Follow us on Twitter @STLSportsPage
By Suzanne Corbett, STLSportsPage Food/Travel Editor
The 2016 Rio Summer Olympics promises to deliver weeks of thrilling record-breaking moments from the world’s finest athletics, but when I think about the Olympics, the first thing I think of is my friend, Helen Stephens. Growing up, she was like a ‘second mom’ to me, but to others of her time she was a decorated track champion..
This week I fondly recall Helen Stephens, the Missouri farm girl dubbed ‘the Fulton Flash’, who won double gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. An inspiring woman who I was honored to call my friend, she had been my mother’s best friend and in turn became an unofficial aunt instilling in me the mantra, ‘keep on keeping on – keep running’, which not only brought her Olympic gold but countless honors throughout her life.
Helen lived her advice and embraced what she loved. And what she loved was running. She discovered the joys of running on her family farm in Fulton, Missouri “I always loved to run. I liked to try out run the rabbits, and I often did ” Helen would say.
In an interview with the late sportswriter Bob Broeg, Helen reported running and winning a race against a horse in a short sprint in Canada. “In Springfield, Illinois I beat an automobile in a short race, too, because, after all the driver had to shift into gear and I didn’t” she told Broeg.
If you knew Helen you would believe those claims, but nonetheless, the undeniable facts are Helen Stephens’s athletic achievements would shine as bright as any 21st century track and field star. And not unlike many of today’s track stars who come from humble beginnings, so did Helen, raised on a meager Callaway County farm. Here, Helen was discovered as a 15 year-old high school student who unofficially equaled the world time record in the 50-yard dash.
In spite of her high school superintendent protest, Helen’s coach brought her to St. Louis in 1935 for the Amateur Athletic Union National Indoor Track Meet at the old Arena where she defeated then world and Olympic champion, Poland’s Stella Walsh.
Helen would repeat her win over Stella in 1936 Olympics, winning the 100-meter with a time of 11.5 seconds on a cinder track without starting blocks. Helen’s second Gold was for the 400-meter relay, which she ran anchor.
Helen’s 100-meter time of 11.5 second Olympic record remained unbroken until 1960 when Wilma Rudolph would shave a half second off Helen’s time. Then as now, the winner of the 100-meter earned the title fastest woman or man in the world, which she shared in 1936 with her teammate Jesse Owens, shown in the picture, right.
Helen’s wins attracted the attention of Adolf Hitler who asked to meet her and had her escorted to his private box.
I can still recall Helen’s story of how Hitler greeted her with a sloppy Nazi Salute, which she answered with– as she described it– a “good old-fashioned Missouri handshake.”
Hitler, shown in the picture with Helen, right, told her she should run for Germany since she was a true Aryan type. Helen always thought was funny and that the joke was on Hitler since her great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee.
An invitation followed to spend the weekend in Berchtesgaden, which she politely refused. During their short meeting Helen asked Dur Fuhrer for his autograph. He obliged. A photographer captured the moment, which enraged Hitler. Helen described him losing his temper and said he “shook him (the photographer) like a rat.”
Helen never lost a race, winning more than 70 consecutive races.
After hanging up her track shoes as an amateur athlete, Helen toured playing baseball and basketball with the All-American Red-Heads Basketball Team (Helen noted that they all dyed their hair red). With the encouragement of Abe Saperstein, manager of the Harlem Globetrotters, she established a professional exhibition women’s basketball team, the Helen Stephens Co-Eds. After World War II and touring with her basketball team Helen worked for the government, retiring in 1976 along with my mother from the Defense Mapping Aerospace Center (National Geospatial –Intelligence agency).
Once retired from government service Helen returned to her Alma Mater, Williams Woods, to coach track.
A firm believer in exercise and competitive sports, Helen helped establish the Senior Olympics, in which she competed, and of course, still never lost a race. Before her death in 1994 Helen was inducted into the National and United Sates Track and Field Halls of Fame, The Woman’s Hall of Fame and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.
She was a hall of famer in every sense of the term. She mentored younger athletes and provided guidance to them, including Gold Medal winners Jackie Joyner Kersee and speed skater Bonnie Blair.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my beloved friend Helen Stephens, and I will sure be thinking of her as I watch Team USA walk out in the Opening Ceremonies and during the Track and Field Competition.