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U.S. figure-skating lineage is rich in Olympic glory

Leading the way are women skaters, who have won seven Olympic titles, starting with Tenley Albright in 1956.

February 05, 2014|By Philip Hersh
  • Sarah Hughes was the last American woman to win a gold medal in figure skating.
Sarah Hughes was the last American woman to win a gold medal in figure skating. (Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles…)

Over the years, no country has won more figure-skating medals or been more passionate about the sport than the United States.

Nearly all the attention went to women's singles, because U.S. women have won seven Olympic titles, and some morphed from ice princesses into entertainment icons.

Those U.S. women are all effectively the skating heirs of a Norwegian.

After the better part of a century, the lineage is breaking.

Along the way, though, their "family" history became the chronicle of a sport.


2010 Vancouver: None

2006 Turin: Sasha Cohen, silver

Michelle Kwan withdraws after one practice in Turin. It is her unofficial retirement from competition, leaving the sport without a female star in the United States for the first time in 50 years and accelerating a decline in interest that continues when U.S. women do not win an Olympic or world medal in the next seven seasons.

2002 Salt Lake City: Sarah Hughes, gold; Kwan, bronze

Hughes, 16, fourth after the short program, pulls off the greatest surprise in Olympic women's skating to win the gold. Short program winner Kwan stumbles to bronze, making her the greatest skater never to win the Olympics.

1998 Nagano: Tara Lipinski, gold; Kwan, silver

Lipinski, 15, becomes the youngest champion by upsetting heavily favored Kwan, 17, whose graceful acceptance of defeat becomes an element in her wide popularity and admiration. Never do the gold and silver medalists skate as brilliantly in the Olympics as Lipinski and Kwan.

1994 Lillehammer: Nancy Kerrigan, silver

As if Kerrigan's incident with Tonya Harding isn't enough to stir the pot, the women's event finishes in a controversial victory by 16-year-old Ukrainian orphan Oksana Baiul over Kerrigan. Baiul, then the second youngest champion in history (after Sonja Henie), moves to the United States and spends a few years a wealthy wild child, with drinking issues that get widely publicized as skating is constantly in the spotlight.

1992 Albertville: Kristi Yamaguchi, gold; Kerrigan, bronze

Yamaguchi becomes first U.S. women's gold medalist since Hamill but decides not to take advantage of the one-time change in the Winter Olympics schedule and try for another two years later in Norway.

1988 Calgary: Debi Thomas, bronze

Thomas and Katarina Witt, both world champions skating to music from Bizet's "Carmen," draw a 40-plus rating for the end of a free skate after which East Germany's Witt wins gold, Thomas bronze. The sultry, curvaceous Witt lures a sports bar TV crowd while becoming the only woman other than Henie to win more than one gold medal.

1984 Sarajevo: Rosalynn Sumners, silver

1980 Lake Placid: Linda Fratianne, silver

1976 Innsbruck: Hamill, gold

Champion Hamill's wedge hairdo quickly becomes the most copied hairstyle in the United States. In 1993, Hamill ties with 1984 gymnastics champion Mary Lou Retton for first place in an Associated Press poll of the most popular athletes in the United States. Michael Jordan is third.

1972 Sapporo: Janet Lynn, bronze

Lynn, daughter of an Evergreen Park pharmacist, becomes one of the most beloved skaters in history after winning a bronze medal because of her grace on the ice and the lighthearted way she a handles mistake in the free skate. Hers was a joy of skating so unfettered by judges' marks that Lynn is able to smile after falling on a flying sit spin. As an ice show star, she was once the world's highest paid female athlete. In her book "The Passion to Skate," choreographer and NBC commentator Sandra Bezic wrote, "If an angel could skate, she would move like Janet."

1968 Grenoble: Peggy Fleming, gold

Fleming's chartreuse dress is a highlight of the first Olympics broadcast in color. She is the only U.S. gold medalist at the Grenoble Olympics and immediately becomes a celebrity. President Lyndon Johnson receives her at the White House twice. She is the first skater since Henie to have a huge commercial appeal, headlining ice shows and doing TV commentary.

1964 Innsbruck: None

After the 1961 plane crash that kills the elite of U.S. skating, this is the only Olympics from 1952 through 2006 when U.S. women do not win a medal. But a 15-year-old Fleming finishes sixth, setting the stage for her triumph four years later.

1960 Squaw Valley: Carol Heiss, gold; Barbara Roles, bronze

Heiss does a film, "Snow White and the Three Stooges," after winning gold. Marries 1956 men's champion Hayes Jenkins and stays in the sport for years as a coach.

1956 Cortina: Tenley Albright, gold; Heiss, silver

Albright becomes first U.S. woman to win gold. She goes on to a career as a Harvard-educated doctor.

1952 Oslo: Albright, silver

1948 St. Moritz: None

1944 No Games

1940 No Games

1936 Garmisch: None

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