Swimmer who captured hearts at home by refusing to heil Hitler

Heading into the Winter Olympics, the closest Denmark has ever come to a Snow Queen is a girl who grew up swimming in the icy waters of Copenhagen Harbour

She was just 12 years old when she swam to a bronze medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and refused to heil Hitler as she stood on the winners’ podium. And to this day, Inge’ Sørensen, who died aged 86 in the US state of New Jersey in March 2011, remains the youngest female swimmer to ever win an Olympic medal.

A heroine’s welcome home

It was Denmark’s legendary radio journalist Gunnar ‘Nu’ Hansen who gave Sørensen the epithet ‘Little Captivating Inge’, while reporting live for Danish Radio from the Olympics in Berlin. The nickname stuck and even inspired a popular song. Denmark was captivated by the little girl from Skovshoved who took bronze in the 200 metres breaststroke.

When she returned from the games, her train, the Berlin Express, was met by 30,000 fans. Sørensen was paraded through the streets of Copenhagen to the harbour, where she was met by a boat that sailed her ceremoniously home to Skovshoved, just north of Copenhagen.

It was all natural ability

In a 2006 interview, she told Politiken newspaper she had been blessed with natural ability and barely trained at all – then she apologised for bragging.

“I trained one hour a week at the swimming hall in Østerbro. The rest of the time was in the harbour or at the beach in Skovshoved – where I played in the water with my friends and swam out to the stone that I called ‘my dad’s stone’. If I really wanted to do something special, then I might swim to the stone two times. I was a sort of natural talent, who lived by the strength in my legs and barely felt the water’s resistance at all, because I was so thin. I had nothing like the other swimmers’ power. Oh, that sounds like bragging – nobody wants to hear about that.”

She said that she had given up watching television years ago, because she hated to see how commercialised sports had become.

Woz as big as Caroline

But Sørensen was one of the most admired and popular athletes of her era – as big, or even bigger, than a Caroline Wozniacki – not only because she was extremely gifted and ‘captivating’, but because she refused to compete in the Nazis’ propagandist sports competitions during the second World War.

Professor Hans Bonde from the University of Copenhagen wrote the book ‘Football with the Foe: Danish sport under the swastika’ (2008) about how athletes and the sports federation (DIF) co-operated with the Nazis during the German occupation of Denmark from 1940-1945.

Throughout the 1930s, the Nazis had used ‘Aryan’ or ‘north Germanic’ female sports stars to create heroic images of the “perfection of the Aryan race”, Bonde writes. Leni Riefenstahl’s famous film, ‘Olympia’ from the 1936 Olympics, epitomised the propaganda.

“Women swimmers were incomparably the most popular sportspeople of the time, and attention was primarily focused on Ragnhild Hveger, Inge Sørensen and Jenny Kammersgaard,” he writes. But unlike Hveger and Kammersgaard, Sørensen was “less willing to compete in games with the occupying forces”.

No sympathy for Nazis

Hveger and Kammersgaard, both Nazi sympathisers, enthusiastically took part. Like something out of the film ‘Escape to Victory’, Nazi leaders were especially anxious to get Denmark’s star swimmer and darling, Inge Sørensen, to compete against the German champion Annie Kapell, but she refused. Sørensen herself never said whether her refusal to compete for the Nazis was an act of conscience. Hveger, an Olympic silver medallist, complained that Sørensen’s parents would not let her

“We don’t know her motives. Since she didn’t have any hesitation to meet the Germans during the war in Denmark, the argument that it was her parents’ fear that prevented her from going to Germany to compete seems probable,” Bonde told The Copenhagen Post.

When the Danish resistance to German occupation took hold and began to grow in 1943, the image of the then 12-year-old ‘Little Captivating Inge’, who did not heil Hitler when she stood on the winners’ podium in 1936, became a symbol for the Danish resistance.

Bonde writes that it was “a dreadful human temptation” for world-class Danish athletes in their prime years, who were barred from competing with athletes from outside the Axis power countries, to accept the Nazi invitation to compete.

Phenomenally talented Inge Sørensen, who broke 14 Danish records and three world records as an 11-year-old and won Olympic bronze when she was just 12 years and 24 days old (the second youngest female winner of a medal after Luigina Giavotti, an 11-year-old Italian gymnast who won a silver in 1928), did not fall into that temptation. We can only wonder what she would have achieved in her sport if not for  the second World War.

A new life in the States

After the liberation in May 1945, the Danish athletes who co-operated with the Nazis were disgraced, and the DIF itself was at pains to “shake the mental images of Danish-German collaboration from its memory as quickly as possible … through hastily-organised matches against Denmark’s English liberators and against Nordic sister nations”, Bonde writes.

‘Little Inge’, who remained neutral, was forced to retire as an amateur and ‘go professional’ in 1944 at the age of 20 when she took an education as a swimming instructor. According to the stricter rules that governed amateur athletics at the time, her education disqualified her from amateur competition. She moved to neutral Sweden, where she helped train the Swedish swimming team, leading them to victory in an international competition in September 1945.

Sørensen married her swimming companion, the engineer Janus Tabur, in 1948, and the couple settled in the USA in 1951. But they never lost their affinity for the water, and on three occasions sailed across the Atlantic to pay visits home to Denmark.

Half of Inge Sørensen’s ashes were scattered over her garden in New Jersey, and the other half over her family grave in Ordrup Kirkegård.

The English-language version of ‘Football with the Foe: Danish sport under the swastika’, by Hans Bonde, is available from www.universitypress.dk