Stephens, Helen (1918–1994)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Stephens, Helen (1918–1994)

American runner known as the "Missouri Express." Name variations: Helen Herring Stephens. Born in Fulton, Missouri, on February 3, 1918; died on January 17, 1994.

Won the gold medal in the 100 meters and another gold in the 4x100-meter relay in the Berlin Olympics (1936); ran races against Jesse Owens, the famed African-American track star.

Helen Stephens was born in 1918 on a farm near Fulton, Missouri. One day in high school, she raced against potential members of the boys' track team, who were told they had 7 seconds to run the 50-yard dash. Stephens completed the dash in under 7 seconds, outrunning all the boys in the process. Nonplussed, coach W.B. Moore asked her to run again. After clocking her, he took his watch to be checked at the local jewelry store. The time of her first run was 5.8 seconds, the second 5.9; both times had broken world records. Moore leaked the story to the newspapers, and Stephens became a serious runner.

Competitions for women were nonexistent both in high school and college, so Moore entered her in the National AAU championships being held in St. Louis in 1935. In a blue gymsuit made by her mother and borrowed boys' running shoes and sweat pants, Stephens ran the 100 meters against Stella Walsh , the 1932 Olympic champion, and tied with her. Stephens' showing caused a sensation, all the more so since Walsh had called her a "greenie from the sticks." Newspapers ran stories on the young runner, one dressing her up in overalls, with a shotgun and hunting dog, under the title "From farm to fame in 6.6 seconds."

Local business leaders formed the Fulton Athletic Club to sponsor Stephens, underwriting her expenses. A year before the 1936 Olympics, she trained with the boys, often running the 400 and 800 meters. At that time, women competed only in the 100-meter race, since longer distances were considered to be beyond their physical capacities. Stephens ran the longer distances with ease, however. At the Ozark District meet in St. Louis, an Olympic qualifying trial, she broke the world record before officials found that the track was a foot short, a fairly common occurrence in those days. Despite this, she went on to break many records.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin were memorable for many reasons. Hitler's Nazi government worked hard to make a favorable world impression. Accommodations were spartan but comfortable, though athletes had complaints about the food. Breakfast, for example, consisted of apples and black bread until the Americans insisted on bacon and eggs. They suspected they were being underfed to give the Germans an advantage.

There were three heats in the 100-meter race in Berlin. Stephens ran 11.4 in the first heat and 11.5 in the semifinal heat, breaking the world record with both times. She won the gold medal in the 100 meters, beating Walsh by .02 of a second. Winning the 4×100-meter race was not a foregone conclusion, as the German relay team was favored. But America's Betty Robinson , who had suffered terrible injuries in an earlier plane crash, performed surprisingly well, as did Stephens, and a German runner dropped the baton. Stephens had her second gold medal.

After her 100-meter win, Adolf Hitler had invited Stephens to his box, but her coach had tried to put Hitler's courier off, saying that Stephens was due to be interviewed for a radio broadcast. "I can't go back and tell the Führer that," said the messenger. "He'll shoot me." Nonetheless, Stephens did her broadcast while the messenger cooled his heels. But when Stephens was escorted to Hitler's stadium box, she noticed the 15 blackshirted guards waiting outside and began to realize that the messenger's fears might not be overblown. Even so, she refused to give a salute, preferring to offer Hitler "a good ol' Missouri handshake" instead. The Führer's greeting proved more intimate than Stephens expected. "You're a true Aryan type," he said as he pinched her behind. "You should be running for Germany." He then invited her to spend the weekend at Berchtesgaden, his mountain retreat, an invitation which was declined due to "being in training."

On her return to the States, Stephens endorsed Quaker Oats and played with the All-American Redheads, a women's basketball team. She toured the country with the team, playing local men's teams and generally beating them. She also ran five races against the African-American Olympic gold-medal-winner Jesse Owens, with whom she had become friendly during the Games. Stephens liked Owens, even though he had accidentally broken her finger in one race when he threw out his hand.

Helen Stephens continued to be physically active over the years. In 1986, at age 68, she entered 12 events in the regional Senior Olympics in St. Louis and won gold medals in 8 of them. While summing up her career, she quoted Dizzy Dean. "I wasn't the greatest," she said, "but I was amongst 'em."

sources:

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

Condon, Robert J. Great Women Athletes of the 20th Century. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991.

Karin L. Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia