While slender 22-year-old athlete James Cleveland Owens was absorbing, and rightly so, all of the attention 80 years ago in the August 1936 Berlin Olympics, there was a muscular 18-year-old Missouri woman, who later performed in Holland, dominating the female runners before German Chancellor and Fuhrer Adolf Hitler.

Miss Helen Stephens won two gold medals and was undefeated in official competition. Called the Fulton, MO Flash, Stephens captured the 100-meter dash in record-breaking 11.5 seconds and was a member of a quartet on the U.S. 100-meter relay team setting an Olympic mark. 

Because of Stephens exploits, Hitler was said to be so impressed that he invited her to his private box. Following a 30-month career in which she competed in more than 100 races, winning every one, she retired from competitive track.

Stephens appeared in Holland three times. She played basketball in the Holland Armory in 1938. Twice during the 1939 summer in Riverview Park the Olympic champion was a special attraction with the Benton Harbor House of David baseball team. 

On Thanksgiving night, Nov. 24, 1938, the Holland Furnace basketball team opened its season against the Helen Stephens Olympic Coed Cagers before 800 fans. The event started the annual Holland City League which weekly featured local basketball teams, sponsored by businesses, and the semi-professional furnace team against a visiting opponent.

Drawing the largest summer baseball crowds, the bearded House of David team staged pre-game “pepper” novelty baseball antics as a trio of players juggled a baseball, passing it around until the ball ended in the mouth of a bewhiskered teammate, always an amusement for fans. 

Often the Davidites were accompanied by a well-known sports figure. At the baseball games Stephens demonstrated her track and field prowess with a 50 or 100-meter dash plus shot put, broad (long) jump and hurdles where she held every woman’s world record.

Although the baseball attendance wasn’t mentioned in the 1939 games, House of David teams always drew between 1,000 and 1,300 spectators each time they played the Holland Flying Dutchmen in those pre-World War II night games. 

After being rained out Monday, July 17, 1939, on July 19 Stephens agreed to accept the challenge of any man on the local team or in the stands to race over 50 yards or around the bases. “She raced Lloyd Driscoll, husky Dutch outfielder over 50 yards and the local player came out second best by three yards.’’ The Dutchmen won the game, 1-0. 

“The large attendance was also treated to a track exhibition when the women’s world’s dash champion ‘did her stuff’ in the shot put, discus and dashes.”

On Aug.7, 1939, the 6-foot Stephens was an afterthought in The Sentinel story. Holland won the game 20-5. “As an extra attraction the Olympic dash champion demonstrated her ability to run and to put the eight-pound shot a distance of better than 50 feet.” Mentioned was Driscoll, (her July dash foe) who “pasted a homer inside the park into center field, with three men on, and Holland led, 20-4.” 

That previous Thanksgiving night Stephens was held without a basket when the Holland Furnace team won 63-10 “as the height of Russ Visser and Chuck Dykema was too much for any tricks of the girls.” Miss Stephens offered to run a race with any man in the audience, but was not challenged. She died Jan. 17, 1994, after a stroke at age 75. 

Coached by Jack Schouten, the Furnace team used its speed to play keep-away with the girls. Quarter leads were 13-1, 37-5 and 52-8. Virginia Cook, “tall, good looking 6-foot-1 taxed the boys” with nine points. Holland’s Henry Hietbrink led with 18 while Pete Beckman had 14, Russ Woldring, 12 and Visser, 10.

— Randy Vande Water is a Holland resident. Contact him at newsroom@hollandsentinel.com or (616) 546-4262.