Babe Didrikson (second from left) winning the hurdles in 1932. (Source: AP)
In the 1920s and 30s women just weren't athletes. Oh sure, they could have been, but the idea of a muscular woman running, jumping, and competing like her male counterparts was so frowned upon that they were almost deemed freakish.
Mildred (Babe) Didrikson Zaharias didn't care. For the 5-foot-5 Beaumont, Texas native, athletics was her life. Name a sport and Babe was good at it. She was once asked if there was anything she didn't play, and she quickly replied, "Yeah, dolls."
Baseball? Well her nickname was "Babe," wasn't it? She was supposedly given the name due to her Ruth-like, tape-measure home runs as a teenager.
Golf? She won 13 consecutive tournaments as an amateur, then became one of the best LPGA players of all time, winning 31 tournaments, three of them U.S. Opens.
Track and field is where she earned her Olympic glory. At the AAU Championships in 1932, which also served as the Olympic trials for the '32 games in Los Angeles, Babe not only qualified but single-handedly won the meet for her team, Employers Casual Company. There were ten events in the competition. Babe participated in eight of them—and won six! She won the shot put and long jump, and broke the world record in the javelin, the baseball throw, the 80-meter hurdles, and the high jump. Her overall point total amounted to 30, eight more than the entire 22-woman University of Illinois team.
At the age of 21, Babe competed in three events at the 1932 Olympics—the 80-meter hurdles, the javelin, and the high jump. She would have competed in more, but at the time women were limited to competing in up to three individual events. She easily won the javelin, the first Olympic javelin event ever available to women, with a hurl of 143 feet, four inches. Then she broke the world record in the first women's Olympic 80-meter hurdles with a time of 11.7 seconds.
She actually tied for the gold in the high jump with Jean Shiley, but was only awarded the silver after it was determined that her jumping style was illegal. Always ahead of her time, Babe's head crossed the bar before her body, much like the "Fosbury Flop" that is the popular style today.
In spite of her amazing success (and sometimes because of it), Babe had plenty of critics who claimed she should act and dress less manly. Eventually she did soften those critics by growing her hair out, wearing long dresses and marrying, but she never changed who she really was. When she was asked how in the world a woman could possibly drive a golf ball 250 yards down the fairway, Babe explained, "You've got to loosen your girdle and let it rip."