The 23rd Winter Olympics which are due to take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea in February 2018 will be unrecognisable in almost every way from the Games that took place 86 years previously, the 3rd Winter Games at Lake Placid in 1932. Set against the shadow of a worldwide economic depression, only 17 countries attended, represented by 252 competitors, more than half whom were Canadian or American, just four were British. Figure skaters Joan Dix, Mollie Phillips, Megan Taylor and Cecilia Colledge are among some of the youngest female contestants in any Olympic sport, the latter two being the youngest competitors in the history of the Winter Olympics, both just 11 at the time. Three of these young women went on to become world renowned in their sport; as competitors, judges and administrators and within the professional entertainment sphere.
The British quartet were chosen after the Olympic trails in November 1931 held at the Ice Club in Westminster. The eldest of the foursome, 22-year-old Mollie Phillips, is regarded as a pioneer in the skating world, both as a competitor and a judge. Daughter of the owner of the Phillips Rubber shoe-soling company, George Philips, she took up skating as a girl, taking lessons from Howard Nicholson – the coach of Sonja Henie. Mollie quickly rose through the ranks during the 1920s and by the early 1930s she was noted for her attention to musical interpretation. She trained with her pairs partner Rodney Murdoch at the then private Westminster Ice Club and with whom she had success during the 1930s. They won the 1933 British Championships after coming second the previous year and followed that up with the bronze medal in the 1933 European Championships, where Mollie also came 7th in the Ladies event. Murdoch had to give up pairs skating after breaking his wrists and Mollie then concentrated on her singles career.
At the 1932 Olympics she was placed ninth and perhaps more significantly, was selected to be the flag bearer thus ensuring her a place in Olympic History as the first female to carry a national flag at an Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, something of which she was enormously proud and apparently mentioned the fact often. After her retirement she became the first woman and youngest person ever to be elected to the Council of the National Skating Association (the sport’s UK governing body). Fittingly, after having carried the British flag at the Games, she was also the first British woman to judge at an Olympic Winters Games as well as the first British woman to act as assistant referee and subsequently referee at an international competition. Her most noteworthy breakthrough came in 1953 when she was the first ever female to referee a World Championship event, being appointed referee for the Ice Dance Championships. All in all Mollie took part in six Olympics from competitor in 1932 and 1936 to judge in four others.
In a life of “firsts” Mollie also became High Sheriff of Carmarthenshire (1961-2), the first woman to hold the office and the first daughter to follow her father in the role.
The second member of the team was Northamptonshire born Joan Dix, who was 13 at the time of the Games. She was the daughter of Olympic speed and Fen skater Fred Dix, who had represented Britain at the 1924 and 1928 Winter Games. He was also the holder of the British amateur speed skating title for 20 years. She was taught to skate by her father, who had the previous year been appointed the instructor at the Richmond Skating Rink in London. She was considered one of the finest exponents of the art of figure skating in Britain and was engaged giving exhibitions of skating across the rinks in the capital. At the time of her selection she already held a National Skating Association gold medal and was placed third in the 1932 British Championships and seventh in the 1931 Europeans.
At the Games Dix came tenth and at the World Championships a few weeks later in Canada was again tenth. At the 1932 European’s she went slightly better finishing seventh.
The third of the quartet was Megan Taylor, who was 11 years and 102 days at the 1932 Olympics and was said to have been skating since she was five years old. She was taught by her mother, a professional skater from St Moritz, the newspapers reported her as attending a private school in Wimbledon and that she trained for four hours a day.
Her father Phil, a speed skater and a well-known Canadian exhibition skater, travelled with his daughter to act as her trainer at the Games, which were held on artificial ice for the first time. ‘I want to give her the best possible chance when she arrives in America and so will complete her training there personally’ he told the press as they prepared to depart for the States.
Megan was ultimately placed seventh in these Games and second behind Sonja Heine at the World Championships in 1934 and 1936. After Heine retired Megan won the World title in 1938 and 1939 and was three times runner-up at the European Championships (1937,1938 and 1939) behind Olympic team-mate Cecilia Colledge. In 1938 it was said she turned down £1000 to appear in a Hollywood film, telling reporters that she had undertaken a screen test but at only 18 wished to remain an amateur and have a crack at the 1940 Olympic title. It was announced by her father in November 1939 that she had turned professional and was to co-star alongside him at his ice-revue, at the Sydney Theatre Royal the following day, before embarking on an extensive tour of America and Canada. She went on to travel the world with her father and was later to appear alongside Sonja Heine in the New York Ice Revues – “Ice Follies” and “Ice Capades”.
