Ice Network

Dijkstra rebuilding Dutch figure skating tradition

1964 Olympic champion strives to develop next generation of skating stars
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Lifelong friends Sjoukje Dijkstra (right) and Joan Haanappel are trying to return the once proud Dutch figure skating program to prominence. -courtesy of Joan Haanappel

Heading into the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, the expectations for the Dutch speed skaters are huge. After all, skaters from the Netherlands earned 23 medals at the last Olympics, in Sochi, eight of them gold.

But before the country reached the pinnacle in speed skating, it was a power in figure skating. And at the forefront of that movement was Sjoukje Dijkstra.

As an 18-year-old, Dijkstra earned silver in Squaw Valley in 1960, and four years later, in Innsbruck, Austria, she was crowned Olympic champion.

"I'm proud to say I won the country's first gold medal in the Winter Games," said Dijkstra, a member of the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame.

Today, Dijkstra and lifelong best friend Joan Haanappel direct their attention to the Stichting Kunstrijden Nederland (Netherlands Figure Skating Foundation, started by Haanappel) in hopes of building the next generation of figure skating champions. No skater representing the Netherlands has stood on the Olympic podium since 1976, when Dianne de Leeuw captured the silver in, coincidentally, Innsbruck.

"We try to get sponsors and donors to get money together for our skaters," Dijkstra said. "We try to help our little skaters to be able to compete in the Europeans, worlds and Olympics again.

"We have lots of talent, but if you don't do anything with talent, nothing happens."

Dutch ladies champion Niki Wories, who trains in Canada, has competed in the European and world championships but has recently been sidelined by injury. Men's champion Thomas Kennes has been to the European championships but not worlds. There are some young talents, and Dijkstra's wish is for those little stars to become big stars. Four times a year, the foundation brings in a coach from the United States to work with the skaters and the coaches, while a top choreographer is hired once a year.

"Figure skating is a wonderful and beautiful sport, one of the most difficult sports," Dijkstra said. "You have to be sporty. You have to be able to jump. You have to be elegant. It has everything."

Dijkstra, who trained in England with Arnold Gerschwiler, made her Olympic debut in 1956 at the age of 14, finishing 12th. Four tears later, she gave American Carol Heiss a serious challenge and finished runner-up.

Looking back, Dijkstra is happy that Heiss won and, in doing so, fulfilled a promise to her mother, who died after the 1956 Olympics.

"I was very happy that I was second. I never thought I would be," Dijkstra said.

Following Heiss' retirement, Dijkstra became the dominant ladies competitor on the international scene, winning multiple European and world titles leading up to the Innsbruck Games.

"Those four years were the hardest years because you really have to work so hard," she said. "You have to stay on your toes because you have to get better yourself. You have in your mind what you want to do, and thank goodness I did that in '64 in the Olympics."

After her retirement from competitive skating following the 1964 World Championships, Dijkstra turned professional, touring for eight years with Holiday on Ice. She met her late husband, Karl Kossmayer, a circus artist, in the show. When she was done touring, she turned to raising daughters Rosalie, 42, and Katja, 38. Katja skated internationally, but after an injury she became an expert horse rider and pursued a career in the circus and horse shows.

Dijkstra said she plans to watch next year's Olympics on TV. While that suits her fine, Dijkstra did enjoy a trip to the 2006 Olympics in Torino, which brought back memories.

She said, "To be in that atmosphere again was wonderful."