When people talk about great athletes and sportspeople we tend to get the same names dominating the debate – Pele, Michael Jordan, Usain Bolt, Jesse Owens, Muhammed Ali – these are all names that crop up. We’re going to look at someone who never makes any list but is a true great in her own right.
Mildred Ella Didrikson Zaharias is a name that doesn’t roll off the tongue very easily, but she is easily America, if not the world’s greatest female athlete. Born in 1911 to two Norwegian immigrants, she played sports in school, featuring for the basketball, baseball, volleyball, tennis, golf and swimming teams. She left school to join Employers Casualty Insurance Company, where she’d play for their women’s basketball team in the Amateur Athletic Union. From her first game, she was her team’s top scorer and became the league’s top scorer too.
She first made the headlines in 1931 when she took part in US national women’s track and field championships as the sole member of the Employers Casualty team. She singlehandedly took part in eight events and won five of them, amassing enough points to win the championship. The team that came second, the Illinois Athletics club had 22 members. This success earned her a place in the USA’s Olympic team for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.
In the 1930s women were only allowed to enter a maximum of three events at the Olympics, and Zaharias chose to compete in the high jump, the 80m hurdles and the javelin. She won gold in the 80m hurdles, breaking the world record in the process, she also won gold in the javelin, breaking the Olympic record and won gold in and set a new world record in the high jump, but she was relegated to silver due to “improper technique.”
After her Olympic involvement, she became interested in other sports, flirting with Baseball – she is currently on record for having the longest baseball throw ever by a woman.
She then turned her attention to golf and in 1937 became the first woman to compete against men in a PGA tour event. The next woman to play in such an event was Annika Sorenstam in 2003.
She won 14 consecutive tournaments in Ladies Golf and helped found the LPGA in 1950 and competed despite being diagnosed with terminal cancer, even winning her last tournament while ill with the disease in 1955.
A true great, who should never be forgotten.