Stella Walsh was known throughout the world as the fastest woman alive during the 1930s. Here she attempts to outrun a javelin, no mean feat.
Olympic Sprinter Stella Walsh Nearly Lost Her Medals Because of Her Autopsy
Athletes can have more than physical hurdles to jump over when competing in the Olympics
Virtually forgotten now, Poland-born, Cleveland-bred Stella Walsh was the female athletic phenomenon of her day, competing in track, basketball, softball and ice skating. Walsh took a gold medal in the 100-meter dash during the 1932 Olympics, a silver four years later, and set 20 world records in track during a time when women were barely allowed out of the house. Walsh ultimately retired to a job tending bar in Cleveland where she was a beloved figure, but, during a holdup on December 4th, 1980, the 69-year-old, still-fit former athlete was killed by a gunman’s bullet. Tragic indeed, but the real shock was yet to come when an autopsy revealed Stella’s decades-old intimate secret.
Stella Walsh walked out of Uncle Bill’s Discount Department Store with a bag full of ribbons. It was the evening of Dec. 4, 1980. The sun was long gone and a chill was filling the air. Two weeks earlier, she had given the key to the city of Cleveland to the Polish men’s national basketball team. In a couple days, she planned to give these ribbons to her native country’s national women’s team before an exhibition game at Kent State University.
Walsh, or Stanislawa Walasiewczowna, her birth name, was Cleveland’s No. 1 Polish-American. Although born in Poland in 1911, she had lived 68 of her 69 years in the United States, the vast majority in Cleveland, in the neighbourhood that was now called Slavic Village.
In her adopted hometown, she was famous, and beloved, on par with other notable Cleveland sports legends like Lou Boudreau or Otto Graham. At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, she won a gold medal in the 100-meter dash for Poland, and won silver in the same event four years later in Berlin. She also won another seven medals in varying distances during the off year, lesser-known Women’s Olympics, five of them gold.
Her Olympic performance alone, however, does not do justice to her athletic career. At a time when people still debated whether women should compete in sports at all, she was supreme. She reportedly won more than 5,000 races, earned hundreds of trophies, officially set 20 world records in track, was the first woman to run the 100-yard dash in less than 11 seconds and one of the first to run 100 meters in less than 12. Her world record in the 220-yard dash went unbroken for 15 years.
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