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 from now on.” By the time he was 16, Norval Baptie fulfilled that prophecy by becoming the World Champion in speed skating. And it was on this day 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 produced 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 there was and that he won nearly 5000 races. We know those races ranged from the 200 meter to the 8 kilometer, but see...? We’re talking meters and kilometers because this comes from a Canadian source, Today's Canadian Headline... almost every mention of him on the Internet comes from a Canadian site, and they even drafted Baptie into their Speed Skating Hall of Fame.
How could Baptie have been forgotten here in his home state? He dominated the ice for more than 20 years in distance, speed and then later in “fancy” staking (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. He managed the famous rink at Madison Square Gardens.
Luckily, a Minneapolis newspaper preserved several articles on him, so we have a few details of his life. Baptie made his skating debut when he was 10, earning his first win and soon the State Championship. A few years later he won the world championship and went on to break speed records in 220 yards, half mile, one mile, two mile and five mile competitions. He dominated the sport so long that the children of his first competitors were now competing.
In 1913, Norval wowed fans by switching to figure skating. He persuaded the owners of the Sherman Hotel in Chicago to create an indoor skating rink and then produced the world’s first indoor ice-skating show. His acts included singles, pairs and ballets.
Baptie’s show was so successful that a competing hotel, the Terrace Gardens, built a colorful ice arena, surrounded by tiers of dining tables, and lured Baptie away from the Sherman. In 1930, reporters were still writing about Norval’s show at the Terrace Gardens, now with his elegant wife, Gladys Lamb, as his skating partner.
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.
Maybe it’s time we take Norval Baptie back from Canada. He was a North Dakota boy, after all.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm