As the track cooled from the sprints of Usain Bolt, water was mopped up poolside from the immense victories of Michael Phelps, and equipment from which Simone Biles vaulted to fame was taken down, we sat in awe of the dedication and physical ability of modern Olympians. Athletes keep getting better and better, we say. Every year they win more individual medals and set new world records..
Legends like Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner will always be part of the history of the games for those of us who saw them compete. But in the first half of the Twentieth Century, there lived a versatile athlete who won three Olympic track and field events and dominated several other sports for 20 years afterwards. As if that were not memorable enough, it was a woman: “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias..
Mildred Didrikson, born in 1911, was nicknamed “Babe” after the famous baseball player while growing up in Texas. It was appropriate because of the number of home runs she hit in elementary school baseball games. The sixth of seven children naturally had to compete with older brothers and sisters, but her talent soon set her apart anyway.
She qualified in five events for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. At the time, however, women were limited to participating in three (the same mentality as women’s basketball being played played half court, I suppose). She won gold medals in the javelin throw and the 80 meter hurdles, and silver in the high jump. The only reason she didn’t win gold in that one was that her head cleared the bar before the rest of her body. The rule which prevented her first place finish no longer exists.
Babe married a wrestler, George Zaharias; he became her promoter. Other sports she competed in were basketball, softball, tennis, diving, bowling, billiards and golf. Golf did not come easy to her, but she practiced 10 hours a day. She won 82 amateur and professional golf tournaments and helped start the LPGA. She won her final tournament while in remission from colon cancer, but died in 1956, at age 45.
“Before I was in my teens,” she said, “I knew exactly what I wanted to be. I wanted to be the greatest athlete that ever lived.”
“You can’t win them all, but you can try.” Her words remind us of the times we wished we’d been in the Olympics. Or a least tried to be.