20 best ice skaters of all time: figure skating at its best

20 best ice skaters of all time: figure skating at its best

Ciku Njuguna
updated at April 12, 2023 at 8:15 PM

Ice skaters such as Robert Jones, Jackson Haines, and George H. Browne revolutionised the figure skating history timeline by introducing several modern developments seen today. Dig in and discover more about the contributions of the world's top 20 best ice skaters of all time.

Best ice skaters of all time
Photo: canva.com (modified by author)
Source: UGC

Figure skating began in 3,000 BCE and gradually became a sport through the 17th and 18th centuries. When figure skating started in the Olympics, it opened the sport to a wider global audience.

Who are the best ice skaters of all time?

British swimmer and horse rider Madge Syers was the first woman to ice skate competitively. Although judges intended to ban her, she finished second, taking the 1902 all male World Championships silver medal.

20. Karl Schafer

During the 1928 St. Moritz Winter Olympics, Austrian Karl Schäfer participated in the 200m breaststroke event and took his first figure skating gold medal. By retirement, he had won eight Austrian titles, eight European Championships, seven World Championship titles, and two Olympic gold medals.

19. Gillis Grafström

Gillis, a Swedish prodigy, became a member of the Stockholm public skating club at a young age. Gillis Grafström is one of the best Olympic ice skaters of all time. During his time, he became the first male skater to dominate the Olympic Games by winning gold successively between 1922 and 1928.

Who is Karl Schafer?
Acclaimed figure skaters Karl Schafer, Sonja Henie, and Gillis Grafstrom at Lake Placid, New York, in 1931. Photo by Paul Popper/Popperfoto.
Source: Getty Images

18. Tenley Albright

Albright overcame Polio at 11 and later became the first American woman to claim the World Figure Skating Championships title in 1952 and another in 1954. Similarly, two weeks after a severe ankle injury, she skated to another record as the first female American gold medalist at the 1956 Cortina d'Ampezzo Winter Games.

17. Peggy Fleming

Peggy Fleming's Olympics record includes the United States' only gold medal during the Grenoble X Olympic Winter Games. In 1999, Sports Illustrated recognised her as one of the few athletes modernising the sport, saying,

"Pretty and balletic, elegant and stylish, Fleming took a staid sport that was shackled by its inscrutable compulsory figures and arcane scoring system and, with television as her ally, made it marvelously glamorous."
How old was Peggy Fleming when she won gold?
Peggy Fleming executes a spiral on the ice rink at the Grenoble Games, where she won the gold medal in the women's singles figure skating event in February 1968. Photo by Hulton Archive.
Source: Getty Images

16. Kurt Browning

Although Browning never won an Olympic medal in his career, he became the first male skater to do a quad jump in 1988. In addition, the Battle of the Blades judge clinched 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1993 World Championships titles throughout his career.

15. Richard Button

Richard Button was the first person to do a double Axel in 1948. The brilliant performance wowed eight judges in the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland earning him the event's gold medal. He earned his second Olympic gold for innovation in 1952 after landing the first triple jump in figure skating.

14. Patrick Chan

What is Patrick Chan famous for? Throughout his career, the Olympic champion has been regarded as one of the most successful Canadian figure skaters. In addition to taking first place at the 2018 PyeongChang, he is a ten-time Canadian champion with two Sochi silver medals.

What is Patrick Chan famous for?
Patrick Chan competes in the 2016 China ISU Grand Prix Men's free skating event in November 2016at Beijing Capital Gymnasium, Beijing, China. Photo by Lintao Zhang - International Skating Union.
Source: Getty Images

13. Carol Heiss

During the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics, Carol Heiss' had an iconic performance where she won gold. The veteran actress has appeared in several films, including the 1961 Snow White and the Three Stooges film, The Ed Sullivan Show in 1948, and the Cortina 1956: VII Olympic Winter Games.

12. Sonja Henie

Five years after receiving her first pair of skates, Henie, the greatest ice skater of all time, won her first Norwegian national Championship title at 11. After retiring from active skating, the well-seasoned actress, who is also regarded as the most decorated figure skater in Olympic history, starred in several films, including Thin Ice, My Lucky Star, and Sun Valley Serenade.

How old was Sonja Henie when she won her first gold medal?
In a scene from the film 'The Countess Of Monte Cristo,' Sonja Henie was wearing an ice skating costume in 1948. Photo by Universal Pictures.
Source: Getty Images

11. Katarina Witt

One of Germany's figure skating stars, Katarina Witt, dominated the world figure skating stage in the 1980s, winning two Olympic gold medals. This feat made her the second woman to win two first-place medals in the Olympics after Sonja Henie. She was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1995.

10. Brian Boitano

In 1988, Brian Boitano won the Battle of the Brians over Canada's artistic skater, Brian Orser. Following his head-to-head competition with Orser at Calgary that almost ended in a tie, Boitano edged out his counterpart over technical merit and won his first gold.

