Great Moments: Track & Field
Newark Hosts 1st Olympic Trials for Women's Track & Field
The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) held its Women’s Outdoor Track & Field Championships in New Jersey six times, in 1928, and 1931, from 1940 to 1942, and again in 1958. In 1928, the U.S. Olympic Committee selected Newark as the site of the first-ever Olympic track & field trials for women. Prior to 1928, the Summer Games did not include women’s track & field; the events were considered “dangerous” and “unhealthy” for female athletes. The trials were held at City Field on July 4th and doubled as the annual AAU meet.
Four of the 12 events were used as Olympic qualifiers: 100 and 800 meter runs, high jump and discus. 20-year-old Elta Cartwright (right) of the Northern California Athletic Club won the 100 meters with a time of 12.4 seconds. Betty Robinson, a high-school student from Illinois, finished second. Stella Walsh was eliminated in the semifinals. Cartwright was nicknamed Cinder-Elta (sprints in those days were run on cinder tracks). She also won AAU titles in the 5-yard dash and long jump. Meet rules prevented her from competing in more than three events.
The 800m crown went to Rayma Wilson, a teenager who ran for the Pasadena Athletic & Country Club and would later compete for UCLA. She set a national record with a time of 2:30. 2. She also won the AAU title in the 300 meters in Newark. Mildred Wiley, who was also a competitive swimmer, won the high jump. She was the AAU’s reigning indoor champion, having won the title in 1927 and earlier in 1928. It took a “jump-off” in Newark with Jean Shiley to determine the winner, though both women went to Amsterdam with Team USA.
Maybelle Reichardt (left) won the discus competition by more than a foot and a half. Reichardt, who had been AAU champion in 1925, hadn’t competed in the event in several years. She had turned her attention to basketball, and was one of the top women players in the country. In 1926, her Los Angeles Athletic Club team won the national championship. The second-place finisher, Lillian Copeland, was also a major talent in tennis and basketball, as well as the javelin and shot put. She ranked among America’s top Jewish athletes. She won the shot put at the Newark meet.
Other AAU winners in Newark included Florence Wright in the 220m, Helen Filkey in the hurdles, Maragret Jenkins in the javelin and Vivian Hartwick in the baseball throw (228’ 8.5”) which was a sanctioned AAU event from 1923 to 1957. The 4 x 110 yard relay was won by Elta Cartwright’s Northern California Athletic Club squad.
At the Olympics in Amsterdam—held between July 28th and August 12th—Cartwright became ill and did not qualify for the finals. Betty Robinson, age 16, finished the final heat ahead of two Canadians to win the gold medal. She was also a member of the U.S. 4 x 100 relay squad, which won a silver medal. Robinson returned to the Olympics in 1936 and won a second gold medal in the relay. Stella Walsh, who had emigrated from Poland at age 2, went on to become the leading female sprinter during the 1930s, competing for Poland in international meets. Upon her death in 1980, Walsh was found to be gynandromorphic, meaning she had mixed sexual organs—which explained the persistent rumors that she was a man competing as a woman.
Rayma Wilson was outclassed in Amsterdam by the other 800m runners, failing to make the finals. She had a successful track career at UCLA and joined the military at age 32 with the WAVES. She rose to the rank of lieutenant. Mildred Wiley tied for second in the high jump in the Summer Games with Dutch gym teacher Lien Gisolf. She lost a “jump-off” to Gisolf and settled for bronze. After retiring from athletics, Wiley married and had five children, including Bob Dee—a four time All-Star for the Boston Patriots during the 1960s. Maybelle Reichardt finished seventh in the discus—the first women’s event in Olympic history. The silver medalist was Lillian Copeland, who finished behind the overwhelming favorite, Halina Konopacka of Poland.
The 1931 AAU meet took place on July 25th at Pershing Field, along Summit Avenue in Jersey City Heights. More than 230 athletes participated, including 8 women who earned spots a year later on the Olympic team. The star of the meet was Babe Didrikson, a Dallas teenager who shattered the world record in the 80m hurdles, won the long jump, and tossed a baseball 296 feet (which is arguably still a record for women).
Stella Walsh, by now the sport’s dominant sprinter, won just one event, the 220m. She finished second to Jersey Girl Eleanor Egg, who was running for the Duffy League club, in the 100m. Jean Shiley won the high jump, Lillian Copeland won the shot put and javelin, and finished behind winner Evelyn Ferrera in the discus throw. Alice Monk, running for the Newark Women’s Athletic Club, finished third in the long jump. Her Newark AC teammate Elsi Sherman, was runner-up in the Javelin.