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20 Best Female Figure Skaters of All Time

Figure Skating: What's in the Name "Figure"?

Ever since the European Figure Skating Championships kicked off in the late 19th century, in 1891 precisely, figure skating as a sport has evolved in quantum scale. The evolution of figure skating has been so dramatic that today some even doubt whether "figure skating" as we know it today is really "figure skating", because "figure skating" was originally all about "compulsory figures" in which skaters were meant to do well in drawing geometric shapes on ice using the blade of their skates and would be judged on how well they did. Compulsory figures were nothing like today's figure skating; no skaters today are competing for compulsory figures, from which the "figure" of figure skating was actually derived. During its long but gradual evolution, the sport begat many stars whose name would be remembered forever. In this ever evolving sport, figure skaters were not just athletes who competed to win but creators and inventors, as part of the sport, whose spirit became the seed of figure skating as a living organism that evolved like no other sport. It was a sport that has been constantly transforming, feeding on visionary philosophies and athletic brilliance shared and nurtured in its rich history to become the unforgettable legacies for generations to come.

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Madge Syers: First Giant of Pre-class Figure Skating

Born in 1881, Syers, whose real name is Florence Madeline Syers, competed in the 1902 Worlds and won a silver medal. What makes this British figure skater so special is that no one at the time thought figure skating competition was for ladies. Syers' entry to all-men's events was by itself sensational, and she beat all odds to take silver. This prompted the ISU to introduce ladies competitions, and not surprisingly, Syers became the winner of the first two ladies' events in 1906 and 1907, and she also took a gold medal in the 1908 Olympics, which was the first Olympic figure skating gold in history.

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Lily Kronberger: Innovator in Pre-classic Era

Born in 1890, Lily Kronberger was a four time World Champion from 1908 to 1911. She was also the first figure skater who won a World Championship gold for Hungary and the first skater who used music in free program in history.

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Herma Szabo: Champion in Pre-classic Figure Skating

Born in 1902, Herma Szabo was a five time World Champion in ladies singles from 1922 to 1926 and won in the 1924 Olympics. This Vienna born figure skater, whose skating was exceptional among her contemporary has a peculiar credit to remember. Sazbo, having lived in the time when female skaters dressed much conservatively compared to today's female skaters, is credited for her wearing a skirt cut above the knee for the first time, although Sonja Henie is usually known for her being the first skater who wore short skirts in competition. Szabo won all major international competitions she entered from 1922 to 1926. With her five consecutive World titles in ladies' figure skating from 1922 to 1926, Szabo she was one of four women who won the World title five times - Sonja Henie, Carol Heiss, and Michelle Kwan. Szabo's competitive career was not limited to only ladies singles; she also competed in pairs and won the World title twice, in 1925 and 1927, which made her the only skater to hold titles for pairs and singles simultaneously.

Sonja Henie : Greatest of Pre-classic Figure Skating

Born in 1912, Sonja Henie was one of the most influential figure skaters of all time. This Norwegian star skater was a three time Olympic Champion in Ladies Figure Skating, a six-time European Champion and a ten- time World Champion in 1927 through 1936. No skater ever dominated the sport as Henie had done. Never. Henie's three Olympic gold medals is now considered as untouchable. In her 10 long year tenure, Henie ruled the sport like an immortal queen of ice, immensely popular and successful even in her off ice career. Henie was also one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood.

Barbara Ann Scott: First Ice Princess

Born in 1928, Barbara Ann Scott was a two-time World Champion, a four-time Canadian Champion and won a gold medal in the 1948 Olympics. As her public nick name "Canada's Sweetheart" indicates Scott was an iconic figure of ladies figure skating in her time. From 1944 to 1948, Scott won all international competitions she had entered. She was the only Canadian to have won a gold medal in Olympic ladies singles, and, like Sonja Henie, Scott was also a sought-out star in various off-ice shows.

