Walsh, Stella (1911–1980)

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Walsh, Stella (1911–1980)

Polish-American track-and-field star, the first woman to run the 100-yard dash in under 11 seconds, who set numerous world records in 30 years of competition, was posthumously accused of being a man, and later was cleared of this accusation by an Olympic Committee . Name variations: Stanislava Walaciewicz; Stanislawa Walasiewicz-Olson; (nickname) the Polish Flyer. Born Stanislawa Walasiewicz on April 3, 1911, in Rypin, Poland; murdered on December 4, 1980, in Cleveland, Ohio; married briefly to Harry Olson; no children.

Collected 1,100 trophies in track and field over a 30-year career; astounded the track-and-field world by running the 50-yard dash in 6.1 seconds in Madison Square Garden (1930); ran 100 yards in 10.8 seconds (1930), the first time a woman clocked under 11 seconds; competed for Poland in the Olympics, winning a gold medal in the 100 meters with a world-record time of 11.9 seconds (1932); won a silver medal for Poland in the Olympics in the 100 meters with a time of 11.7 seconds (1936); broke the AAU women's national record for 70 yards with a time of 8.2 seconds (1935); became an American citizen (1947); organized track, field and other women's sports and recreation programs for the Cleveland recreation program (1970s); also edited the sports section of a Polish newspaper in Cleveland.

In the 1930s, Stella Walsh was known as a "wonder woman" in the sports world, the first woman to run the 100-yard dash in under 11 seconds. Like Sonja Henie and Babe Didrikson Zaharias , Walsh was a household name. For 23 years, from 1930 until 1953, she won over 1,000 medals in major track-and-field events; her competitive career, astonishingly, lasted a full 30 years. She is little known today, however, and her name is associated more often with events that happened after her death than with the heights of athletic achievement, a circumstance that would no doubt deeply sadden her.

Stanislawa Walasiewicz was born in Rypin, Poland, on April 3, 1911, and emigrated with her family to Cleveland, Ohio, while she was still a baby. When she was a schoolgirl, her teachers suggested she change her name to Stella Walsh, to make it easier for Americans to pronounce. Walsh would retain an allegiance to both her adopted country and the land of her birth throughout her life, and she would compete for both. Although she spent most of her life in the United States, she traveled frequently to Poland, retaining close ties to her family there. Her Polish was fluent, and in later years she wrote and edited a sports column for a Polish newspaper in Cleveland. "I was born in Poland as Stella Walasiewicz," she once said, "and came to this country in the arms of my mother at the age of ten months. Almost since then, I have been running—in streets, playgrounds, and high school gymnasiums. I like competition. I must have inherited it from my mother and my maternal grandfather." (When he was 70, her grandfather challenged the young girl to a dash around the family barn, and Stella had to push hard to beat him.) Stella's mother encouraged her daughter's athletic skills, and her training was intense. In 1930, she commented:

My stride had to be built up step by step. I began with a simple exercise—which I still do about ten times a day for four minutes

at a time—merely raising my knee straight up until it almost hits my chin, and then snapping the lower part of the leg up and out as far as I can. It's extremely simple, but it works. It develops the hip muscles, loosens them, and helps develop that long, high stride.

In the early years of the 20th century, track and field was not considered an appropriate area of athletic competition for women. When the first 800-meter race for women was held at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, Lina Radke won in world-record time (2:16.8), but The New York Times, convinced that the decision to permit women to compete in such events was idiotic, reported: "At the finish six of the runners were completely exhausted and fell headlong to the ground" while "eleven wretched women" were strewn about the cinder track. This was the mindset that greeted the 19-year-old Walsh when she burst onto the American track-and-field scene that same year, competing in the (otherwise) all-male Melrose Games at New York's Madison Square Garden. The 16,000 spectators were stunned and thrilled when the young woman from Cleveland ran the 50-yard dash in 6.1 seconds, breaking a world record. Stella Walsh was named outstanding performer of the Melrose Games. Soon known as "the Polish Flyer," she would be a bright star in the sports world for years to come.

