Berlin Olympics Gold Medal winner Helen Stephens never lost a race in her entire sporting career. Born on February 3 1918, the ‘Fulton Flash’ came out as a lesbian in the early 1970s and enjoyed a nearly 40-year relationship with Mabel O. Robbe.
Helen’s nickname came from her hometown of Fulton, Missouri. Her mother said her speed came from chasing rabbits on the farm. The press described her as a tomboy, ‘flat-chested, long-legged, masculine’. And they marvelled as the previously unknown farm girl began to win national races while still a teenager.
She became a threat to the Olympic hopes of the reigning female sprint champion, Stella Walsh. Although Stella lived in the US since childhood, she competed for Poland internationally because of an issue with her citizenship.
Stella won gold in the 100m in 1932 and went into the 1936 Berlin Olympics the favourite. But 18-year-old Helen Stephens beat her by .02 second.
A newspaper suggested that Stephens was a man
Consequently, as Time reported, “A Warsaw newspaper, with what is now a routine lack of chivalry toward female Olympic competitors, suggested that Stephens was a man. The possibility that Stephens’ ignorance of her own abilities might include her sex was promptly destroyed by officials. They announced that they had foreseen the dispute, investigated Stephens before the race, and found her a thoroughgoing female.”
By ‘routine lack of chivalry’, Time meant the already tiresome insinuation that successful female athletes were not ‘real’ women.
Helen’s medical examination revealed the three proofs required to substantiate womanhood — a vagina, clitoris and…
Despite attempts by the press to beat up the rivalry between Helen and Stella, the pair remained lifelong friends. Decades later, following Stella Walsh’s death, an autopsy revealed she was intersex.
Ironically, a man did compete in a women’s event at the Berlin Olympics — a cis German man accidentally brought up by his parents as a girl. But the story of Dora, later Heinrich, Ratjen would not emerge for a few years.
Following her success at the Berlin Games, Helen Stephens retired from athletics. She then played professional baseball and softball, and later became a successful businesswoman.
Helen was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, a year before her death.
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