Barbara Ann Scott exuded the sort of “it factor” usually reserved for Hollywood. Glamorous and beautiful, graceful but athletic, she dazzled a generation of Canadians when she won figure-skating gold at the 1948 Winter Olympics.
Mothers across North America named their daughters Barbara Ann. Girls begged to receive a Barbara Ann doll under the Christmas tree. Then-prime minister Mackenzie King stated that she gave “Canadians courage to get through the darkness of the post-war gloom.”
And more than six decades after her Olympic triumph, Scott’s charisma continued to inspire new generations of figure skaters.
“When I think about her, I think about a fairy tale,” said Canadian figure-skating champion Joannie Rochette, who won Olympic bronze at the 2010 Games. “Even though she was very athletic and she won the Olympics, she was like a princess. She was almost like royalty.”
“I feel like we’ve lost our Queen,” said Kurt Browning, Canadian figure-skating idol and four-time world champion.
Scott, the only Canadian female figure skater to win Olympic gold in singles figure skating, died on Sunday at her home on Amelia Island, Fla. She was 84.
Scott owned her first pair of skates by age six, and was winning competitions soon after that. Coached by Otto Gold and Sheldon Galbraith, she was national senior champion by the age of 15 and won the title three more times.
Scott was the first North American to win the world and European championships, winning both in 1947 and again the next year. In St. Moritz, she competed against 24 other skaters, completing a gold-medal performance on an outdoor rink chipped and roughed up by hockey skates.
Scott retired from figure skating at age 25. Two years later, she married publicist Tom King in Toronto. The couple settled in Chicago, where she opened a beauty salon and became a horse trainer and competitive equestrian rider. Later, they moved to Florida, where they kept a condo on the ocean, with space for their beloved cats and a guest house for the people they encouraged to come and visit.
But even as her figure-skating career faded, she remained closely involved in the sport. She judged competitions and often returned to Canada as an honoured guest at sport and charity events.
Newer generations of Canadian figure-skating champions have memories of meeting Scott.
Rochette, who met Scott for the first time before heading off to her first Olympics in Turin, recalls being struck by Scott’s poise and classic Audrey Hepburn style. “In French, we have an expression: Elle est une grande dame. She was a grand lady.”
Elizabeth Manley, who grew up in Ottawa and trained in an arena named after Scott, first met her idol less than an hour before she took to the ice for her long program at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Manley, who went on to win a silver medal that night, said part of the thrill of that day was meeting Scott, who persuaded officials to allow her down to the competitors area. She gave Manley a hug and some encouragement. “She was my idol. She was my hero. She was the one that I wanted to be,” said Manley.
Browning, who said he could always count on receiving a Christmas card from Scott and King every Christmas, called her by a nickname: “Grandma.”
“She was a diva without the diva,” he said.
“She’s dressed to the nines every second. She’s bigger than life. She just was this caricature of perfection, everywhere she went. And then you knew her, of course, and she was nicer than she was beautiful.”
By the end, there were too many awards and honours to name: They included the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s top athlete in 1945, 1947 and 1948; induction into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1955 and the Canadian Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1991; becoming an officer of the Order of Canada in 1991; induction into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1997; and being named to Canada’s Walk of Fame in 1998.
Scott said her biggest honour was simply representing Canada.
“My father always taught me, anything you can do for your country – do. That comes first,” Scott said during a recent visit to Ottawa. “And so, I tried in my little way.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the year Elizabeth Manley won her silver medal. This version has been corrected.