Szewinska, Irena (1946—)

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Szewinska, Irena (1946—)

Polish track star who won seven Olympic medals, three of them gold. Name variations: Irene Kirszenstein; Irena Kirszenstein-Szewinska; Irena Szewinska-Kirszenstein. Born Irena Kirszenstein in Leningrad, USSR (now Russia), on May 24, 1946; married Junusz Szewinski (a runner who became her coach), in 1967; children: son Andrzej (b. February 1970).

Won medals in each of the four Olympics in which she competed, a feat no man or woman had ever accomplished: won silver in long jump, silver in 200 meters, gold in 4x100-meter relay in Tokyo Olympics (1964), won bronze in 100 meters, gold in 200 meters in Mexico City Olympics (1968), won bronze in 200 meters in Munich Olympics (1972), won gold in 400 meters in Montreal (1976); became the first woman to break 50 seconds in the 400 meters when she ran that race in 49.9 seconds (1974).

Irena Szewinska was born Irena Kirszenstein in Leningrad, USSR, in 1946. In September 1939, her parents had fled the Nazi invasion of Poland; had they not, they would have perished like millions of other Jews. Shortly after their daughter's birth, they returned to Warsaw. Irena was an athletic child, and her mother encouraged her to join a local sports club, where she became a sprinter and long jumper. Szewinska was a member of the Polish national team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, coming from out of nowhere to win a silver medal in the 200-meter run (setting a European record of 23.1 seconds), another silver in the long jump (establishing a national record of 21′7½″), and a gold medal in the 400-meter relay (during which the Polish relay team also clocked a world record). By the time Szewinska returned home, she had become a Polish superstar.

In 1965, Szewinska tied the world record with 11.1 seconds in the 100 meters, defeated two American Olympic champions in the 100 and 200 meters, broke the world record in the 200 meters with a race of 22.7 seconds, and was named Poland's Athlete of the Year. The Poles loved this sprinter whose athletic feats drew international attention. In Warsaw, Szewinska was often stopped on the streets for her autograph and songs were written in her honor. Her face became familiar in magazines and newspapers. This was particularly gratifying to the Jewish Szewinska, who was painfully aware of the virulent anti-Semitism that had had such devastating results in Europe. She enjoyed representing her country.

In the European championships in Budapest in 1966, Szewinska won gold medals in the 200 meters, long jump, and 400-meter relay as well as a silver medal in the 100 meters. World Sport, a British magazine, enhanced her international reputation when she was chosen Sportswoman of the Year. In 1967, Irena married Junusz Szewinski, who was once a runner and had become her coach. In the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, she won a gold in the 200 meters, setting a new world record of 22.5 seconds. She also won a bronze in the 100 meters.

After the 1968 Olympics, Szewinska began to tire of running competitively and decided to take a well-deserved rest. After a year, she returned to training, feeling better mentally and physically. In February 1970, her son Andrzej was born, and she felt pregnancy and childbirth had improved her performance. She won bronze medals in the 200 meters at the 1971 European championships and at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Szewinska then decided to concentrate on the 400-meter race, having devoted much of her career to the 100 and 200 meters. In 1974, she became the first woman to break the 50 seconds barrier, running the 400 meters in 49.9 seconds. This marked the beginning of a comeback. Renate Stecher , a young East German, had begun to dominate the track. When Szewinska defeated Stecher in the European championship's 100- and 200-meter events, chopping a tenth of a second from her 200-meter world mark, there was no question about her prominence. United Press International voted Szewinska Sportswoman of 1974 and Track and Field News named her woman athlete of the year.

In the 1976 Montreal Olympics, she won her seventh Olympic medal, a gold in the 400 meters. More important, Szewinska's time was 49.29, lowering her own world record by almost half a second. Because so many women athletes from Eastern bloc countries performed so ably, Szewinska was asked if her athletic feats represented a triumph for Communism. She replied, "I know the people from Poland were very happy to see the Polish flag flying the highest. But I run because it gives me great pleasure and satisfaction. I run for me." In 1977, Szewinska won the 400 meters in the Düsseldorf World championship in 49.0 seconds, a new world record.

Competing in the 1980 Olympics, Irena Szewinska wanted to be the first person to win a total of eight Olympic medals, but this was not to be. At 34, she was one of the older competitors, and she returned home without a medal. Her career had been incredible, however. Szewinska won a total of seven Olympic medals, three of them gold, and ten European medals,

five of them gold. She had been one of the best in her field for over 16 years.


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

Slater, Robert. Great Jews in Sports. Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David, 1983.

Karin L. Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia