Stella Walsh walked out of Uncle Bill’s Discount Department Store with a bag full of ribbons. It was the evening of Dec. 4, 1980. The sun was long gone and a chill was filling the air. Two weeks earlier, she had given the key to the city of Cleveland to the Polish men’s national basketball team. In a couple days, she planned to give these ribbons to her native country’s national women’s team before an exhibition game at Kent State University.
Walsh, or Stanislawa Walasiewczowna, her birth name, was Cleveland’s No. 1 Polish-American. Although born in Poland in 1911, she had lived 68 of her 69 years in the United States, the vast majority in Cleveland, in the neighborhood that was now called Slavic Village.
At a time when people still debated whether women should compete in sports, she was supreme.
In her adopted hometown, she was famous, and beloved, on par with other notable Cleveland sports legends like Lou Boudreau or Otto Graham. At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, she won a gold medal in the 100-meter dash for Poland, and won silver in the same event four years later in Berlin. She also won another seven medals in varying distances during the off year, lesser-known Women’s Olympics, five of them gold.
Her Olympic performance alone, however, does not do justice to her athletic career. At a time when people still debated whether women should compete in sports at all, she was supreme. She reportedly won more than 5,000 races, earned hundreds of trophies, officially set 20 world records in track, was the first woman to run the 100-yard dash in less than 11 seconds and one of the first to run 100 meters in less than 12. Her world record in the 220-yard dash went unbroken for 15 years.
Although Babe Didrikson is now usually considered the greatest female athlete of the early 20th century, 50 or 60 years ago that honor was often given to Walsh, who the press sometimes referred to as the "female Jim Thorpe," for she was just as good on the basketball court or softball diamond or on ice skates as she was on the track. From the time she was a young girl, sports was all she knew and all she did. Even at 69, she still raced in masters events, challenged and beat men in arm wrestling at the bar, and frequently raced school-age kids on the fields of her youth and won, just as she always had.
Despite her age, she remained athletic, a fit 5’8, less than 150 pounds. On this night, she wore her trademark white slacks, blue blazer, white tennis shoes and blazing red lipstick. Matched with a platinum blonde wig, which covered her thinning gray hair, from a distance she looked 20 years younger. Not yet retired, after she finished her errands she planned on returning home to care for her aging mother in the family home they still shared, then going to bed and waking up early to work out before heading to a local high school track to coach young female runners.
As she neared her 1973 Oldsmobile Omega, two young men approached her. Cleveland was in tough shape. The city had filed for bankruptcy and many older residents had fled for the suburbs. Older urban neighborhoods, like Slavic Village, deteriorated and were no longer safe. One of the men grabbed for her purse, but Walsh fought back. She always fought back, whether it was against the young urchin who stole a box of chocolate from her car in 1936, or the man who tried to grab her purse in a park in the 1960s.
As she struggled to hold on to her purse, the younger of the two men, Donald Cassidy, took out a gun. Stella grabbed it. The gun went off and a bullet hit Stella in the chest. Shocked at what had happened, the two men ran. They didn’t get the $250 that was in a pocket in her slacks. They didn’t get anything.
Walsh stumbled, fell down beside her car, and quickly lost consciousness. Eventually a man found her lying beside her car. He went inside Uncle Bill’s and told an off-duty police officer who worked as a security guard for the store. The cop called for an ambulance, but it never came. Another police officer rushed her to St. Alexis Hospital in a cruiser.
Three hours later, while still in surgery, Walsh died. The bullet had ripped through her chest and tore an artery. She had finally run into something that was faster than she was. And just like that, the life of one of the most storied athletes ever to come out of Cleveland was over.
Her story, however, was just getting started.
Courtesy of Rob Lucas, www.stellawalsh.com
For as long as anyone who knew Stella Walsh remembered, there had been talk of her femininity, or rather, her lack of femininity. By adolescence, her features had coarsened, and even though Walsh was the best baseball player at South High School, and played on the boys’ team, the young girl with the big, wide-set eyes, thick nose and heavy jaw became a target. They called her "Bull Montana" the stage name for wrestler and actor Lewis Montagna, best known for playing roles like thugs, henchman, and cave men. It was not a compliment.
There were other nicknames too, even more cruel and obscene. At least that’s what Casimir Bielen, an old friend who Walsh visited before stopping at Uncle Bill’s, said after she died. He didn’t go into detail, but he told reporters that neighborhood kids said mean things to Stella about her "mutation or deformity."
Both channels reported that Walsh’s autopsy showed the female sprinter had male sex organs.
Bielen spoke out in response to TV news reports the night before Walsh’s funeral. Although the news elsewhere that night was dominated by another murder — Beatle John Lennon’s — in Cleveland the big story was Walsh. Someone in the coroner’s office had leaked results from the autopsy to two TV stations, WKYC-TV Channel 3 and WEWS Channel 5. Both channels reported that Walsh’s autopsy showed the female sprinter had male sex organs.
When reporters asked Samuel Gerber, Cuyahoga County’s coroner for 44 years, about the determination of Stella’s sex, he spoke cryptically, saying, "Stella Walsh’s birth certificate says she was a female. She was known as a female and her death certificate says she was a female." He declined to comment further. Left unspoken was the result of the autopsy and what that indicated.
In Cleveland, a city that had once revered her, "Stella’s a fella" became a popular catch phrase, headline, insult and joke.
