Just where Michigan Avenue in Chicago becomes Lake Shore Drive, on a residential block that strikes one as a pleasant anachronism among the towers of the near North Side, there is a row of turn-of-the-century brick houses. At one a small woman in her late 50's answers the door. Her white-blonde hair is drawn back from her face in a bun. her back is as straight as a plebe's, and her blue eyes, which sportswriters of the late 1940s usually mentioned in their stories about her, are wide, warm and ready to be amused.
Barbara Ann Scott, now Mrs. Thomas V. King, was the Katarina Witt of 1947 and '48. Twice world figure skating champion and twice the European champion, she won the gold medal at the 1948 Winter Games in St. Moritz, to become Canada's first Winter Olympic individual champion. To veteran figure skating observers she was the long-awaited successor to Norway's fabled three-time Olympic gold medalist (1928, '32, '36) Sonja Henie.
As a skater, Scott resembled Henie in two respects: She thrived on competition—the tougher the better—and she was master of the compulsory figures, those meticulous tracings of circles, loops and brackets, which in her day counted for 60% of a competitor's total score. (Today school figures are down to 30% of the total.)
Figures were the reason Scott practiced eight hours a day for 12 years. There were 70 of them, all combinations of and variations on the figure eight. In competition, skaters were required to perform six figures three times each, first on one foot, then on the other. "In my day," says Scott, "you often didn't know until the night before which six of the 70 figures you were going to have to do. You really had to know them all."
Scott's contemporaries at the Minto Skating Club in Ottawa, her hometown, once calculated that she skated 11 miles a day on figures alone. "I like detail," she says. "And I like everything to be neat and tidy and symmetrical. I enjoyed trying to get as near perfect a circle as possible. It just interested me." In competition Scott would typically build an insurmountable lead in the school figures, which would see her through the free skating, Throughout the 1947 and '48 international championships, however, she was unbeatable in free skating, too.
"She was delicate, precise, exact, meticulous—simply perfect," recalls Dick Button, the American who won Olympic gold medals in the men's division in 1948 and '52. "She did everything right, and there was nobody to challenge her who was better in one particular area, either compulsory figures or free skating. Everything was right, everything was perfect."
She was the daughter of Col. Clyde Scott, military secretary to Canada's minister for defense, and the goddaughter of Conservative Prime Minister (1930-35) R.B. Bennett. Although the Scotts were well connected in Ottawa's social and governmental circles, they were not wealthy. After Col. Scott died in 1941, his widow, Mary, and Barbara, then 13, lived on his $3,000-a-year government pension. In 1947, when international competition resumed following World War II, the expenses for Scott's first European tour, approximately $10,000, were met by a group of her late father's influential friends. One of them also gave her a beaver coat. "Going over [to Europe] that year we flew in a converted Lancaster bomber that had benches instead of seats," says Scott. "That coat was great; I could roll up in it and sleep."
When Scott arrived in Davos, Switzerland, for the European championships in January of 1947, she was the reigning Canadian and North American champion (she had defeated Gretchen Merrill of Boston for the latter title). However Merrill, who was the U.S. champion, attracted most of the attention during the weeks of practice that preceded the competition.
"They didn't realize that North American meant Canada and the United States," says Scott. "I had people come up to me and say, "What's it like to live in an ice house?' Ice house? Then I realized they thought I was an Eskimo." The memory makes Scott roar with laughter.
In the end it was Scott herself who set the record straight. When she won the European title, the crowds stood and chanted "Barbarelli, Barbarelli," and, two weeks later, at the world championships in Stockholm, where Scott huddled in her gift coat as temperatures dipped to-20° F and the program listed her as Barbara Annscott, eight of the nine judges awarded her first place. Ulrich Salchow, the Swedish skater who created the jump now named for him, said, "She combined her difficult program in an artistic way so that her stunts were mixed up in astonishing surprises, all executed in an easy style, as if she skated only to have a good time for herself."