Helen Stephens (1918-1994) was only a teenager when she became an track star, winning two gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Games. She set world, Olympic, American, and Canadian records in running, broad jump, and discus. Stephens later became the first female owner of a women's semiprofessional basketball team.
Stephens was born on February 3, 1918 in Fulton, Missouri. She grew up on a 115-acre farm, the daughter of Frank E. Stephens and Bertie Mae Stephens. She was tall, slender and seemed born to run. As a child, she routinely raced boys on a mile-long run home from the schoolhouse, winning every time. Her cousin rode a horse and Stephens would trot along with them. "There were a couple of ditches on the way to school," Richard D. Mandell quotes her as saying in his 1971 book, The Nazi Olympics, "and the horse and I would take them together." Because she grew up on a farm and had a rugged, outdoor upbringing Stephens had been taught to use a rifle and was a good shot. But she thought it was more challenging and fun to hunt rabbits by running them down instead of shooting them.
When Stephens entered high school in Fulton, the athletic director discovered her running talent. In 1933, when she was 15 years old, all the students had to run the 50-yard dash in physical education class. The coach, Burton W. Moore, measured her time-an incredible 5.8 seconds. That time matched the current world record set by Elizabeth Robinson. An incredulous Moore went to town and had his watch checked for accuracy by a jeweler, who verified that it was keeping correct time. Moore was astounded but unsure how to handle this prodigy who was not even fully-grown and who seemed to run so easily. In gym class she matched the current women's world record for the standing broad jump, but she loved to run more than anything. Moore decided she would make a good sprinter and began training her for international competition. He coached her in the sprinter's technique of starting in a tight crouch and leaning forward as she ran, using her strong arms like pistons to drive herself forward.
The Fastest Woman in the World
Stephens' first major competition took place in the summer of 1935 at an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Indoor Championship meet in St. Louis. The 17-year-old Stephens was so new to track and field competition that she had to borrow a sweatshirt and shoes for the meet. Although she was unknown, 4,000 fans showed up to see Stella Walsh, "the fastest woman in the world." Walsh set world records in almost every track event in which women ran. In the final heat Stephens ran against Walsh and set a U.S. record of 6.6 seconds for the 50-meter dash. When spectators congratulated her for beating Walsh, Stephens joked, "Who is Stella Walsh?"
During the rest of that meet, Stephens won the standing broad jump with a distance of 8 feet, 8 1/4 inches and won the women's shotput event with a distance of 39 feet, 7 1/4 inches. Fans began calling her the "Fulton Flash" and the "Missouri Express" and began talking about her potential for an Olympic career. Walsh, offended at the attention that was being given to Stephens, called her "that greenie from the sticks," igniting a career-long grudge between the two runners.
In that same year, at the Missouri Indoor Interscholastic Championships, Stephens set a new world record for the 50-meter dash with a time of 5.9 seconds, but the time was later disqualified because she had used starting blocks. At the 1935 Missouri Outdoor Interscholastic Championships, Stephens set a high school world record of 5.9 seconds for 50 yards and matched the world record for the 100-yard dash-10.8 seconds.
Stephens did a lot of running that year. She set a new U.S. women's record for the 100-meter race at the 1935 Ozark AAU district championships, with a time of 11.8 seconds. She also set a U.S. record in the 200-meter race with a time of 24.4 seconds and won the discus throw with a distance of 129 feet, 1 inch. At an exhibition 100 meters at another AAU event Stephens she set an unofficial world record with a time of 11.6 seconds.
Stephens entered William Woods College in Florissant, Missouri. In addition to track she competed in basketball, bowling, fencing and swimming. While still in college she won 12 national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) titles and was the 1936 AAU champion in the shot put, 100 meters, and discus. At the 1936 AAU Indoor Championships she kept her title in the 50 meters with a world record time of 6.4 seconds. Stephens also set a U.S. record in the shot put with 41 feet, 7 1/2 inches and set a record in the standing broad jump with a distance of 8 feet, 8 1/2 inches. She never lost a sprint event in her entire career.
The 1936 Olympics
Stephens was viewed as one of the top women contenders at the 1936 Olympics. Women were not allowed to enter more than three Olympic events at the time. Stephens' best field events were the shot put and the standing broad jump. Women were not allowed to compete in these events at the Olympics so Stephens qualified for the discus, the 100-meter race, and as a team member on the 4 x 100 relay. She had not been seriously coached for the discus event and when she reached Berlin only threw it 112 feet, 7 1/2 inches. Her personal best for discus was 133 feet, 6 1/2 inches, nowhere near the record of 156 feet, 3 3/16 inches set by Gisela Mauermayer.
