Sjoukje Dijkstra, RIP

 

Funny, sometimes, how the mind works.  Today’s Telegraph has an obituary for figure skater Sjoukje Dijkstra, who has died at the age of 82. It’s a name that–today–will likely trip lightly off the tongues only of those native to Holland, but I’m a geezer, and I know that it’s pronounced something on the order of “SHOU-kee DIKE-stra.”

Miss Dijkstra won the gold medal at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, the same year she also won both the European and the World Championships, making her one of a select group of very few skaters, male or female, who’ve accomplished that feat.  I remember her.

But when I read the news a little earlier today, my first thought wasn’t of figure skating at all. It was of a family funeral which was held at a church I didn’t frequent, and of which I’d been told that the family nickname for the organist was, “The Thumper.”  I quickly discovered why, at the outset of the first hymn.

My mother avidly followed championship figure skating all her life, and I delighted in it myself in my youth, learning to skate when we lived in Boston, and enjoying the rather more accessible coverage that living in the States brought, even in 1964 when the Winter Olympics were first telecast, with the major events having been recorded in Austria and then flown back for broadcast stateside, the same evening, in black and white.

Mum didn’t care for Sjoukje Dijkstra at all, finding her much too athletic, and–even though her compulsory figures were peerless–entirely lacking in charisma and elegance in my mother’s favorite portion of the competition, the skate-to-music free program.  (The judging and requirements for figure skating today are nothing like they were fifty years ago, when skaters spent hours in training each day–and then in competition–silently tracing circular “figures” with their blades on the ice, and then skating over them–first with one foot, then the other–time after time, to see how consistent, proper, and exact their motions, leg and arm movements,  blade angles and edges, and tracery were, as scored by a team of judges equally silently poring over each effort.  Those scores, for technical precision that most of the audience didn’t understand, and couldn’t have cared less about, were hugely influential in the final outcome of the competition.)

But although the compulsories are long gone from most prestigious figure-skating tournaments, and with them many of the technical expectations of the sport, the tension has continued between the delicate, elegant, precision skaters, and the athletic “thumpers,” those who come storming onto the ice, and who bring the house down with their triples and quadruples, often at the expense of finesse and exactness, as long as they manage–even just barely–to stay on their feet.  Occasionally, a skater like Michelle Kwan manages to excel without succumbing to the demand for ever-more outlandish tricks as skaters fight to pack as much excitement as possible into each routine.  (I saw Kwan win her last World Championship in 2003, in Washington DC.)  South Korea’s Yuna Kim is a more recent example of grace and beauty on the ice, but it’s a rare sight anymore.

Rest in peace, Sjoukje Dijkstra.  Thanks for the memories.  You were, by all accounts, a perfectly lovely woman, who, apart from a rather odd and brief stretch when you and your husband ran a quite unsuccessful circus, seems to have retired to a rather ordinary life, and to have remained a good friend to, and good servant of, the Dutch Figure Skating Federation throughout it.

But I’m afraid, due to the vagaries of my not always “as the crow flies” brain, now you’ll always be “The Thumper” to me.

Do your brains fly as the crow?  Or do you sometimes make weird connections that might not seem obvious to others?  I worry, sometimes…..

PS: In my own (and I suppose my mother’s) defense, the Telegraph obituary does mention that Peggy Fleming, 1968 Olympic gold medal winner who, along with Michelle Kwan, is probably the most celebrated female figure skater in US history, described Sjoukje Dijkstra as “a huge muscular lady who performs huge jumps; all I could think was, couldn’t she be a little more feminine?”  So it wasn’t just us. (Or “we,” as I think a true grammarian should say.)

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  1. MikeMcCarthy Coolidge
    MikeMcCarthy
    @MikeMcCarthy

    Love your work, but, I’m not at all sure you are an actual geezer. At least in the English English sense.

    • #1
  2. Drew in Texas Coolidge
    Drew in Texas
    @Dbroussa

    I remember Albertville and Suriya Bonali who could do a backflip but was not allowed to in competition. I also remember the way that skating made changes in what was acceptable or not based on what the Soviets and then the Russians would do. An American might skate to a contemporary tune and the Russian to Swan Lake and the commentators and judges would love the traditional music. Then when Russians started using contemporary music suddenly it was ground breaking and daring and rewarded. 

