Women’s speed skating had made its Olympic debut as a demonstration sport at Lake Placid 1932, with the first world championships being held in Stockholm (SWE) four years later. It was finally included on the official Games programme at Squaw Valley 1960, where medals were up for grabs in the 500m, 1,000m, 1,500m and 3,000m.
Born in 1934 in what was then known as the Free City of Danzig (now the Polish city of Gdansk), Helga Obschernitzki started out as a handball player before taking up speed skating at Dynamo Berlin, the East German club where she met her coach Helmut Haase, whom she married in 1955.
Though she had yet to win anything on the European or world stage – her best performance being a sixth place at the 1958 World All-round Championships in Kristinehamn (SWE),Haase’s impressive domestic form earned her a ticket to Squaw Valley with the United Team of Germany.
The first official Olympic women’s speed skating race was the 500m, held on 20 February 1960. The favourite among the 22-strong field was the Soviet Union’s Tamara Rylova, who had dominated the distance for several years and held the world record of 45.6 seconds, set at altitude in Almaty five years earlier.
Her compatriot Natalya Donchenko set the early pace with a time of 46 seconds, though in the next pair, Haase dipped under it by a tenth of a second. The great Rylova could only manage a time of 46.2, which was not even enough for a place on the podium, as Haase held on for a surprise gold ahead of Donchenko and the USA’s Jeanne Ashworth.
Two days later, the 1,000m began with the Soviet Union’s Klara Guseva posting a time of 1:34.1, one that proved too good for the rest of the field, with Haase coming closest of all after going fastest on the first two laps before losing impetus in the closing stages to finish 0.2 seconds adrift. It was a similar tale for Rylova, who also made a speedy start only to come in behind the German in third place.
Haase went on to finish eighth in the 1,500m and did not compete in the 3,000m.
One of only three skaters win more than one medal at Squaw Valley 1960, Haase would never quite reach such heights again, though she did score wins in the 500m and 1,000m at the 1962 World All-round Championships in Imatra (FIN) and continued to dominate in the East German championships through to the mid-1960s. She returned to the Olympic stage at Innsbruck 1964, where her best result was fourth in the 1,000m.