In the 1890s, World Champion speed skater, John Johnson, raced a young teenager in Bathgate, North Dakota. Afterwards, Johnson told a Minneapolis reporter, “He’s the fastest fellow on a small rink that I’ve ever seen… he’s got such marvelous control that he could skate in a wash tub. His name is Norval Baptie. Keep the name in mind because you’ll be hearing a lot about him.” By the time he was 16, Norval Baptie fulfilled that prophecy by becoming the speed skating World Champion. And it was on this date in 1966, that he died.
Baptie was born in Bethany, Ontario, but lived there for only a year before his family moved to Bathgate, several miles west of Pembina. Although North Dakota raised him, Canada claims him, and almost nobody in our state has ever heard of him.
We know that he was born in 1879, and we know he won his first World Outdoor Championship in 1895. We know that he spent the next 25 years shattering every amateur and pro speed skating record, and winning nearly 5000 races. We know those races ranged from the 200 meter to the 8 kilometer. He dominated the ice for more than 20 years in distance and speed skating, then later in “fancy” skating (or what we now call figure skating). He was also invented the ice show, touring with world famous skaters like Sonja Henie. He performed all over the world and managed the famous rink at Madison Square Garden. He was also known for successful ice shows he created for hotels in Chicago.
When he was 51, a group of New York sportsmen were willing to put up $25,000 as a bet that Baptie could still beat any competitor, pro or amateur, at any distance. Unfortunately, we don’t know the outcome of that wager, but seven years later, when Baptie was 58, he told a skeptical reporter that he could still skate as fast as he did when he won his first championship at age 16. The next day a group of reporters gathered to watch him prove it; he missed his own record by only 3/5ths of a second.
Norval Baptie is a member of the Canadian Speed Skating Hall of Fame. Maybe it’s time we took him back from Canada. He was, after all, a North Dakota boy.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm