Jeanette Altwegg was born in Mumbai India, then known as Bombay, on September 8th 1930 to a Liverpudlian mother and Swiss cotton merchant father. At the age of 2 the family moved to Liverpool, where Jeannette was brought up. When she was 6 years old her father began to take her to the Liverpool Palace Ice Rink, once a week.
Her progress was not meteoric, as with some champions, but more hard work and steady progress. For some months she was held upright on the ice by her father but once she got the hang of it she grew to love it and showed some talent so her father arranged for lessons with Ernst Hartung. With Ernst her skating became proficient, but he later moved to Birmingham and when war was declared restrictions made travel between the cities difficult. Thus began a new pupil/coach partnership with Armand Perren, which would ultimately lead to the British Ladies Championship.
In 1939, Jeannette had her first taste of standing on a competition podium when she took third place in the 6 to 9 age group at the annual Wembley Open Competition. As wartime open competitions and championships were suspended Jeannette focused on Liverpool club competitions, gradually working her way up. However, the dropping of 2 bombs on the rink and the war generally meant that the lessons with Mr Perren were sparse and her practice was solitary.
Mr Perren took her through her tests. Our records indicate that she passed her Preliminary Figures and Free in 1939 and by 1943, despite the bombing and quick repair of the rink, she had not only passed Gold Figures and Free but Silver Ice dance as well.
By 1940, at age 10, her parents had decided that she should concentrate on her sports of skating and tennis and removed her from school. From then on she received private tuition but in an interview with BBC Radio, in 1952, she admitted that she missed the companionship of children of her own age.
With the advent of peacetime and resumption of competition Jeannette entered The British Junior Ladies Championship in 1946 and became the first post war Junior Champion. Suddenly the skating community took notice of Jeannette Altwegg and would later be staggered by her success.
As tennis was also one of her passions, she chose not to build on her skating success immediately but stopped skating altogether for some months to focus on tennis and duly entered the Ladies Singles at the 1947 Junior Wimbledon. Jeannette battled through six rounds to reach the final where she was beaten into second place. What an achievement to reach such heights at junior level in two different sports!
She also took part in Junior Wimbledon the following year and reached the last eight. She realised that to excel she had to concentrate on one sport and had won the 1948 British Ladies Championship and competed in The World and European Championships in the same year, finishing 5th and 4th respectively she made the decision to focus on skating.
She also had a change of location and coach, moving to Kent to train in London at Queen’s with Jacques Gerschwiler. Jeannette became renowned for her excellence at figures, which then carried a higher factor of marks than the Free Skating, so good figures were essential.
She executed her figures with a great deal of calmness and self-control which, in turn usually gave her a commanding lead going into the Free Skating Programme. Her free skating showcased her understanding of musical interpretation and she was the first winner of The Martineau Bowl, a competition in ladies free skating where they were marked for beauty of style and musical interpretation.
She was also gaining a reputation for her friendliness and lack of affectation. Having won her first British Ladies Championship in 1948 she retained the title in the following three years and had the country behind her in the 1948 Winter Olympic Games, when she won the bronze medal. Following that up with bronze medals at the 1949 World and European Championships and silver in both championships in 1950 gave a post war austere UK hope that she could attain even more glory.
Indeed, glory did follow. Hardworking Jeannette, forever practicing her craft, in 1951 won the first of her two European Championships and, just a few weeks later, followed Madge Syers, Cecelia College and Megan Taylor, to become our 4th World Ladies Figure Skating Champion.
Jeannette’s greatest skating achievement took place at The Winter Olympic Games in 1952, in front of 30.000 spectators at The Bislett Stadium, in Oslo when she won the gold medal in the Ladies Competition. The second British lady to win individual Olympic Gold in skating and the first to win individual medals at two separate Games.
No other British lady won an individual Gold medal in any sport at a Winter Olympic games until 2010.
If 1952 was a momentous year for Jeannette’s sporting life, then 1953 was one for her personal life. She was offered £2000 a week to turn professional but instead chose to earn £3 a week at the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen, Switzerland. The village cared for orphaned and refugee children from all-over war-torn Europe and such was Jeannette’s personality that she considered humanitarian work more important than entertaining audiences.
Her services to skating were not forgotten, though, as she was awarded a CBE in the Coronation honours, the highest honour ever given to a skater.
The NSA awarded her with Honorary Life Membership with the following citation: -“ A great chapter in British Skating has just been closed, and the least we can do is offer our Olympic Champion honorary life membership of the NSA. We are much in Miss Altwegg’s debt, not only for her victories, but for showing how to meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same”.
At the end of 1953 Jeannette married, Swiss civil engineer Marc Wirz. Marc himself was from a skating family and was brother of Swiss Ladies Champion Suzi Wirz and uncle of Swiss Pairs Champion Heinz Wirz. Jeannette kept most of the rest of her life very private. She regularly visited her parents, but only appeared in public in 1960 when she returned to Liverpool to open the Silver Blades Ice Rink. She quietly raised her four children. Her daughter, Cristina, was a member of the 1983 World Ladies Curling Championship Team.
For decades she declined all attempts to interview her until 2011 when she attended The World Championship Gala, in Bern, as a guest and granted an interview with The International Figure Skating Magazine. When asked about figures this great exponent of figures said “I do not think it is beneficial for the Free Skating portion because with figures we were always stiff and free skate should be loose. I think that era is over”.
Jeannette still had an interest in sport though as her hobby, post skating, was golf. Jeannette Altwegg Wirz, one of our most successful and popular lady free skaters, described by her contemporaries as a thoroughly nice person, died in Switzerland on 18th June 2021 and is survived by her 4 children and 13 grandchildren.
Obituary written by Elaine Hooper, BIS Historian - July 2021