Babe Didrikson Zaharias – one of the greatest female sports stars in history

‘Babe’ Didrikson Zaharias was one of the greatest female sports stars in history and her achievements are so extraordinary I was amazed not to have heard of her.

Babe was born into a poor Norwegian immigrant family in Texas. Christened Mildred, she was given the nickname Babe after the baseball player Babe Ruth. She was a tough, foul-mouthed girl who described women as ‘sissies who wore girdles, bras and that junk’ and spent her youth playing baseball and basketball with boys as they proved better competition than girls. At school she was the star of the basketball, baseball, volleyball, tennis, golf and swimming teams.

At age 18, the Employers Casualty Insurance Company, persuaded her to leave school and play for its women’s basketball team in the Amateur Athletic Union. In 1932, she was the sole member of their team, competing with other company teams of up to 20 women, often finishing one heat and then immediately rushing to the starting line of another. She won five events and took the championship. She went on to participate in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Here she made the first of what became her famous audacious declarations: ‘I am out to beat everybody in sight and that’s just what I’m going to do.’ She almost succeeded, winning gold in the a javelin and 80 metres and silver in the high jump after the judges ruled that her jumping style was illegal, a rule that no longer exists. She became instantly famous but after the Olympics found few places to compete and had to endure prejudice and ridicule, accused of being a man in disguise and having taken up sport to compensate for her inability to catch a man

In need of a job, she became a vaudeville performer, touring Chicago and New York with a show that included stunts such as hitting plastic golf balls into the crowd. The performances became hugely popular and made her rich. In 1932, she began playing golf and in only her 11th game produced a 260-yard shot from the first tee. She entered the all-male Los Angeles Open, an achievement that would not be repeated until 2003. Golfing legend Bobby Jones described her as one of the 10 best golfers of all time, male or female. Wherever she played, she attracted crowds. As a journalist explained: ‘Babe stalks the fairway with a conscious sense of theater. She flips king-size cigarettes into the air and catches them nonchalantly in her mouth, then lights her match with her fingernail. Her hawkish, sun-toughened face is frozen for the most part in a thin-lipped mask, but she knows when to let go a wisecrack. When one of her tremendous drives sails out of bounds, she turns to the crowd and explains, “I hit it straight but it went crooked”… She operates like a woman whose life is a constant campaign to astound people.’ Babe wasn’t popular among her fellow golfers, probably because of her habit of telling them that they were all playing for second place, but this was the truth. She dominated women’s golf in the late 1940s and her 14-tournament winning streak remains the longest in history. In 1950 the AP acclaimed her the “Woman Athlete of the Half Century.”

In 1938, she met George Zaharias, a 235-pound professional wrestler who impressed her by being able to drive a gold ball further that she could. By December they were married. It was a successful and happy marriage; George became Babe’s business manager and trainer.

In 1953, Babe was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent a colostomy. Despite reports that she would never play again, she won the 1954 U.S. Women’s Open by a record 12 strokes. Sadly, her cancer worsened and she died on September 1956, at the age of 45.


Pat Moss – Rally driver that blew the men off the track

Pat Moss never became a household name, unlike her brother, Stirling Moss. The Formula 1 legend once said that women lack the balls – literally and metaphorically – to challenge the best men in motorsport. But he made an exception for his sister. In the 1950s and 60s she was the world’s leading female rally driver and blew all of her opponents – men included – off the track.

Pat was born in 1934 into a family obsessed with driving. Pat’s father competed in the Indianapolis 500 in 1924 and her mother drove ambulances during the First World War and also raced cars in trial events. Big brother Stirling taught her to drive when she was eleven. But Pat’s first love was horses, and she found her first driving lesson boring. At the age of eight, she won a string of pony events, competing against her brother.

Pat’s interest in motor racing started at the age of seventeen, when she started competing in her own Morris Minor, but ‘thrashed it a bit’ and sold it, together with a half share in a horse, to buy a Triumph TR2. Her first success came in an Austin Healey in 1958, when she finished fourth in an endurance rally in Liège, the first time that a woman had finished in the top 10. In that year she also met Swedish rally driver Erik Carlsson, whom she married five years later.

