Thursday, August 9, 2012

Babe Didrikson: the greatest Olympian

Posted By on 08.09.12 at 07:06 AM

Babe Didrikson
  • Charles Geckler
  • Babe Didrikson
Do you think you're seeing some incredible athletic performances in this year's Olympics? I thought so too, until I started reading about Babe Didrikson and what she did right here in Evanston one afternoon 80 years ago, just to qualify for the Olympics.

On July 16, 1932, at the National AAU championships at Dyche Stadium (now Ryan Field), the 19-year-old from Texas showed up as the lone representative of the Employers Casualty Company Club—the insurance company she worked for as a clerk. She was competing against teams of from a dozen to 22 women.

For three hours, in oppressive temperatures, she rushed from one event to the next, quickly changing shoes when necessary. She won the shot put, the javelin, the broad jump, the 80-meter hurdles, and the baseball throw, and tied for first in the high jump. She totaled 30 points for her "team"—eight more points than the runner-up Illinois Women's Athletic Club, which had 22 members. She set four world records. "There were other encouraging performances," the Associated Press reported, "but the Texas girl's achievements came in such rapid succession that the crowd of about 5,000 had little chance to pay attention to any one else."

In the Olympics in Los Angeles two week later, Didrikson was limited to three events because she was a woman. Before the Games began, the celebrated sportswriter Grantland Rice asked her to name her favorite sport. "I haven't any favorite," she said. "I like to run, jump, hurdle, throw the javelin and discus and baseball. But I'm just as keen about swimming, boxing, basketball, tennis and golf."

Rice noted that Didrikson was five-foot-six, 128 pounds, "without an ounce of surplus flesh." She said her diet consisted of "plain, simple food without grease or too much in the way of sweets." She thought "every girl should go out for athletics of some sort, and those who are not so strong at the start can build up gradually."

She won gold in the javelin and the 80-meter hurdles, and silver in the high jump.

Didrikson told Rice she'd played about a dozen rounds of golf in her life, shooting an 82 in her most recent one. She said that wasn't so hot, but that after the Olympics she was going to start taking golf seriously. She starred in basketball and baseball first. Then, as a golfer, she won 82 championships, including 14 in a row in 1946 and 1947. "The Babe's here!" she'd say upon arriving at a tournament. "Who's going to finish second?"

Didrikson was diagnosed with rectal cancer in 1953. She had a colostomy, and 15 months later won the U.S. Women's Open by 12 strokes. Two years after that she succumbed to cancer, at age 45.

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