Monica Roberts

Stella Walsh's Secret

Filed By Monica Roberts | January 27, 2008 4:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: intersex, Olympics, sports, transgender history

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.

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Don't forget the infamous Press sisters of the late 50's/early 60's, who suddenly dropped off the sporting scene when gender testing became required. That mystery has still not been resolved.

It's a shame about FloJo, with both her untimely death, and the fact that her family refused to let any drug testing occur during her autopsy. That, and the fact she retired right before the mandatory drug testing programs really stepped up a notch look suspicious.

A bigger question I would pose is this: Can you be unknowingly transgendered? Is it a phsyical condition or a state of mind? I would suspect a combination of both. If Stella Walsh never put two and two together, can you really consider her one of yours?

you would know if you are transgender.

You might not know you are intersex as i found i was in 2006.

Take care

FloHJo died from an epilectic seizure caused by an abnormality in her brain tissue called cavernous angioma. The tissue samples they took show no changes from either short or long term steroid use.

And if a woman is on steroids, there is one unmistable sign that she is. Her voice gets deeper as the vocal cord thicken.

As far as where Stella knew or not, I would submit that having male genitalia would be a heck of a clue that something was different about her.

Stella did not have external male organs. They were interal so she may never have known.

Good for her! You hear of our "ancestors" who went before us under much different circumstances and realize we're not alone and we're not the first. We have a heritage.

Stella had male genitals, therefore is still a man

First: Jordan, confusing genitalia is not uncommon. Stella had female chromosomes. You’re discounting that scientific fact! So she had male chromosomes also. It’s chauvinistic to automatically let the male chromosomes trump the females chromosomes and discount all other factors. In her mind she was female. Even the doctors at birth stated she had “confusing” genitalia (you should read other articles about Stella’s life). Stella had female chromosomes, was raised as and therefore psychologically female, therefore why would one say she was anything other than female? Why are people so hung up on labels? You’re also not taking into account the era; most people, especially in the Midwest U.S., did not discuss such topics. Stella may never have realized she was different. Also, the reports just say that she had male genitalia, but didn’t state the size and prominence. Some clitorises are quite enlarged and appear to be male genitalia. In 1980 Ohio (which was when this detail regarding Stella was brought to light), had the person performing the autopsy even seen this phenomenon before, or was even aware of it? The doctor was probably educated in the 1950s or earlier.

I wonder about the daily details of life, e.g. did she and her husband have intimate relations and if so, didn’t they wonder? Or did they not know anything else because of the era and people not openly discussing such topics? But that is my own personal curiosity and it does not require an answer; those are private matters for Stella and her husband.

Chuck: Can you be unknowingly transgendered? Apparently yes. In most cases such as Stella’s, doctors and/or parents make a decision at birth as to which gender to raise the child. It’s only in recent years with openness, media coverage and scientific discovery that those decisions have begun to be questioned and can be investigated. E.g., in recent years I read about an infant who was severely mutilated in a botched circumcision. The doctor and parents made the decision to raise the child as a female. (I don’t recall if further surgery was performed to reinforce that decision physically.) As an adult, due to openness and information available in these more modern times, the individual raised questions and eventually discovered the events of infancy and is now reverting to be a man physically. People in Stella’s time did not have those options available, and the topic was probably never raised; it would have been considered probably shameful, certainly extremely private. The articles I’ve read on Stella have not mentioned whether or not it is known if she ever had thoughts about her gender identity. So did she know, did she question? Who knows, and why does it matter? She was Stella; she was a great athlete, but more importantly, Stella was a human being who deserves privacy and respect.