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Babe Didrikson Zaharias triumphed in sports during the 1930s and 1940s in a way no other woman had – as a superb athlete and a fierce competitor who knew no limits based on gender or social class. She made her mark as a trailblazer in women’s team sports but was seen by sport writers as the most talented athlete, male or female in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century.
Zaharias used her remarkable athletic prowess to win in just about every sport she tried, which included golf, track and field, basketball, baseball, swimming, diving, tennis, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating and cycling.
Zaharias started playing baseball and basketball with boys because they were the best athletes. From the beginning, she was a self-confident, fierce and boastful competitor who was all about winning. “Before I was in my teens,” she said, “my goal was to be the greatest athlete that ever lived.” The public took notice when she single-handedly represented the Employers Casualty Insurance Company in the 1932 amateur track and field championships in Evanston, Illinois. Calling herself a “one-woman track team,” she competed against 20 man teams. Rushing frenetically from one venue to another, she captured first place in five events – broad jump, shot put, javelin, 80-meter hurdles and the baseball throw – and tied for first in the high jump. That same year, Zaharias competed in the Olympic games, winning two gold medals and one silver. “Implausible is the adjective that best befits the Babe,” wrote The New York Times.
Despite her Olympic victories and growing fame, there were few places for Zaharias to compete during the Depression. To earn money, she became a vaudeville performer and played baseball astride a donkey on a team that traveled the small-town circuit. She turned to golf in 1933, hitting as many as 1,000 balls a day to perfect her swing until she was able to hit 280-yard drives. With unparalleled power and finesse and an aggressive style, she won 14 consecutive tournaments in 1946 and 1947 to become the dominant figure in women’s golf.
Her victories rankled the golf establishment, which saw the sport as a game of the upper classes and considered the victories of a “carpenter’s daughter” an affront. Zaharias endured all this by continuing to win and playing to her fans. She became a star on the greens and fairways who inspired a devoted following. Understanding that women needed a way to showcase their talent, Zaharias helped found the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
Zaharias was ahead of her time not only as a pioneering female athlete but also, near the end of her life, in her willingness to speak about her illness. After being diagnosed with rectal cancer at age 43, she spoke openly about it. She inspired the nation when 10 months after surgery, she returned to golf and won a major tournament. When she died, the country paid its respects in a way it had not previously done for any female athlete. Zaharias, said President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was “a woman who…won the admiration of every person in the United States and all sports people all over the world.”
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