LYDIA SKOBLIKOVA – THE QUEEN OF SPEED SKATING
Speed skater Lydia Skoblikova is the only woman athlete in the history of the Winter Olympics to win six gold medals in individual events. She also won numerous medals in world championships. Born in the city of Zlatoust in Siberia, Lydia first made international headlines at the 1960 Games in Squaw Valley, California, where she won the 1,500 and 3,000 races.
“That was the first Olympiad for me, a 20-year-old girl at the time,” Lydia Skoblikova recalls. “In 1960 women speed skaters competed at the Olympics for the first time. We were all thrilled by the prospect of traveling to far-away America. When we finally came to Squaw Valley, we were fascinated with the place — a small valley surrounded by high mountains crowned with ice caps. The Olympic village decorated by none other than Walt Disney was like a fairytale town. The impression was deepened by a huge snowfall just two days after we arrived. We’d never seen such enormous icicles hanging from the roofs! And, of course, I cannot fail to mention the fact that the Americans were very friendly and unbiased, enthusiastically supporting not only their national team, but Russian athletes as well.”
With her blonde hair, blue eyes, and dimpled cheeks, Lydia nicknamed by Western journalists ‘the lightning from the Urals’ didn’t quite match their perception of a Siberian speed skater, but her approach to training and determination to win did. She spoke infrequently and measurably, local newspapers pointed out, and “her voice was strangely harsh, coming from a girlish, heart-shaped face”. In addition to winning two gold medals, Skoblikova became the first athlete at the Games to set a new world record in the 1,500 meters event, conquering the hearts of American spectators. Once she was visited by an American couple, who asked her to marry their grandson. In reply to that, the girl laughed, adding that her life-long sweetheart, Alexander Polozkov, was waiting for her in Russia. Lydia and Alexander have been happily married for half a century now.
The Squaw Valley Games were just a beginning of what some journalists called ‘Skoblikova’s gold Olympic symphony’. In 1964, Lydia achieved a ‘clean sweep’ in the women’s speed skating events, becoming the first athlete to win four gold medals in a single Winter Olympics. Those were hard-won medals, as the weather was against her.
“Because of the sun and warm wind blowing from the mountains, by noon the rink was covered with puddles of water,” Lydia Skoblikova says. “The blades of my skates sank into the thawed surface of the ice, so, instead of gliding, I had to run like in a track-and-field race. The 3,000 meter race was my strong suit, but at the Innsbruck Olympics it proved to be the hardest won race.”
“Mrs.Skoblikova had her mind on great things today,” wrote the New York Times after Lydia’s extraordinary performance. “In a furious final lap, her head down and her arms swinging, she rushed across the finish as the crowd waved and screamed.” Sports analysts called Lydia ‘the Queen of skates”, praising her superior skating technique coupled with easiness and beauty. The American Sports Illustrated magazine wrote that Lydia Skoblikova, ‘an attractive girl with a will of steel, was perhaps the best female speed skater the world ever knew’. A spokesman for the International Skating Union was quoted as saying that her triumph boosted the popularity of women’s speed skating. In the 1960s, it was rumored that President Nixon of the United States presented Skoblikova with a plane. When asked whether that was true or not, Lydia’s husband said humorously: “No, the rumors you heard are not quite true. She was presented with not just a plane, but a plane with a pilot.”
In 1983 Skoblikova, then a member of the Soviet Olympic Committee, received a Silver Olympic Order from the hands of Juan Antonio Samaranch. She was inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.
Lydia Skoblikova, whose mind-boggling success at the Olympic Games brought her world fame, said on numerous occasions that her gold medals belonged to Chelyabinsk, a city in Siberia, where she began her sports career. Her ‘champion’ skates as well as a few of her one hundred medals and sports trophies are now part of the local museum collection.
After retiring from competitive sports, Skoblikova remained active, proceeding with her teaching and coaching career. She brought up many well-known skaters, turning them from ‘ugly ducklings into white swans’, according to her own expression. Lydia is proud that her ex-trainees often seek her advice. “They trust me, because I’ve always been honest with them,” she said. Skoblikova, who marks her 70th jubilee this year, now finds new meaning in her life by devoting herself to her family, in particular, her three grandchildren, the youngest of whom is just one year old. She likes being called granny, the great athlete said.