An interview with Sjoukje Dijkstra, the 1964 Olympic champion in ladies’ singles, the 1960 Olympic silver medalist, a three-time World champion (1962–1964), five-time European champion (1960–1964), and the six-time Dutch national champion (1959–1964). We talked about how she’s glad she became a figure skater rather than a speed skater, traveling and training in London as a youngster, and how much hairspray it took to keep her hair big while competing. 40 minutes, 17 seconds
Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:
On her most embarrassing skating moment: The most embarrassing one I had as a professional, not as an amateur, was when I came to New York, a big premiere at Madison Square Gardens, the old one. And they announced me of course very big, after the Olympic championships and the world championships. And they had made a big frame with paper, and in Europe when they had made it, they had cut it before, so I could jump through it. And in America, when I came here to New York, they didn’t cut it before. So when I jumped through it I had to break the paper myself. Of course, it did break, but it got under my skates. So I jumped out, and they said this big announcement, Olympic champion, and I jumped out and went flat on my face [laughs] because I had all this paper underneath my skates. So I just felt like picking myself up and jumping back through and going home [laughs]. But thank God, I did pick myself up, and I did skate, and I did my double axel and my axel and my other jumps, so it was okay. But that was my most embarrassing moment. And I told them afterwards, you must cut it before, make a cross in it so it’s already broken and it won’t stick on me.
On starting skating: My father [who competed in speed skating in the 1936 Olympics] was a doctor, and he loved all sports. But I was very thankful that my grandfather and my father gave me a pair of figure skates, because I love skating and not speed skating [laughs]. So Dad gave me figure skates. I don’t enjoy speed skating at all, and [in the Netherlands] we the figure skaters had a very hard time against the speed skaters, because of course all the speed skaters get all the medals and everything. So we always had a very big fight to get through with the figure skating, because they would not support us too. If I hadn’t had my parents I never would have gotten this far.
I don’t know if I was [a natural skater], but I was told I was. You know how all fathers and mothers are. My father, when he was going around to have a look at his patients to see how they were, he’d drop me off at the ice rink. And of course there was a trainer there, and he would say to the trainer, oh, have a look at my daughter, if she’s got any talent or anything. And the trainer thought, oh, yeah, yeah, it’s one of these again [laughs]. So after a week or so, he did come to my father and said, you know, you’re right, may I give her some more lessons? So that’s how it started.
But then it was very difficult in Holland because we only had one rink. I started in Amsterdam, but then that rink closed down, so we only had one ice rink in all of Holland, in The Hague, which was a good hour’s drive from my home. With my father being a doctor, it was very hard to bring me after school to the ice rink. So in the end another trainer took me with some other kids to England because he had heard there was a very good trainer. So we were about four or five children, and we went over there, and I came back and I said to my parents, oh, it’s wonderful there, you can really train, you know, and the trainer’s very good. And so that’s how I started training in England with Mr. Arnold Gerschwiler.
We used to train most of the year round. We would train in England and then in the winter months we would go to Davos, in Switzerland. Mr. Gerschwiler was Swiss and he would spend most of December, January and February in Davos, and that was good, just before the championships. So of course we all went there as well.
When I was 11 years old, I went by myself, without my parents. I still had a brother and of course my father still had a very busy practice. So I went on my own. Thinking now, it was amazing [laughs]. I stayed in some places that were not very nice, but I didn’t dare tell my parents, because my parents would have said, you’re coming straight back and you’re never going over there again. But I loved training there and it was wonderful. And I didn’t know if I would get anywhere if I had wanted to stay and train [in Holland].
On competitions: The first time I went to international championships, I was 11. We went to the Europeans. I must have been then fourth or third then in the Dutch championships.