Walsh also threw the discus, a sport which brought her headlines three years later. During the discus throw at a 1931 track-and-field meet in New Jersey, members of the crowd—some 15,000 strong—pressed closer and closer to the contestants. As Walsh prepared to make her throw, the discus slipped from her hand and struck an onlooker who had gotten too close. Knocked unconscious, he was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital while the park commissioner threatened to arrest her immediately. Cooler heads prevailed, and Walsh was permitted to defend her title in the 220-yard dash. She won the event before being taken into custody ("Stella Walsh, Star Sprinter, Is Arrested in Jersey City as Platter Fells a Man," trumpeted a headline on the sports page of The New York Times). The matter was swiftly dropped.

In 1932, on her 21st birthday, Walsh applied for citizenship, and Americans looked forward to her competing as an American in that year's Los Angeles Olympics. Then economics came into play. Participation in Olympic competition hinged on an athlete's conformance to a very strict definition of "amateur" status—athletes who attempted to support themselves through sports-related jobs were not allowed to compete—and the Great Depression was in full swing. Walsh had been supporting herself by working as a filing clerk for the New York Central Railroad, but her department was suddenly shut down and she was out of a job. Although the city of Cleveland offered her work in its Municipal Recreation Department, she had to decline; such a job would have meant she was a "professional sportswoman" and ineligible for the Games. The strictures of this rule made life extremely difficult for athletes like Walsh who came from poor families. Thus, when she appeared in federal court to take her oath of allegiance on July 9, 1932, the last step in becoming an American citizen, she sadly refused. Her trainer, Dan Griffin, pleaded with her, but could not change her mind. On July 12, she announced that she had accepted a job with the Polish Consulate in New York, as a Polish citizen, and would compete for that country in the Olympics.

In the 1932 Games, America's loss was Poland's gain. Walsh captured the 100-meter race with a time of 11.9 seconds. In taking the gold medal, she beat Canadian Hilde Strike and American Wilhelmina Von Bremen . She also finished 6th in the discus throw with 100'3". After her triumph at the Games, Walsh competed throughout Europe while studying at the Physical Culture Institute in Warsaw. Despite her decision to run for Poland, Americans continued to regard Walsh as one of their own, referring to her as "the girl from Cleveland." She made the headlines again early in January 1934: "Stella Walsh Injures Foot; Athletic Career Imperiled," announced The New York Times. The newspaper reported that Walsh had "dislocated or broken a joint in her foot" while skiing in the Carpathian Mountains. Two weeks later, accounts were more optimistic: she had "twisted her ankle" but was "entirely recovered." Just before leaving Poland to sail to New York, she was received by Poland's President Ignacy Moscicki, a sign that Poles, like Americans, continued to regard her as their own.

That year, Walsh clocked a world record of 7.2 seconds in the 60-yard dash at the Polish Falcon Athletic Club Games in Brooklyn, New York. By now there was a new American track star competing against the Polish Flyer—Helen Stephens , a high school sensation from Missouri. The rivalry between Walsh and Stephens remained a hot topic on sports pages throughout the nation. At the 1935 AAU indoor meet, Stephens beat Walsh in the 50-yard dash, a blow to Walsh who held women's world records in the 60-, 80-, and 100-meter dashes and was considered a "near champion" in hurling the discus. The year brought other problems as well: the old specter of losing her amateur status loomed once more. The AAU suspended Walsh from competition for 30 days because she had played with an amateur girls' basketball team in Buffalo, New York, on January 27, 1935. The women's game had preceded a professional contest, and the AAU forbade any amateur to "participate on the same program with professionals." This narrow interpretation of the rule angered Walsh who told reporters, "I didn't know there was such a rule. I didn't know my amateur standing was in danger. If I wanted to turn professional, I could have done it long ago—and made plenty of money." Since the rule had been adopted only the month before, Walsh was let off "lightly."

