Women’s singles figure skating was first held at the 1908 and 1920 Summer Games, four years before the inaugural Winter Games in 1924. The sport is considered the most glamorous and popular at the Games, which have served as a launching pad for post-Olympics careers for medalists. Here are eight remarkable women’s Olympics figure skaters:
1. 1928, ’32, ’36 Games: Sonja Henie, 3-Time Gold Medalist
Henie, the Norwegian national champion, was only 11 when she skated in the first Winter Olympics in 1924 in Chamonix, France. She finished eighth of eight skaters, often pausing during her free-skating program to ask her coach for instructions. But the last-place finish didn’t stop her.
Henie—called the “Pavlova of the Ice” for her balletic style—went on to win gold at the Games in 1928, 1932 and 1936, making her the only woman to win three consecutive gold medals in figure skating singles. She also was renowned for her cutting-edge short skating outfit.
POST-OLYMPICS: Henie became a famous Hollywood actress. Her films reportedly grossed $25 million.
2. 1956 Games: Tenley Albright Overcomes Serious Injury
Less than two weeks before the Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, Albright—who suffered from polio as a girl—accidentally stabbed herself in the right ankle with the heel of her left skate during a practice.
READ MORE: Winter Olympics History
The American team doctor wanted to cut away Albright’s skate, but she stopped him, the New York Times reported, “on the grounds that they were the only free-skating skates she had and that they cost $85 a pair.” The 20-year-old spent 48 hours in the hospital, but she was back on the ice a few days later.
In the Olympics final, Albright turned the injured ankle while performing a double loop. But she earned 10 of 11 first-place votes to become America’s first female skating gold medalist. “I was in great pain, but I figured for four minutes I could put up with anything,” she said afterward.
POST-OLYMPICS: Albright retired from skating after the Olympics to attend Harvard Medical School—one of five women in a class of 135—and became a noted surgeon.
3. 1968 Games: Peggy Fleming Skates Into America’s Heart
At the first Games televised in color and live to a worldwide audience, Fleming dazzled the judges in Grenoble, France with her elegant, balletic movement, earning first-place votes from all nine of them. The 19-year-old earned the lone gold for the United States.
“Darling, you were wonderful,” Dorothy Fleming told her daughter as she left the ice in tears after her gold-medal-winning performance. Replied Peggy: “It’s so good to have it over.”
The victory was emotional for Fleming, who was 12 when her coach, Bill Kipp, and the U.S. figure skating team died in a plane crash en route to the 1961 World Championships.
Fleming also made headlines for her simple, chartreuse costume, made by her mother, who chose the shade because it resembled the color of Chartreuse Liqueur made in Grenoble.
POST-OLYMPICS: Fleming skated professionally and became a TV sports commentator for the OIympics.
4. 1976 Games: Dorothy Hamill, ‘Which of the West’
During her gold-medal performance in Innsbruck, Austria, Hamill skated her signature “Hamill Camel.” Then, upon finishing, the audience showered the ice with flowers. But her final skate got off to a rocky start.
Hamill cried when she spotted a sign in the crowd that read: “Which of the West? Dorothy!” She relaxed, though, upon realizing it was held by friends. Rather than calling her a villain, the sign referenced a Cold War-era showdown between Western skaters Hammill and Diane de Leeuw of the Netherlands versus Christina Errath of East Germany.
After winning gold, Hamill cried again at the medal ceremony. “I couldn’t help it,” she said. “It wasn’t because I had finally won the medal. It was seeing the American flag go up and hearing the band play ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ “
POST-OLYMPICS: Hamill, famous for a short, wedge haircut, became a popular product endorser.
5. 1988 Games: Katarina Witt Beats Debi Thomas in Battle of the Carmens
In an epic showdown in Calgary, Canada, 22-year-old Katarina Witt of East Germany—the 1984 figure skating gold medalist—faced 20-year-old American Debi Thomas. The favorites opted to perform to Bizet’s “Carmen,” making “The Battle of the Carmens” a must-see TV event.
But in the final, Thomas’ performance fell flat, and Witt repeated as the gold medalist—the first back-to-back women’s figure skating champion since Sonja Henie. By earning a bronze, Thomas became the first Black athlete to medal in the Olympics. (Canadian Elizabeth Manley earned the silver.)
Said Witt of Thomas: “She told me that nobody could beat her. But she is not a miracle and can make mistakes.”
“I think I learned a lot about life here,” Thomas told reporters afterward. “Everything is not Cinderella and perfect.”
POST-OLYMPICS: Witt appeared in small film and TV roles and posed nude for Playboy. Thomas became an orthopedic surgeon, then fell on hard times. In 2016, she was bankrupt and living in a trailer.
6. 1992 Games: Kristi Yamaguchi Smashes Barriers
Matching elegance with athleticism, America’s Yamaguchi bested Japan’s Midori Ito and teammate Nancy Kerrigan to win gold in Albertville, France.
With the victory, Yamaguchi—whose mother was born in a Japanese American World War II internment camp—became the first Asian American to win gold in the event and second to take first in any Olympic sport.
READ MORE: Japanese internment camps
On a 2020 “Time Machine” podcast, Yamaguchi said post-Olympics outreach from the Asian American community made her appreciate the significance of her win. “I also gained a deeper appreciation for my family, my ancestors and everything that they had gone through in order for me to live the American dream,” she said.
POST-OLYMPICS: Yamaguchi skated professionally, wrote books, became a sports broadcaster and competed in and won the sixth season of Dancing With The Stars.
7. 1994 Games: Nancy Kerrigan Overcomes Attack
In 1994, Olympic figure skating dominated mainstream news and served as tabloid fodder when gold-medal favorite Kerrigan was attacked during a practice at the U.S. Nationals a month before the Games. “Why? Why me?” Kerrigan famously cried after being hit above the knee with a metal baton.
With Kerrigan unable to perform at nationals, Harding won the event, qualifying for the Olympics.
Days later it was revealed the attack was orchestrated by Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s ex-husband. Kerrigan recovered in time to compete in the Games and, to avoid a lawsuit, the U.S. Olympic Committee also allowed Harding to compete.
At the Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, Kerrigan won silver, finishing behind the Ukraine’s Oksana Baiul. Harding, granted an unusual request to restart her routine because of a broken skate lace, finished eighth.
POST-OLYMPICS: Kerrigan became a professional skater, hosted a Saturday Night Live and competed on Dancing With The Stars. Harding pled guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution and was permanently banned from amateur skating and stripped of her national title. In a celebrity boxing event in 2002, she fought Paula Jones, who had accused President Clinton of sexual misconduct.
8. 1998 Games: Tara Lipinski Becomes Youngest Gold Medalist
In Nagano, Japan, Lipinksi upset gold-medal favorite Michelle Kwan to become the youngest (15 years, 255 days) Olympics figure skating champion. After the short program, Lipinski trailed Kwan, but her more technically difficult long program earned her higher scores and the gold. Kwan won the silver.
A skater since age 6, Lipinski seemed destined for a medal at an early age. As a 2-year-old, she stood on an upside down Tupperware bowl, mimicking a televised medal ceremony from the 1984 Summer Olympics.
Even after the music for the national anthem stopped during the medal ceremony, Lipinski remained at attention on the podium. “I was a little sad knowing I had to get off,” she said. “It felt so good—so perfect.”
POST-OLYMPICS: Lipinski became a professional skater and a product endorser, reportedly earning millions.