Summer Olympic Athletes In History

By the time this column is published, the delayed 2020 Summer Olympics should have been held in Tokyo, Japan. The athletes that participate have honed their skills for years, working tirelessly to improve their times and ready themselves physically and psychologically for the games. This month, we feature women in track and field and tennis who have competed in Summer Olympic Games in the past.

Helen Stephens

Known as the Fulton Flash, at age eighteen, Helen Stephens (from Fulton, Missouri) won two gold medals at the 1936 Olympics: the 100-meter dash and as a member of the U.S. relay team. Stephens excelled at track and field, never lost a race, and held world and American indoor records in a variety of events, including shot put and discus. She said, “From the time I was a small child I was in training, only I didn’t know it. . .  I was walking, running, doing chores, building up my body, my lung capacity, my wind, my endurance, everything that people have to train for today.” Accompanying her cousin who was riding horseback to school, Helen would grab the stirrup and run with the horse. After the Olympics, Stephens played professional baseball and softball. From 1938 to 1952, she owned and managed her own semiprofessional basketball team; she was the first woman to do so. Later she was a coach, mentor, and senior competitor. By the time she died, she had set the record for the longest athletic career in the world. Stephens has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Wilma Rudolph

Named as the fastest woman in the world, Wilma Rudolph was not born a runner. She was afflicted with polio as a child; it was not clear that she would walk. With the encouragement of her supportive family, Rudolph did walk and she began to run while in a segregated high school, where she was discovered by the coach at Tennessee State University. At the age of 16, she won a bronze medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. In 1960, when she won three gold medals at the Rome Olympics (the first American woman to do so), people around the world learned her inspirational story. She later wrote an autobiography which became a TV film. Rudolph also established a foundation to promote amateur athletics. She has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Joan Benoit (later Samuelson)

Growing up in Maine, Joan Benoit (later Samuelson), was a skier. After she broke her leg skiing, she took up running to get back in physical shape and found that she liked it. During high school, she received All-American honors in cross country and track. In 1979, although an unheralded competitor, she won the Boston Marathon, setting an American and course record. In 1983, she won the Boston Marathon again; this time she set a world record. In 1984, the first time that the women’s marathon was included as an Olympic event, she won the gold medal at the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Samuelson also won the 1995 Chicago Marathon with an American record time. An advocate for life-long physical fitness, Samuelson, when she was fifty years old, participated in the 2008 Olympic trials and completed the marathon in under 2 hours and 50 minutes. In 2009, she ran in the New York City Marathon; in this race her time was also under 2 hours and 50 minutes. She has established a race in Maine in which world class runners compete; the proceeds of this race are donated to charity.

Florence Griffith Joyner

Florence Griffith Joyner, also known affectionately as Flo-Jo, set records in 1988 for the 100 meters and 200 meters that still stand. Joyner began running in track events while in elementary school and won the Jesse Owens National Youth Games twice – at ages 14 and 15. She qualified for the 1980 Olympics but did not compete, due to the U.S. boycott. In 1984, she qualified for the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in the 200 meters and won the silver medal. During the trials for the 1988 Olympic Games, she set records for both the 100 meters and 200 meters. At the 1988 Olympics, Flo-Jo won three gold medals and one silver medal. She set an Olympic record in the 100 meters and the world record in the 200 meters, winning gold in both events. Flo-Jo was part of the 4 x 100 meters relay team that won a gold medal as well as part of the 4 x 400 meters relay team that won a silver medal. In 1995, she was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame.

Serena Williams

In 1995, Serena Williams became a professional tennis player at age 14, following in the footsteps of her sister Venus Williams. Serena began playing tennis at the age of three and won her first professional tournament in 1999. She has been ranked number 1 in the world and has won 23 Grand Slam tournaments in singles (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open). Serena has won an additional 16 Grand Slam titles in doubles and mixed doubles. Williams has won four Olympic gold medals – one in singles (2012) and three in doubles (2000, 2008, 2012), where she partnered with her sister Venus. In 2016 and 2017, she was the highest paid female athlete in the world. Serena is still on the tennis circuit, coming back after her maternity leave. In 2015, she was the first Black female athlete to be featured by herself on the cover of Vogue magazine. Williams has many interests outside of tennis, including supporting schools in Kenya and appearing in movies and on television. She has multiple clothing lines and also designs jewelry and accessories. Serena and Venus Williams are minority owners of the Miami Dolphins football team – the first Black women to own any amount of an NFL franchise.

These women Olympic athletes, as well as many other women, almost all of whom we have not heard about nor learned about in school, are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell the stories of the women who came before us, on whose shoulders we all stand. Tell young women especially so they understand that they can dream BIG, and then make their dreams a reality.

Jill Tietjen
Author: Jill Tietjen

Jill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer. After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide. She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman). She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.

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