(Copyright IFS 2006)
Paris, 1952 — Fifty-four years have passed since Jacqueline Du Bief won her World title. To this day, she remains the only French female skater to stand atop the podium as World champion.
Du Bief, who was born in Paris, France in December 1930, arrived on the scene at a time when women’s skating had hit a plateau.
Though many of her contemporaries were technically brilliant, they were performing programs in the classically accepted style of the day. A natural talent, Du Bief took an unorthodox and refreshing approach bringing a revolutionary artistic dimension to women’s skating.
Throughout her career, Du Bief experimented with new and innovative ideas and explored all avenues of artistic skating. Her vibrant personality and power of presentation accentuated her many brilliant and original moves, which at times both dazzled and shocked audiences.
Du Bief was renowned for her creative choreography. She once devised a program where she portrayed a statue that came to life while another performer pretended to be asleep in a chair on the ice. In another program, she wore a costume with red and white arm bands so that when she spun her arms resembled a barber’s pole.
She won the French national title six times between 1947 and 1952, and at age 17, made her Olympic debut at the 1948 Games in St. Moritz where she placed 16th. Du Bief won bronze at the 1950 European Championships and silver at both the 1951 and 1952 Europeans.
At the 1951 World Championships Du Bief placed second to Britain’s Jeanette Altwegg. Although a strong free skater, Du Bief was weak in figures. At the time, they accounted for 60 percent of the overall mark and figures were Altwegg’s strength. The result was nonetheless controversial as it was believed Du Bief should have won the gold. After the event, Du Bief later stated she was told by an ISU official that she would win the following year.
Du Bief claimed the bronze medal at the 1952 Olympic Games in Oslo, Norway. In doing so, not only did she win France’s sole medal at those Games but she became the first and only French woman to ever win an Olympic figure skating medal.
Less than two weeks later, on Feb. 29, 1952, skating before an enthusiastic home crowd in Paris, Du Bief herself became a controversial World champion. Despite landing the first double Lutz in international competition, Du Bief fell twice, once careening across the entire rink on her derriere. One judge gave her a perfect 6.0.
So outraged were the fans in attendance when the final results were announced, that they pelted the ice with all manner of things protesting that Sonja Klopfer from the United States was the winner. American Virginia Baxter, who won the free skate, placed third overall.
Four years after Du Bief turned professional she conceded in her book “Thin Ice” that Klopfer should have indeed been awarded the gold medal.
Du Bief trained under legendary French coach Jacqueline Vaudecrane, who was herself a three-time French champion. Vaudecrane also coached French champions Alain Giletti (1960) and Alain Calmat (1965) to their World titles.
Du Bief turned professional following the 1952 Worlds and moved to the United States where she toured for 10 years with "Ice Capades," "Holiday on Ice" and the "Hollywood Ice Revue." She was a fixture in American promoter Tom Arnold’s on ice spectaculars such as “Peter Pan” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Following her retirement from skating Du Bief returned to France where she still resides. She is fondly referred to by the French as "la grande dame du libre or the great lady of the free one [program]."
Forty-two years would pass before another French woman, Surya Bonaly, claimed a World medal, silver, in 1994.
* Du Bief had a brief domestic career as a pairs skater with Tony Font. The duo claimed the 1950 and 1951 French pairs titles.