By this time, however, Stephens' fame as a runner had spread around the world and the spectators were waiting for her at the track. As she warmed up for the qualifying heat in the 100-meter race the spectators watched her. She was six feet tall, narrowly built and had a rangy, relaxed way of moving-until she started running. She finished ten meters ahead of everyone else in the race with a time of 11.4 seconds, half a second better than the time Stella Walsh had set at the 1932 Olympics. However, the judges decreed that she had been aided by a strong wind and disqualified her time. Her time in the final event was 11.5 seconds, which set a world record. This record would last for the next 24 years, until Wilma Rudolph broke it at the 1960 Olympics. Walsh, perhaps spurred on by the competition with Stephens, set her best time ever at 11.7 seconds. Now Stephens, not Walsh, held the title of "The World's Fastest Woman." Stephens also ran the anchor leg of the 400-meter relay at the Berlin Olympics, winning a gold medal in that event as well.
Stephens's incredible speed led Walsh to accusations that Stephens must really be a man-the logic being that no woman could run that fast. Stephens submitted to a physical exam by German officials who verified that she was female. Years later, Walsh was accidentally shot and killed as an innocent bystander in a Cleveland, Ohio robbery. An autopsy revealed that it was she, not Stephens, who was not what she seemed. Walsh had a genetic condition known as "mosaicism," which meant that she had a mostly male chromosome balance.
After the Olympics
Stephens was named the Associated Press Athlete of the Year for 1936. The Associated Press polled sports editors across the United States in 1950 and asked them who they thought were the greatest athletes in the first 50 years of the 20th century. Stephens was named as one of the ten greatest female athletes of that period.
Stephens was never defeated in any running event. However, she retired from amateur sports after two and a half years, because she was bored by the lack of good competition. By that time she had won 14 AAU track and field titles, had never been defeated in any running event, and won top awards in the 50 meters, 200 meters, and the shot put.
Stephens toured with the House of David basketball team and gave exhibitions at half-time of her talents in running and heaving the shot put. Audiences were not always kind. When male spectators hooted at her, she stood still, tossed the heavy iron ball from hand to hand, and used the public address system to challenge any man present to compete with her in the shot put. Few men ever took her up on the offer and those who did always lost, silencing others who might have harassed her. She also challenged spectators to footraces, which she always won.
Stephens made her living playing basketball with the Professional (All-American) Redheads and founded her own semiprofessional women's basketball team, "The Helen Stephens Olympic Co-Eds" in 1938 when she was 20 years old. She was the first woman to create, own, and manage a semi-pro basketball team. The team played until 1952. Stephens also played semiprofessional softball and coached, managed, and owned some teams.
Stephens joined the Marines, serving during World War II. After the war she took a job with the Defense Mapping Agency Aerospace Center in St. Louis, Missouri, where she worked for 26 years.
After retiring from the Aerospace Center, Stephens returned to William Woods College to be an advisor to the track and field program and to work as an assistant coach. From 1980 until her death she was a member of the board of the Senior Olympics Honorary Advisory Committee and was on the board of directors of the Senior Olympics Programs in 1980 and 1981. She was also active in Senior Olympics competition. David L. Porter reported in Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, "In seven years of Senior Olympic competition, Stephens has won over 50 medals in various sports and still has not lost a footrace. Clearly a pioneer in women's sport, the 1936 Olympic champion was the first woman inducted into the Missouri Sports and National Track and Field halls of fame." Stephens died on January 17, 1994 in St. Louis, Missouri.
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Mandell, Richard D., The Nazi Olympics, Macmillan Company, 1971.
Markel, Robert, Nancy Brooks, and Susan Markel, For the Record: Women in Sports, World Almanac Publications, 1985.
Porter, David L., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, Greenwood Press, 1988.
Wallechinsky, David, The Complete Book of the Olympics, Viking Press, 1984.
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"Helen Stephens," National Women's Hall of Fame,http://www.greatwomen.org/stphens.htm (March 3, 1999).
"Helen Stephens Sprints," USATF, http://www.usatf.org/athletes/hof/stephens.shtml (March 8, 1999).