Kirszenstein-Szewinska, Irena

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KIRSZENSTEIN-SZEWINSKA, IRENA (1946– ), Polish track and field athlete, winner of seven Olympic medals and 10 European Championship medals; member of the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame. Kirszenstein-Szewinska was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia, but her parents soon moved the family back to their native Poland, for which Kirszenstein-Szewinska made her Olympic debut as an 18-year-old at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. There she won a gold medal as a member of Poland's world record-setting 4 × 100m. relay team (43.6) and silver medals in the long jump with a leap of 21ʹ 7¾ʹʹ, as well as the 200 m., with her mark of 23.1 setting the European event record. Four years later at the Mexico City Olympics, Kirszenstein-Szewinska won the 200 m. event in 22.5, breaking her own world record set three years earlier, and won a bronze medal in the 100 m. event (11.19).

At the 1971 European Championships, Kirszenstein-Szewinska won a bronze medal in the 200 m. sprint, and then won the bronze in the same event the following year at the 1972 Olympics (22.74). In 1973, Kirszenstein-Szewinska switched to the 400 m. event, and the following year became the first woman to break 50 seconds at that distance. At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal two years later, she set a world record (49.29) in winning the 400 m. gold medal. Kirszenstein-Szewinska participated in the Moscow Olympics in 1980, but pulled a muscle in the semifinals of the 400 m. and was eliminated.

Overall, Kirszenstein-Szewinska won three Olympic gold medals, two silver, and two bronze – tying the record for most medals won by a woman in Olympic athletic competition – and five gold, one silver and four bronze medals in the European Championships. Between 1973 and 1975 she won 38 consecutive 200 m. races, and between 1973 and 1978 she won 36 straight 400 m. races – both being the longest winning streaks in these events in history. Other highlights of her career include tying the 100 m. world record in 1965 (11.1); being the first woman to hold world records in the 100 m., 200 m., and 400 m. at the same time; lowering her own world record in the 200 m. (22.0) in 1974; and lowering her 400 m. world mark (49.0) at the World Championships in Duesseldorf in 1977.

Kirszenstein-Szewinska was named Poland's Athlete of the Year in 1965 as well as Outstanding Woman Athlete in the World by Tass, the official Soviet press agency. In 1966 she was named World Sport Magazine's Sportswoman of the Year, and in 1974 United Press International's (upi) Sportswoman of the Year and Track & Field News Woman Athlete of the Year. She was elected to the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1992 and was named a member of the International Olympic Committee in 1998.

[Elli Wohlgelernter (2nd ed.)]