    We still watch the Olympics, but Oksana Baiul should not have won in Lillehammer because she two footed her landing, and the new point system has turned it into just a string of bigger and flashier jumps. I’ve come to like Ice Dancing for its artistry as a result. 

    • #2
  3. She Member
    She
    @She

    MikeMcCarthy (View Comment):

    Love your work, but, I’m not at all sure you are an actual geezer. At least in the English English sense.

    Thanks, and yeah, I guess you’re right on the technicality.  (Nul points for the compulsory figures, @she!)  I do find it to be a word which perfectly expresses one’s  “get off my lawn” attitude (which I’m quite proud of, and which probably isn’t sex-adjacent) without so much of the attendant baggage, so to speak, that often accompanies colloquialisms meaning “old woman.”

    • #3
  4. She Member
    She
    @She

    Drew in Texas (View Comment):

    I remember Albertville and Suriya Bonali who could do a backflip but was not allowed to in competition. I also remember the way that skating made changes in what was acceptable or not based on what the Soviets and then the Russians would do. An American might skate to a contemporary tune and the Russian to Swan Lake and the commentators and judges would love the traditional music. Then when Russians started using contemporary music suddenly it was ground breaking and daring and rewarded.

    Yes.  The judging shenanigans were something to behold. I really don’t know if the behind the scenes stuff is any better these days, or if it’s just different.

    We still watch the Olympics, but Oksana Baiul should not have won in Lillehammer because she two footed her landing, and the new point system has turned it into just a string of bigger and flashier jumps. I’ve come to like Ice Dancing for its artistry as a result.

    Agree to a great extent. I think some of the ice dancers get a little too carried away and precious with their artistry, although there seems to be less of that now than there was several years ago.  One of the pluses (to my mind) of ice dancing is that they pretty much have to keep at least one foot  on the ice, and they can’t throw either themselves, or each other, around too much, so they have to find other ways to stand out.  I was in the UK when Torvill and Dean skated to Bolero, and I don’t think any athletes in British history, including any Premier League footballer (“proper football,” as Auntie Pat would have said) you can think of was as celebrated as the two of them.

    What I find lovely about that performance is that it really does seem to be a continuous motion by the two of them from start to finish, with almost no breaks at all.  What I find very off-putting, particularly in men’s and women’s singles skating these days is when they start their engine at one end of the ice and rev themselves up until they’re three-quarters of the way across it, picking up speed and with no apparent interest in, or emotional connection to, their music.  And all you can do is sit there and think: “Here’s the wind-up to a jump…there’s a big jump coming…”  And then they two-foot the landing or sit down, but they still get more points that way than if they’d done something elegant and musical.  Whatever the opposite of “grace and artistry” is, that’s it.

    • #4
  5. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    She: “a huge muscular lady who performs huge jumps; all I could think was, couldn’t she be a little more feminine?”

    Healthy girl. Good on farm.

    • #5
  6. Fritz Coolidge
    Fritz
    @Fritz

    I miss Dick Button, the only TV commentator on figure skating and ice dancing who could translate the jargon, explain the moves, and make it all make sense to viewers who knew nothing about the sport.

    • #6
  7. She Member
    She
    @She

    Fritz (View Comment):

    I miss Dick Button, the only TV commentator on figure skating and ice dancing who could translate the jargon, explain the moves, and make it all make sense to viewers who knew nothing about the sport.

    I thought about him too, and I looked him up earlier today.  He’s 94.  He’s overcome a couple of serious head injuries, one in 1978 when he was attacked by thugs in Central Park, and again in 2000 when he fell while skating and fractured his skull.  Among other things, he must one tough cookie…His first Olympic gold medal was in 1948, seventy-six years ago.

    • #7
  8. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    She: Sjoukje Dijkstra … and I know that it’s pronounced something on the order of “SHOU-kee DIKE-stra.”  

