Born on 26 June 1911 in Port Arthur (Texas) to Norwegian immigrants Hannah and Ole Didriksen (which would later be changed to Didrikson), Mildred Ella was the sixth of seven children. She acquired the nickname “Babe” – a nod to one of the greatest baseball players in history, Babe Ruth – after she hit five home runs in a childhood baseball game. Although she was not the strongest student, she demonstrated talent in a remarkable number of sports: basketball, athletics, golf, baseball, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, pool, skating and cycling.
On leaving school, Didrikson went to work for an insurance company in Dallas and joined the Golden Cyclones, the amateur basketball team sponsored by her employer. The Cyclones were an all-female team that formed part of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and also competed in athletics and softball. Didrikson was their star player, helping them win the national championship in 1931. The versatile athlete represented her company, by herself, in the United States Trials for Track and Field in July 1932 in Evanston (Illinois) – which served as a qualification tournament for the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Didrikson did not disappoint – for the Olympic events, she came first in the high jump, the 80m hurdles and the javelin. As for the other events, she also won the long jump, the shot put and the baseball throw (with a record 82.95m). In three hours, she had competed in a total of eight out of ten events, winning six of them. Although she qualified for five Olympic events, she was allowed to take part in only three at the Memorial Coliseum during the Games, as this was the limit for women at the time.
An unprecedented Olympic medal haul
Didrikson’s first event at the Games was the javelin throw, on 31 July 1932. This was the first time the women’s javelin had been included on the Olympic programme. Didrikson’s first attempt saw her throw 43.69m, a distance that would not be beaten for the remainder of the competition. She finished ahead of two Germans, Ellen Braumüller (43.50m) and Tilly Fleischer (43.01m), becoming the first-ever female Olympic champion in the discipline.
On 3 August, she won her 80m hurdles heat in 11.8 seconds, a world record. The final, which took place the following day, was a tightly contested affair. In lanes 1 and 2 were Didrikson and her compatriot Evelyne Hall. Hall had built up a narrow lead after the first few hurdles, but Didrikson quickly made up the ground. The two remained neck and neck in a breathless contest, with the result in the balance until Didrikson managed to edge out her rival right at the death. The margin of victory came down to a tenth of a second, with both athletes officially recorded as finishing in 11.7 seconds – a world record – but the gold medal was clearly Didrikson’s.
She could also have taken gold in the high jump on Sunday 7 August, but that day she met her match in the shape of her compatriot, Jean Shiley. Both women were tied in first place after jumping 1.65m, a world record. They then both failed to clear the bar at 1.67m, and had to take part in a jump-off at the same height. Although Didrikson succeeded, the judges ruled that she had dived over the bar head first, which was forbidden at the time, and so her jump was not valid. She had to make do with a silver medal, and Shiley was crowned Olympic champion with the same height of 1.65m. Didrikson made the point that she had been using the same technique throughout the competition, and subsequent viewing would show that the judges’ decision had not necessarily been the right one. Didrikson’s medal haul at the 1932 Games – in hurdle, throwing and jumping events – was unprecedented, and the feat has yet to be repeated.
Babe Didrikson, golf queen
After her Olympic exploits, Didrikson embarked on a tour of the USA with “Babe Didrikson's All-American” basketball team, and also played baseball, before taking up golf – a sport in which she went on to have a glittering career. She began as an amateur player and won her first tournament, the Texas Women’s Amateur, in 1935. But she lost her amateur status after the United States Golf Association (USGA) deemed her to be a professional due to her basketball and baseball earnings.
In 1938, she met wrestler George Zaharias and married him, becoming “Mildred Ella Didrikson Zaharias”. She regained her amateur status in 1943 and won 17 tournaments, including the US Women’s Amateur and the British Ladies Amateur, making her the first American to win this European competition. She formally turned professional in 1947, and the victories continued. She was a founding member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), which was set up in 1950, and won no fewer than 41 tournaments, including 13 in a row. In 1953, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She underwent surgery and, the following year, won her 10th major, the US Open. Her cancer returned, however; she was still world no.1 when she died aged 45 on 27 September 1956.
Didrikson was voted Female Athlete of the Year in 1932, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950 and 1954 by the Associated Press, which also named her the greatest female athlete of the 20th century in 1999. The Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum & Visitor Center was built in her honour in Beaumont, Texas, the city where she grew up. Her memory lives on in the USA in the form of stamps, films, documentaries and books, as well as the streets and golf courses named after her.
No other female athlete has achieved such feats or reached such a high level in so many disciplines and sports. Babe Didrikson – role model, icon, legend.