Going down a rabbit hole and finding Fort Worth gold
I’ve got to give props to KTCK Ticket host Dan McDowell for his rabbit hole sending me down a rabbit hole. But, at the bottom of the rabbit hole, I found gold. Fort Worth gold, to be exact.
Everyone knows about Jesse Owens and how the Black American gave Adolf Hitler the business at the 1936 Olympics by winning four gold medals and laying waste to Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.
Very cool story and it has been told and re-told many times.
But Owens was hardly the only drama at the 1936 Olympics. Have you heard about Helen Stephens?
When she was 18, she, too, was in the 1936 Summer Olympics. She won two gold medals in the Olympics. She won the 100-meter final. Her time of 11.5 seconds was below the world record but was not recognized because a strong tailwind was blowing at the time of the race.
Next, Stephens anchored the American 4 × 100-meter relay team that won the Olympic title after the leading German team dropped its baton.
While Hitler refused to shake Owens’ hand, he was much – much – friendlier with Stephens, hitting on her actually. According to Stephens, Hitler told her she looked very Aryan and asked her to come up to Berchtesgaden for the weekend, all the while getting all handsy.
It must have been a memorable Olympics for her, as she – along with Polish runner Stefania Walasiewicz – were accused of being males.
Without further explanation that I could find, sources say Olympic leaders were somehow satisfied they were female. Okay. It was a different time.
Here’s the rest of that story.
After the Olympics Walasiewicz changed her name to Walsh and moved to the U.S. where she continued to be involved with Polish athletes. In 1980, living in Cleveland, she went to a store to buy some ribbons for a visiting Polish basketball player and, during a robbery, she was shot and killed.
There’s plenty of controversy about the aftermath, but most sources seem to agree that Walsh had a rare genetic disorder, mosaicism, in which the sex of a baby is impossible to determine at birth. There are still arguments as Walsh’s gender. Okay, there’s that.
All those are at least three ESPN’s 30 for 30 episodes.
But what about Stephens’ relay teammate Betty Robinson?
Ever heard of her? Me neither.
Robinson won a silver medal in the 1928 Olympics, but then, in 1931, she was in a plane crash and severely injured. When rescuers arrived, they thought she was dead. It was the coroner who realized she was still alive. It was six months before she could leave the wheelchair and two years before she could walk again.
In the 1936 Olympics, she still couldn’t kneel for a normal racing start, so she instead ran a leg of the U.S. relay team and it was Robinson who handed the baton off to Stephens for the win.
I thought I had gone down that 1936 Olympics rabbit hole as far as I could go.
But no. Because guess what? There’s a Fort Worth connection. As Paul Harvey used to intone: Here’s the rest of the story. Well, most of it anyway.
Here’s an excerpt from Associated Press’ story about the 1936 Olympics:
Another gold medal was added to the steadily growing American collection by Earle Meadows of Fort Worth, Tex. The Southern California Trojan soared to the Olympic mark-smashing height of 4.35 meters, eclipsing the old record made by Bill Miller at Los Angeles four years ago.
Yep, Fort Worth. Using a handy old book I own – Sports Champions of Fort Worth, Texas – Meadows went to my alma mater, Paschal – then called Central High – and grew up near Burnett Park on the edge of downtown.
Meadows gave big props to his Central High coach, C.W. Berry for his success in pole vaulting. Meadows won the city championship for two years. In his senior year (1933) he set a new state high school record of 13-feet, 11/2 inches. Remember he was using the old bamboo poles at the time.
Meadows earned a scholarship to USC and got on the Olympic team of pole vaulters. He had a longtime rivalry with fellow USC pole vaulter, Bill Sefton, who also competed in the 1936 Olympics. They were called the “Heavenly Twins.”
Meadows’ winning vault is featured in Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympiad, followed by a close-up of him saluting as The Star Spangled Banner is played, crossfading to the U.S. flag.
He returned to Fort Worth where he worked in education before joining his brother in what appears to have been a musical instrument business.
Meadows died in 1992 at age 79.
ESPN’s 30 for 30, where are you?