1948: Dick Button wins first U.S. gold, youngest ever men’s figure skating champion
When Dick Button was 12, someone told him he’d never be a good skater. Button’s father overheard these comments, and encouraged Button to train harder and work with new coaches.
Button eventually teamed with legendary coach Gustav Lussi and earned a place among Olympic and U.S. figure skating history.
Before the 1948 Olympics, no U.S. men’s figure skater had ever won a medal. Button entered those Games as the 1947 Worlds silver medalist – the last competition he would ever lose. At Worlds in 1947, he introduced his “Button camel,” or what’s now referred to as the flying camel, practiced by hordes of skaters today.
He also took the title at the 1948 European championships; the following year, the competition was closed to only European athletes.
His gold medal performance at the 1948 Olympics included the debut of a double Axel, where Button became the first man to land the jump. Aged 18 years and 202 days, Button was the youngest men’s figure skating Olympic champion – a record that still stands today.
“In winning first place and the gold medal in singles Richard Button accomplished something that no United States skater had ever done before, and his performance should be considered one of the outstanding achievements of the Games,” wrote team manager Harry N. Keighley in the U.S.’ official report of the Games.
The report also detailed the challenges that the rink presented. Figure skaters were scheduled to compete after hockey games, and no manpower was left to resurface the ice before their competitions. There were also problems with the record player and sound equipment, Keighley wrote, and practice sessions were infrequent and inefficient.
Button would win seven national titles and five consecutive Worlds titles in his career. While training for the 1952 Olympics, he attended Harvard College (he later graduated from Harvard Law) and commuted on breaks to training centers in Lake Placid, New York.
At the 1952 Olympics, Button became the first athlete to land a triple jump of any kind: the triple loop. He was awarded his second gold medal under a unanimous vote. No man has repeated as Olympic champion since Button, but Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic champion from Japan, could contend for his second gold in PyeongChang.
Button skated in shows and formed his own production company once he turned professional. He acted in movies, television specials, and appeared in and produced theater. His broadcast debut was at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics and spanned decades. He was inducted into both the Olympic Hall of Fame and the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
Leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Games, Button told the Los Angeles Times of the Olympic spirit: “Ultimately, there will be a moment or a performance that will arise and will lift your heart, and that's what counts. In this world, if your heart gets lifted, even for a brief time, it's well worth it.”
Button live-tweeted the 2014 Olympics (the 88-year-old is on Twitter @pushdicksbutton) but doesn’t plan to do so for PyeongChang. He doesn’t watch a ton of skating these days. However, he said in a media call that he is enamored by Javier Fernandez’s theatrical skating. At the end of the day, though, he said the man who will win the Olympic title is the one who does the best and most quadruple jumps.
Anniversaries in figure skating
1908: Olympic Games include figure skating contest for the first time | 1928: Sonja Henie wins first of three figure skating gold medals | 1948: Dick Button wins first U.S. gold, youngest ever men’s figure skating champion | 1968: Peggy Fleming takes home only U.S. gold medal from Grenoble | 1968: Ice dancing makes its Olympic debut | 1988: Soviet pairs team Ekaterina Gordeyeva and Sergei Grinkov win first Olympic gold | 1988: Stars Boitano, Orser align for “Battle of the Brians” | 1988: Katarina Witt wins her second Olympic gold in thrilling “Battle of the Carmens” | Tara Lipinski reflects on 1998 Nagano Olympic victory 20 years later | Michelle Kwan reflects on 1998 Olympics 20 years later