Thursday, December 3, 2015

Mildred Wiley - trail-blazing athlete

Some time ago I came across this photo while doing some research about women in sports. I just love this kind of action shot. I know just enough about track and field events to know that this is the high jump, and that she's hit the bar. She's clearly giving it her all, and while the camera angle could be better, I don't think it was set up this way to be scandalous, but rather to juxtapose her activity with the elegant calm of the people seated behind her. Sadly, where I found it there was no indication of who this woman was or where this photo was taken.

When I searched for the image, I found very little information about the athlete, other than her name: Mildred Olive Wiley. She has a very abbreviated Wikipedia entry, listing her birth and death, and the fact that she won a bronze medal in the high jump.
Mildred Olive Wiley (December 3, 1901 – February 7, 2000) was an American high jumper who won a bronze medal at the 1928 Summer Olympics.

After marriage she changed her last name to Dee and gave birth to five children. One of them, Bob Dee, was a prominent professional footballer at the Boston Patriots in the 1960s.
According to Wikipedia, this image was taken at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. Perhaps this is her final jump, landing her on the podium, so to speak. They say a photo is worth a thousand words, but even a photo cannot tell you everything. And as a history nerd, "everything" is what I want to know. Who was she? What was her life like as a young athlete? What or who inspired her to take up track?

She was named the 1928 Massachusetts State Track Association's Athlete of the Year, and is listed as having attended Quincy High School. Interestingly, in the summer of 1928, she would have been 27 years old. That's more than a bit old for a high school student. Perhaps she was honored that year because of her Olympic performance, and the note about her high school was simply part of their listing protocol.

The year 1928 was remarkable in that it was the first time women were permitted to compete in Track and Field events in the Olympics. She and her fellow female track team members were walking out into a new experience at the Olympics. What was it like for her and the other women from around the world coming together in Amsterdam? Were they excited? What experience did she have for this level of competition? I kept digging.

By looking into genealogical records, I managed to find the text of her obituary from the The Patriot Ledger.
That same year [1928] she was also the United States indoor and outdoor champion in the women's running high jump. When her athletic career ended, she became the secretary to the New England Chapter of the Olympians. Born in Taunton, she was educated in Quincy and was a graduate of Quincy High School.
In addition to participating in the Olympics, she was quite active in other track and field competitions, winning medals in both indoor and outdoor events. I suppose that's not really a surprise, since one would need to train extensively for an Olympic debut. Here's where Internet-only research falters. I am certain there are plenty of articles in the local newspapers about her achievements, but they are likely stored on microfilm in the file cabinets of the local library, and haven't been made available online yet.

What was her life like after winning her Olympic medal? After she stopped competing, she got married, but apparently stayed active in the local organization of fellow Olympians. But still no mention of what she did aside from working as their secretary. Did she encourage her children to participate in sports? It would seem so since her son Bob Dee was a professional football player. But her girls too? What stories did she tell her children and grandchildren about her time as an athlete?

I went digging one last time, hoping to find just a sliver more of information, and I did. I found this article from the Christian Science Monitor published in 1992: "1928 Olympian Recalls How It Was." A few more of my questions were answered. She shared a bit about how she came to be involved in the high jump in the first place. Apparently, she started out as a swimmer, but her natural ability was evident from an early age.
Dee's jumping career began at her home near the beach. "I'd come in from swimming and we had a little hedge there and I used to hop over it," says Dee. When she was in her early 20s, her swimming coach, who also coached track, got her involved in the high jump.
What I find most interesting in this whole thing is that she was a woman in her twenties involved in sports. That's still somewhat unusual in this day and age, much less nearly 100 years ago, when women were still considered too delicate for competition. Not to mention the clothing restrictions and rules for decorum! It was only 20 years earlier that Senda Berenson Abbott was introducing women's basketball to her students at Smith College and shocking the public by asking her girls to wear looser-fitting dresses. And now we've got Mildred in shorts? As it turns out, those shorts were a subject of much discussion.
"They almost disqualified me because they said my shorts were too short," she recalls with a grin, "and look at what they wear nowadays." Mrs. Dee, who won the bronze medal in the women's running high jump, says she was always rolling her shorts up.

"I wanted them out of my way," she explains. The questionable shorts came to mid-thigh, according to the tall native of Wollaston, Mass.
As yes. That does sound like a true athlete! She's there to compete, not look pretty or obey some ridiculous gendered dress code. I still wish I could find out more about her life after the Olympics. Sadly, this is where the trail of online information pretty much peters out. She got married, raised her family, and made sure to watch the Olympics on television every four years.

I can't help but wonder what it must have been like for other girls and young women to see newspaper articles about these female athletes getting their chance to compete in the Olympics. I know growing up I was inspired by women like Billie Jean King, the same as girls today are fired up about Abby Wambach. Fortunately, I don't have to wonder too much. Mary Carew Armstrong, who went on to win a gold medal for the 4x100 metre relay at the 1932 Olympics had this to say in an interview she gave in 1993:
When the nineteen twenty-eight Olympic team came home from Amsterdam, Boston had four women on the team. I knew them a little bit, I was one of their admirers. They were heroines to everybody in the area. When I saw those girls, I decided right then and there, that's what I want. And I was only a kid. But, it did inspire me to see those four women. Later on I competed against them. Olive Hasenfus was a sprinter, Florence McDonald was an eight hundren-meter runner, Rena MacDonald was a shot putter, and Mildred Wiley was a high jumper. They got a large press notice. The write-ups about any meet were only about those people. That encouraged me. I said to myself, I didn't dare day it to anybody else, but I had decided, the next Games I'm going to be on tha team. Of course, I had such wonderful support from my coach. I was pretty good then. I was just entering high school, tenth grade. My coach would point to them at a track meet and say, "look what you could do." They were an inspiration to me.
(source: American Women's Track and Field: A History, 1895 Through 1980, Volume 1)
"They were an inspiration to me." And that, folks, is why it's so important to celebrate the stories of women in sports, as well as other pursuits. Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to be a young female athlete at the time? But to have such a great role model out there showing you it can be done and done well is inspirational. By the same token, while we're celebrating the current crop of amazing women in sports, we should also work to learn, preserve, and share the stories of the trail-blazers like Mildred Wiley.

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