Shiley, Jean (1911–1998)

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Shiley, Jean (1911–1998)

American high jumper who won a gold medal in the 1932 Olympics. Name variations: Jean Newhouse. Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on November 20, 1911; died on March 11, 1998, in Los Angeles, California; graduated from Temple University, 1933.

Competed in Olympics, placing 4th in high jump (1928); won national titles (1929, 1930, and 1931); won the gold medal in the high jump in the Los Angeles Olympics (1932), beating favorite Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1911, Jean Shiley was fortunate to attend Haverford Township High School, where, unlike most schools of the time, female and male students had equal opportunities in all areas including sports. Funds for transportation, uniforms, coaches, and all other expenses for girls' and boys' sports were split evenly, and girls competed in hockey, basketball, track and field, tennis, swimming, golf, and other sports. Boys had 12 football games a season; girls had 12 hockey games. Shiley played on the basketball team, whose coach Ethel David had two rules—no athlete could play unless her grades were up to par, and no poor sportsmanship was tolerated.

During the 1927–28 season, Dora Lurie , a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, covered one of Haverford Township High's basketball games. Impressed by Shiley's ability to jump as high as 4'10", Lurie encouraged her to try out for the high jump in the Olympics. She also set up an appointment for Shiley with Lawson Robertson, a track coach at the University of Pennsylvania who served as an Olympic coach. To Shiley's surprise, Robertson agreed to train her. Not a member of any club or sponsoring organization, she had to pay her own entry fee at the Olympic trials in Newark, New Jersey, where she made the team for the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.

While some members of her family disapproved of her choosing to go to Europe unchaperoned at age 16, others bought Shiley clothes and gave her a huge send-off. Once on board ship bound for the Netherlands, the teenager was dazzled by the elegant surroundings, especially the dining room's elaborate table settings. She soon made friends on board, including the "black gang" in the ship's furnace room and Jack Kelly, an Olympic hopeful who would later have a daughter named Grace Kelly . The athletes continued living on the ship after their arrival in Amsterdam, which Shiley found much more enjoyable than did some others who considered the commute to the Games tiresome. Her participation in the high-jump competition, however, came and went in a blur. Canadian Ethel Catherwood took the gold medal, while Shiley came in fourth.

Returning to high school, she graduated the following year and was awarded a scholastic scholarship to Temple University in Philadelphia. But the school did not have competitive sports for women, and so the only way Shiley could compete was in national meets. Practicing was difficult. At home she had had the high-school field and the corn field across the street, while in Philadelphia there was only the Mead-owbrook Club, a men's club operated by Wanamaker's department store. Women were not allowed inside. She had to stand outside and beg to see the coach, Lew Speeler. Nonetheless, the club agreed to let her practice and to pay her way to meets. She won national titles in 1929, 1930, and 1931, setting the American indoor record for the high jump in 1929 and 1930.

When Shiley left for the Olympic trials in Evanston, Illinois, in 1932, she had only a train ticket and five dollars, for the Olympic Committee paid for athletes' expenses in Evanston. Despite intense heat (temperatures went as high as 105°), Shiley tied Babe Didrikson Zaharias in the high-jump trials and headed for the Olympic Games in Los Angeles as captain of the American track-and-field team. By that time, Zaharias was a celebrity to the press and the American public; Shiley was a cipher. The two staged what has been called the "greatest one-on-one duel in Olympic history." Zaharias won the javelin and then the hurdle, and was poised to take the high jump. Shiley and Zaharias matched each other jump for jump, both clearing 5'5" to set a world record. In the jumpoff for the gold medal, each made 5'5¾", but the "western roll" that Zaharias was accustomed to using—diving head first over the bar—was not, some thought, according to the rules. These specified that athletes take off with one foot, land on the other, and never let their shoulders precede their body across the bar. Shiley was encouraged by other athletes to cite Zaharias for a foul, but she refused; she liked her talented competitor. Eventually, however, the "western roll" was ruled illegal, placing Zaharias second, with a silver medal, while Shiley was awarded the gold. Members of the press corps were indignant: the Babe had been robbed.

Shiley had hopes of attending medical school after she graduated with a degree in physical education and history from Temple University in 1933, but the Depression was at its height, and she simply did not have the money. Jobs were scarce, so she taught swimming and worked part-time as a lifeguard to make ends meet. Shiley considered herself fortunate when she landed a WPA job teaching typing. In 1936, she went to see Dan Ferris of the U.S. Olympic Committee about trying out for that year's Olympics. He maintained that by teaching swimming for money she had violated her amateur status, thus making her ineligible for Olympic competition. The fact that she was a track-and-field star, not a swimmer, was irrelevant. The decision was final. Shiley was inducted into the USA Track & Field (USATF) Hall of Fame in 1993, nearly 60 years later. She died in 1998.


Carlson, Lewis H., and John J. Fogarty. Tales of Gold. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books, 1987.

Karin L. Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia

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Shiley, Jean (1911–1998)

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