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Sport: How to Succeed by Trying

3 minute read

The lilting strains of Johann Strauss’s Graduation Ball wafted through Cortina, Italy, as a sturdy blonde girl glided around the open-air rink. The music leaped, and the girl leaped too—a twisting “double axel” that sent her hurtling through the air until she glided back on the ice. The music played on, and each time it soared, she soared—through intricate “flying camels,” “double toe-loops” and “flying sit-spins.” The performance ended. The Netherlands’ Sjoukje Dijkstra, 21, smiled sweetly, acknowledging the bravos. She smiled again, less demurely, when the judges announced her score (5.9 out of a possible 6.0 points) and gave her the world’s figure-skating championship for the second year in a row.

Strength of a Man. Watching the show as a spectator, the U.S.’s Dick Button, five times a world champion himself, was awed by the Dutch girl. “Tremendous. She has the strength of a man. She is probably the most powerful woman skater who has ever existed.” Packing a muscular 140 lbs. on her 5-ft. 6-in. frame, Sjoukje Dijkstra does not try to dazzle the judges with her femininity. She cuts the ice with her athletic ability and prim, peril feet routines. Other skaters warm up in buttons and bows, but Sjoukje wears a blue sweatsuit marked “Nederland.” “It’s just working hard that makes you good.” she says, and when she is in training—as she is six hours a day, five days a week, seven months a year—she has no time for dates and such. “Sjoukje,” says her father, an Amsterdam doctor and one-time speed skater, “is in love with her skates.”

When Sjoukje was six, her father gave her a pair of skates and, says he, she “sped away immediately.” Not long afterward she broke a leg skating, but Daddy pressed on. At ten, Sjoukje was studying in London under a Swiss-born trainer named Arnold Gerschwiler, and two years later she placed 14th in her first major competition—the European championships. At 13, she gave up formal schooling in favor of skating: she was twelfth at the 1956 Olympics, second at the 1960 Olympics, won the first of four straight European championships that same year.

“You Can Do Better!” Near perfect in free skating, she is unexcelled in the taxing compulsory figures hated by most skaters. Her powerful leg muscles give her the iron control required for the rigid maneuvers in which each turn of a figure must be made in the same groove as the previous one. Yet no matter how well Sjoukje does. Gerschwiler always snorts: “You can do better than that.”

At Cortina, after the first two days of the demanding brackets, loops and paragraph threes of the compulsory figures, she was 59 points ahead of her closest rival. Just the same, she hung around the rink until 11 p.m., watching other skaters work. Then she went out and put on the most dazzling free-skating performance of her career.

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