On leaving formal schooling at age 13: I did schooling separately. My father, being a doctor, he had two students who would go with him to learn about being doctors. And they would teach me separately, like tutoring in languages and algebra and the other things, when I came back to Holland. So I did do schooling, but I skated a lot [laughs]. Six hours a day, and we still had the figures and that took up three hours a day, so there was three hours a day of free skating. I enjoyed the figures, but I enjoyed free skating too. I loved jumping, the height and everything. It’s a very beautiful sport, but it’s a very difficult sport [laughs].
On her favorite competition: You know, it’s funny, people ask me about the medals, and I say, every medal is a special memory and a special thought. And even the ones where I didn’t come anywhere, the competitions, they always have something special. I never forget, in Garmisch in 1956 [at the world championships], I had to skate behind Tenley Albright, which, as a 13-year-old, I was kind of flabbergasted, I was hypnotized, I was, oh, I have to skate behind her and she’s so good [laughs]. Those memories will always stick to you. And at that moment I never thought I would be in the first three. And then afterwards in Squaw Valley [at the 1960 Olympics] I stood on the podium next to Carol [Heiss], I was a silver Olympic medalist, and I thought, I’m here! [laughs] And I was so proud to stand next to Carol. It was wonderful.
With Carol, of course, when she won in Squaw Valley, I said to her, because I knew she had come second in 1956, and she had promised her mother that she would try and win the Olympics in ’60 – I said to her, I’m so glad you won, because you promised your mother, so please give me a chance in four years’ time [laughs]. So I just stayed on for another four years, and I won in ’64. Which of course for me was just wonderful because our Queen Juliana came with her family and watched the performance. I really only skated for her that evening. It was wonderful.
In the beginning, sometimes, it was tough. In Cortina, in the first Olympic competition where I competed, I think I was just fourteen — my birthday is on the 28th of January so at Europeans or Olympics [how old I was] depended on when they were. After the Olympics, we went back to Davos, and I got very sick with laryngitis. But of course I did want to compete in the worlds, which was a month later. And my parents weren’t there at that time. I got penicillin and everything, and really, I went from my bed to Garmisch for the world championships, because I was so determined. Of course, I didn’t do my best, but I was so happy that I could compete. That was hard, because you know you can do better, but being half-sick, it doesn’t come off.
On the 1956 Olympics, the first of her three Olympics, where she placed 12th: Not bad, for a young thing. Of course in Holland they all expected it to be first, God knows where, but I thought it was not bad for a young kid to come there. I was very proud to walk in the stadium, in the opening ceremonies. It was wonderful. That was another thing that made an impression on me, in Innsbruck [at the 1964 Olympics] — after the closing ceremony, they always bring the flag out of the stadium, and this time they asked eight Olympic gold medalists to carry it, and they asked me. And that made such an impression on me. Really, to bring that flag out of the stadium, it did something to me. It really puts a thing in your throat [laughs].
On her fellow competitor from Holland, Joan Haanappel: One of my biggest rivals, and one of my best friends. We’ve been friends for over 60 years, and I think that’s wonderful. I think that’s how sport should be. You should be able to be friends and still compete. And the better you skate, and if the other one skates better too, you can only be proud of what you’ve done then. And not hope, oh, she’s going to fall. It’s not right. We were good friends. We helped each other. And later on, we were in the ice show together as well, and we had a great time. And up to today, we’re still great friends, and we’re really trying to help the Dutch skaters to get on. So that our little skaters can shine too [laughs].
On the 1960 Olympics: [After being third in the free skating] I was just happy to be second [laughs]. The only thing afterwards was that I wanted to win the figures and the free skating, which I did afterwards. I was very eager to win both things, not so they could say, oh, she only won it on the figures. I wanted to win it on the free skating too.
On the 1961 plane crash that killed the American team traveling to the world championships, and the cancellation of the championships: It was awful. It was very hard on the Americans, but it was also — you worked a whole year, and then nothing. But, well, you’re still alive and that’s the main thing. [The event was cancelled] one or two days before we were going to fly to Prague, we were in Davos. I knew quite a few of the skaters [in the crash] — we had met each other the year before. That was awful.