The rivalry between Walsh and Stephens continued as the 1936 Olympics loomed. On May 4, 1935, Walsh broke the women's national AAU record for the 70-yard distance with a time of 8.2 seconds, clipping two-tenths of a second off the old mark. That same day, Stephens ran the 50-meter dash in 5.9 seconds, bettering the listed women's world record. Since the race had been held without starting blocks, a common practice at the time, the record was not recognized, but the feat demonstrated that Stephens was hot on Walsh's heels. The press was hoping for a rematch at the AAU outdoor meet the following month, but Walsh refused to compete, claiming she was "concentrating on her studies at Notre Dame Academy." Stephens ran the 100 meters in 11.8 seconds, besting Walsh's previous record of 11.9 in St. Louis on June 1. At the Northeastern Ohio AAU meet one week later, Walsh also ran the 100 meters in 11.8 and ran the 220-yard race in 0:24.3 seconds, bettering the accepted women's world record. Americans followed the competition between the two women runners with great interest. Walsh was scheduled to compete again for Poland in the upcoming Olympics, and Stephens would be running for America; there was much speculation on the potential outcome.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics, held in Nazi Germany, were controversial for many reasons. Some felt the Nazis were using the event for propaganda purposes. Many others felt that Adolf Hitler had brought order and economic prosperity to Germany, and regarded charges of anti-Semitism as attempts to tarnish these accomplishments. There were several skirmishes over participation in the Games by Jewish athletes. Although the American Olympic Committee did protest when Helene Mayer , the German fencing star, was not allowed to enter the Games because she was half Jewish, the Nazis' eventual decision to allow her to participate was generally held as proof that they were not serious racists. Walsh would have none of this whitewashing. Conditions for Jews in Germany, she told reporters, were "very bad indeed." She witnessed racism firsthand when a Jewish woman on the national Polish team was insulted. Unlike others, Walsh did not duck the controversy: "I hate to see politics mixed with sport," she said. "Like every other athlete, I'd hate to have anything prevent the Olympic Games. I hope things can be straightened out. Yes there are anti-Jewish signs up. The Jews have to compete against themselves in their own clubs. The press smooths things over now." But at a time when the world press minimized the actions committed by the Nazis, Walsh was in the minority in her determination to speak out against the Third Reich.

In Berlin, Walsh was forced to concentrate on her chief rival, Helen Stephens. Although the star of the Polish team ran her fastest time in the 100 meters, clocking in at 11.7, Stephens took the gold medal with a time of 11.5; Walsh had to be content with the silver. After the Games, she continued to compete in Europe until World War II forced her return to the United States. Although she was in her 30s, she gave no thought to retiring and, during the 1940s, dominated AAU competition.

The Athletic Congress unanimously passed a resolution saying accusations that Walsh was a man are inaccurate.

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, December 7, 1991

In 1947, Walsh finally became an American citizen. When Poland became a Communist country, she refused to represent its government as an athlete. In 1953, at age 42, she entered the western regional meet of the Women's National AAU pentathlon. Although she was considered well past her prime, she won the five-event competition with a record-breaking performance. At age 44, Walsh petitioned the Olympic Committee to allow her to compete as an American in the 1956 Olympics. Told she was ineligible because she previously had competed for Poland, she threatened to retire unless she were permitted to try out. But she failed to qualify for the team in 1956, and again in 1960 when she was almost 50. "Every year I think of retiring," the perennial contender explained, "but I get out on the track with the youngsters and want to run myself." Like her grandfather who could sprint around the barn at age 70, Walsh retained her athletic abilities as she grew older. When she finally retired, she had accumulated 1,100 trophies in her 30-year career and captured 25 outdoor AAU titles in the 100-yard dash, 220-yard dash, and the long dash.

Athletic competition was never easy for Walsh, and the economic aspects of remaining an amateur athlete were especially difficult. She was forced to support herself at non-sports-related jobs for most of her life. For many years, she eked out a living by writing for a Polish newspaper in Cleveland. In the 1970s, Mayor George Voinovich recognized Walsh as a "Cleveland institution" and decided it was time for the city to pay for her many talents. She was placed in charge of organizing track and field and other women's sports for the Cleveland recreation program, a position that finally gave her financial independence after many years of near poverty.

