The London Olympics have given us plenty of rising stars to watch in the years to come, both those who made the podium and those who came achingly close. Girls today have their pick of female athletes to idolize: Katie Ledecky, Jessica Ennis, Allyson Felix and, of course, Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher, just to name a few. And let’s not forget 19-year-old Sarah Attar, the first female Olympian to represent Saudi Arabia on the track. While the headlines from London have been dominated by the outstanding achievements of female athletes, it wasn’t so long ago that women weren’t allowed to participate in the Olympic Games! This week’s Friday 5 looks back at women who helped female runners get where we are today.
Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias – When Babe was young, she heard her father discuss the 1928 Olympics and decided on her goal right there: to be the greatest athlete who ever lived. She arguably achieved that, being named Woman Athlete of the Year a whopping six times by the Associated Press. At a time when competition for women was focused on sports like figure skating and tennis, Babe challenged the idea of female athletes having to be ultra-feminine. She was known for her trash-talking ways and jaw-dropping results. Babe started her competitive athletic career on a company-sponsored basketball team, leading them to an AAU championship. She turned to track and field, winning the U.S. Olympic Trials track meet singlehandedly, competing in eight events. At the 1932 Olympics – where rules limited her to three events – she won gold medals in the javelin and the 80 meter hurdles and a silver medal in the high jump. That marked Babe’s last track competition. She went on to play professional golf, co-founding the LPGA and winning more consecutive tournaments than anyone in history. (As an aside, I strongly recommend the book Wonder Girl for an in-depth look at her life.)
Fanny Blankers-Koen – In just her third race, this Dutch runner set a national record in the 800 meters. However, it was 1935, a time when the 800 was considered to be too strenuous for female Olympians. Turning to other events, Fanny finished fifth in both the high jump and as a member of the Dutch 4×100 meter relay team at the 1936 Olympics. After running a world record in the 100 meters in 1938, she was a favorite for the 1940 Olympics. Those Games were cancelled due to World War II. In 1940, Fanny married, giving birth to a son a year later. The media assumed this meant the end of her athletic career; instead, Fanny resumed training just weeks after her son’s birth. She dominated at the 1948 London Olympics, despite facing backlash that she should be home minding her children and that at 30, she was too old to be a woman athlete. The press dubbed her “The Flying Housewife”, and Fanny flew indeed, collecting gold medals in all four of her events (100 meters, 200 meters, 80 meter hurdles and the 4×100 relay). In 1999, the IAAF named her the “Female Athlete of the Century”.
Wilma Rudolph – No one would have guessed Wilma Rudolph to become a world-renowned sprinter. An African-American girl born prematurely in the pre-Civil Rights South, she suffered from polio as a young child, forcing her to wear a leg brace until age nine. After the brace came off, Wilma played high school sports and Coach Ed Temple recognized her talent; she began training with his famed Tennessee State Tigerbelles during summers. By the time she was just 16, Wilma earned her first Olympic berth, winning a bronze medal in the 4×100 meter relay in Melbourne’s 1956 Games. Pretty amazing, right? The 1960 Rome Olympics are where she truly made her mark. Nicknamed “The Tornado”, she was the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Games. Her 100 meter time was a world-fastest (not counted as a record since it was wind-aided), her time in the 200 meters marked a new Olympic record and her 4×100 meter squad set a new world record as well. She truly was the world’s fastest woman. Wilma’s accomplishments helped to elevate the profile of women in track and field, particularly in the United States.
Kathrine Switzer – She’s best known for being the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer registered as “K.V. Switzer” and sent off her entry form. Officials tried to oust Kathrine from the race once they realized that she was a woman. She finished, making headlines around the world. Yet that’s not why I have included her here. You may have noticed Kathrine is the only non-Olympian on the list; Olympic officials (and some experts) claimed at the time that long distance running was damaging to women’s health. Kathrine not only kept running marathons and improving her time to a personal best of 2:51, she became a voice for women runners everywhere. She believed that change would come not from petitions and protests, but by showing the world what women could do. In 1972, she organized the first women’s-only 10K, known today as the New York Mini. Kathrine became President of the Women’s Sports Foundation and organized the Avon International Marathon for women in 1978. The growing success of that event and the improvements in women’s times bolstered the case for Olympic inclusion.Kathrine led the effort to lobby the International Olympic Committee and in 1981, the Committee voted that the women’s marathon would be added to the lineup for the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Joan Benoit Samuelson – Joan Benoit Samuelson was initially a skier who started running to help heal her broken leg, later attending North Carolina State on a running scholarship. In 1979, she chose to run the Boston Marathon, which was now officially open to women, winning and setting a new course record. Joan went on to win three more marathons over the next four years, setting a world record in the process. As the 1984 Games and the first Olympic marathon approached, Joan first had to overcome the U.S. Trials; she’d had knee surgery a mere 17 days before. She won the trials, and would go on to become the first female Olympic marathon champion. Of that moment before she entered the track at the L.A. Coliseum, Joan is quoted as telling herself, “Once you leave this tunnel, your life will be changed forever.” She is now retired from competitive running, but Joan continues to leave her mark on the sport. A seven-time Olympic Trials Qualifier in the marathon, her most recent Trials was in 2008, where she set the record for fastest marathon for an American woman over 50 in 2:49.08 – a record she has broken twice since.
Which running pioneers inspire you? Have we left any of your heroines off the list?