Class of 1935
The “discovery” of and quick rise to Olympic glory of Helen Stephens during 1934-36 was nearly as remarkable as that of Betty Robinson during the late 1920s. She would basically succeed the 1928 Olympic 100m champ as America’s teen sprint prodigy. As athletes, however, the two young women were very different.
Stephens was born and raised in Fulton, Mo. and was a 15-year-old junior in early 1934 when Fulton HS physical education teacher and coach W. Burton Moore first noticed her in a pickup basketball game. He was impressed by her speed and overall athletic ability. Stephens was already nearly six feet tall. He invited her outside and asked if he could time her in a 50-yard dash on the school’s driveway. He clocked her in 5.8 seconds, the world record at the time. Looking at his watch in disbelief, he asked if she would try it again. The watch read 5.9.
Coach Moore invited Stephens to train with the boys’ track team and began to teach her technique and form to go with her prodigious talent – love of all things athletic. By late winter of her senior year in 1935, Stephens was ready to race. Moore took her to the girls’ AAU Indoor Champs in St. Louis and she sprinted to a stunning upset 50-meter victory over Olympic Gold Medalist Stella Walsh.
Stephens was officially a top Olympic prospect. Later that spring, Stephens became the first female to break 11 seconds for 100y (10-4/5 seconds, three times) and 12 seconds for 100m – progressing from 11.9 to 11.8 to 11.6 in June. She also broke the world record in the 200m at 24.4. Meanwhile, she was also excelling and winning titles in the shot put (HS record 36-9), discus (exceeded HS record distance just after season) and even long jump. She won 5 AAU titles, indoor and out. It’s not hard to imagine Stephens could have been a great heptathlete.
Her prep days over, “The Fulton Flash” turned her attention to enrolling at William Woods College in Florissant, Mo. and the historic 1936 Games in Berlin. She continued to dominate AAU competition and set records – all the way to the Olympic 100 final, where she again faced Walsh. The “Missouri Express” (another of her nicknames) prevailed in a world best 11.5. While wind-aided, no one would run faster for 16 years and it wasn’t until 1960 that the mark was surpassed in the Olympics (by Wilma Rudolph).
After famously resisting an advance by Adolf Hitler, Stephens returned to the U.S., where she was AP Athlete of the Year. She retired – unbeaten in the sprints – from the sport the following year, but went on to play professional basketball and softball, then own and manage a semi-pro basketball team. She worked for the Defense Mapping Agency Aerospace Center in St. Louis, and then later returned to William Woods to coach and advise before passing in 1994 at age 76.
Did You Know?
Helen Stephens competed in the Senior Olympics later in life and, as was the case during her Olympic career, never lost a footrace.