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Golden girl Henning shows teen spirit

Sixteen-year-old speed skater Anne Henning was not the youngest athlete in Sapporo (that honour went to the 13-year-old figure skater Marina Sanaya of the USSR), but she was certainly one of the most extraordinary talents on display. Despite her youth, the American arrived at the Games as the favourite to win the women’s 500m and 1,000m titles. Earlier that year she had broken the world record for both distances.

Henning had started out as a short track skater, but switched to the longer track and proved an instant success. A year earlier she had won the silver medal at the world sprint championships and had set competition records in both her 500m races to confirm herself as a real force on the international stage.

Her first tilt at Olympic gold in the 500m almost came undone thanks to the carelessness of her Canadian race partner, Sylvia Burka, who accidentally impeded the American, forcing her to slow down and readjust her position to avoid a collision. Nonetheless, she still managed to record a stellar time of 43.70 seconds, but was then offered a re-skate because of the obstruction. Henning accepted the offer, and skated an even faster time of 43.33 seconds, to seal the gold medal and set a new Olympic record.

In fact, her first time would also have been good enough to give her the title, but it mattered little to Henning, who became the youngest champion in the history of Olympic speed skating.

The following day came the 1,000m event. Henning said her legs were still sore from the effort of her two 500m races. Instead of taking a second gold medal, she had to be content with a bronze behind the winner West Germany’s Monika Pflug and Atje Keulen-Deelstra of the Netherlands.

And that was that for Henning. Almost as quickly as she had appeared on the international sporting stage, she decided to leave it, still aged just 16. She later became a teacher in Colorado.

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