Los Angeles, 1932
Ingeborg Sjöqvist, the world’s oldest living Olympian, still remembers the bad high-dive that lost her a medal in 1932. But she also remembers the glamour of the whole event, coming from a small town in southern Sweden where “we mostly ate potatoes and there was nothing to do”.
The voyage to America with her team mates, all of whom were men, was the first time she left Sweden. “Sitting out on the boat I was struck by the sheer size of the world and how tiny I was on it,” she says, speaking a month after celebrating her 100th birthday from her sunny garden in the town of Rydebäck, southern Sweden. “When I arrived there my first step in the US was huge – I could feel the country in my knees.”
In her home village, the diving board was 3m shorter than regulation and she had to stand on a built-up scaffold to practise her 10m jump. But in Los Angeles she was living at the glamorous Chapman Park Hotel, going out to restaurants and dance halls in between training sessions. “It was all wonderful, just wonderful,” she says, her deeply etched face lighting up with excitement, her old hands gesticulating slowly from her wheelchair.
The sport itself could be heartbreaking, however, made all the more so by how close she came to the podium. “Halfway through the competition I was leading, heading for gold. My trainer came to me and said I just needed one more good dive and I will win it. At that moment I would have offered my life to win for Sweden. I was there and I thought: ‘This is my life – if I could only do this it could be the last thing I do.’” But she did a bad dive. She ended up placing fourth. “It was painful,” she recalls, wincing.
Sjöqvist, at the nudge of one of her two children, then moves the conversation on to brighter matters. “They wanted me to stay in LA and become a Hollywood film star,” she says, coyly, “but my mum said no.” As the only female member of the national team, and with classically Swedish good looks, she caused something of a stir in the US press at the time.
Sjöqvist attended the Berlin Olympics four years later but the presence of Adolf Hitler, then chancellor of Germany, and the growing tensions in Europe, cast a nasty pall over the event. “Berlin was boring and dusty. It had no atmosphere compared to LA. The difference was like night and day. It was not a party,” she says.
She remembers little of the politics from the time but she does remember Hitler. “We saw him everywhere, in town, out and about,” she says with a look of distaste. “As soon as he arrived, everyone was saluting the whole time – I was very affected by that. He was like a god to people. There was one woman in the swimming pool who went crazy and threw herself on the floor in front of him.”
Sjöqvist, who placed ninth at the high-dive in Berlin, eventually stopped competing and settled into life as a teacher. She has been married to her husband for 72 years – the “younger man” to whom she attributes her long life – and they live in a small village near Helsinborg.
She is excited about London 2012 and still watches all Olympic events religiously, particularly the diving , during which she likes to shout advice at the screen. “They never listen,” she says. Every now and again she still thinks about that one bad jump – that one moment – 80 years ago. “If I could compete all over again I would do it much better. I would have taken that last dive for Sweden.”