A Brief History of L.A. Women Kicking Ass at the Olympics

Michelle Kwan at the 2002 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles
Michelle Kwan at the 2002 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles

So far at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, American women are doing a very good job of achieving superhuman feats of athletic prowess, while the American media is doing a very bad job of properly lauding their accomplishments. When Katinka Hosszu broke the world record in the 400-meter individual medley, an NBC commentator gave credit to her husband-slash-coach. When Corey Cogdell-Unrein won a bronze in trap shooting, the Chicago Tribune referred to her simply as the "wife of a Bears lineman." (They've since done her the service of adding her name to the headline.) And when Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to win gold in an individual swimming event, NBC didn't even air her medal ceremony

In the spirit of honoring women and their contributions to the Olympic Games, we looked back at some female athletes either from or with significant ties to the Los Angeles area. Here's a not-exhaustive* list of some greats, in chronological(ish) order. 

Lillian Copeland throwing discus in Amsterdam
Lillian Copeland throwing discus in Amsterdam

Lillian Copeland
Lillian Copeland was a track-and-field athlete who competed in both the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, and could throw the shit out of the discus. Although she’s not credited in certain places, Copeland is said to have broken the world record previously held by Poland’s Halina Konopacka when at the ’32 Olympics — held right here in L.A. — she chucked the disc 133 feet, winning her the gold medal. She won a silver in ’28 in the same event. (Fun fact: The current women’s world record, set in 1988, is 251 feet, which is insane.) Copeland, who was Jewish, boycotted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin but did great things at the 1935 Maccabiah Games in Israel. Born in New York City, Copeland attended Los Angeles High School and graduated from USC School of Law before going to work for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, where she held several positions until her retirement in 1960. She died in 1964. 

Paula Jean Myers-Pope, right, with husband Karl Pope
Paula Jean Myers-Pope, right, with husband Karl Pope

Paula Jean Myers-Pope
When La Verne native and world-class diver Paula Jean Myers-Pope (then Paula Jean Myers) became a student at USC in the mid-1950s, she attended on a "leadership" scholarship because the school didn't have a women's athletics program yet. According to her 1995 L.A. Times obit, Myers-Pope won her first silver medal at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 when she was just 16; during her 12-year career competing in the 3-meter springboard and the 10-meter tower diving events, she won two more silvers and a bronze. She and her husband, USC basketball player Karl Pope, went on to found and operate the Ojai Valley Racquet Club, now the Ojai Valley Athletic Club.

Paraguay issued a Jackie Joyner-Kersee stamp after the '92 Olympics
Paraguay issued a Jackie Joyner-Kersee stamp after the '92 Olympics
Wikimedia Commons

Jackie Joyner-Kersee
OK, so, Jackie Joyner-Kersee is originally from East St. Louis, Illinois, but the UCLA graduate (class of ’85) and husband Bob Kersee (a coach at UCLA) had a residence in L.A. as recently as 2012, so that counts for something. The heptathlon is a crazy event that combines 100-meter hurdles, the high jump, shot put, 200 meters, the long jump, javelin throw and 800 meters. Joyner-Kersee set the world record at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 with 7,291 points — her record still stands. In the course of four Olympic Games — 1984 through ’96 — she won three gold medals, plus, two silver and one bronze, and is still considered by many to be the greatest female athlete of the 20th century. Oh, and she has "severe" asthma

Florence Griffith Joyner with President Ronald Reagan in 1988
Florence Griffith Joyner with President Ronald Reagan in 1988

Florence Griffith Joyner
In 1998, at only 38 years old, Florence Griffith Joyner — no hyphen — died in her sleep during an epileptic seizure. It was a sad, sudden end for an athlete who was known in pop culture as much for her athletic ability as she was for her personal style, including the signature one-legged leggings she wore and her long, brightly painted fingernails. (I, for one, was the proud owner of a Barbie-style Flo-Jo doll that I wasn't allowed to actually take out of the box.) Born in L.A. to a family of 13 and a graduate of Jordan High School in Watts (she also attended both CSU Northridge and UCLA), Griffith Joyner ran the 100 meters in a qualifying race for the 1988 Olympics in 10.49 seconds, smashing the world record; the record stood, but experts later said the performance was "wind-assisted." Then came the accusations that she'd used performance-enhancing drugs. Griffith Joyner won three gold medals at the ’88 Olympics and one silver in ’84. Despite the controversy that surrounded her success, Flo-Jo never failed a drug test

Janet Evans
Janet Evans
Photo Works/Shutterstock

Janet Evans
O.C.-bred Janet Evans doesn't necessarily look like a swimmer. She’s sort of short and small-framed and her "windmill" stroke is weird, but that didn’t prevent her from being a supernaturally successful distance swimmer. At her first Olympic Games, in Seoul in ’88, a 16-year-old Evans walked away with gold medals in the 400-meter freestyle, the 400-meter medley and the 800-meter freestyle. She competed in Barcelona in ’92, where she defended her gold in the 400 freestyle and took home the silver in the 800. Her competitive career ended after a lackluster performance in Atlanta in ’96, but once a champ, always a champ: Today she gives motivational and keynote speeches on the subject. 



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