Sweden’s Gillis Grafstrom, the mythical figure who is the only man to win the Olympic gold medal three times in figure skating, remains a mystery to many. A name in the record books that has endured for nearly 100 years.
In an exclusive interview last week, Ice Time spoke to one of the last living relatives who knew Grafstrom.
Born in Stockholm on June 7, 1893, Grafstrom triumphed at the 1920, 1924 and 1928 Games, before passing away at the young age of 44 in 1938. His step-daughter Vera Schieckel was just 14 then, but at the age of 98 retains clear memories of the eclectic man who became her mother’s second husband.
In addition to being a champion skater, Grafstrom was an architect, painter, writer, poet and coach. A true renaissance man of his era, he did everything he tried well.
In a telephone conversation from her home in Berlin that lasted nearly one hour, Schieckel spoke in clear English and at times had her son Mathias (age 75) translate from German for her.
I told her I wanted to know what kind of person Grafstrom, who was part of the inaugural class of the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1976, was.
“He was a very, very nice man,” Vera Schieckel recalled. “When we were children, he spoiled us. My mother (Cecile) was very strict, so we had lots of fun with him. He was very good with us and my mother was quite astonished. She had great love for him.”
I explained to Vera and Mathias that the reason I was calling was that Yuzuru Hanyu would be attempting to equal Grafstrom’s record at the Beijing Olympics.
They admitted they were unaware of this, but became very enthusiastic upon hearing the news.
“It would be really wonderful if he (Hanyu) could win again,” Vera stated. “Of course, I wish him all of the good fortune. It is so nice that people know him (Grafstrom) and he would have been very, very happy to hear about this (Hanyu’s attempt to equal his record with a third Olympic gold medal).”
Added Mathias, “It is very exciting for us to hear this news. We are very interested now.”
Vera and Mathias Schieckel in February 2022.
Meeting in Berlin
The story of how Grafstrom and Vera first came in contact remains a family mystery. Cecile was the great-granddaughter of composer and pianist Felix Mendelssohn.
“They first met in Berlin when he was studying architecture (at the Technical University of Berlin)” Vera Schieckel remarked. “Nobody in the family knows exactly how it happened, but somehow they ran into each other there.”
Schieckel recalled, “when they were just friends, she wanted to introduce him to her parents and this came in St. Moritz, Switzerland (at the 1928 Olympics). He was the winner there.”
Going to the Swiss resort was an annual family tradition, according to Schieckel.
“In the wintertime, my mother and her parents used to ski there,” Schiecklel said. “She asked Gillis to come to the hotel where they were staying, and she introduced him to her parents.”
Gillis Grafstrom, seen in a 1924 photo, passed away at age 44 in 1938.
Hospitalized After a Sudden Illness
Grafstrom and Schieckel were in a relationship for approximately 15 years, before he fell ill, according to Schieckel.
“It was so awful when he got ill with the heart problem,” Schieckel recalled. “They were not married before, so they had to marry in the hospital.
“He became ill while teaching in Munich,” Schieckel continued. “It was something like influenza. When he came back to Berlin he went to the hospital. He was there for four months before he died.”
When it became apparent that Grafstrom was unlikely to survive his illness, Cecile’s father, concerned about his daughter’s future, put his foot down.
“Because they were unmarried, her father insisted they get married,” Schieckel recalled. “This helped her a lot, because that meant she was Swedish, and when the war finished, she went to Sweden and got a job there at the German Embassy.”
In post-war Germany, times were difficult for everybody, but Cecile’s employment in Sweden helped the family along.
“She was then able to send food and things to my mother [in Germany], because it was a bad time then,” Mathias commented.
“She went to Sweden in 1945 and was actually given an honor for her late husband by King Gustav V,” he said. “We have a photo of that. The award was presented at the Olympic Stadium in Stockholm.
“She stayed in Sweden for more than 40 years before moving back to Hamburg to live with her sister in the 1980s.”
Gillis Grafstrom skates with Vera (left) and her older sister Vince.
Ice Time asked Vera if Grafstrom discussed skating often with the family.
“He did. He talked a lot about skating and tried to convince us to skate too,” she stated.
“My schoolmates liked to come to our house to watch him paint and he would give them all chocolates,” Vera said fondly.
“He was a good painter,” Mathias added. “He would paint on wood and put them on the wall. I still have one of them.”
Gillis Grafstrom, circa 1932 (PUBLIC DOMAIN)
Vera talked about how Grafstrom, who also earned the silver medal at the 1932 Olympics, would stay in shape.
“He used to skate on a frozen lake (Bornstedt) in Potsdam for exercise,” she commented. “He would often take me, my sister and mother to skate there. Many times, foreigners came there and recognized him as the Olympic champion. They would stand around the lake and watch as he performed.”
One particular story highlighted how much of a perfectionist Grafstrom was.
“My grandmother, his wife, told me an interesting story,” Mathias noted. “As he was an architect, he always wanted everything perfect. One year as he was decorating for Christmas, he saw something was missing, so they had to go by car to Berlin.
“On the way back, there was snow on the road,” Mathias continued. “It was a little hilly in front of Potsdam so they were not able to go back with the car over the hillside. So somebody came with horses and pulled the car over the hill to get home.”
Assembling the Grafstrom Collection
“He went with my mother often on trips to Holland and Sweden and Amsterdam and other cities where people skated in the winter time,” Vera said. “There were a lot of little figures and figurines of porcelain. Once they found an old skate that for a blade had just a bone with two holes underneath the boot to get a string around.