On the big hairstyles that skaters had at the time: You don’t know how much hairspray there was in there [laughs]. It stayed, you see, it would be stuck. If it would be loose, I couldn’t stand it, if my hair came into my eyes or anything. But it had so much spray in it that it just stayed there. So it was good. I don’t understand now, when I see the skaters with the ponytails slinging around — that must be awful. Mine didn’t move, it stayed. It took a lot of hairspray [laughs]. I’m amazed that I still have hair on my head.
On her double axel: Not many others at the time had it. I loved doing it, I loved the feeling of it, to really fly in the air. It was a lovely feeling [laughs]. I did them in Holiday on Ice too.
On her skill at figures: It was a lot of practice, and interest, and concentration. And I think figures made you do this, to concentrate and to not always be satisfied. Because you could think that you did a beautiful figure, and then you looked at it and there was always something wrong, so you would be, oh dear, I have to do another one again because it’s not right and I want to get it right. It keeps you patient and it gives you discipline. And I think it helped a lot not only for the skating but also for further in life. You always have to be positive, and have patience, and be nice [laughs].
The only figures I didn’t enjoy were loops, because they were so small. That was one figure I didn’t enjoy, but we still had to do them, so we practiced even harder on those. They were a bit awkward [laughs]. Some people liked them the best, but I didn’t. I liked the bigger figures.
On working with Arnold Gerschwiler: He was good at figures, but he was good at the free skating too. He had his methods and his ways, and patience. And especially when you’re very young — you have to be careful with children, with their bones. You can’t start doing too many difficult jumps too soon, because the bones are still soft. But he had a very good way. Sometimes he had to say, that’s enough now, because I wouldn’t give up. But other times he would make me so cross because he said, you’re not trying at all. And I was really trying very hard. So I would think, how can you be so nasty, I’m really trying hard [laughs].
He really knew how to teach his pupils, and he had a very good way. He could get through to you in a nice way. With figures, too, he had certain ways that you will never forget it and you will never do it again. Like with the push-offs in the figures, sometimes you would keep your foot on the ice and there would be a line on the ice. He wouldn’t get mad or anything. If he saw you – he would give lessons to other pupils, but he could still see the others and what they were doing — he would call you over. He did that to me once, and he said, listen, can you go to the office and get me a pair of scissors. So I said, okay, thinking, well, that’s a waste of time, me going over to get a pair of scissors. But I went to the office and said to Betty, that was the secretary there, could I have a pair of scissors please? And she said, yes, who wants them? And I said, well, Mr. Gerschwiler asked me to get them for him. So I got them and went to him and said, here, Mr. Gerschwiler, the pair of scissors. And he said, good. Now take those scissors and go and cut your push-offs [laughs]. So you would only do that once and never again, you would never forget to lift your foot off the ice.
And those were the things he had. The same with saying ‘good morning’. If we didn’t say ‘good morning’ we could go back into the dressing room until we remembered to say ‘good morning’ to him. He brought all his pupils up. And it’s funny, after so many years, we all met again in London — he was married 60 years and he made a big party, and a lot of his pupils met again at the party. And all of us who were there said that he didn’t only give us skating lessons, he also brought us up in a way. We were all there with our parents, but he gave us lessons for the rest of our lives too.
We all stayed in what in England they call ‘digs’, with families and with other people. I was lucky, I was only five minutes’ walk from the rink, but others had to take a bus. When I think of it now, I take my hat off for him, how he managed to teach us all. You get a responsibility for yourself later on, but he had a rule that we all had to be in by half past eight in the evening. He did send one girl home — he never looked for people, whether you were on the street or not, but by accident he would see this girl going to the movies. Not once, but two or three times. And he said, you’ve got a return ticket, you can go home tomorrow. And she did. That’s the only way, to have discipline, and he did have that.
