The Runner's Secret

Stella Walsh, right, in 1944. The IOC declined to reconsider her 1932 medal.
Stella Walsh, right, in 1944. The IOC declined to reconsider her 1932 medal. (Associated Press)
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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008

In a life shadowed by mystery and scarred by shame, one thing was blindingly obvious about Stella Walsh: She could run faster than almost any woman alive.

During a two-decade span that started in the early 1930s, Walsh was queen of the sprints. She set or matched the world record in the 100 meters six times, her last mark standing for 11 years. She won three events at U.S. national championship meets four times, a feat that has never been equaled.

Polish-born but raised in Cleveland from infancy, Walsh -- the name was an Americanized version of Walasiewicz -- attained her greatest glory at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, competing for her native Poland. Walsh's long strides powered her to the gold medal in the 100 meters in world-record time.

Four years later at the Olympics in Berlin, Walsh barely missed duplicating the feat. A sturdy Missouri farm girl named Helen Stephens nipped her at the finish.

Incensed by this affront to Walsh's dominance, Polish newspaper reporters spread a rumor about the 6-foot Stephens. She was, they said, really a man. That rumor was baseless.

Walsh later gained her U.S. citizenship, briefly married a man in California and spent most of the rest of her life in Cleveland, working for the city's parks department. All but forgotten after her retirement, the woman who had once been the most famous American track athlete after the legendary Babe Didrikson remained a heroine in the city's Polish American community. A recreation center in the city still bears Walsh's name.

It was only in death that the truth about Stella Walsh emerged.

* * *

On a snowy day in December 1980, 69-year-old Stella Walsh took her last steps across the parking lot of a Cleveland shopping center. Two men approached, intent on robbing her. One pulled a gun. Prosecutors later said that Walsh tried to knock the weapon away; the gunman fired, hitting Walsh in the abdomen. She would die several hours later in a Cleveland hospital.

On the eve of Walsh's funeral, a story began to spread. That night, two local TV stations reported that police, in seeking Walsh's killers, were also investigating a shocking claim:

That Stella Walsh, the great Olympian, was really a man.

The story cracked like a starter's pistol, generating alternating waves of confusion and outrage. The city's Polish Americans were especially incensed, suspecting a smear job. The furor continued for weeks until the Cuyahoga County coroner, Samuel Gerber, submitted his official findings.

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