Helen Stephens (1918 – 1994)
Helen Stephens was an Olympic champion. She won two gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. She accomplished this decades before schools had athletic programs for girls. As an amateur, professional, and retired athlete, Helen Stephens was an important role model for athletic females of all ages.
Helen Herring Stephens was born on February 3, 1918, on a 130-acre farm near Fulton, Missouri. Her parents were Frank E. and Bertie Herring Stephens. She had a brother named Robert Lee. “From the time I was a small child I was in training, only I didn’t know it,” Helen once said. “I was walking, running, doing chores, building up my body, my lung capacity, my wind, my endurance, everything that people have to train for today.” Her cousin’s horse also helped her. “I would grab the stirrup and run with the horse.”
In 1926, two years before women were allowed to compete in Olympic track and field events, eight-year-old Helen had a dream. She dreamed that she was the fastest runner in the world. She attended the one-room Middle River Grade School and then Fulton High School, but neither school had organized athletic programs or facilities for girls. Luckily, Helen’s physical education teacher, Coach W. B. “Burt” Moore, was well trained in track and field. In 1934, when Helen was 15, Moore clocked her running the 50-yard dash. Her time, 5.8 seconds, beat the world record held by Elizabeth Robinson. Moore immediately clocked Helen again, this time at 5.9 seconds. He knew Helen could become an Olympian. Helen could make her dream come true.
Coach Moore worked with Helen. He taught her basic forms of running on the gravel road outside the school. Helen also trained with her brother on their farm. On March 22, 1935, Moore took Helen to St. Louis for her first formal race, the National Amateur Athletic Union Championship. Running against Helen in the 50-meter dash was Stella Walsh, a Polish gold medalist from the 1932 Olympics. Stella was considered the fastest female sprinter in the world. Helen—running in a blue gym suit made by her mother and a pair of boy’s track shoes she’d borrowed from a friend—beat Stella. When Helen returned to Fulton, her high school celebrated her victory. “That’s when I learned everybody likes a winner,” Helen said years later.
1936 Olympics in Berlin
Helen Stephens and her Olympic coach and trainer, Dee Beckman, sailed to Germany to compete in the IX Olympiad in Berlin in the summer of 1936. On the trip, Helen received letters asking her not to run in the Olympics to protest the mistreatment of Jews by Adolf Hitler’s Nazis. Helen was advised to ignore the letters. But when she arrived in Berlin, Helen understood why Americans wanted her to take a stand. The Nazis were hurting the Jews and damaging their businesses. Later, Helen would join the Marines to help defeat the Nazis.
On August 4, 1936, eighteen-year-old Helen Stephens set the Olympic world record for the 100-meter event at 11.5 seconds. Her record stood for 24 years until Wilma Rudolph beat it in the 1960 Olympics. On August 9, 1936, Helen was the anchor in the 400-meter relay that also set a world record. She received a gold medal for each event. Helen fulfilled her childhood dream. She was the fastest woman runner in the world and became known as the “Fulton Flash.”
The “Fulton Flash”
After returning to Fulton, Helen attended William Woods College. She became the first woman to create, own, and manage her own semi-professional basketball team, the Helen Stephens Olympics Co-Eds. Helen’s team played from 1938-1940, and then after World War II from 1946-52.
During WW II, Helen worked at an aircraft plant in St. Louis before joining the Marines. Afterwards, she became a research librarian for the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency. She held this job until her retirement in 1976.
Helen enjoyed sports for the rest of her life. At age 61, Helen competed in most of the events of the first Senior Olympics. At 68, she set a record in her age group for throwing the javelin. At 70, Helen ran the 100-meter dash in just 14 seconds. She also carried the torch for the first nine Show-Me State Games in Columbia, Missouri.
Helen Stephens was a remarkable athlete who paved the way for future female athletes of all ages. She is in the National and United States Track and Field Halls of Fame as well as the Women’s Hall of Fame. Helen Stephens died on January 17, 1994, and is buried in Fulton, Missouri.
Research and Text by Carlynn Trout
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 vols. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Vol. 1: 244–45.
Hanson, Sharon Kinney. The Life of Helen Stephens: The Fulton Flash. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.