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Didriksen offers dominating preview of future greatness


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 1999

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The headline in the St. Petersburg Times said it all:


The girl was Miss Mildred Didriksen of Port Arthur, described by the Associated Press as "a wiry 19-year-old lass who works as a clerk in an insurance company office in Dallas.

She was better known as "Babe," having once hit five home runs in a baseball game.

So dominant was she in high school sports in 1930 that Employers Casualty Co. offered her $75 a day to drop out of school, work full time as a stenographer and play on the company's athletic teams.

Actually, "team" wasn't quite accurate. She was the team.

And in 1932, she single-handedly won the National AAU track and field championships at Evanston, Ill., the trials for the Los Angeles Olympics.

Didriksen was already well on her way to becoming the outstanding female athlete of the century. She was, someone wrote, "Flo-Jo, Nancy Lopez, Rebecca Lobo, Venus Williams and Illa Borders, all rolled into one."

She dominated virtually every sport she participated in -- basketball, baseball (she struck out Joe DiMaggio in an exhibition), softball, tennis, bowling, swimming, diving and, later, golf (she was the most successful female ever in that sport, winning 14 consecutive tournaments in one stretch).

But track and field was her forte. When she arrived in Evanston she announced: "I came out here to beat everybody in sight, and that's exactly what I'm going to do."

And on Saturday, July 16, racing from one event to another (a remarkable accomplishment in itself) she won six gold medals and broke four world records, amassing 30 points. The second-place team scored 22.

Didriksen won the 80-meter hurdles, her favorite event, in 12.1 seconds; threw the baseball (a non-Olympic event) 272 feet, 2 inches; won the shot put at 39-61/4, a world record), took a break from the high-jump competition to win the broad jump (also a non-Olympic event) in 17-65/8, returned to the high jump and tied Jean Shiley for first place at a world-record5-3 3/16, and finished her day by throwing the javelin 139-3, breaking her world record by nearly 6 feet.

Babe's only complaint was that she had qualified for five Olympic events but was permitted to enter only three. She won Olympic gold in the javelin and 80-meter hurdles, and might have shared a third gold in the high jump, but judges said her technique was illegal, violating rules against diving over the bar. She was given the silver even though she tied Shiley, the gold medalist, matching her world record.

Didriksen won or shared 10 AAU titles in six events and would have had more had she not become a professional basketball player. In 1953 she was diagnosed with colon cancer. Three months after surgery she was back on the golf circuit -- and the next year she won the U.S. Open by 12 strokes.

The cancer returned in the summer of 1955. "When the doctor told her about it, she showed no trace of emotion," said her husband, George Zaharias. "She just set her jaw and asked, "Well, what do we do now?' The doctor told her we'd have to start treatments, and Babe asked how soon we could start. "In about 15 minutes,' the doctor said. Babe said, "That suits me fine.' "

She died Sept. 27, 1956, and was elected to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.

-- Information from the Amateur Athletic Union and Times files was used in this report.

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