Stella Walsh (1911-1980) lived in the United States, but ran for her native country of Poland in track events ranging from the U.S. National Championships to the Olympics. Walsh set 20 world records and won 41 U.S. national titles between 1930 and 1954. She won the gold medal in the 100 meter race in the 1932 Olympics and took silver for the same event in the 1936 Olympics.
Born Stanislawa Walasiewiczowna on April 3, 1911 in the Polish town of Wierchowina, Walsh came to the United States with her parents when she was two years old. The family settled in Cleveland, Ohio, and Walsh changed her name when she began school. Her career was long for a track athlete, lasting 24 years, from 1930, when she won her first AAU event, until 1954. Walsh won the 100 meters, 200 meters, and long jump events at three U.S. national championships-the first time in 1930 and the last time in 1948. Since her three-time sweep of the event, only one athlete, Marion Jones, has swept the events even once.
Walsh ran 100 yards in 10.8 seconds in 1930, becoming the first woman to run the distance in under 11 seconds. All eyes were on her at the Olympic trials at Chicago's Soldier Field in early July of 1932. Walsh was the main runner on the New York Central Railroad's Cleveland team. She wore sweatshirts with "Twentieth Century Limited"-the name of a fast train between New York and Chicago-printed on the back.
Runs for Poland
Just before the Olympic trials, Walsh announced that she intended to become a U.S. citizen. At the same time, she lost her file clerk job with the railroad. Her main focus was finding a way to make a living. The city of Cleveland offered her a job in its Recreation Department, but she turned it down. At that time, athletes could only compete in the Olympics if they were amateurs and had not made money from their sport. If Walsh accepted the job, she would be disqualified from the Olympics. And the job did not pay well.
On July 12, one day before she planned to take out naturalization papers, Walsh took a job in the Polish Consulate in New York City and decided to run for Poland in the Olympics. She received heavy criticism in the press for this decision. One athlete benefited from Walsh's decision not to run for the United States. Babe Didrickson, an all-around athlete from Dallas, planned to qualify for several Olympic events. Because Walsh was no longer aiming for the U.S. team, this eliminated competition and cleared the way for Didrickson to become a star.
Walsh was accepted on the Polish Olympic team and competed in the 100 meters in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. She had set a world record of 11.9 for this event in the trials the day before and was expected to win. Canada's Hilda Strike took her by surprise, taking the lead at the start and keeping it for 40 meters. Walsh caught her there, and the two were tied until the 80-meter mark, when Walsh swung into an intense finishing kick and won the race, matching her previous day's record time of 11.9.
After winning the gold, Walsh left immediately. This was a habit of hers; other athletes remarked on it, and did not understand why she was such a private person. She came to meets with her running clothes on, never changed in the dressing room and left as soon as the meet was over. In her book Their Day in the Sun: Women of the 1932 Olympics, Doris H. Pieroth quotes reporter Muriel Babcock, who remarked, "She sneaked off from the stadium before her [Polish] team-mates did." Some athletes felt sorry for her because she was always alone but others were unsympathetic, angered by the fact that she lived in the United States and ran for another country.
Rivalry with Helen Stephens
In a broadcast on National Radio on July 17, 1998, author Pat Shiel discussed his book, Olympic Babylon, with interviewer Amanda Smith. "One of the truly most bizarre stories from the Olympic annals," he said, "is that of the rivalry between the sprinters Helen Stephens and Stella Walsh." Walsh and Stephens had been rivals throughout their track-and-field careers. Walsh first encountered the American sprinter in 1935, where the farm girl and running prodigy was making her first major public appearance. No one had heard of Stephens and most of the spectators were on hand to see Walsh, who was known as "the fastest woman in the world." She would not keep the title for long. In the 50-meter event Stephens not only beat Walsh but also tied the record time for the event. Stephens also set a new world record for the 200 meters, a new world record in the standing broad jump, and won the shot put event. When spectators congratulated her on being the new "fastest woman in the world" and on beating Stella Walsh, she asked, "Who is Stella Walsh?" which angered Walsh. After this meet, Stephens was never defeated in a footrace and regularly beat Walsh. According to Shiel, "Stella was not impressed by this and made it generally known that she thought the reason that Helen Stephens was beating her all the time was that Helen was a boy."