Stella Walsh had all but disappeared from the country's media when her untimely death received coverage nationwide. On the night of December 4, 1980, she had gone shopping at a local discount store to buy ribbons for a welcoming ceremony for the Polish Olympic women's basketball team, scheduled to play at Kent State University the following week. The store was robbed at gunpoint while she was there, and Walsh was caught in the crossfire. Found lying next to her car, she was rushed to St. Alexis Hospital with a bullet wound to her abdomen. She died during surgery, at the age of 69. Lauded in Cleveland for her many accomplishments, Walsh was buried with honors. Unfortunately, her death caused far more controversy than she had ever known in life.

During her career, Walsh was sometimes accused of being a man. She was not alone, as many female athletes with muscles, slim hips, or a physical shape that was not considered "feminine" faced the same allegation. Such accusations were routine during a period when women were thought incapable of competing successfully in athletics, and continue to surface on occasion up to this day. As a matter of fact, however, the one imposter known to have competed in the Games, a man named Hermann Ratjen who called himself Dora while representing Nazi Germany in the high jump during the same 1936 Games that Walsh competed in, did not win a medal.

The coroner's report filed after Walsh's autopsy fed the old rumors about her, for Cuyahoga County coroner Samuel R. Gerber revealed that Walsh had had underdeveloped, non-functioning male sex organs. She had been born with what the medical world terms an "intersex state," and a genetic makeup of one X and one Y chromosome. While women as a general rule have two X chromosomes and men have one X and one Y chromosome, on occasion (less infrequently than might be thought) babies are born with some other combination of chromosomes. This genetic condition, known as "mosaicism," affects the sexual organs and the body's development to varying degrees; in some cases it may be apparent immediately or by puberty, while in others it is detectable only by genetic testing or surgery. In Walsh's case, apparently, her male genitalia were so underdeveloped that her parents, who always considered her female, the man to whom she was briefly married, and she herself never realized her condition.

In 1991, 11 years after Walsh's death, The Athletic Congress (TAC), which is the governing body of U.S. track and field, addressed the question of her gender. Roxanne Atkins Andersen , a Canadian who had been an Olympic hurdler in the 1936 Games, felt that Walsh had been a man and should be stripped of her titles and Olympic medals. "She ran like a man," said Andersen. "She was muscled all over, very slim and trim in the hips." The key issue was whether Walsh's condition gave her an advantage as an athlete because she produced male hormones such as testosterone which increases muscle mass. Dr. Mona Shangold , a sports gynecology expert, maintained that Walsh's condition gave her no unfair advantage. Walsh's old rival Helen Stephens said, "I don't think she was a man.… I don't think she had any advantage. Let bygones be bygones. Let the woman rest." Walsh's ex-husband Harry Olson also defended her, noting that he had never noticed her condition when they were intimate (though they had always turned out the lights). He continued, "People in Cleveland seem torn between loving her and destroying her. All of this vicious energy should have been organized toward finding her murderer." Many in Cleveland stuck up for Walsh. One of them noted, "She trained children until her dying day. You can just imagine what her medals meant to her. She was so honored, she worked hard for it." In the end, Walsh's accomplishments stood this trial by fire. Andersen withdrew her motion to strip the athlete of her medals, and The Athletic Congress unanimously passed a resolution declaring that the accusations about Walsh were inaccurate.

Stella Walsh faced many obstacles during her life, including economic hardship, immigrant status, sex discrimination, and ageism, but she never stopped fighting. When a stray bullet ended her life prematurely, she was subjected to further indignity for a condition over which she had no control and may have had no knowledge. As is so often the case, the public was all too willing to dismiss her achievements. In more than one contemporary history, she is written off as a male imposter. In Olympics Factbook it states blandly, "Walsh's story came to a tragic end—and her record was amended—when she was caught in the middle of a holdup; the post-shooting autopsy revealed that Stella Walsh was a man." The highly respected Women's Sports by Allen Guttmann also continues to perpetuate the all-black, all-white approach. Discussing an international competition held in France, Guttmann wrote: "The brightest star of the individual events was Poland's Stanislava Walaciewicz, subsequently known in the United States as Stella Walsh. She won three gold medals for races over 60, 100, and 200 meters. (Decades later, alas, an autopsy revealed that Stella Walsh was a man.)" Reputation muddied, laurels tarnished, she is slowly being dropped from sports compilations, as if she were an embarrassment better left unheralded. (In the meantime, her story is frequently cited in the growing field of gender studies.) This is grossly unfair, because Stella Walsh was one of the 20th century's most talented women runners. A phenomenal athlete who set numerous world records, she deserves a permanent place in the starting lineup of the history of sports.


