Courtesy William Woods University
By Nicole Heisick
An Olympic Gold Medal Winner (1918-1994)
Growing up the tall girl with long legs in Fulton, Helen Stephens found her calling as a runner years before schools had athletic programs for girls. After she won two gold medals in the 1936 Olympics, she became actively involved in athletics, becoming the first woman to create, own, and manage her own semi-professional basketball team. She pushed herself to her full potential as an athlete, despite a lack of support, making her an inspiration to fellow female athletes and school athletic departments alike.
Born February 3, 1918, Stephens spent her childhood on her family’s farm near Fulton, where she worked hard but played hard, too, running, jumping, climbing. Stephens has said she was in cardio training since her childhood—she just didn’t realize it at the time. Her daily chores on the farm built up her strength, lung capacity, and endurance.
Neither the middle school nor the high school she attended in Fulton had athletic programs for girls. However, her high school physical education teacher, Coach W. Burton Moore, knew how to train athletes for track and field events. Once he saw how fast Stephens could run, he became her personal coach and trainer, teaching her the basic forms of running on a road near the high school. Stephens also trained on her own with her brother.
At age 15, Stephens tied the world record for running the 50-meter dash by finishing in 5.8 seconds. On March 22, 1935, Coach Moore took Stephens to St. Louis for her first official race. She beat Stella Walsh, the gold medalist from the 1932 Olympics, in the 50-meter dash. She ran the dash in 6.6 seconds, setting a new indoor record on a dirt track. This performance earned Stephens several nicknames, such as “The Missouri Express” and “The Fulton Flash.”
Only 18, Stephens set the Olympic world record for the 100-meter event at 11.5 seconds at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Her record held strong for the next 24 years until Wilma Rudolph eventually topped it in the 1960 Olympics. Stephens won a second gold medal in Berlin’s Olympics in the 400-meter relay, where she served as the anchor of the team and set another world record time of 46.9 seconds.
After the Olympic Games, Stephens came home to Fulton where she graduated from William Woods College. She played for the All American Red Heads basketball team. After her personal athletic career ended, she went on to become the first woman to create, own, and manage her own semi-professional basketball team. She called her team the Helen Stephens Olympics Co-Eds. They played from 1938 until 1940, when World War II cut their run short. They picked up again after the war and competed from 1946 to 1952.
Stephens was a well-rounded athlete and enjoyed many sports, including bowling, golf, and swimming. Stephens competed in several Senior Olympics and clocked the fastest speeds and longest distances in her age category. When she was 68, Stephens ran the 100-meter dash in 16.4 seconds, only four seconds slower than her time 50 years earlier. She died January 17, 1994.
Stephens was asked to carry the torch for the first nine Show-Me State Games in Columbia, as well as the Senior Olympic games. She is recognized in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, United States Track and Field Hall of Fame, and Women’s Hall of Fame. The strides she made paved the way for female athletes to come.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re showcasing our Top 10 Women of Missouri, featured in the February 2012 of Missouri Life and selected by our panelists. To read our panelists’ bios, click here. For a full list of our 95 nominees for Top 10 Women of Missouri, click here. For more stories like this, subscribe to Missouri Life magazine.