Laila Schou Nilsen is reckoned by many as the greatest sportswoman in Norwegian history. Her versatility was remarkable as she excelled in every sport she tried: ski jumping, cross-country skiing, alpine skiing, tennis, speed skating, handball, and she even participated in the Monte Carlo Rally four times. At age 11, she showed great talent as a ski jumper, but was not allowed to compete against the boys. However, she was invited to make the opening jump in the biggest national competition in ski jumping for boys in 1931, and impressed with a stylish jump of 28 meters. In 1933, still not 14, she competed in the unofficial national cross-country 5 km skiing championships for women in Oslo, and surprised everybody by crossing the finishing line in a time almost six minutes better than her closest opponent. Some people could not believe her performance, and a newspaper published a letter accusing the organizers of letting her take a shortcut during the race. But she had definitively passed all four control posts during the race and indeed passed 17 of her opponents.
In her teens she concentrated on tennis during the summer and speed skating in the winter. In speed skating she won her first national championship in 1935 and some weeks later, still only 15, won the unofficial World Championships in her home town Oslo, beating the US favorite Kit Klein and breaking the world record in the 500 metres. Some speed skating officials told her that speed skating for women would be on the program for the 1936 Olympic Winter Games. She then decided to train hard with the aim of competing in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, but later she was told that besides figure skating, alpine skiing would be the only sport for women in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The 16-year old Laila then switched to alpine skiing, and after Christmas 1935 she trained for alpine skiing, managing to qualify for the Norwegian team, and surprised everybody by winning the downhill part of the Alpine combined. In slalom she had to stop during the race and dropped down to third position in the overall standings, winning a bronze medal.
In 1937 she returned to speed skating with great success. At the World Championships in Davos she won all four distances, setting four world records. In 1938 she first qualified for the World Alpine Championships in Engelberg by winning the national qualification competition in slalom. She then competed in the World Speed Skating Championships in Oslo, defending her title from 1937. Two days later she left Oslo by train for Engelberg and the World Alpine Skiing Championships. However, her results were disappointing, placing only eighth in the downhill after a bad fall and ending seventh in the Alpine Combination. In the following years before the outbreak of World War II she contined to compete in speed skating, alpine skiing and tennis, winning several national championship titles. After the war she competed in the 1948 Winter Games in alpine skiing, but concentrated mostly on tennis and handball.
When she ended her impressive competitive career in 1961 she had won 101 national championships titles, 83 in tennis (between 1937-61), 10 in alpine skiing (1939-48), four in speed skating (1935-40) and four in handball (1946-51). In 1936 she was awarded the prestigeous Egebergs Ærespris (given to athletes excelling in more than one sport), aged only 17, the youngest athlete to ever receive the prize. She was also a successful businesswomen, starting her own sports equipment business after the war and later was a managing director of the Splitkein Ski Factory. She was Vice-President of the Norwegian Confederation for Sports from 1969-73. After her retirement she usually spent the winters in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. In the spring of 1998, she became ill and could not return to Norway for her usual summer stay. Shortly thereafter she died in Lanzarote, aged 79.
|Games||Discipline (Sport) / Event||NOC / Team||Pos||Medal||As|
|1936 Winter Olympics||Alpine Skiing (Skiing)||NOR||Laila Schou Nilsen|
|Combined, Women (Olympic)||3||Bronze|
|1948 Winter Olympics||Alpine Skiing (Skiing)||NOR||Laila Schou Nilsen|
|Downhill, Women (Olympic)||=7|
|Slalom, Women (Olympic)||=14|
|Combined, Women (Olympic)||13|