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 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
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.
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
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.
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.
Beach volleyball dynamo Misty May-Treanor and former partner Kerri Walsh won gold at the Athens, Beijing and London Olympics (she competed with another partner in Atlanta in 1996, but they didn't medal). This year, Walsh (now Walsh Jennings) is playing with another partner in Rio while May-Treanor tends to her 2-year-old daughter. “I have new priorities now,” Treanor told NBC, which is all well and good, but she's still one of the most successful female volleyball players of all time, with 112 competitive wins. Besides mothering a toddler, the L.A. native and Long Beach State grad is currently the director of volleyball operations at Long Beach City College. An aside: Isn't it weird, in hindsight, that beach volleyball wasn't one of NES' California Games?
I didn't include many team-sports athletes on this list, but Lisa Leslie is in a league of her own. The basketball legend — who hails from Gardena, attended high school at Morningside in Inglewood and graduated from USC — played for the U.S. women's team in four games (Atlanta through Beijing) and won four gold medals in the process; at the ’96 Games in Atlanta, she set a U.S. Olympic record, scoring 35 points against the Japanese team. And in one of the most gratifying Olympic victories ever, the U.S. team went on to slaughter the Australian women's team after Aussie asshole Lauren Jackson yanked Leslie's ponytail of hair extensions clean off the back of her head. Leslie was quoted as saying, “I told her she could have the hair and I'll take the gold medal.”
Torrance-born Michelle Kwan came in second to Tonya Harding at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and was supposed to be on the U.S. team for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, but fate intervened. Or, rather, Tonya Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gillooly intervened. Prior to the championships, Gillooly used a billy club to strike the knee of Harding's rival, Nancy Kerrigan, leaving her unable to compete. When the time came to pick the U.S. team, Kerrigan had recovered and was given 13-year-old Kwan's slot; Kwan attended as an alternate but didn't skate, while Kerrigan won the silver. Harding didn't medal at all. At the Nagano Olympics in 1998, Kwan was favored to win gold but came in second to Tara Lipinski and walked away with the silver. She returned to the Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002 and won the bronze. She never won gold, but Kwan — who currently lives in Rhode Island — is the most decorated skater in U.S. history thanks to five world championships and nine U.S. championships.
Six-time Olympic medal-winning runner Allyson Felix is in Rio for this year's games, her fourth, but it's been a bittersweet experience. The L.A. native and daughter of an ordained minister had a mishap in the gym and tore several ligaments in her right ankle; she'd hoped to defend her title in the 200 meters — she won gold in that event and two others in London in 2012 — but didn't qualify to compete in that event. Felix, 30, whose USC tuition was paid for by Adidas for forgoing collegiate competition and going pro, could still medal in two relays and the 400 meters. And not that he's responsible for her success or anything, but in the context of this list, it seems worth mentioning that her coach is Bobby Kersee, husband of Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
Gymnast McKayla Maroney is from Orange County and competed in only one Olympics (London 2012), but she won gold with Marta Karolyi's “Fierce Five,” plus a silver for individual vault. After several injuries, she announced her retirement from gymnastics in 2016, but the “McKayla Maroney is not impressed” internet meme lives on.
L.A. native Carmelita Jeter — who attended high school at Bishop Montgomery in Torrance — is the second fastest woman in the world in the 100 meters, right behind Florence Griffith Joyner. She took home one of each medal at the 2012 Games, but a quadricep injury prevented her from running in the qualifying races to make it to Rio. As she recently reminded fans, she's still “the fastest woman alive.”
*L.A. native Marion Jones, who was forced to hand over her Olympic medals after a drug scandal, did not appear on this list, but this article about her downfall is worth a read.
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