Walsh set a world record of 11.7 seconds in the 100 meters in 1934. In 1935, she set a world record of 24.3 seconds for 220 yards and in 1938 set a another world record of 19 feet, 9 3/4 inches for the long jump. In the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Walsh ran for Poland again, setting a time of 11.7 seconds. But American runner Helen Stephens beat Walsh with her world-record time of 11.5 seconds. Walsh was angry at the loss. She protested to officials and the Polish press supported her. She claimed that Stephens was really a man, falsely running as a woman because no woman could run that fast. German officials performed a physical examination of Stephens and confirmed that she was a woman.
Walsh became a U.S. citizen in 1947, after her peak running career was over. She remained active, playing semiprofessional basketball and softball and running exhibition races. Apart from her Social Security check, these sporting events were her only source of income. In the late 1970s she became the editor of the sports section of a Polish newspaper in Chicago, and finally took a job with the Cleveland Recreation Department, where she organized track and field events and women's sports events.
An Unexpected End
Walsh's life ended tragically on December 4, 1980, when she was 69 years old. On a shopping trip in Cleveland, Ohio she was in the wrong place at the wrong time-in the parking lot of a discount store, unloading her shopping cart during a robbery attempt. An innocent bystander, she was shot and killed by a stray bullet. The results of her autopsy by the Cuyahoga County Coroner's Office were startling and confusing. According to the autopsy, Walsh had a condition known as mosaicism, which meant that, chromosomally, she was mostly, but not all, male. Ironically, she suffered from the very condition she had accused Stephens of having. This condition, which is still not fully understood, has been the source of much confusion about Walsh. Some sources report that Walsh had both ovaries and testicles, while others say that she was "really" a man. It seems clear that she did have some level of physical androgyny but lived as a woman.
The confusion regarding Walsh has not abated. She is still widely regarded as an Olympic "cheater" and a man posing as a woman. Although her androgyny was the result of a medical condition and not a deliberate attempt to "cheat," Walsh was not inducted into the Ohio Hall of Fame. (Although she was admitted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame, the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame, and the Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame). Some of the members on the induction committee felt that her genetic androgyny gave her an "unfair advantage" over other female athletes.
Further Reading on Stella Walsh
Mandell, Richard D., The Nazi Olympics, Macmillan, 1971.
Pieroth, Doris H. Their Day in the Sun: Women of the 1932 Olympics, University of Washington Press, 1996.
Porter, David L., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, Greenwood Press, 1988.
Wallechinsky, David, The Complete Book of the Olympics, Viking Press, 1984.
"Cathy's Forlorn Chase," Sydney Morning Herald, http://www.smh.com.au/news/9811/30/sport/sprts17.html (February 26, 1999).
"Gold Rush," Time, http://cgi.pathfinder.com/time/magazine/archive/1996/dom/960722/gold.html (February 26, 1999).
"History's Greatest Olympic Cheats," http://www.smh.com.au/atlanta/articles/2470.html (February 26, 1999).
"Jones Completes Triple at Track Championships," ESPN Sports Zone, http://espn.go.com/other/news/980621/00746346.html (March 5, 1999).
"1997 Inductees," Ohio Women's Hall of Fame, http://www.state.oh.us/obes/hof/members.htm (February 26, 1999).
"Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame," Ohio Front Page, http://www.webtest.state.oh.us/age/ (February 26, 1999).
"The Sports Factor," Radio National Transcripts, http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/sportsf/sstories/sf980717.htm (February 26, 1999.)
"Stella Walsh," Ohio's Greatest Runners, http://www.nd.edu/~pworland/ogr/walsh.htm (February 26, 1999).
"Stella Walsh Sprints," USATF, http://www.usatf.org/athletes/hof/walsh/html (February 26, 1999).
"This Week in Track and Field," USATF, http://www.usatf.org/news/6-12-98.htm (February 26, 1999).