In his first competition, the 1943 Eastern States Novice Championship, he placed second behind Jean Pierre Brunet. In 1944, he won the Eastern States Junior title which earned him the opportunity to compete at the National Novice Championships. He won the event. In 1945, his third year of serious skating, he won the Eastern States Senior title and the national Junior title. At this time, he was also skating pairs, and competed with Barbara Jones in Junior Pairs at the 1946 Eastern States Championships. They performed Button's singles program side by side with minor modifications and won. This competition, where Button also competed as a single skater, led into the 1946 United States Figure Skating Championships.
Button won the 1946 U.S. Championships at age 16, winning by a unanimous vote. According to Button, this was the first time anyone had won the men's novice, junior, and senior titles in three consecutive years. This win earned Button a spot to the 1947 World Figure Skating Championships.
At the 1947 Worlds, Button was second behind rival Hans Gerschwiler following the compulsory figures part of the competition, with 34.9 points separating them. Button won the free skating portion, but Gerschwiler had the majority of first places from the judges, three to Button's two. Button won the silver medal at his first Worlds. It was the last time he placed lower than first in competition.
At the competition, Button was befriended by Ulrich Salchow. Salchow, who was disappointed when Button did not win, presented him with the first International Cup Salchow had won in 1901.. Button later passed on this trophy to John Misha Petkevich following the 1972 Olympics and World Championships.
Button faced Gerschwiler again at the 1948 European Figure Skating Championships. Button led after figures in points, having 749 points to Gerschwiler's 747.8, but Gerschwiler led in placings, with 14 to Button's 15. During the free skate, Button performed his Olympic program for the first time. He won, with 11 placings to Gerschwiler's 18.. Following this year, when North Americans took home the men's and ladies' titles, non-Europeans were no longer allowed to enter into the European Championships. Button is the first and only American to have won the European Championships.
At the 1948 Winter Olympics, Button led Gerschwiler by a 29.6 point lead following the figures portion of the competition, having won four of the five figures.. Button had been attempting the double axel jump in practice but had never landed it. In practice on the day before the free skating event, Button landed one in practice for the first time. He decided to put it into his free skate for the next day. Button landed it in competition, becoming the first skater in the world to land it in competition. Button got eight firsts and two seconds, for a total of 10 places. Gerschwiler had 23. That combined with the figures results gave Button the gold medal. He became, and remains, the youngest man to win the Olympic gold in figure skating. Button went on to the 1948 World Championships, where he faced Gerschwiler for the last time. Button won the event. At the time, the U.S. Championships were held after the World Championships, and Button finished his season by defending his national title.
In 1949, Button won the Sullivan Award as the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. He is the only male figure skater to win this award.
Button had intended to attend Yale beginning in the fall of 1947, but deferred a year due to the Olympics. Although he had originally been assured that his skating would not be a problem as long as his grades were good, he was later informed that he could not continue competing if he wanted to attend Yale. On advice from people from the Skating Club of Boston, Button applied to, and was accepted at, Harvard. Button was a full-time student at Harvard while skating competitively and graduated in 1952.
Button won every competition he entered for the rest of his competitive career. He trained at the Skating Club of Boston while attending Harvard, commuting to Lake Placid during breaks.
As reigning and defending champion, as well as being the first skater to perform a double axel and a flying camel, Button was under pressure to perform a new jump or spin every season. In 1949, he performed a double loop-double loop combination. In 1950, he performed the double loop-double loop-double loop. In 1951, he performed a double axel-double loop combination and a double axel-double axel sequence. For the 1952 Olympics, Button and Lussi began working on a triple jump. They settled on training the triple loop. Button landed it for the first time in practice in December 1951 at the Skating Club of Boston and landed it for the first time in exhibition in Vienna following the European Championships.
At the 1952 Winter Olympics, Button had the lead after figures, with 9 first places, over Helmut Seibt. Button's point total was 1,000.2 to Seibt's 957.7. During his free skate, Button landed the first triple jump to be landed in competition when he landed his triple loop. He then went on to defend his titles at the World Championships and U.S. Championships.
Button decided to enter Harvard Law School in the fall of 1952. Because of the time commitments, Button retired from amateur skating that year in order to focus on law school. Following his retirement, Button signed on to skate with the Ice Capades during his law school vacations.
Button was the first skater to successfully land the double axel jump in competition (in 1948, although on the video it appears he did not complete the full rotation), as well as the first triple jump of any kind -- a triple loop -- in 1952. He also invented the flying camel spin, which was originally known as the "Button camel".
After his competitive skating career ended, Button toured with Ice Capades and Holiday on Ice, and completed a law degree at Harvard University. After graduation, he was admitted to the bar in Washington, D.C..
He has been a figure skating analyst for ABC Sports since 1962. During ABC's coverage of Olympics in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s Button became the sport's best-known analyst, well known for his frank and often caustic appraisal of skaters' performances. Although other U.S. television networks aired the Winter Olympics from the 1990s onward, Button still appeared on ABC's broadcasts of the U.S. and World Figure Skating Championships. During the 2006 Games (covered by NBC), Button appeared on loan from ABC to once again commentate on the Olympics.
He won an Emmy Award in 1981 for Outstanding Sports Personality – Analyst.
As founder of Candid Productions, he created a variety of made-for-television sports events, including the World Professional Figure Skating Championships as well as other non-skating sports events such as Superstars.
Button was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1976, the year it was founded.
In 1975, Button married figure skating coach Slavka Kohout, but they later divorced.
Button suffered a serious head injury on July 5, 1978 when he was one of several men randomly assaulted in Central Park by a gang of youths armed with baseball bats and tree branches in a gay bashing incident. According to reports in the New York Times, Button had been jogging in the park near his home and was attacked while he was watching a dusk fireworks display. The assailants were later apprehended.
This segment proved very popular, and ABC and ESPN have continued it, putting it into various broadcasts, most notably Skate America, the 2007 United States Figure Skating Championships, and the 2007 World Figure Skating Championships.
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