When the Beijing Olympic Games kick off in August we will hopefully see history made with the first open transgender athlete to win a medal.
Note I said open.
Hall of Fame sprinter Stella Walsh competed in the 1932 and 1936 Olympic Games for Poland, and she had a secret.
But before I tell you what it was, let me give you a little background on her.
Stella Walsh was born on April 3, 1911 as Stanislawa Walasiewiczowna in Wierchownen, Poland. Her family emigrated to the United States and settled in the Cleveland, OH area when she was only three months old.
By the time she entered high school, Stella was a star track athlete. She was so good that she qualified for a spot on the 1928 US Olympic team. She couldn't compete for the US because she wasn't a citizen and couldn't apply for it until she turned 21.
She did compete in American track championships even though she wasn't a citizen and won her first AAU championship in 1930.
She was also winning national championships in her native Poland as well, and with the 1932 Olympics looming on the horizon Stella had a major decision to make. Would she compete for Poland or for her adopted country? When she chose to compete for Poland, it upset and disappointed a lot of Americans.
But one interesting thing was that she showed up at the venue for track events in full uniform, competed and left. That was true at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles as well. Many people at the time attributed it to the fact that she was still getting backlash for her decision to compete for Poland and didn't want to deal with any drama.
Whatever drama she was dealing with, she didn't let it slow her down on the track. Stella not only won Olympic gold in the 100m dash, but tied the then world record of 11.7 seconds as well.
She continued after the LA Games to compete, win and set world records in the 60m, 100m, 200m and 220 yd dash. She was considered the favorite going into the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, where she once again decided to compete for Poland.
But there was a new competitor quickly moving up in the US track and field ranks leading up to the 1936 Games. Helen Stephens was burning up tracks as well and fast becoming a major threat to Stella's reign as queen of the track and field world. She beat Walsh at the 1935 national championshiships in the 100m and defended her 100m title the next year.
Helen Stephens proved in Berlin that her victories in the States weren;t flukes. She not only beat Stella Walsh in the 100m dash to become the world's fastest woman, she broke Walsh's world record in doing so by winning with a time of 11.5 seconds. Walsh took the silver.
This is the Olympics, and it's more shady at times than a transgender beauty pageant, so some of Walsh's supporters started accusing Stephens of being a man because in their opinion, no woman could run that fast. (Hmm, sounds like the same shade I heard thrown at FloJo in 1988 after her world record 100m Olympic win in Seoul, but i'm digressing.) Stephens was forced to undergo a genital examination by German doctors because of the rumors. Stephens passed and was declared female, so the win and the world record stood.
Despite the loss to her bitter rival, two years later Walsh won the 100m and 200m at the 1938 European Championships, became a US citizen in 1947 and won another US championship in 1951 at the age of 40. The last US championship she competed in was in 1954, she married and was eventually inducted into the USATF Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975 along with her rival Helen Stephens. After her retirement from competition, Stella Walsh becomes an active leader in Polish-American youth sporting associations and a beloved track and field icon
Okay, I've kept y'all in suspense long enough. Here's the rest of the story.
On December 4, 1980 she took a trip to a Cleveland shopping mall. While she was there, an armed robbery was being attempted and shots were fired. She was unfortunately struck by a stray bullet and killed at the age of 69. The subsequent autopsy that was conducted on her by the Cuyahoga County coroner revealed something very interesting.
Stella Walsh had male genitalia.
She not only had male genitalia, but a more detalied examination revealed that she also had male and female chromosomes as well and no female sex organs.
The condition is called mosaicism. It's a condition in which an individual has two or more cell populations that differ in genetic makeup. This situation can affect any type of cell, including blood cells, gametes (egg and sperm cells), and skin.
Stella had lived her entire life as a woman and her birth documents stated the same thing. However, this discovery threatened to erase all of her track and field accomplishments since at the time, the IOC was requiring all women contestants since 1968 to submit to gender testing. Had those rules been in place in 1932 and 1936 Walsh would have been ineligible to compete. There was a spirited debate within IOC circles to posthumously rescind her medals before it was dropped.
Stella Walsh's case is cited as the reason the IOC later decided to open its competitive doors to transgender athletes in 2004. So if later this summer we are lucky enough to see the first transgender athlete being awarded an Olylmpic medal in Beijing, they will have Stella Walsh to thank for it.