In the spring of 1926, the results of the Saskatoon high school track and field championship were listed in summary format in a local newspaper.
One outstanding achievement might have gone unnoticed if not for Joe Griffiths, longtime director of Athletics at the University of Saskatchewan. When he read that Ethel Catherwood had cleared 5′ in the senior girls’ high jump, he was incredulous. That was the Canadian women’s high jump record at the time.
Ethel Hannah Catherwood was born in North Dakota in April 1908, but raised on the family’s homestead near Scott, Sask., about one hundred miles west of Saskatoon. One of nine children, Ethel was a natural athlete. She played baseball, basketball, and even hockey.
With her father’s encouragement, Ethel began to high jump before she was ten. Soon she was jumping heights that rivalled those cleared by any other woman in the world at the time.
In 1925, the Catherwood family moved to the Caswell Hill district in Saskatoon, where Ethel enrolled in her last year of high school at Bedford Road Collegiate. After she won the high jump at the city championship the following spring, Joe Griffiths made a visit to the Catherwood home. There, he watched in amazement as Ethel cleared the high-jump bar with ease in the cramped backyard.
Ethel immediately began training with Griffiths, and within weeks was regularly jumping 5′ 2″. Griffiths tried to teach Ethel to do the western roll, but she remained more comfortable with the traditional scissor kick. Later that fall, at the 1926 provincial championship in Regina, the 18-year-old set a world record with a jump height of 5′ 2 7/16″.
The following summer, Ethel visited Toronto under the sponsorship of the Saskatoon Elks Club and jumped before 15,000 spectators at the Canadian National Exhibition. Reporters started calling her “the Saskatoon Lily.”
In February 1928, the Canadian Olympic Committee invited Ethel to Toronto to try out for the upcoming games in Amsterdam. It would be the first time women were allowed to compete in track and field events. At the Canadian qualifying meet in Halifax on July 2, 1928, she set a new world record with a height of 5′ 3″. It would remain the Canadian record for the next quarter century.
Ethel participated in the ninth Olympic Games as a member of the six-woman Canadian track team. Known as “the matchless six,” Jane Bell, Ethel Catherwood, Myrtle Cook, Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld, Ethel Smith, and Jean Thompson would win the team championship — an ironic outcome, since Canada was one of the countries initially opposed to female participation.
Ethel competed on Saturday, Aug. 5, the last day of the track and field events. The women’s high jump was one of the most anticipated showdowns. Less than three weeks after Ethel’s record-breaking jump in Halifax, Carolina “Lien” Gisolf of the Dutch team had beaten her record. The pair was now expected to compete for the gold medal.
The cold windy weather quickly whittled the competition down. Ethel cleared the bar at 5′ 2 9/16″. When two other jumpers failed on their third attempts, the spectators rushed onto the field and lifted Ethel to their shoulders.
Ethel returned to Saskatoon an international sensation. Sept. 26, 1928 was declared a civic holiday, Ethel Catherwood Day.
But then, her world began to fall apart. She failed to qualify for the Canadian team for the 1932 Olympics because of a nagging injury.
There were also all kinds of ugly rumours about her private life, including a secret marriage and hasty divorce.
A bitter Ethel turned her back on Canada and her sport and moved to the United States, where she died in relative obscurity in 1987.
Other Canadian women have excelled in the high jump. Debbie Brill was just 16 when she became the first woman in North America to clear 6′.
There have also been other Saskatchewan women in Olympic field events, among them Marg Tosh in the javelin at the 1956 Melbourne games.
But Ethel Catherwood is the only Canadian woman to win a gold medal in an individual track and field event at the Olympics.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Ethel Catherwood was the most photographed athlete at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam.
Photo Source: Bibliotheque Nationale de France
Bill Waiser’s latest book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905, is now available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.