Sport provides us with some of the most stirring moments of our lives, whether we are participating ourselves or witnessing the deeds of others. In a world where "no news is good news". the sports pages can always provide with an escape. We can sit back on our lounges while matches and games are beamed to us live by satellite, or we can go out and shout for the local team. Great sporting moments come in all shapes and sizes. They are provided by winners, losers, artists and heroes, favourites and underdogs. Sixty-three years ago this week, the greatest of all female athletes died.
And so it was one fine Saturday afternoon in June 1939, as a middle-aged women in low-heeled shoes, and a nondescript skirt and jumper, walked out onto the Sydney Showground amidst deafening applause. With the NSW Athletics Association carnival in full swing, all eyes were reserved for the famous rugged-looking guest who was in Australia on her honeymoon.
She had short hair, a prominent sharp nose with muscled arms and legs which would have just about done justice to any male athlete as she nonchalantly accepted an offered javelin and still in her low-heeled shoes, with two steps, effortlessly pelted the javelin high in the air and nearly reached the other side of this once famous ground.
After officials measured the throw, the big crowd roared after the ground announcer told all and sundry that the throw had just unofficially smashed the existing Australian record and was only two- feet short of the world record mark. Here in action was the legendary Mildred Didrikson-Zaharias, known around the world as the greatest female sports phenomenon ever seen.
Nicknamed Babe after the great baseball legend Babe Ruth, she was one of seven children who excelled at anything that required muscular co-ordination. In her career, she had won more championships and broke more world records than any other female in sports history. She was exceptional in all forms sport and reached dizzy heights in swimming, boxing, basketball, tennis, golf, baseball, fencing, polo, lacrosse, track and field, billiards and harness-racing.
In the 1931 US Olympic trials, she picked up a javelin for the first time in her life and stunned officials with a new world record throw. After practising jumping hurdles for three days, she went out in her heat and smashed the United States 80-yard record and then, in her 800-yard sprint, she broke another USA record. Amazingly, she had entered eight events and had won six, including the high jump, broad jump, shot put, discus, javelin and the hurdles.
Selected to compete at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, she came away with two gold medals and a silver medal. She established new world records in both the javelin and the 80-yard hurdles before she was sensationally given a silver medal in the high jump after her controversial invention, the "Texas Roll" was adjudicated unfair after other finalists complained.
She first hit a golf ball one afternoon in 1933. Motoring past a driving range with her coach, the Babe grabbed a golf club and let fly as the ball flew past the 228 yard mark as onlookers stood flabbergasted. Catching the golfing bug, she began putting in 12 hours a day on a golf course, driving as many as 1000 golf balls a day until blisters on her hands broke and bled.
As she started to dominate the sport, her average drive in tournaments was around 210 yards and within four months she was won the US amateur golf tournament and other major events around the world. In late 1938 she married American wrestler George Zaharias and honeymooned in Australia the following year with Zaharias filling major wrestling engagements around the nation while his wife gave golfing and billiard demonstrations to large crowds. It was in Australia that she decided to try her hand at tennis.
After 18 months of intense training and practice, she started winning amateur tennis events in America and sports scribes were predicting a huge future before amateur officials dropped a bombshell and accused her of accepting sponsorships. Disgusted with the allegations which she vehemently denied, she immediately turned her back on tennis and renewed her passion for golf and a new-found interest in harness racing.
Purchasing two pacers and a trotter in 1943, she commenced her trotting career with over 50 winners that included three Group One wins for a season and then, remarkably, she finished second in the New York City harness racing drivers' premiership and creating history by being the first women to drive against the men. In 1945, she once again rewrote sports history by becoming the first women to win both the US and British Open golf amateur championships in the same year, as well as creating a world record by winning 17 consecutive amateur tournaments in the same year.
Trail-blazing in 1948 after she had beaten such golfing greats as Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan in 18-hole exhibition matches on her own merits, she legitimately and controversially applied to compete against the men at the US Open of that year, however, the US Professional Golf Association had other ideas and quickly amended their rules, so that only men were eligible to compete. It took another 56 years till Sweden's Annika Sorenstam became the first women to compete against the men in US PGA events.
As the winner of a record 48 golf tournaments, she was the major pioneer of women's world golf and founded the US Ladies Professional Association and it wasn't until 1951, unbeaten for 10 years, that she was finally defeated in the last round of the Las Vegas Open. Her next tournament in Florida was specially named in her honour and throughout the last round of the event, concerns were growing about her health, as on two occasions she had to rest for half an hour before continuing and amazingly winning her own event by two strokes.
Two days later, she was hospitalised and tests revealed she had cancer. After the announcement, truck loads of trucks totalling 20,000 get-well messages arrived at the hospital and remarkably, after spending 10 months in recovery from several operations, she stunned the sporting world by making a comeback and contested the 1955 US Open championship and won it for the third time by a whopping 12 strokes.
A year later and voted the greatest female athlete of the millennium, she lost her battle with cancer on September 27, 1956. aged only 43-years of age. Famous American sports writer Grantland Rice said of her: "She was beyond all belief until you saw her perform, then you would finally understand, that you were looking at the most flawless section of muscle harmony of complete mental and physical co-ordination the world of sport has ever seen."