Tenley Albright: Pioneer of Classic Figure Skating

Tenley Albright, born in 1935, was perhaps the most underrated female figure skater of all time. Albright was a two time World champion for 1953 and 1955 and a U.S. champion from 1952 to 1956. She won silver in the 1952 Olympics, and in 1956 she finally became the first American female skater to win an Olympic gold medal. What makes Albright unique in the landscape of figure skating history is that free skating as we know it today wasn't possible without Albright. Her mastery of free skating was simply incomparable at the time, especially incorporating her moves into music, which was beyond what her contemporary skaters were capable of. Even Carol Heiss, one of the greatest champions of all time, looked dwarfed by Albright's towering skills. To Heiss, Albright was a giant she always looked up to and consistently challenged but failed to overcome. Tenley Albright was a skater whose advanced skills enabled her to explore free skating like a coordinated art performance with music.

Carol Heiss: Greatest Champion in Classic Figure Skating

Born in 1940, Heiss was a five-time World Champion from 1956 to 1960 and won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics, following the footstep of her predecessor Tenley Albright. Heiss was noted for her talent as early as 11 when she won the U.S. Novice Ladies' Championship. Heiss's career was unprecedented; her dominance during her tenure was a complete one, tolerating no rival. Interestingly, though, Heiss's dominance could have been much longer, had she not competed with a mighty foe in the early stage of her career. Her nemesis that had frustrated Heiss was none other than Tenley Albright. From 1953 to 1956, Heiss claimed no title, finishing behind Albright in all major international competitions including the 1956 Olympics. It was in the 1956 Worlds that Heiss finally beat Albright for the first time. Thereafter, Heiss became one of three women to have won five consecutive World Championships. From 1956 to 1960, during which time she was unrivaled, Heiss won all competitions she had entered. Heiss, known as the first female skater that landed a double axel, precisely in 1953, is remembered as one of the most competitive figure skaters of all time.

Peggy Fleming: Epitome of Classic Figure Skating

Born in 1948, Peggy Fleming was a household name for ladies figure skating in the 1960s, still is today and perhaps will remain so. Fleming was a gold medalist in the 1967 Olympics as well as a three time World Champion from 1966 to 1968. Fleming was an early starter; she was only 9 year old who first took to ice. In 1961, when she was 12, a tragedy hit her hard; her skating coach, Bill Kipp was killed by a plane crash in which the entire U.S. figure skating team had perished. It was a national tragedy as well as her personal loss. 7 years later Fleming, the then junior skater who was considered by many as the only hope for U.S. ladies figure skating, stepped up to reshape the tradition of the U.S. ladies figure skating by winning five U.S. titles and three world titles in addition to her decisive victory in the 1968 Winter Olympics. Peggy Fleming not only presented a complete vision of Classic Figure Skating but also lay a classic model for Modern Figure Skating with her aestheticism. Especially, Fleming's skating brought to the sport a new awakening to what ladies figure skating ought to be with aesthetic emphasis of lines and extensions.

Janet Lynn : Founder of Modern Figure Skating

Janet Lynn is a figure of mythical intrigue in the history of figure skating. Born in 1953, Lynn was a two-time Worlds medalist and a five-time U.S. Champion and won a bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics. Lynn's skating career started as early as 4, when she made her first public skating performance. At 13, Lynn landed triple salchow jumps which female skaters at the time rarely attempted. Throughout her career, Lynn didn't show much of jumping consistency, but Lynn's overall skating including jumping technique was at an astounding level, especially her control mechanism that made her ethereal skating possible was far ahead of her time. Ironically, Lynn never won a single major international competition, which is a stark contrast with her domestic dominance. This put a stop to American tradition of winning both Worlds title and nationals. Under her contemporary standards, Lynn was a failed case; she wasn't a good figure skater. Lynn's weakness in compulsory always handicapped her chances to win, but this, in time, caused people to question the validity of the competition format at the time that consists of compulsory and free skating, 60% and 40%, respectively. It was plain and undeniable for all to see that Lynn was a superior skater despite her lack of compulsory skills, and the kind of free skating Lynn showed should be what figure skating ought to be. The purpose of ladies figure skating lies with aesthetic embodiment of free skating, not compulsory. Compulsories are an important discipline, providing skaters with fundamental skills, but they are a vital means, not an end themselves. On this understanding, the old school compulsories began to phase out and finally ceased to be a part of competition in 1990.

