Sonja Henie (1912-1969) was a cross between athlete and celebrity whose routines on the ice eventually made her a famous actor on screen.
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Hello, from Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.
Today’s Olympian was a cross between athlete and celebrity. Her routines on the ice eventually made her a famous actor on screen. She changed the world of figure skating with her decade-long reign over the sport. Today, we’re talking about “the Ice Queen of Norway,” Sonja Henie.
Sonja was born April 8, 1912 in Oslo, Norway. In her own memoir, Sonja placed her birth during one of the biggest snowstorms to rock the country-- perhaps a foreshadowing of the career that lay ahead.
Sonja grew up well off. In addition to inherited wealth, her father Wilhem, was successful in the fur business. Wilhelm had also enjoyed a career as a competitive speed skater. He passed on his love for athletics to Sonja, who was a prodigy on skis by the age of four.
Growing up, Sonja was a multi-sport athlete. She was an acclaimed competitor in tennis, horseback riding, and swimming.
The story of Sonja’s first time in skates is up for debate. Wilhelm claimed that one day five-year-old Sonja stole her brother’s skates and ended up winning a children’s skating championship. Sonja herself said her brother gifted her the skates and helped her learn before winning that first competition. Either way, once Sonja was in the skates, there was no getting her out of the rink.
Soon, all of Sonja’s energy went toward figure skating. She even stopped schooling to make time for day-long practice sessions.
At the age of eleven, Sonja made her Olympic debut. She came in last in her field. The next time she entered the rink, she did so as a new competitor altogether. She shed the sport’s standard baggy skate suit and black skates., Instead, she wore a white velvet dress with a hemmed skirt. It ended just above her knee, simultaneously shocking audiences and giving her the flexibility to perform tricks and jumps usually only available to men. That year, at just 14 years old, Sonja won her first World Figure Skating Championship. It would be the first of an unparalleled, consecutive, ten-year domination of the World Championships. The following year, in 1928, she won the first of three consecutive Olympic gold medals in figure skating. Another unprecedented record. To this day, neither of Sonya’s winning streaks have been matched.
Sonja rocketed to fame during her early skating career-- as did rumors about her political affiliations. Just before the 1936 Winter Olympics, where Sonja would win her third gold medal, she skated into a Berlin rink. After being told Adolf Hitler was in attendance, she began her routine with a “Heil Hitler.” It didn’t go over well in the Scandinavian press, and Sonja never fully outlived the scandal.
That same year, Sonja turned away from the competition circuit and set her eyes on a new horizon: Hollywood. She signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox and from 1936 to 1943, she starred in ten box office hits that showcased her skating. She also started a yearly skating review called, “Sonja Henie Night” at Madison Square Garden.
During these years of stardom, Sonja also earned another nickname: “Little Miss Moneybags.” She was often seen wearing luxurious furs, staying at the best hotels, and throwing parties for the Hollywood elite. According to some stories, she even entered one of these parties on the back of an elephant.
In 1937, Sonja’s father died. . His death marked a change in Sonja’s work ethic. She saved more money, and took more control over her skating shows and movie roles.
During the 1940s, Sonja was married and divorced, twice. By 1952, Sonja entered her 40s, and her athletic career started to suffer. Her “Ice Revue” required her to complete eight skating numbers back-to-back -- a tough ask even for an athlete in their prime. By this point, Sonja had been skating at a professional level for over three decades. Fatigue, and a falling out with her previous manager, combined for a less-than-stellar season.. This disappointing performance led Sonja to retire in 1956. That same year, she married for the final time to Niels Onstad, a childhood friend.
In the 1960s, Sonja and her husband ventured into art collection. They built a museum to house their modern art collection in Oslo. In 1968, Sonja was diagnosed with leukemia. She died on October 12, 1969, at 57 years old.
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