people had rationing for food and everyone looked exhausted.”

In Prague, she ended up with frostbite fingers after signing too many autographs after an exhibition. And she got used to strange questions.

“Not many people in Europe had met a Canadian before. One asked, what it was like to live in an ice house. I realized they thought Canada was made up only of Eskimos living in igloos.

Coming home to Canada, Scott was immediately its most famous person. Her hometown of Ottawa closed all the schools for half a day so children could attend the parade where she was escorted by 16 Royal Canadian Police and a 32-piece band playing, Let Me Call You Sweetheart. The mayor, Stanley Lewis, presented Scott with the keys to the cream-colored Buick convertible in which she had been riding.

This action elicited the ire of Avery Brundage, head of the US Olympic Committee who alerted the head of the International Olympic Committee, Sigried Edstrom, who, in turn contacted the head of the Canadian Figure Skating Association, and threatened her amateur status and her Olympic opportunity if she did not give back the car. Such was her popularity in North America, that Brundage was then saddled with the epitaph of “The Most Hated American.”

Scott returned it to the mayor immediately suggesting it be auctioned off for charity. (Instead, they put it on display and it was returned to her a year later.)

The 1948 Olympic Games were held in St. Moritz and Scott was the clear favorite to win.

“There was a thaw,” she recalled. “After the first two figures the ice was so soft and mushy from the alternating melting sleet and strong sun that the other figures had to be postponed until the next day. She won the Figures event as well as the Freeskate to claim Olympic gold.

Her fame was so pervasive that Barbara Ann became the most popular name for a generation of new born girls all over Canada.

A Princess Meets Her Prince

Photo by Kathy Goedeken

Scott turned professional after her Olympic win and began touring across the US and Canada. Her first professional appearance was at the Roxy theatre in New York.

“It was exhausting,” she recalled. “We did five shows a day and six on Saturday and we had to work on a small ice surface.”

After that show she embarked on a 10,000 mile 20-week tour of Canada with her own show, Skating Sensations of 1949. Then she toured with Ice Capades. She flew to London, where with perfect casting, she appeared in the lovely operetta Rose Marie on Ice, which was so popular, it continued for a second season.

Returning to North America, she replaced Sonja Henie in Arthur Wirtz’s Hollywood Ice Review from 1951-54. Wirtz owned the Chicago Stadium. While starring in the show, Scott worked with Thomas King, the publicist for Wirtz. He was a handsome former MVP college basketball forward, who had also played professionally. Their romance blossomed over several years of working together and they married in 1955 in Toronto

King left the Wirtz organization to work for Joseph P. Kennedy, the granddaddy of the Kennedy clan in Massachusetts, and was the president of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart for 12 years, after which King built up his own business in security and real estate.

After living in Chicago for many years, she and King, retired to their Amelia Island, Fla., home.

Scott’s Fame Lives On

Scott's exceptional career earned her a number of honors, including the Lou Marsh Trophy (Canada's Outstanding Athlete of the Year) in 1945, 1947 and 1948. She was the first female athlete to receive the honor. In addition, Scott was inducted into the Canadian Amateur Sports Hall of Fame in 1949, the Canada Sports Hall of Fame in 1955, the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1979 and the Olympic Hall of Fame and Museum in 1990.

Scott became an honored member of the Canadian Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1991, and was appointed Officer of the Order of Canada (O.C.) that same year. She was also inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1997, and was named to Canada's Walk of Fame in 1998.

She remains in demand for public appearances at charity events. In 2008, an addition to a rink was named after her in Ottawa, the home town of her youth; the building which houses the organization which governs skating in Canada was officially named after her.

At another event this year in Canada, the Viennese Charity Ball hosted by the Austrian ambassador at the Canadian National Gallery, Scott and other Canadian Olympic medalists, Frances Dafoe, Debbi Wilkes and Liz Manley were presented with special pins.

They had donated various items. Scott had provided one of her famous bonnets (worn during competition to keep her ears from suffering frost bite during bitter outdoor conditions).

Manley had given the famous white Stetson hat which she donned after it was thrown on the ice after her silver medal winning performance at the Saddledome in the Olympics in 1988 Games.

The Barbara Ann Scott doll remains a highly prized collector’s item. “I was taken aback at one point when a fan put a leg in front of me to sign. But she explained she had found one in a poor state and she was spending a lot of time renovating it, so, of course, I did sign.”

To mark the 50th anniversary of her Olympic gold, a television documentary was aired on CBC of Scott’s life. Last year, for the 60th anniversary, it was reshown. Scott explains that, now, she concentrates, “on the present, not what has gone. I like to take each day as it comes and not worry about the past. I’ve been very fortunate in my life.”