Winter Olympic firsts: Six athletes who blazed a trail and made history at the Games

From a perfect ski jump to the first medals won by black athletes, the legacy of the Olympic Winter Games is full of historic firsts.

Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Every edition of the Olympic Games seems to bring with it iconic moments without fail. So while the world eagerly anticipates which athletes will make history at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games, let’s look back at some of the great athletes who blazed a trail and broke barriers at the Olympic Winter Games.

Eric Heiden: First person to win five individual gold medals at one Olympic Winter Games

Becoming an Olympian is incredibly difficult. Winning an Olympic medal even more so. But winning five medals - all of them gold - at a single Winter Games?

That’s the sort of accomplishment that guarantees an athlete immortality.

Such is the case for Eric Heiden, who will live on forever as the first (and currently only) person to win five individual gold medals at one Olympic Games.

The American accomplished the feat at Lake Placid 1980, winning gold in all five speed skating events at those Games (500m, 1000m, 1500m, 5000m, 10,000m).

In doing so, Heiden set two additional records that still stand to this day:

  • The only athlete in the history of speed skating to have won all five events in a single Olympic tournament and the only one to have won a gold medal in every event.
  • The most successful athlete from a single edition of any Winter Olympics.

If that wasn’t enough, Heiden also set four Olympic records and one world record in Lake Placid and won more gold medals as an individual athlete than every other nation except for the Soviet Union (10) and East Germany (9).

Debra Thomas: First black athlete to win a Winter Olympic medal

Debra Thomas was just five when she started figure skating, and won her first competition aged nine. The American would go on to win a gold and silver medal at the 1986 and 1987 World Championships respectively, before winning bronze in the women’s singles at the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary, Canada (she would win another bronze at the 1988 World Championships later that year). Even more remarkable, Thomas trained, competed and won an Olympic medal while she was enrolled as a student at Stanford University!

Thomas’ third-place finish in Calgary cemented her place in the history books as the first black athlete to win a medal at the Winter Olympics. 14 years later, at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games, Vonetta Flowers (USA - bobsleigh) and Jarome Iginla (CAN - ice hockey) would become the first and second black athletes to win gold at the Winter Olympics. And at Torino 2006, U.S speedskater Shani Davis became the first black athlete to win gold in an individual competition at the Winter Games.

Eric Radford: First openly gay man to win Winter Olympic gold

Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford
Picture by Canada’s Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford (Getty Images)

At the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games, Canadian figure skater Eric Radford won gold in the team figure skating event alongside his partner Meagan Duhamel.

The team figure skating event made its debut at Sochi 2014, and sees each nation compete for the highest combined points tally in the men's, women's, pairs', and ice dance disciplines.

Speaking to Global News following Canada’s gold-medal win in the event, Radford said: “I take it seriously that I can deliver a powerful message and hopefully inspire other gay athletes.”

Brian Orser and Midori Ito: First man and first woman to land a triple axel at the Winter Olympics

The axel jump — named after its creator, Axel Paulsen — is figure skating’s oldest and most difficult jump. Paulsen completed the first axel jump in 1882, but it wasn't until the 1948 Olympic Winter Games that an athlete (American Dick Button) managed to complete a double axel in competition; giving you some indication of just how difficult an axel jump is.

36 years after Button’s successful double axel in St. Moritz, Canadian Brian Orser made history by landing the first triple axel in Olympic competition en route to winning silver in the men’s singles at Sarajevo 1984.

The triple axel has now become fairly common for male skaters to perform, but just three female skaters have completed the jump in Olympic competition.

Japanese skater Midori Ito is the first woman to hit an Olympic triple axel, conquering the movement at Albertville ‘92 in the women’s singles, where she won silver. Ito is also the first woman to land a triple axel in international competition, having done so at the 1989 World Championships!

The other two women to land a triple axel at the Olympics are Japanese skater Mao Asada in 2010 and 2014, and U.S. skater Mirai Nagasu in 2018.

Ester Ledecka: First female athlete to win gold in two different disciplines at the same edition of the Winter Olympics

At PyeongChang 2018, Czech athlete Ester Ledecka pulled off a remarkable accomplishment by winning gold in two different sports!

Ledecka — making her Olympic debut in Alpine skiing — stunned the sporting world by winning the super-G event by 0.01 seconds. Even more astounding is the fact that Ledecka was ranked 68th in the Alpine Skiing Overall World Cup coming into the Olympics, and had never medalled in any World Cup-level international skiing event.

A week later, Ledecka returned to the slopes and won gold in the women's snowboard parallel giant slalom!

Prior to Ledecka's double gold in PyeongChang, no athlete had ever competed in skiing and snowboarding at the same Olympics, let alone medalled. A truly historic accomplishment by the Czech athlete, who could compete in both disciplines again at Beijing 2022.

Kazuyoshi Funaki: first ski jumper to record a perfect score from all five judges at the Winter Olympics

At Nagano 1998, Kazuyoshi Funaki achieved Olympic glory by recording a perfect score in the large hill ski jumping competition.

In a masterpiece reminiscent of Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10s in her gymnastic routine at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, the Japanese received scores of 20 from all five judges after his second jump in the large hill final. Funaki became the first Winter Olympian to achieve perfect marks on a jump, and only the second person to do it in a competition (Austrian Tony Innauer, in 1976, was the first).