In 1932 the Olympic Games tryouts and the national A. A. U. (Amateur Athletic Union) championship meet were combined. Colonel M. J. McCombs called Babe into his office at the insurance company where they worked. He told her that he thought that she could represent the company team and win the national championship all by herself!
Over two hundred entrants were competing in the women’s events, and “for two-and-a-half hours I was flying all over the place. I’d run a heat in the eighty-meter hurdles, and then I’d take one of my high jumps. Then I’d go over to the broad jump and take a turn at that. Then they’d be calling for me to throw the javelin or put the eight-pound shot.”
Babe placed fourth in the discus and the hundred-meter dash at that meet. She tied for first in the high jump, and she won the running broad jump, the eighty-meter hurdles, the javelin throw, the baseball throw, and the eight-pound shot put. Along with the six gold medals she won, she set four world records and scored thirty points for her company’s “team.” The second-place team—with twenty-two members—scored only twenty-two points!
Babe never doubted that she would qualify for the Olympics. In 1928, when her father read to the Didrikson children about the Olympics from the newspapers, Babe and her sister Lillie decided to train for the next Olympics. Babe decided to be a hurdler because “I never was too good at straightaway running. I didn’t seem to want to stay on the ground.”
One of the ways she trained was to jump over the hedges between her house and the corner store. One of the hedges was too high for her to hurdle, so she asked the neighbor who lived there to cut it to the same height as the others. He did, and soon she could hurdle the hedges on the way home faster than her older sister could run there with no obstacles.
Babe was good at almost anything she put her mind to. “All my life I’ve always had the urge to do things better than anyone else. Even in school, if it was something like making up a current-events booklet, I’d want mine to be the best in the class. I remember once I turned one in with hand-drawn maps and everything, and my teacher … wrote on it, ‘Babe, your work is beautiful. A triple plus!’”
For a home economics assignment, Babe made a dress that later took a prize at the Texas state fair. And she once won an award for her typing.
Besides schoolwork and sports, Babe had work to do at home. Times were hard during the Great Depression, and “for several years Poppa couldn’t get work regularly. … Momma took in washing. All of us pitched in and helped her. … We’d wash the clothes and rinse them and hang them out, and then while that was drying we’d do another wash.”
Other chores included polishing shoes at night, helping to wash “those twenty-eight windows in the porch” every Saturday, grocery shopping, and ironing her three brothers’ clothes.
“Momma was a good organizer. She’d divide up the work so that everything got done. And we didn’t realize it then, but she was also teaching us. She was showing us that everyone has responsibilities in life. …
“I know [we] kids were a lot of trouble to raise. But I think we realized more than some kids do that Momma and Poppa had it pretty hard, and that we should try to help them.”
When Babe started to work at the insurance company, she sent almost all her earnings home. Later, whenever she could, she’d take her mother and her father shopping and buy them clothes or whatever they needed.
When Babe was about eight years old, she earned money for a harmonica by cutting some neighbors’ grass. It was so high that she had to cut it with a sickle before she could mow it. When she got the harmonica, she practiced for hours and hours. Her brothers played the drums, two of her sisters played the piano, her other sister and her father played the violin, her mother sang, and Babe played her harmonica. Even when she was older and famous for her athletic prowess, she was good enough to play her harmonica in public.
Although most people might consider winning the A. A. U. meet her most incredible feat, for Babe, it was simply her key to the door of the Olympics. She must have been disappointed at being allowed to compete in only three Olympic Games events. And she must have been even more disappointed to win only two gold medals—in the javelin throw and the eighty-meter hurdles, setting world records in both events.
In the third event, the high jump, her last jump was disqualified. The judges said that it was illegal because her head had preceded her feet over the bar. That’s not against the rules anymore, and Babe believed that a photograph taken at the Olympic Games proved that her feet had actually gone over the bar first. But in those days the officials had only their own eyes to judge with, so Babe had to settle for the silver medal.
In later years Babe became famous for her golf playing. She was the first American to win the British women’s championship, and she set a record that has never been beaten by men or women when she won seventeen consecutive tournaments!
After cancer surgery, Babe played golf again. And she made many guest appearances at benefits for cancer research. But at age forty-two she was defeated by a second attack of that dread disease.
Before she died, she related her life story, dedicating her book “in memory of my mother and father, and to my husband, George, without whom there never would have been a life to lead.”
Although Babe participated in only one Olympic Games, that competition was one of the highlights of her life. On pages 24 and 25 you will find a game reflecting some of the features of the original Olympic Games in ancient Greece.
NOTE: Most of the preceding information, and all of the quotations, are from Babe Didrikson Zaharias’s autobiography, This Life I’ve Led.