On the 1964 Olympics, where she placed first: It was a very good memory, and of course a month later we had the worlds and I won that too. I think I would have stayed on skating, because I really loved competitions. But my father died then, and you start thinking of the future, and well, we had offers all the time from ice shows as well. So I think I said, well, I might as well go into an ice show because I can’t afford to keep on skating. So [Gerschwiler] made a contract, and I went to Holiday on Ice, and I stayed there for eight years. And for me that was another competition, because everyone said, oh, she’ll stay two years, they’ll only use her for two years because she’s not a show skater. So I thought to myself, well, I’ll show you. You can learn everything. And I did, I learned a lot. I learned how to sell myself in the show as well, and I stayed eight years. And I thought that was an achievement as well.
[Her win was] the first Winter Olympic medal [for Holland]. We had had Summer Olympic medals, a gold medal, but never a Winter Olympic gold medal. The speed skating, that was afterwards. I didn’t know that it was the first one too, until they told me years later [laughs].
On being in Holiday on Ice: When I started, of course, I did my Olympic short program. And I asked some of the older show skaters, what can I do? I asked one of the girls, go and look at what I can change, what can I do to get more applause or to sell it better. And she did, and they were really very nice. They showed me, and I took to it, and it helped me. Like, I would do the jumps and just skate on, and she said, stand a moment, take the applause. Those are the things you have to learn. And I did. I listened to them and it helped a lot. The makeup I had to learn. The principal girls in the show where I was, I said to them, listen, I have no idea how to make myself up. I’d never done that before, maybe you will do a little lipstick, but in the show you really had to have thick makeup. And one day I would have Anna Galmarini, and then there was Charlotte, and there was Mariana, and every day I would have a different eyebrow because they would all have a go at me [laughs]. And then later on I chose the one that was easiest for me to do. That’s how I learned [laughs]. I traveled in Europe, and then I came to America. They would send me to Europe and then back again to America, it was nice. On why more top skaters haven’t come from the Netherlands: Well, this is the problem what I have said to you before, with the speed skating. When Joan and I were at the top, they really should have tried to keep kids behind us and help them, but they never ever did. I don’t know why, but they have never had interest in the figure skating. It’s all the speed skating. We have plenty of rinks now, but of course we don’t have the best coaches either. Joan and myself, well, she is starting a foundation, and we have one very good sponsor, and we’ve got one good trainer from Canada. She comes over and teaches for three times for about a week. And we have 12 kids who we’ve chosen, and they can bring their trainer, and then from outside the trainer comes, and they can teach the girls and the boys and their trainers. So we can try to build something up again, to bring up our skaters. With us, it’s ebbed a lot, down [laughs], but we’re trying to bring it up again.
On figures being removed from competition: It was a loss, but I’m happy to see now with the ice dancing that they are doing the edges again. Because for a time they didn’t. Now they do the twizzles and the rockers and the brackets, and that’s good because you learn to use the inside and the outside of your blade. I do think with the figures that it helps you concentrate better. And if you have an injury, you can always do the figures so you still have the connection of the ice.
On being inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame: Better late than never [laughs]. And it was a nice conclusion of my career. It really did something to me when I was standing there and saw the pictures, and all the people cheered — I never thought they would cheer like that. I mean, they cheered for Michelle Kwan, but I felt they cheered for me too, and I was really moved by it. I don’t cry quickly, but I did then [laughs]. I was happy to come to the US now, to see everybody, because I don’t get to see them that often. On her children: My younger daughter skated, and she was very good, but she had to stop because she had an injury. She now does what my husband did, in the circus with animals. She has four horses. I met my husband in Holiday on Ice, he had a comedy number with unrideable mules [laughs]. His whole family is from the circus, and in his younger days he worked with elephants and horses, as a clown, But he was most famous for his unrideable mules, and he was in America with Holiday on Ice for three years. Everybody loved the mules [laughs].
On what she learned from skating: Skating, I can only say, is for kids a very good sport. You really concentrate, and it gives you something for the rest of your life. You must never give up. You always have troubles and things, and you must always think of, tomorrow it will be better.