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Dorothy Hamill : Skater of the Golden Era

Born in 1956, Dorothy Hamill won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics and also won the 1976 Worlds. Like Janet Lynn, Hamill was also from Chicago, Illinois. Hamill started skating at 8. From 1974 to 1976 Hamill reigned as a U.S. Champion but she didn't dominate international competitions the way Peggy Fleming did. Despite her skills and performances that stood out among her competitors, in the 1974 Worlds Hamill finished second to Christine Errath from East Germany, and in the following year, Hamill again settled with silver. This mainly stems from judging incompetence at the time and being swayed by international politics; Hamill, if judged correctly, should have swept all competitions. It was in the 1976 Worlds that Hamill finally won the long-due gold medal. Equipped with power, speed, and technical brilliance while aesthetically attractive in the footsteps of Lynn or Fleming, Hamill was a skater with so rare a find in her days.

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Linda Fratianne in 1977

Linda Fratianne: First Triple Jumper

Linda Fratianne, perhaps one of the most underrated skaters in history, was the first female skater who landed two different types of triple jumps, toe loop and salchow in 1976. Born in 1960, Linda Fratianne was a U.S. Champion in 1977 to 1980 and won gold in the 1977 Worlds and silver in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Fratianne, too, like her predecessors Fleming, Lynn or Hamill, could have dominated her time; however, Fratianne balked at compulsories, and was a victim of the so called "Cold War on ice" where she got marked down by judges from the Eastern Europe. In 1980, Fratianne appeared to have reserved an Olympic gold for U.S., but she ended up behind Annet Pötzsch. Many thought that Fratianne was "robbed" of the gold medal by Eastern-bloc judges.

Denise Biellmann in 1981

Denise Biellmann: Sensation in the 1980s

Born in 1962, Denise Biellmann was a sensation in the 1980s. This three time Swiss National Champion won the 1981 Worlds and European Championships. Denise Biellmann was an exceptional prodigy early on. At 11, she won the Swiss junior figure skating championships, and at 14, she finished second in free skating in the 1977 European Championships. At 15, Biellmann again competed in the 1978 European Championships and became the first female skater to land triple lutz. Biellmann won free skating after receiving a 6.0 on technical merits and finished fourth overall. Like those legendary skaters before her, Denise Biellmann too was weak in compulsories. In the 1980 Olympics, Biellmann won the free skating but finished fourth overall. Although Biellmann today is remembered mostly by her innovative spin, Biellman Spin, Biellmann wasn't just a skater of outstanding flexibility; she was the best free skater in her time with incredible technical agility.

Elaine Zayak in 1982

Elaine Zayak: Master Jumper the ISU Feared

Born in 1965, Elaine Zayak won the 1982 Worlds, and that's the only major international title she had. In the 1982 Worlds Zayak landed six triple jumps, four of which were triple toe loops. Zayak was the first female skater who landed triples consistently, which, to her disadvantage, prompted the ISU to enact what would later be known as Zayak Rule in which skaters are not allowed to repeat same triples. Consequently, since 1982, Zayak didn't win any title. Her poor compulsories and the changed rules used by the ISU to check jumping beans took a heavy toll on her. Despite her brilliant jumping technique Zayak wasn't warmly welcome to a society of figure skating. Especially, Peggy Fleming, who championed classic figure skating, refused to give her the nod. Fleming raised her concerns with Zayak's skating very openly and frequently, and the ISU agreed with her that jumping beans should not be the main stream of ladies figure skating. In appearance, requiring skaters to perform different kinds of triple in a program seems to bear Zayak no ill will. But considering that learning triple jumps takes years of training, it seems incontrovertible that this virtually retrospective rules unjustly penalized Zayak .

Katarina Witt: Iron skater in the 1980s.

