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V. Hulten, 91; Top Figure Skater in Sweden Had Feud With Rival Henie

January 24, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Vivi-Anne Hulten, a 10-time Swedish national figure-skating champion who refused to salute Adolf Hitler when she received a bronze medal at the 1936 Winter Olympics and had a well-publicized feud with rival Norwegian great Sonja Henie, has died. She was 91.

Hulten, who was once proclaimed Sweden's greatest woman athlete of all time by the nation's Sportswriters Assn., and who later toured in ice shows with her husband and skating partner, Gene Theslof, died of heart failure Jan. 15 in an assisted-living facility in Corona del Mar after a bout with pneumonia.

Known as "The Flame of Sweden" during her competitive heyday, Hulten won her first Swedish national figure skating championship in 1927.

In addition to her Olympic bronze medal, she won a silver medal in the world championships in 1933, world championship bronze medals in 1935, 1936 and 1937, and European championship bronzes in 1930 and 1932.

A life-size statue of the Stockholm-born Hulten doing a spiral is located on a lake in Budapest, giving the appearance, when the lake freezes over, of her skating on the ice.

A miniature version of the statue, which was cast in the late 1930s, is in the World Figure Skating Museum and Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs.

Hulten's chief rival during her competitive days was Henie, the three-time Olympic champion known as the "Ice Queen of Norway."

Hulten was fifth to Henie in the 1932 Olympics, third to Henie in the 1936 Olympics and the 1935 and '36 world championships, and second to Henie in the 1933 world championship.

"I was a dancer," Hulten, a pioneer in interpreting music with her skating, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1994. "Sonja was an acrobat."

Henie had been Hulten's inspiration as a teenager. But the warm relationship when they began competing against one another grew into a bitter rivalry. In various interviews later in her life, Hulten characterized Henie as a foulmouthed, self-centered and ruthless competitor.

The rift began at the 1933 world championships, when Hulten finished only two-tenths of a point behind Henie.

"You are not nearly good enough to get second next to me," Henie screamed afterward, pointing a finger at Hulten's nose. "I'm so much better that you are. You deserved to be fourth."

At the 1934 world championship, Hulten came in fourth.

"Her father arranged it," Hulten told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "She was afraid of me."

Hulten asserted that Henie's father made deals with judges at world championships to ensure his daughter's victories and to thwart Hulten.

"Papa Henie would go to these places and tell the organizers, 'You can have my daughter [for an exhibition]; come up to my hotel room and I'll tell you how we can arrange it,' " she told the Sporting News in 1994.

"He played poker with them. If he won, he got an appearance fee for Sonja to skate and he got an agreement that the judges would place me no higher than third. I didn't have a chance. I know this is true because one of my best friends was the president of our club in Stockholm, and he told me about it. Back then the judges were always with the clubs."

The old rivalry resurfaced when Hulten discussed it in her 1994 interview with the Star Tribune.

At the time of the interview, Hulten had been invited to provide commentary on women's figure skating for the Norwegian national television network at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, where Henie is still revered. But Hulten's remarks, coupled with her intention to detail her side of history as part of her commentary in Norway, led the network to cancel its invitation.

Hulten, however, didn't back down from her allegations against Henie, who died in 1969 at age 57. And jealousy, Hulten insisted, was not behind her claims.

"Look, I have a great admiration for what Henie did," she told Sports Illustrated. "On the ice she was terrific, a wonderful acrobat, just like a circus princess, a big smile, dressed perfectly. But she was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a very nasty person off the ice.... I'm just telling it like it is."

On a 1935 Olympic training trip to St. Moritz, Hulten told the Sporting News, she was detained at the German border for seven hours and searched "from head to toe," with no explanation from the guard, whose name was Ulrich Schmidt.

Hulten said she later sought out Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to complain. Goebbels, a skating fan, had Schmidt brought to him.

"Goebbels made him get down on a knee and apologize to me," Hulten recalled. "[Schmidt] said, 'Well, a young lady came through before her whose name was Sonja Henie. She told me this girl here would be smuggling jewelry, so we stopped her.' "

At the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany, medal winners were told to give the Nazi salute to Hitler. Gold medal winner Henie saluted, but bronze winner Hulten refused.

"I told them, 'I'm Swedish; I don't do that,' " she said. "I just stared at him. He was a scary person. He looked at you with kind of a burning look in his eyes."

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