9. John Curry

Gold medalist John Curry dominated the British championships consecutively from 1972 to 1975. The 1976 British Sports Personality of the Year still holds the record for the highest total points scored in men's figure skating after scoring 105.9 points out of a possible 108 points. In addition, he became the first openly gay figure skater to perform at the 1976 Innsbruck games.

Why did John Curry stop skating?
John Curry trains for the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympics. Photo by Tony Duffy/Allsport.
Source: Getty Images

8. Kristi Yamaguchi

As a young child, Yamaguchi's love for skating was evident through her favourite toy, the Dorothy Hamill doll. She dominated her first Olympic appearance becoming the first Asian-American woman to win gold at Albertville in 1992. More of Kristi Yamaguchi's achievements include her first gold with Rudy Galindo at the 1987 Junior championships, 1989 national pairs gold, and 1991 and 1992 World Championships titles.

7. Irina Rodnina

Irina Rodnina is one of the most decorated figure skaters of all time. Together with her partner, Alexei Ulanov, they became the best figure skating pair who dominated numerous competitions between 1969 and 1972, including the 1972 Sapporo Winter Games. Alongside fellow skater Alexander Zaitsev, who would later become her husband, Rodnina continued to excel in the rink until 1980 before becoming a coach and a politician.

Who is Alexander Zaitsev?
Irina Rodnina and her husband, Alexander Zaitsev, competed in the pairs ice skating event at the 1976 XII Olympic Winter Games. Photo by American Broadcasting Companies.
Source: Getty Images

6. Michelle Kwan

Retired American figure skater and United States Ambassador to Belize Michelle Wingshan Kwan is one of the most decorated U.S. athletes in figure skating. Between 1996 and 2003, Kwan won the Trophee Lalique, nine U.S. championship titles, five World titles, three Skate Canada, and seven Skate America trophies. After leaving the sport, she began her successful career in diplomacy

5. Evgeni Plushenko

Evgeni Plushenko is one of the most famous Russian ice skaters. He beat veteran skater Gillis Grafström's 80-year record after becoming a two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time silver medalist in addition to his three European Championships, two continental titles, and three Russian national titles.

4. Yazuru Hanyu

Yazuru Hanyu is considered the best ice skater of all time. At 19 years of age, he became the second youngest gold medal winner Olympian after winning the Sochi Winter Games and the second in 2018's Pyeongchang Games.

Why did Yuzuru Hanyu retire?
Yuzuru Hanyu performs during the Stockholm ISU World Championships at the Ericsson Globe in March 2021 in Stockholm, Sweden. Photo by Linnea Rheborg.
Source: Getty Images

Although he retired in 2022, he remains to be Japan's most famous athlete in the figure skating world. While announcing his retirement in a press conference, he said,

"It goes without saying that the Olympics to me, after winning back-to-back, has put me where I am now. It is a place where I was able to prove that I dreamed, that I put in the effort. It gave me proof that I lived".

3. Nathan Chen

Who is the best ice skater at the moment? Nathan Chen became famous, even attracting Elton John's attention after skating to 'Rocketman' in the 2022 Beijing Men's Single Skating Olympic event. In one of the best performances in figure skating history, he successfully landed five quadruple jumps.

2. Evgenia Medvedeva

Skating champion Evgenia Medvedeva is considered one of the best Russian female skaters of all time. In 2017, she broke her record and became the first woman to defend her World title since 2001. Although she looked forward to dominating the 2022 Beijing games, she attended the games as a media analyst amid rumours of chronic back injuries and retirement.

1. Yuna Kim

In addition to being a Korean national treasure, Yuna Kim was appointed as one of UNICEF's Goodwill ambassadors in 2010. During the 2010 Vancouver Olympic games, her successful completion of triple lutz and triple toe loops broke three world records earning her the Olympic championship.

Who is the Queen of Ice skating?
South Korea's Kim Yu-Na performed in the Women's Short Program at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the Sochi Winter Olympics in February 2014. Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP.
Source: Getty Images

Who is the most famous black figure skater?

Between the 1930s and 1960s, Maybel Fairbanks, the first black female figure skater, pushed for numerous changes in the sport, allowing black skaters to participate in competitive national and world events.

Although she never showcased her talent on the competitive stage, Fairbanks has coached title holders, including Atoy Wilson, the first black U.S. national title holder. Regarded as the best figure skater ever from a minority group, she was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Almost all professional ice skaters reach the height of success on the national, continental, or world stage. However, this comes at a steep cost, as numerous skaters retire early with long-term effects of figure skating, such as chronic injuries.

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Dig in to discover more about Olympic speed skating champions such as Suzanne Schulting, the Queen of Beijing Ice, Irene Schouten, and record-breaking black speed skater Erin Jackson.

Ciku Njuguna photo
Ciku Njuguna
Ciku Njuguna is a journalist with 3 year’s experience in content creation based in Kenya. She currently covers sports personnel as well as team biographies.
Figure skating