Born in 1965, Witt was a four time Worlds Champion, a six time European Champion from 1983 to 1988 and won two Olympic golds in 1984 and 1988. This East Germany born legend beat the then reigning World Champion Rosalynn Sumners though the winning margin was very small. Although Witt was one of the most successful skaters of all time in competition, she was constantly challenged by her potent rivals, Debi Thomas, Elizabeth Manley, Rosalyn Sumners, etc. But in the end it was Witt that came out victorious. As a skater Witt was quite deficient compared to her competitors. Witt wasn't equipped with Thomas's extensions and lines, wasn't capable of being elegant like Sumners, and wasn't polished like Manley. Witt's upper body moves were comparatively inferior to most of her competitors and suffered lack of flexibility, but she was always capable of landing jumps in competition with a mouthful of drama. Witt's competitiveness lies with her stamina and power, especially her audacious drive of performance in competition. With her iron power, Witt bulldozed her competitors off the field all the time. Witt is remembered as one of the most competitive skaters of all time, as her two time Olympic championship will likely remain unchallenged for a while.

Midori Ito in 1989

Midori Ito: Power Jumper in the 1980s.

Born in 1969, Midori Ito was the 1989 World champion and won the 1992 Olympic silver. This nine time Japanese National champion was also the first skater who landed a triple-triple jump combination and a triple axel in competition. Ito also became the first woman to land seven triple jumps in a free skating competition in 1988. Ito, who had started skating at the age of 4, reportedly landed her first triple jump at 8. In her senior debut in 1983, Ito finished second to Katarina Witt, who would win in a few months later her first Olympic gold. Ito earned five 6.0s in the 1989 Worlds where she became the first Asian skater who had ever taken a World title. Like many great skaters prior to Ito, Ito was also weak in compulsories. But Ito had no rival for jump. As far as jump is concerned for ladies figure skating (as well as men figure skating) no skater has ever left a greater impact to the sport like Ito. Simply, the world had never before witnessed more powerful and more dominant a jumper than Ito. Ito's jumping ability even surpassed male skaters. Scott Hamilton once said "It will be 50 years before we see anything like Midori Ito again."

Oksana Baiul in 1993

Oksana Baiul: Best in the 1990s.

Born in 1977, Oksana Baiul was the 1993 World champion as well as the 1994 Olympic champion. Baiul, who had finished second to Surya Bonaly in the 1993 European Championships, won the 1993 Worlds at the age of just 15. In 1994 Olympics, Baiul won a gold medal, this time having out-skated Nancy Kerrigan and Chen Lu. Having accomplished so much at so young an age of 16, this Ukrainian genius decided to retire to many's surprise, mainly due to her financial difficulty. Surprisingly though, her being the first Ukrainian skater to win an Olympic gold as well as the first Ukrainian Olympic champion for Ukraine didn't help her much financially. Despite Baiul's reign was short, Baiul's skating was a testament for what had been missing in ladies figure skating in her days; her peers were busy throwing triples without due qualities and figure skating judging itself wasn't particularly encouraging skaters to adequately learn all the skills necessary to make them well-rounded.

Michelle Kwan: Champion of the 1990s

Michelle Kwan, born in 1980, is arguably the most decorated U.S. figure skater up to date. Kwan was a five-time World Champion and a nine-time U.S. Champion. Kwan's tenure stretched over a decade, during which time Kwan remained not only as America's most popular figure skater but as one of America's most popular female athletes. Kwan won eight consecutive U.S. titles and also twelve consecutive U.S. Championship medals. She also received 57 perfect marks under 6.0 system. Despite her monumental achievement and long career, Kwan crumbled twice under pressure; in both 1998 and 2002, she, as a favorite to win Olympic gold, ended up with silver. After Kwan, until to this day, no U.S. female skater has been able to revive the old glory of U.S. figure skating.

Tara Lipinski: One of Greatest Prodigies

Born in 1982, Tara Lipinski was the 1997 World champion and the 1998 Olympic champion. Lipinski was the youngest person(14 years, 9 months and 10 days) who ever won a World title and the youngest person (15 years, 8 months, and 10 days) who won Olympic gold in ladies singles until 2014 when Julia Lipnitskaya became the youngest Olympic gold medalist in ladies figure skating, six days younger than Lipinski. In the 1997 U.S. Nationals, Lipinski also became the youngest person to win the title at 14. During her rivalry with Michelle Kwan, Lipinski didn't necessarily beat Kwan. Lipinsky's jumping ability might be on a par with Kwan overall, but not quite so in quality. Lipinsky's advantage lies with her edge control and expressiveness. Lipinsky's victory over Michelle Kwan in the 1988 Olympics may not convincing to some, but even then, she at least demonstrated that she was a worthy opponent against Kwan.