The youngest member of the team, Cecilia Colledge, was only 33 days younger than Megan, at 11 years and 73 days and to this day is still the youngest British Olympian and youngest Winter Olympic competitor, although that record alone has somewhat overshadowed her other achievements as a skater. She was a precocious figure skater, stylish and technically accomplished and good enough to eventually became British, European and World champion. Cecilia is credited with inventing the camel and lay-back spins, the one-footed axel jump, to which she gave her name, and she was also the first woman to execute a double salchow, which she performed during the 1936 European Championships.
Born into a wealthy family, her father was an eminent surgeon and seminal researcher in throat cancer. The story goes that her mother, Margaret, dreamed of her daughter becoming a champion of a sport and after Cecilia was ‘spellbound’ by the performance of Sonja Heine at the 1928 World Skating Championships, that dream started to take shape. Margaret took her daughter out of school to train in Norway and on their return to London she employed the German-Swiss trainer Jacques Gerschwiler, the ‘Svengali of the ice rink’. He moved into the family home, taking complete charge of her diet and exercise as well as teaching Cecilia French and German, she very soon became his star pupil.
In an interview in 1938 Mrs Colledge talked of the life that such young athletes undertake; during the peak of the season they spend over 1000 hours a year on the ice, sacrificing almost entirely the normal life of a schoolgirl. The trainer becomes the ‘dictator’ of their lives, no matter where the young skating aspirant might be, the secret of success was in her implicit obedience to her trainer at all times, the mother becoming nothing more than chauffeur and chaperone. Mrs Colledge went on to talk of the cost of involved, over £10,000 in training fees, clothes and travel alone, all borne by the parents.
Margaret Colledge was active in her daughter’s preparations for the ice and had some unconventional ideas, such as employing a circus contortionist (a Miss Lee), who, using a rope tied around the young girl’s waist and an overhead bar as a pulley, successfully taught Cecilia to do a backbend.
Cecilia travelled to Lake Placid with her mother as a first-class passenger aboard the SS Berangaria, her coach travelled tourist-class, as did team-mate Megan Taylor and her father. The girls were pictured together before departure and as a group on arrival in Lake Placid, where the press were already taking a great interest due to the young age of the British competitors.
Cecilia and Megan were often photographed together during the Games, the press applauding their skill and talent, using such phrases as; ‘cute English schoolgirls’, ‘child champions’ and ‘juvenile ice princesses’. One report referring to:
‘three pretty and young children which will comprise the main part of Great Britain’s team …. not in any previous Olympic competition of any sort have three such young persons entered into competition with the world’s best for the highest honours in sport…… the girls have all became first favourites in the hearts of the other athletes…’
Cecilia came eight at the Games, with Sonja Heine winning the gold medal, four years later in front of Hitler in Berlin, Cecilia would claim silver, again behind Heine. Many believed at the time that the younger more athletic Colledge should have won gold, but skating is a sport that always contains some subjective judging and 1936 was no different. Cecilia won her first British senior title in 1935, and was runner-up in that year’s World Championships, which she won a few years later in 1937, she was also the three-time European Ladies Champion (1937-39). After serving as an ambulance drive in WWII, she won her sixth British title in 1946 and then turned professional. During a brief professional career, she performed in ice revues in New York, London and Brighton and won the British Open Pro title in 1947 and 1948. She then moved and settled in the USA in the early 1950s and was appointed as coach to the Skating Club of Boston, where she remained until 1995.
These four young women, who were warmly cheered as they came past the main stand, ‘stumbling over the ice’ during the Olympic Opening Ceremony, represent the amateur ethos that was prevalent in pre-war British sport. They also reinforce the notion of the young sportsperson as nothing new and moreover that such athletes have always been subject to the same pressures relating to international competition; travel, specialised coaching, parental expectations and access to resources both financial and temporal.
Article © Margaret Roberts