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1937 ~ Gonne Donker

Gonne Donker was the first Dutch woman to compete in the World Allround Speed Skating Championships, and yet her remarkable sporting career has vanished from the collective memory of the Dutch. She had such high aspirations that they were effectively too ambitious for the Dutch sporting world.

Donker was born in Ilpendam on 2nd March 1918 as the daughter of the family doctor Jacobus Donker. As a child she was a keen sports fan, and particularly loved skating, swimming, and cycling. ‘She was a whirlwind,’ wrote the paper Het Nieuws van den Dag on 6 January 1940, ‘lithe, brisk, nimble, a picture of health and bloom, as perfect as smooth one-day ice, and an impish champion.’


In the 1930s, Donker was by far the best long-distance female skater in the country, although the Skating Federation scarcely had any interest in the idea of a serious women’s competition. She first took part in a competition in January 1933, at just 14 years of age, and celebrated an easy victory. At the end of 1934 she started training at the ice rink on Linnaeusstraat.

In 1937 Donker took part in the World Allround Speed Skating Championships in Davos – the first Dutch woman skater ever to do so. ‘That girl is certainly going places,’ observed the magazine Revue der Sporten. It was a good prediction, since at the 1939 World Championships Donker was the fastest in the 500m in spite of a strong side wind, thaw, and

sleet. She even seemed to be heading for second place in the overall standings, but after a fall in the 5,000m she continued her race in the wrong lane. Her Polish rival Zofia Nehringowa submitted a protest, possibly because that was the only way for her to end up in third place in this distance. The jury agreed with Nehringowa, after which Donker was disqualified – also for the final rankings. Even at an advanced age Donker would become incensed at the sight of a photo of Nehringowa, or the mere mention of her name.



When Donker arrived home after these world championships, it was to a big reception hosted by the skating federation and her father, partly because that very day was her 21st birthday. De Telegraaf reported: ‘Everyone came up to congratulate the spirited skater on her splendid achievements and to offer bouquets. For a moment Gonne Donker stood here, a little taken aback, since this enthusiastic reception had taken her by surprise.’ Her next chance to shine would be at the 1940 Winter Olympics but these Games were cancelled because of the Second World War. In 1940 Donker continued to compete in Dutch events, but she had no real rivals. In events held in Aalsmeer, for instance, she rode the 500m within 60 seconds – twelve seconds faster than the woman in second place! A year later she married Hendrik Zwarensteyn. By then she was so famous that Polygoon included pictures of the wedding festivities in its cinema newsreel. There is no record of Donker having taken part in any events after her marriage. During the wartime years, Donker and her family were active in the resistance, as the couple’s son John Zwarensteyn related in 2010. In 1952 the Zwarensteyns moved to the United States, where Gonne divorced Hendrik Zwarensteyn, after 16 years of marriage. The couple had four children and five grandchildren. Donker remained in the United States until her death on 5 February 2005.


1940 ~ Skating soldiers

As long as we are on the ice, the Netherlands still lives. This was how Princess Juliana chose to demonstrate, in January 1940, that everyday life was still going on as normal, in spite of the threat of war. She stepped out onto the ice, under the watchful eye of the national press, who reported: ‘Princess Beatrix also joined in. Seated on a little sledge and wrapped in a travelling rug, she was pulled onto the ice o enjoy, in her own way, the glorious winter morning.’ The royals’ winter fun in 1940 was a matter of national importance.

Patrols on the ice

Skating also played a role among the mobilised soldiers in 1940, a year that was cold enough for an Eleven Cities Tour. There was ample opportunity for soldiers to conduct patrols on skates – in this case too, recorded by the national press. ‘For the country’s defenders, if properly equipped with skates, the ice is an ally,’ concluded the daily newspaper Het Algemeen Handelsblad, ‘which became clear on military manoeuvres, in which skating patrols were sent on missions to recapture positions that had fallen to the enemy. Carrying a lightweight machine gun posed no problem. The object was reached in a matter of minutes.’


Popular weeklies such as Het Leven and Panorama also published extensive photo-reportages of military manoeuvres on frozen expanses of water. The message was clear: on the ice, the Dutch army is in a state of readiness. It probably made little impression on the enemy, but this propaganda offensive was mainly intended for the magazines’ Dutch readership.

Military championships

Many skating champions were caught up in the winter mobilisation of 1940. One was Herman Buyen of Amsterdam. Precisely in this fantastic winter, he was compelled again and again to seek the permission of the military authorities to take part in races. ‘These boys too long for the chance to compete in races,’ commented the paper Het Nieuwsblad van Friesland. ‘Which of the affiliated clubs will be the first to organise a long-distance race for soldiers?’ On 6 January 1940, Amsterdam did hold a race for mobilised soldiers on the artificially-flooded athletics track at Olympiaplein. ‘All soldiers encamped in or around Amsterdam were free to join in’, wrote the daily newspaper De Telegraaf. About a hundred men from various units signed up. ‘It was sheer delight for the boys to stretch their legs on this marvellous surface. The ice has always been maintained perfectly here, and in consequence the race produced fine performances that were well worth watching.’ The winner of the 800m received a silver medal from the municipality of Amsterdam, but the objects that attracted most enthusiasm were the cigars and cigarettes that were also awarded as prizes.

Skating princesses

In the event, not a single act of combat took place on the ice; all these preparations proved indeed to be primarily propaganda. It was a comforting thought: as long as we are on the ice, the Netherlands still lives, even if that message comes from Canada. So at the end of 1944, Reuters news agency reported ‘We have heard the news from Ottawa that the young princesses Beatrix and Irene are currently practising ice skating, so that they will be able to take part in this quintessentially Dutch sport on our ice rinks when they come home.’ This turned the royals’ winter fun in 1944 into a matter of national importance.

Article © Jurryt van de Vooren 

More in the series in early 2020