Irina Slutskaya: Strongest in the 1990s

Born in 1979, Irina Slutskaya is arguably the most successful ladies' singles skater in Russian history. Slutskaya was a two-time World champion and a seven-time European champion and a four time Russian champion. Slutskaya was also one of Kwan's fierce rival, and her rivalry with Michelle Kwan continued over a decade, during which time Slutskaya challenged the best skaters of her time, Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipniski, Chen Lu, etc. In the 1992 Olympics, Slutskaya could have won an Olympic gold, had she won free skating, but judges declared Hughes' victory in free skating with a 5–4 decision. This made Russia file a complaint against the result, but to no avail. In 2001, Slutskaya won all competitions she had entered except the Worlds. In this particular season Slutskaya met Kwan five times and defeated Kwan five times. But it was in 2002 that Slutskaya finally captured her first World title.

Yuna Kim: Greatest in Triple Era

Born in 1990, Yuna Kim is the latest legend of ladies singles and arguably one of the greatest of all time. Kim won the 2010 Olympic champion, a two time World champion and a six time South Korean champion. Kim is also largely regarded as the legitimate champion of the 2014 Sochi Olympics where the judging panel was alleged to inflate scores in favor of Adelina Sotnikova. After Sochi, Kim retired. Kim was the first female skater to win four major competitions: Olympics, Worlds, Four Continents, and Grand Prix Final. Kim made her senior debut through the 2006 Skate Canada and won bronze. It was, however, in 2009 that she finally won her first World title. In the following year, Kim won the Olympic gold to become the first figure skater to win any Olympic medal for South Korea. Remarkably, during her entire career, Kim never finished off the podium, which was unprecedented in the history of figure skating and still is to this day. Kim owned the podium.


Comments

The Truth on February 14, 2020:

Surya Bonaly Should be listed as the greatest, but her skin is what disqualifies Ms. Bonaly from being the G.O.A.T. smdh

cagatlin on March 13, 2019:

Surya Bonaly !!!!! Why is she not anywhere in the top 20 or on any list ?

Yunawhatimean on May 24, 2018:

There's a reason why Mao is not on the list, and was never considered a rival to Yuna. Mao's jumps were never corrected with her flutz and frequent URs. Also, she never had the speed and wide coverage of ice. If you saw them Live, you'd have known what I mean.

This goes for Yulia Liptniskaya. Her jumps were so little and juniorish. She was a spinner, not what I'd describe an overall figure skater. If the Olympics were not in Sochi, there was no way in hell she would have won anywhere near Gold. Her coach Eteri never taught her students the correct forms of jumps, thus the usual flutzing.

Btw, figure skating was not part of Summer Olympics before 1994. Winter and Summer Olympics were held the same year. And it was in 1994 Winter Games to be held every 4 years, while Summer Games continued the regular year cycle in 1992. 1992 was the last year the both Games had in the same year with Summer Barcelona and Winter Albertville, France.

Cerio on May 24, 2018:

Such a great list of figure skaters. All of them were awesome and competitive.

Thanks for sharing, Jesse Helms!

Ergashov Hurmatillo on April 05, 2018:

This is the best article that i have read this month. from my childhood i have been in love wit the figure skating because figure skating is one of the most exhilarating sports ever. At the professional level, men and women will do dangerous revolution jumps requiring massive amounts of skill and power. They will spin rapidly at high speeds, trying to achieve the highest score possible. Figure skaters have to be strong yet graceful.

Think about the Triple Axel. For this tough, revolution jump, you take off from your left foot while going forwards and spin three and a half times in the air. Finally, you have to land gracefully on your right foot. To be able to spin three and a half times in the air requires enormous power. Then, you have to have the skill to stop spinning and land gracefully on your right foot.

Before 1994, figure skating competitions had been included in the Summer Olympics. Now, it is an official competition category in the Winter Olympics. This should make the sport considered "serious competition. " Every four years, millions of people convene together to watch professional figure skaters compete for the Olympic gold medal. And even more people watch this sport on television.