Ńja VrzŠňovŠ-Steindler is a remarkable woman. Now aged 81, she was twice crowned world figure skating champion, in 1949 and 1950, while still in her teens. Immediately after taking her second world title, she won political asylum in the U.K., before moving to the United States, where she has spent much of her life.
You went to train in London in your teens. That must have been unusual in those days.
“That was much later. The war ended in 1945, so I was here until 1945. Then 1946 was my first competition, in Norway. In 1947, I became Czechoslovak national champion for the first time, and I held the title for four years running.
“But at the beginning of 1947 I went to London. A wonderful lady, Mrs. PachlovŠ, told my mother who the coach was, and he was a renowned skating coach, who was Swiss and taught in Richmond, in London. She said, if you give me your daughter to take with us…because mommy couldn’t go, they wouldn’t give us two passports.
“So I went and I spent two months under his care. And Mrs. PachlovŠ of course looked after me – I was not alone there. In the end the coach, Mr. Gerschwiller, said Ńja, if you work as hard as I’ve seen you work in the last two months, in three years you will be world champion. And I made it in two.”
About your leaving – when you defected in 1950, was that a big story here? Was it a big scandal?
“Yes, it was, it was. They tried kidnapping me in London. The police, or whoever was watching me, I had two men watching me all the time… I was staying in the private residence of Arnold Gerschwiller, my coach and his wife. It was an English residence, so they could not enter it, unlike if I had been at a hotel.
“It was really scary. They almost got me one time, put me in a car, and I would have been gone. But luckily Arnold Gerschwiller went to the English authorities. Rather than us going to them, they came to us at the residence in Richmond and gave me political asylum on the spot. That was very unusual, and very helpful, because I couldn’t leave the house for 10 days at all.”