He Could Skate in a Washtub
Norval Baptie was born on this date in 1879. He is enshrined in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and is in the Ice Skating Hall of Fame. His career influenced the entire sport. While he is embraced by the world ice skating community, he's not well known in his home state.
Baptie was born in Canada, but his family soon moved to the town of Bathgate in the northeast corner of North Dakota. He took to ice skating at an early age, winning his first race at the age of ten. By fourteen, he was the North Dakota speed racing champion. At sixteen, he defeated the national amateur speed skating champion. In 1904, world speed skating champion John Johnson agreed to race against Baptie. The North Dakotan won by a wide margin. Johnson later said that Baptie was so talented “he could skate in a washtub.”
As his reputation grew, Baptie had difficulty finding anyone who would race against him. He issued a challenge for a race in which his opponents skated in their normal style while he skated backwards. He won easily.
Baptie shattered every speed skating record, but he stunned the skating world when he turned to fancy skating, known today as figure skating. He said, “Few activities add so much to the grace and build of a man or a woman as does fancy skating.” Baptie met Gladys Lamb, a dancer in a nightclub, taught her to skate, and they paired up for exhibitions. After World War I, they skated in the first ice show, organized by Baptie. Through ice shows, he became famous for jumping over barrels and performing stunts like skating on stilts. Not one to forget his home state, he presented a show in Grand Forks in 1921.
Norval Baptie left behind an extensive legacy. He designed skates, eliminating the curled ice-skating blade. He remained active in skating even after he lost his legs due to diabetes. He turned to coaching. His children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren went on to excel as Olympic and professional skaters in both speed skating and figure skating. He died in 1966 and is buried in the Bathgate cemetery.
Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher
Pro Skating Historical Foundation. “Norval Baptie, the Complete Skater.” http://proskatinghistoricalfoundation.org/norval-baptie/ Accessed 2/26/2021.
Find a Grave. “Norval Baptie.”https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/108350983/norval-baptie Accessed 2/26/2021.
Daily Pioneer. “The City.” Bemidji MN 1/25/04. Page 3.
Grand Forks Herald. “Norval Baptie and Gladys Lamb to Skate.” Grand Forks ND. 2/19/21. Page 6.