“People came to know they were collecting items related to skating and would contact them to offer items,” she added. “They collected for a long time.”
Ice Time learned that one of the reasons that Grafstrom’s widow donated what came to be known as the Grafstrom Collection to the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was as a result of a robbery at her home in Sweden.
“Cecile was in Germany at the time and was very upset upon learning of it,” Mathias remarked.
“The owner of the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado came to Sweden to speak with her and proposed donating Grafstrom’s items to the Hall of Fame there,” he stated. “She then gave a lot of the items ― costumes, pictures, skates.”
Gillis Grafstrom at the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France. (SVERIGES RADIO/via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
The location of Grafstrom’s Olympic gold medals remain somewhat of a mystery. The World Figure Skating Hall of Fame confirmed in an email to Ice Time that they have one of them.
Matthias said his mother believes she gave the other two to his two siblings, but can’t be sure about that.
Grafstrom adeptness with a brush came in handy, as skaters of that time had to draw the figures they would skate before the compulsory figures were held at the competitions. Grafstrom was known as an expert in compulsories.
“He was also a poet and would write quite funny ones,” Vera said. “When you came to someone’s house there would be a guestbook to sign. This was very popular in those days, so people would try to do a little drawing or poem for the books.”
Sonja Henie and Gillis Grafstrom, the only three-time Olympic figure skating gold medalists.
One Legend Coaching Another
Grafstrom coached Norwegian star Sonja Henie, the only woman to win three straight Olympic golds in skating (1928, 1932, 1936), early in her career. Vera said that she never met Henie, but that her mother met the star and her father as well. She believed that they may have met in the United States.
Ice Time asked about Grafstrom’s friends from his skating days. The name Vera mentioned was Karl Schafer, the Austrian who won the Olympic gold twice (1932, 1936).
An interesting story was told about how practical Cecile was.
“Gillis performed once before an ice hockey game at the famous Berliner Sports Palace,” Mathias remembered. “They always received a porcelain plate or an iron figure, something like that.
“My grandmother was very bored about that. She didn’t like that stuff, so she asked the director of the Sports Palace if they could have something else,” Mathias added. The director offered money and she agreed, because Gillis needed a wristwatch.
“So they took the money from that and went to Berlin and bought him a nice Longines watch. It was gold. She liked that story very much.”
Gillis Grafstrom remains one of only two athletes (along with American Eddie Eagan) to win gold medals at the Summer and Winter Olympics, as in 1920 figure skating was part of the Summer Games in Belgium.
Vera’s Life an Incredible One as Well
Matthias attributes his mother’s long life to several factors.
“She is very disciplined. She probably had good genes, because her mother lived to be 97,” Mathias noted. “She gets up early in the morning and walks a bit. She has always tries to watch her weight and to dress nicely. There is no lack of concentration. Probably all of these contribute to her longevity.”
Matthias said the obstacles she faced were many.
“She lived through some difficult times with the Nazis,” Mathias commented. “Her grandfather was taken away because he was Jewish. The times without money in the 1940s and ’50s in Berlin were difficult.”
The family had their home taken during the war (first by the Nazis, then by the Russians), but regained it many years later through legal proceedings.
Mathias said that despite all of the challenges, his mother was able to persevere.
“She always stayed strong and with good humor,” he noted. “She had a good education and the family was wealthy at one time, but they didn’t throw money away like people do now.”
Gillis Grafstrom skates in front of judges at the 1928 St. Moritz Winter Olympics.
Much as Hanyu’s phenomenal skating has dominated the sport for the past decade, Grafstrom was the towering figure of the 1920s. Even though the three-time world champion died nearly 84 years ago in Potsdam, his influence on the sport remains today.
Grafstrom invented the change foot spin, the flying sit spin, the inside spiral, and the Grafstrom pirouette (on the back outside edge of the blade). He remains one of only two athletes (along with American Eddie Eagan) to win gold medals at the Summer and Winter Olympics, as in 1920 figure skating was part of the Summer Games in Belgium.
Grafstrom’s early interpretation of music in his skating was also noteworthy. Cecile gave 1976 Olympic champion John Curry of Britain a small gold skate following his victory in Innsbruck, Austria, according to an excellent 2015 story by skating historian Ryan Stevens, detailed in the 2011 book “Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport” by Mary Louise Adams.
After Curry’s Olympic triumph, Cecile told The Times of London, “he turned back the clock to the unhurried, graceful, elegant days of the ’20s” and that his skating reminded her of Grafstrom’s because of his musicality.
Just to give some context as to how much skating has changed in the past 100 years, Grafstrom won his first Olympic gold at 27 (the age Hanyu is now) at the 1920 Antwerp Games, his second at the 1924 Chamonix Games at 30, and his third at the 1928 St. Moritz Games at 34. When Grafstrom took home the silver medal at the 1932 Lake Placid Games, he was 38.
Noted British skating judge and author T.D. Richardson said of Grafstrom, “his personality combined the greatest knowledge of the art of skating possessed by any living soul, with a rare intelligence, intense artistic feeling, perfection of technique and supreme athletic achievement.”
As the world watches Hanyu’s bid to join Grafstrom in skating immortality in Beijing this week, so too will the remaining members of Grafstrom’s family in Germany be keeping an eye on the proceedings.
If Hanyu is victorious, you can bet that at an Olympics 100 years from now his name will be as prominent as Grafstrom’s will be this week.
Author: Jack Gallagher