"A.A.U. Suspends Miss Walsh for 30 Days for Appearing on Same Program With Pros," in The New York Times. February 16, 1935, p. 17.

"Cinder Path Sisters," in Newsweek. Vol. 16, no. 3. July 15, 1940, pp. 45–46.

"Discus Hits Onlooker; Woman Athlete Held. Stella Walsh, Star Sprinter, Is Arrested in Jersey City as Platter Fells Man," in The New York Times. July 26, 1931, p. 25.

Guttmann, Allen. Women's Sports. NY: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Hornbuckle, Adam R. Porter. "Walsh, Stella 'The Polish Flyer,'" in Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Outdoor Sports. Edited by David L. Porter. NY: Greenwood Press, 1988.

"Intersex States," in The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. 15th ed. Rahway, NJ: Merck, 1987.

McMillen, Larry. "A Question of Gender," in New Orleans Times-Picayune. December 5, 1991.

——. "Stella Walsh to Maintain Sprint Marks," in New Orleans Times-Picayune. December 7, 1991.

"Missouri Girl Ties World Dash Mark," in The New York Times. June 2, 1935, section V, p. 4.

"Miss Walsh Breaks U.S. 70-Yard Mark," in The New York Times. May 5, 1935, section V, p. 4.

"Miss Walsh Clips Mark," in The New York Times. June 10, 1935, p. 24.

"Miss Walsh Denies Reports of 'Run-Out'; Track Star Will Sail for Poland Today," in The New York Times. June 19, 1935, p. 26.

"Miss Walsh, Given Job in Polish Consulate, To Represent Native Land in the Olympics," in The New York Times. July 13, 1932, p. 21.

"Miss Walsh Refuses Citizenship Papers; Remains Ineligible for U.S. Olympic Team," in The New York Times. July 9, 1932, p. 14.

"Miss Walsh Ties Marks," in The New York Times. July 28, 1936, p. 12.

"Moscicki Sees Stella Walsh," in The New York Times. October 19, 1933, p. 21.

Olympics Factbook. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink Press, 1992, p. 528.

"Poland Honors Miss Walsh," in The New York Times. June 23, 1934, p. 7.

"Report Says Stella Walsh Had Male Sex Organs," in The New York Times. January 23, 1981, p. 18.

Rosen, Karen. "Gender of '32 Gold Medalist To Be Debated," in Atlanta Constitution. December 5, 1991.

——. "TAC Finds No Evidence That Female Winner Was A Man," in Atlanta Journal Constitution. December 7, 1991.

"Stella Walsh Again Training; Recovered From Ankle Injury," in The New York Times. February 10, 1933, p. 20.

"Stella Walsh Injures Foot; Athletic Career Imperiled," in The New York Times. January 22, 1933, p. 5.

"Stella Walsh Is Freed on Charge," in The New York Times. October 11, 1944, p. 22.

"Stella Walsh Slain. Olympic Track Star," in The New York Times Biographical Service. December 1980, pp. 1825–1826.

"Takes Citizenship Step. Miss Walsh, Sprint Star, Applies for Papers on 21st Birthday," in The New York Times. April 8, 1932, p. 29.

"Track Star Asks Ruling," in The New York Times. October 15, 1955, p. 11.

"2 Charged in Ohio Murder," in The New York Times. May 28, 1983, section I, p. 6.

Von Stein, Josef W. "Breaking Records is Stella's Favorite Indoor Sport," in The American Magazine. Vol. 110, no. 4. October 1930, pp. 71–72.

"Walasiewicz-Olson, Stanislawa," in Wielka Encyklopedia Powszechna. Warsaw: Panstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1969.

"Woman Athlete Here Fears Anti-Semitism. Stella Walsh, Polish Champion, Tells of German Insult to Jewish Girl at Meet," in The New York Times. October 23, 1935, p. 9.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia