The 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., marked a magical moment in the career of Anett Pötzsch, when the then 19-year-old became the first female singles skater from her nation to be crowned Olympic champion.
A STAR IS BORN
Pötzsch was born in the industrial city of Karl-Marx-Stadt in the State of Saxony in what was then known as East Germany. Following the German reunification, the city reverted to its pre-war name of Chemnitz.
Taking up the sport at age 5, Pötzsch recalled her first coach, Brigitte Schellhorn, as the person who “taught me the beautiful things in skating.”
After passing the required tests, Pötzsch entered a renowned sporting academy in her hometown. She was acknowledged as a promising talent by official observers while still a child. Gabriele Seyfert, the 1969-70 World champion, was assigned to coach her.
The talented athlete progressed rapidly. Pötzsch was sent to the 1973 European Championships in Cologne at age 12, where she placed an astonishing eighth and ranked 14th at the subsequent World Championships.
“It was fantastic to skate with some of the best at such a young age,” Pötzsch recalled. “I was a carefree girl but I did not speak to many other skaters because I could not speak any other languages. My idol then was my coach Gaby Seyfert who had won Europeans and Worlds a few years before.”
Jutta Müller, Seyfert’s mother, subsequently took over the coaching duties and in 1975 Pötzsch won her first European medal, a bronze.
Pötzsch placed fourth at her first Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1976 and repeated the result a few weeks later at the World Championships.
She has fond recollections of that first Olympic experience. “Everything was extremely interesting. I could walk around in a western town, which we were not allowed to do anywhere else,” Pötzsch recalled. “The team uniforms allowed me to recognize from which country the other athletes came, especially in the Olympic Village.
“This was a fascinating experience. At that time there was more contact with athletes from your own country than there is today.”
One of the few skaters with a triple Salchow who often skated to popular operetta melodies, Pötzsch was known for her excellent compulsory figures and solid short and free skating programs.
“I think I was strong in compulsory figures because of my personality. I am a very disciplined person, who is always seeking perfection. And I like geometry,” she said with a laugh.
Pötzsch found a formidable foe in America’s Linda Fratianne. At the 1977 World Championships, Pötzsch placed second behind Fratianne, who earned higher artistic impression marks.
“I was angry after the free program about my mistakes, it was not my day,” Pötzsch said. “But I promised myself that this would never happen again. Afterwards, I trained much more intensely.”
Pötzsch won the World title in 1978 on Canadian soil; Fratianne reclaimed the crown in 1979 but placed second to Pötzsch in 1980 in Dortmund.
“Because of our different political systems, I did not have much personal contact with Linda,” Pötzsch said of her rivalry with Fratianne. “Our officials did not like us to speak too much to athletes of other countries. We never knew if too much contact might have bad consequences for our future careers. We were asked to concentrate on our own competition.
“But now, whenever I see Linda’s former coach Frank Carroll, I ask him how she is doing. He is a kind of an interpreter between us.”
Millions of television viewers in East Germany stayed up to the wee hours of the morning to watch the ladies free program at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, which were transmitted live from Lake Placid, N.Y., by the East German television network.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the difficult political climate between the East and West, skating became one of those infamous sporting battles between communism and capitalism. This was one of them.
The judging system was very different back then. Each of the nine judges decided who should be awarded first place — and the majority ruled. If five of the nine judges had a skater in first, he or she was first, regardless of the marks given by the four remaining judges.
Pötzsch clearly won the compulsory figures, but Fratianne received higher marks in the short program. This was the correct result because the American had landed a triple jump in her program. Everything came down to the free skate.
The evening of the long program, the rink was filled with as much tension as that unforgettable hockey match between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, or the battle of the “Carmen’s” eight years later.
Fratianne had landed two triple jumps in her free program and stood in first. Pötzsch executed her first Salchow, a double, but fought back and added two triples later in her program.
The result was close. Fratianne had earned higher artistic marks but seven of the nine judges, who were from both Eastern and Western Europe, had Pötzsch in first place by a very close margin.
Only the U.S. and Japanese judges had Fratianne first. The outcome was a 7:2 decision in favor of Pötzsch, a result many in North America questioned.
A few weeks later Pötzsch claimed her second World title.
Shortly before the 1981 season commenced, Pötzsch announced her retirement. “I had knee problems and I was not motivated because I had reached all my goals,” she explained.
However, when East Germany failed to medal at Europeans that season, Pötzsch regretted her decision. “I was watching the competition on TV and I was angry at myself that I was no longer skating. It took me a long time to overcome that,” she said.
Nonetheless, Pötzsch moved on with her life. She enrolled at the University of Leipzig and married Axel Witt, a soccer player and the older brother of Katarina Witt.
In 1984, the couple welcomed a daughter, Claudia, who went on to become the 2000 German pairs champion with partner Robin Szolkowy.
Pötzsch turned to judging, sitting on the panels at the 1988 and 1989 European Championships.
In 1990 she and Witt divorced. Pötzsch returned to Chemnitz and took a job at a bank. “After the political changes in our country we did not know how and if the sport would continue. Therefore, I looked for a safe job,” Pötzsch explained. “But my heart beat for skating.”
After taking part in the “Skates of Gold” shows in the U.S. and playing a role in [Katarina] Witt’s film “Carmen,” the International Skating Union (ISU) banned Pötzsch from judging.
In 1993, she married former pairs skater Axel Rauschenbach. The couple have a 16-year-old daughter, Cindy.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
During her career, Pötzsch won four East German national titles and claimed four Europeans crowns, defeating West Germany’s Dagmar Lurz each time.
Pötzsch regained her eligibility in 1994 after professionals like Witt and Brian Boitano were allowed to return to the amateur arena, but she opted not to return to judging.
Instead, Pötzsch quit her day job in 1999 and turned to coaching. “I decided to come back to figure skating,” she said. “Nowadays, I see so many former skaters and coaches when I go to competitions as a coach or specialist. We former athletes understand each other’s feelings more than anybody else.”
She became an ISU technical specialist in 2004 and was on the technical panel at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy. “This job helps me a lot for my main job as a coach,” she explained. “You see the top skaters and get new ideas from them. And you learn the rules exactly.”
Almost 30 years after her Olympic victory, Pötzsch once again returned to Lake Placid for a Junior Grand Prix event in September 2009.
Outside the Olympic rink she observed the flag of the former German Democratic Republic for which she competed, waving in the wind, an obsolete reminder of the past.
But inside the Olympic museum she found photos of herself and all the memories came back. “It was fantastic to be there again,” Pötzsch said. “Everybody was so friendly to me. I got a lot of recognition and I participated in a few victory ceremonies.
“And I was so proud when I found my name on the wall plaque in the rink with all the other Olympic champions.”
Originally published in April 2011