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Immigrant Gonne Donker a Grand Rapids community leader

World champion speedskating in 1939

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan - Hillegonda Zwarensteyn-Donker, who recently died at age 86, was known to the skating community in her native country of the Netherlands as Gonne Donker. As a young woman, Donker captured gold at the 1939 World Championships speedskating held in Finland’s Tampere.

Born in the Noord-Holland village of Ilpendam, Hillegonda Donker was a junior skating champion in her province and captured the national title four times. Gonne, who in the U.S. was known as ‘Gonda,’ participated in three World Championships. In her time, these were still ‘un-official’ tournaments, not yet sanctioned by the precursor of the ISU authority. After finishing 5th overall in Davos, Switzerland, in 1937 and 4th in Oslo, Norway in 1938, she would have won the overall title in 1939. She was disqualified however, after she fell in her 5K race, taking out her Polish opponent. Earlier in the tournament, Gonne Donker had won the 500 metres, tied for second in the 1K and finished third in the 3K.


Gonne Donker and her husband Hendrik Zwarensteyn had visited the U.S. a number of times immediately following WWII. They emigrated in 1952. A naturalized citizen, Zwarensteyn-Donker remained proud of her Dutch heritage. The couple had five children of which one died in infancy. Mrs. Zwarensteyn is described as a community leader, who frequently volunteered in many activities, including civic elections. In the 1950s and 1960s, she often participated in skating events.

Mrs. Zwarensteyn is survived by four children, five grandchildren, a brother and sister in the Netherlands, and a brother in Grand Rapids.