    The Dykstra surname is fairly common in Holland, Michigan and environs (between Grand Rapids and Lake Michigan).  I presume they fixed the spelling somewhat upon moving to America. Wikipedia says it’s a Frisian word that meant “someone who lived near a dike” or “dike sitter.”  

    My wife’s father (and surname) came from a part of Schleswig-Holstein that has the highest concentration of Frisian speakers in Germany (and maybe Europe?) not counting those who live on nearby islands in the North Sea.  And yes, they have dikes and polders like the Netherlands have, but those are called by different German words that I can’t remember just now.  My wife’s family all spoke German, but her maiden name was not German, nor Frisian, but Danish. 

    Well, you did ask about weird connections and brains that fly as the crow. 

    The ones who came to America hadn’t owned their own land or house in Germany, but somewhere among their ancestors was a prominent clergyman from early Reformation days who hung around with Danish royalty.   

     

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  9. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    The only Dijkstra who I’ve been aware of was Edsger. I assumed that he was unique. He certainly was idiosyncratic.

    • #9
  10. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    My uncle, a WW2 artillery veteran who fought through France, Luxembourg, and Germany to VE Day, was a good ice skater.

    In the 1980s, he dazzled all of the younger family members one evening by demonstrating his skill in performing the “school figures” that were still part of the Olympics.

    It was quite a sight to see a man the size of a football player making those precise figures in the ice.

    • #10
  11. Drew in Texas Coolidge
    Drew in Texas
    @Dbroussa

    Fritz (View Comment):

    I miss Dick Button, the only TV commentator on figure skating and ice dancing who could translate the jargon, explain the moves, and make it all make sense to viewers who knew nothing about the sport.

    My wife and I have enjoyed Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir as they have become more involved in commentary. They are knowledgeable and funny. 

    • #11
  12. She Member
    She
    @She

    Drew in Texas (View Comment):

    Fritz (View Comment):

    I miss Dick Button, the only TV commentator on figure skating and ice dancing who could translate the jargon, explain the moves, and make it all make sense to viewers who knew nothing about the sport.

    My wife and I have enjoyed Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir as they have become more involved in commentary. They are knowledgeable and funny.

    We refer to him (I don’t think this is in the least original to our family) as Johnny Weird.  He’s very knowledgeable, and quite insightful.  And I do think that–unlike Dick Button–who was focused like a laser on the technical aspects of the sport and who could be quite brutal to those who didn’t measure up (not necessarily a bad thing when it counted), Johnny tries to be kind, even when the skaters make a mess of things.

    I remember, several years ago a rather inept ice-dancing team from–somewhere?–trying to do that thing where the man sort of crouches down, and the woman bends backwards, is taken on his back, rolls across, and then down to meet the ice on the other side (I don’t know what it’s called, but when it’s done correctly it’s quite impressive), and the whole thing was a complete failure, from end to end, and from side to side.  She did, indeed, appear for several seconds to be mounted on his back and waving her legs in the air, desperately trying to gain the momentum to roll across and land.

    “She almost looks like she’s stuck to him,” announced Weir in the commentary.

    Made me laugh.

    • #12
  13. Fritz Coolidge
    Fritz
    @Fritz

    She (View Comment):
    Dick Button–who was focused like a laser on the technical aspects of the sport and who could be quite brutal to those who didn’t measure up

    Yes, and it often revealed the favoritism among the judges, as when DB pointed out the performance’s technical deficiencies but the score would be off the chart high anyway. His honesty could be rather piercing but it was refreshing.

    • #13
  14. Drew in Texas Coolidge
    Drew in Texas
    @Dbroussa

    She (View Comment):
    We refer to him (I don’t think this is in the least original to our family) as Johnny Weird.  He’s very knowledgeable, and quite insightful.  And I do think that–unlike Dick Button–who was focused like a laser on the technical aspects of the sport and who could be quite brutal to those who didn’t measure up (not necessarily a bad thing when it counted), Johnny tries to be kind, even when the skaters make a mess of things.

    That is a great name for him.  I love the outfits that he wears and how just outright crazy they are, but more importantly, he knows his stuff and knows how to explain it to the casual fan which makes the entire experience more enjoyable and brings new fans into the fold.

    • #14
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