Stella Walsh: A Local Olympian

Olympic athletes have always been celebrities in their own rite. Even in the recent Winter Olympics, it appeared that the whole world was captivated with the select group of individuals chosen to compete and represent their country. Seeing people who are so dedicated to their country and to their sport is enough to inspire anyone to pursue their passion and make a greater impact on their community. Stanisława Walasiewicz (more commonly known as Stella Walsh) was one such athlete. However, her story goes beyond her involvement in Olympic events. Keep reading to learn more about this remarkable woman.

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Stella Walsh during track and field competition

Born on April 3, 1911 in Poland, Stella only lived in the country for a few months before her parents immigrated to the United States. Eventually, the family settled in Cleveland where Stella’s father found work at a local steel mill. Enrolled in Cleveland public schools, it didn’t take long for Stella’s athletic ability to be noticed. At the young age of 16 she qualified for the American Olympic track team. But there was a problem. Being born in Poland, Stella was not an American citizen and was not yet old enough to apply for citizenship. But this didn’t stop Stella from pursuing her passions. Instead, she decided to join a local Polish sports organization. Through this organization, Stella was able to compete and would win several titles in 60, 100, 200, and 400 meter dash events. Stella was so spectacular that she was even asked to join the Polish national athletic team.

Throughout her teenage years, Stella continued to participate in Polish and American sporting events, all while working as a clerk in Cleveland. She won several international and local titles in track events. One of these competitions even won Stella a car! In 1930 at the young age of 19, Stella had gained both local and international fame which resulted in her being offered American and Polish citizenships. She accepted her Polish citizenship and was named the most popular athlete in Poland that same year.  While this already seems rather noteworthy, the pinnacle of Stella’s fame would come to fruition in the years following her Polish citizenship.

In 1932 Los Angeles, California was hosting the Summer Olympics. Stella was selected to participate, representing Poland. After competing in several events, Stella made history when she won the gold medal in the 100 meter dash, having completed the sprint in 11.9 seconds which equaled the current world record at the time. This Olympic win even heightened her celebrity more– so much so that Poland awarded her the Cross of Merit (typically given for humanitarian or public achievements). Over the next 4 years, Stella would maintain her title as most popular athlete in Poland.

As time came for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Stella began to in wane in popularity. She would compete again in the 100 meter dash, this time taking home the silver medal after losing the gold to American track athlete, Helen Stephens. After this loss, Stella decided to accept her American citizenship and remained in Cleveland permanently.  She would continue to compete in events throughout the country, and won her last title at the age of forty. In 1975 she was inducted in the Track and Field Hall of Fame.

Throughout her retirement, Stella stayed active in athletics and her Polish culture. She was heavily involved in several athletic organizations, particularly those aimed at younger athletes, and helped fund awards for Polish-American citizens. Stella would contribute to these organizations up until her untimely death.

On December 4, 1980 Stella was in a Cleveland parking lot, having just purchased ribbons for a visiting Polish team. She was a victim of an armed robbery and sadly did not survive.  Stella’s death, and subsequent autopsy, resulted in various rumors and controversy about Stella’s true gender. While this is a topic still discussed today, no one can argue Stella’s unique athletic talent and contribution to both Polish and American track history.

Stella is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Cleveland (Sec. 95 Lot. 2003)

Post written by Katie Karpinski

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