Look to the past: Madge Syers, the first woman to compete at a figure skating World Championships

Did you know that women were not allowed to compete in figure skating competitions until 1902? It took a talented and brave young woman to challenge the status quo. Discover the story of Madge Syers, the first woman to compete at the World Figure Skating Championships.

By Marina Dmukhovskaya
Picture by © 1908 / Comité International Olympique (CIO)

Florence Madelin “Madge” Cave was born in England in the nineteenth century. One of 15 children, Madge was the most athletic person in her family. She loved swimming and equestrian, however, nothing could match her fondness for skating. 

The youngster joined Prince’s Skating Club in London, a members-only organisation for Britain’s elite figure skaters. It was through skating that she met the man that would go on to be her husband, Edgar Syers, a figure skating enthusiast who became her first coach. Later in life, the couple co-authored the book, The Art of Skating: International Style, which described skating techniques and methods to execute different elements.

Syers skates to landmark gold

At the time in England, skating was very popular with both men and women during the winter months, however, only men’s international competitions existed at the time. Syers decided to break the mold in 1902 by becoming the first-ever woman to compete at the World Championships. At first, the judges wanted to ban her from competing; however, as there were no rules specifically restricting women from entering, they allowed her to compete. Syers performed brilliantly, taking second place behind Ulrich Salchow and paving the way for the ISU to create the women’s World Championships. 

In her competitive debut, Syers competed in a full-length skirt, but in order to allow the judges to see her footwork, she set a new trend for female skating costumes: calf-length skirts.

The silver medal Syers won at the men’s World Championships was just a taste of what would come. The young trailblazer went on to compete in the British nationals, beating her own husband in the process. She also won two of the newly-established women’s World Championships. Now her goal was the Olympics. 

The London 1908 Games not only represented Syers’ debut on Olympic ice but also the first time figure skating was included on the Olympic programme. During the Games, the skaters competed at the Knightsbridge club, on the same ice Syers had received her first figure skating lessons. With female skaters now able to compete, the 1908 Olympic competition included four disciplines: mixed pairs, men’s singles, ladies' singles and men’s special figures. Local favourites Madge and Edgar Syers won bronze in the mixed pairs category. However, Madge’s true moment of glory was yet to come. After an impeccable performance, she added ladies’ singles gold to her resume, becoming the first woman to win two medals at the same Olympic Games.

After retiring from figure skating, Syers passed away from a heart condition at just 35 years of age. However, her legacy lives on to this day. She will forever be remembered as the inspiration behind the creation of a female category in figure skating - a sport that remains one of the most popular at the Olympic Winter Games.

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