Prague-born Ája Vrzáňová-Steindler, the women’s world champion in 1949 and 1950 in Paris and London, has died at the age of 84. At the height of her career, Vrzáňová-Steindler was an ice skating legend; in 1950 she defected to the West and eventually settled in the United States.
In the late 1940s Ája Vrzáňová-Steindler was on top of the world, winning title after title to secure a place in ice skating history: back-to-back world championship golds and gold at the European championships – a feat accomplished by no other Czech female competitor before – or since. In But in Czechoslovakia, the Iron Curtain had descended and even a champion faced harassment by the regime. Vrzáňová-Steindler was urged by her parents to defect after the 1950 World Championships in London, which she won. She told Radio Prague’s Ian Willoughby about the decision to defect in an interview in 2012.
“It was the genius of my parents [who had told her to stay in the U.K. after the competition]. A lot of parents try to keep you in the nest, but my parents kindly and sweetly and gently pushed me out of the nest, so to speak.
“They never told me that we wouldn’t see each other for 13 years, in the case of my father. And that my mother would also be leaving the country. I had no idea. They said, you just stay there, represent Czechoslovakia to the best of your ability. (They always told me that – make sure that you represent your country the best you can). And we’ll see you soon.”
Things turned out differently, of course. Vrzáňová-Steindler would not represent Czechoslovakia again. Her mother later joined her in the West following a dramatic escape by plane. But the father remained behind and it would be more than a decade before he was allowed to travel abroad and see his daughter again.
In the early days of her defection, meanwhile, things almost took a turn for the worse: Czechoslovakia’s secret police went so far as to try and snatch her in London and to apparently bundle her into a car to drive her back to Czechoslovakia. Another excerpt from her 2012 interview:
“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.”
Vrzáňová-Steindler would not see her homeland for another 40 years. In the US, she worked for the Ice Follies and Ice Capades and remained active in the field of figure skating and within the local Czech community, marrying a prominent Czech New Yorker at the end of the 1960s. Vrzáňová-Steindler was later inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame, in 2009.