Today, very few people even know that in 1947 a young woman from Zurich became the first world champion in roller skating. High time, then, to roll out the story of Ursula Wehrli.
Between 5 and 7 December 1947, 18-year-old Ursula Wehrli stole the show in Washington. The young woman from Zurich won the world championship title in roller skating in the US capital. In front of 2,500 spectators she relegated her American rivals, June Henrich and Charlotte Ludwig, to 2nd and 3rd places respectively. It was a result that Swiss supporters had hardly dared hope for – the two US athletes were huge stars and roller skating was phenomenally popular in the USA. Along with bowling, it was one of the most popular leisure activities among Americans in the mid-20th century. Almost every town had at least one roller skating rink, and bars and discos had special skater nights.
The magazine raved about “beautiful Ursula Wehrli”.
Roller skating on a Saturday night at the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago, 1941 (Library of Congress)
Ursula Wehrli in her element at the 1944 Swiss Championships in Zurich (Private collection)
Nonetheless, at the very first roller skating world championships the top trophy was carried off by a young woman from Switzerland. Another case of David versus Goliath? Yes, if you compare the popularity of the sport in the two countries, definitely. However, Ursula Wehrli’s victory didn’t come as a complete surprise. Wehrli was the reigning European champion, and experts in the sport were well aware of her strengths.
In November 1947, just a few weeks before the World Championships, the publishers of roller skating magazine “American Skater” deliberately (and perhaps somewhat provocatively) put Wehrli on the cover. The magazine raved about “beautiful Ursula Wehrli”. “Her figures are large and well patterned and her free skating is a magnet to lovers of fine skating.” In particular, her skills in the air were praised.
The “Daily News” newspaper turned one European Championship title into four: “The European Champ for four straight years, she arrived here via Pan American clipper.” And Ursula Wehrli became an athlete named Ursuala Wewrili ...
Little Ursula couldn’t let go of the image of the roller-skating couple.
Cover of US roller skating magazine “American Skater”, November 1947 (Private collection)
Moving fast was in Ursula Wehrli’s blood. Whether on asphalt or on ice, on rollers or on runners, the young woman from Zurich whirled her way across the arena, leaving the competition and the public gaping in astonishment time after time. Every now and then she even picked up a stick and played a round of roller hockey. The important thing was to be gliding, moving, rolling...
Wehrli started skating as an eight-year-old at the Rollerclub Zürich in 1937. Because Ursula’s mother suffered from heart problems, the family often went for walks in the fresh air. On one of these outings, little Ursula saw a couple dancing to a tune. But it wasn’t a normal dance, it was pirouettes on “moving shoes”! That grace, that effortlessness... Little Ursula couldn’t let go of the image of the roller-skating couple, and she knew straightaway: “I want to do that too!” Finally her father, Jean Wehrli, gave in. A former gymnast and talented figure skater himself, Wehrli acquiesced to his daughter’s wish and Ursula was able to start roller skating.
This article originally appeared on the Swiss National Museum's history blog. There you will regularly find exciting stories from the past. Whether double agent, impostor or pioneer. Whether artist, duchess or traitor. Delve into the magic of Swiss history.
Ursula Wehrli competing in a speed-skating event in 1938. (Private collection)
In 1940 Ursula Wehrli was chosen for the Swiss national team. (Private collection)
Her first successes soon started rolling in – on the roller rink and on the ice. Ursula Wehrli could have had a brilliant career in either sport. She opted for roller skates, probably because she had her first positive experiences on wheels. Ice skating became more of a recreational sport for her, and replaced training on the roller rink in winter when weather restricted its availability. Recreation and winter notwithstanding, the Zurich native was also a very talented figure skater and in 1945 Wehrli became Swiss Junior Champion.
Despite winning a slew of titles on tar and ice, Ursula Wehrli never became a professional athlete. After completing school, she worked in an insurance company office. After countless competitions and almost as many victories, in 1950 the world champion hung up her roller skates and became a trainer.
Ursula Wehrli’s sporting record is impressive: European champion, world champion and ten-time Swiss champion.
In the office, 1947 (Private collection)
AlsAs a trainer, Ursula Wehrli passed on her knowledge to the next generation of young talent. Photo dating from 1949. (Private collection)
Ursula Wehrli’s sporting record is impressive: European champion, world champion and ten-time Swiss champion. Not to mention a Swiss championship title in figure skating and numerous podium finishes in national and international competitions.
There was just one wish for “her sport” that Wehrli was never able to achieve: establishing roller skating as an Olympic discipline. In an interview with “Sport” newspaper, she emphasised that she hoped the discipline would feature among the permanent sports at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Roller skating still is not an Olympic sport. Not even Ursula Wehrli’s sensational performances have been able to change that.
Constantly on the move on her roller skates. Ursula Wehrli in 1938. (Private collection)
Figure skating, 1943 (Private collection)
Roller skate training, 1939 (Private collection)
Queen of the air, 1944 (Private collection)
Pirouettes ... on other surfaces as well (Private collection)
European Champion certificate, 1946 (Private collection)
World Champion medal from 1947 (Private collection)
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