Together with co-driver Ann Wisdom, Pat won the European Ladies’ Rally Championship winner five times and continued to race with the men throughout the 1960s, including winning the Sestriere Rally in 1968. Ann had been an office clerk but took sick leave to compete in her first rally with Pat. When she was rumbled – her boss saw her photo in a motorsport magazine – she left the office for a life of racing. Much of their success was in Mini Coopers. At first, men laughed at the “two women in a funny little car.” But soon they got used to Pat beating them.

Although Pat was fiercely competitive with her brother, she never took up circuit racing because she thought it boring: ‘You go round and round like a mouse in a wheel and unless you make a mistake there’s no shock.’ Not that she made mistakes often, and when she did, it wasn’t with good humour. Once, when ahead of husband Erik in a rally, she crashed and ended up upside down. More concerned about her car than herself, she carefully removed the screws that held the windows in place. She was removing the final screw when Erik saw her, jumped out of his car and smashed the window to save her. Her response involved screaming and plenty of colourful language!

Pat later co-authored a book – The Art and Technique of Driving – with Erik, and continued competitive rallying into the early 1970s, by which time she’d given birth to a daughter and managed only occasional appearances. After she retired, Pat lived on the Moss family farm where she indulged her interests in gardening and cooking, both of which she performed with a cigarette hanging from her lips. But she still found room in her garage for an original Morris Minor. Shortly before her death, she incurred a speeding fine while towing a horse-box.

Annette Kellerman – changed the way we looked at women’s bodies

Annette Kellerman appeals to me on lots of levels. She had a fabulously diverse career: swimmer, vaudeville star, film actress, writer and inventor of synchronised swimming. But her lasting fame lies in the way she revolutionised women’s swimwear, freeing women to enjoy a sport that had previously been denied to them.

Annette was born in Sydney in 1886 and took up swimming aged six, solely as a means of strengthening her muscles; rickets had left her with weakness in her legs and she had to wear steel braces for support. To say she was a natural was an understatement; at age twenty she held all the world’s swimming records and the diving record for women. Admittedly, few women swam competitively in those days. But what gained Annette the most attention was the daring tight-fitting one-piece costume she wore. The acceptable dress and pantaloons of the early 1900s were so cumbersome that they didn’t actually allow women to swim. In Australia, women had been wearing men’s costumes since the 1870s; this was permitted for competitive swimming. But in 1905, when told she couldn’t show her legs during a performance for the English royal family, Annette sewed a pair of black stockings onto her costume. The resulting one-piece costume was manufactured and marketed, and Annette wore it wherever possible, determined to challenge restrictions in women’s swimwear. In the US in 1907, she was even arrested for indecency.

By this time, Annette was internationally famous. In London, she swam 27 km of the Thames, the first woman to do so, making front-page news. In Paris, she competed with seventeen men and came third in a race down the river Seine. In 1905, she became the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel. At this stage, only one man had succeeded in this feat. But despite three attempts, Annette didn’t succeed. ‘I had the endurance but not the brute strength’, she said.

Annette’s talents weren’t restricted to swimming; she was a natural performer. She gave exhibitions and performed spectacular high dives as part of a vaudeville show, named the Perfect Woman, a description of her made by a Harvard professor, since her measurements were the closest to those of the Venus de Milo among the the10,000 women he studied. As part of her act, Annette made dramatic entrances in a long garment that was discarded before her dive into a glass tank, from which she emerged in her wet, body-hugging swimsuit. Her underwater swimming was also spectacular; she could hold her breath for an impressive three and a half minutes.

Soon Hollywood beckoned and she became a silent movie star, mostly in aquatic-themed movies, and was the first high-profile star to appear fully nude. She performed her own stunts, including jumping into a pool of live crocodiles, and when the studio executive decided against a scene because it looked too risky, complained: “Somebody’s always trying to take the joy out of life.” Some of her movies featured a troupe of ‘Kellerman girls’ that performed choreographed movements with her in the water, and as a result she has been credited with inventing the sport of synchronized swimming.

In her long life (she died at 89 and could perform a high kick into her old age), she also became a health guru, wrote bestselling books on swimming and fitness, pioneered exercise regimes for women and as a lifelong vegetarian, owned a health-food store in San Diego. But she’ll be remembered for promoting the female body as a thing of power and beauty at a time when women’s activities were limited by the restrictive clothes society imposed on them.