The Polish community was outraged. To them, Walsh was still a hero, a beloved volunteer who worked with young Polish track aspirants for the Polish Falcons Association. Bielen, the editor of Nationality Newspapers & Services, who had once hired Walsh as sports editor, joined more than 400 others in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church for her funeral. Virtually every press release written about Walsh over the last decade had come from Bielen, first scratched out on one of his yellow legal pads, and then typed carefully using his typewriter and letterhead. He watched from the front of the church, and as TV news cameramen set up to record the event, attendees began yelling and shouting.
"Get out of here," they screamed.
"You’ve got a lot of nerve after that garbage last night," another said.
The cameramen stayed and the service eventually began. The Rev. Raymond Barnikowski, Sacred Heart’s pastor, delivered the eulogy. His words seemed directed at those questioning Walsh’s life.
"We are all entered into one event in our life and that is eternal salvation," he said. "There is no time clock, no tape measure and we have only one judge."
That night, after Walsh was buried in Calvary Cemetery, Channel 3 broadcast an interview with Beverly Perret Conyers, an old friend of Walsh’s. Conyers said Walsh was a victim of circumstance, and admitted she had a problem that caused her great anguish.
With some embarrassment, Conyers remembered that as a 10-year-old, she once saw Walsh changing clothes in a locker room at the old Woodland Bath House in Cleveland. She saw Walsh’s "mutation," as she called it, making her one of the few who knew the details of her secret. Perhaps that is why, many years later, Walsh spoke to Conyers about her condition, one of the few times in her life she ever discussed the subject.
"Did God do this to me?" she asked Conyers.
"No," Conyers told her friend. "It was a mistake."
After watching the news, Bielen’s outrage increased and he became even more determined to defend Walsh’s reputation. He and others of his generation in Cleveland’s Polish community revered her. He remembered the elation and pride that accompanied her victories on the track, and Bielen wasn’t going to let anyone take that away.
Photo Credit: Peter Bernik
In August of 1931, Walsh wanted nothing more than to be "Miss Stadium," or "Queen of Cleveland," a title due to be awarded in a contest as part of Cleveland’s 135th anniversary and celebrating the opening of the new Cleveland Stadium on the Lake Erie waterfront. Aside from the honor of being crowned queen, the winner also won a new car.
Walsh was already perhaps the best-known woman in the city and one of Cleveland’s most prominent residents. For over the past year and a half her name had regularly appeared in the newspaper, often in banner headlines that stretched across the sports page.
Stella Walsh Cracks Record
Stella Walsh Flies To Two World Records At Philly
And Whirlwind Stella Looked Back at Rivals
Stella Walsh Is Radio Star Saturday: Girl Sprinter’s Race at Hall to Go on Air
No woman had ever run so fast, and Walsh had her first world record.
Already a local legend who had long dominated area track meets, she had burst onto the national scene first in 1930, at the Millrose Games in Madison Square Garden, running the 50-yard dash in six seconds flat. No woman had ever run so fast, and Walsh had her first world record.
Later that night, reporters descended upon the family’s home on Clement Avenue. Her parents, Julian and Victoria, couldn’t speak English, but they sat on the front porch and displayed trophies and medals their daughter had won in local meets and races over the past three or four years. No one called her "Bull Montana" anymore. Now she was the odds-on favorite to win a gold medal in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, only the second Olympics in which women were allowed to participate in track events.
One week after her record setting run in New York City, Walsh tied the outdoor mark in the 220-yard dash at the Meadow Brook games in Philadelphia, winning by such a large margin she twice glanced back at her competition. One girl was so demoralized she ended the race in tears.
Now they began calling Walsh other names, like the "Cleveland Flyer," and the "Queen of Sprint." She liked that and liked being seen as a queen instead of a bull. The girl who had once preferred to spend her days at home found she now enjoyed going out, particularly to sporting events where crowds gathered solely because they wanted to see her.
Although an amateur, Walsh realized her newfound prominence could still turn into something of tangible value. When she learned of the contest and that the prizes for being "Miss Stadium" included a trip and a new car, Walsh entered a new race, one that was equal parts beauty pageant and popularity contest.
"Girls with lots of dimples and personality usually become queens in this sort of thing," wrote a reporter in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, insinuating, of course, that Stella was not that type of girl. And she wasn’t. She was well muscled. She had broad shoulders and strong legs. Her unruly black hair did nothing to soften her face. Men admired her, but they didn’t ask to walk her home.
So, like she did any time she wanted to win something, she set her mind to it and developed a plan, using her celebrity to her advantage. She canvassed Cleveland, particularly her own neighborhood, collecting votes and selling tickets to the gala celebration at Stadium. Whoever gathered the most of both would be declared the winner.
At the celebration, Walsh sat, anxious, waiting for the crowning of the queen as a host of performers appeared, gymnasts, dancers, even swordsmen and yodelers. Finally, at the very end of the event, organizers called Walsh and the other three "Miss Stadium" finalists to center stage.
Anna Griffith, a demure pianist for the Cleveland Chorus, one of those girls with dimples and personality, received 200,900 votes. She finished second. Walsh received 327,400 votes. First place, as usual.
"She outstripped her competitors in the ticket-selling, vote-getting race about as handily as she has beaten all challengers of her track supremacy," the Plain Dealer story read the following day. There was no mention of dimples.
Still, the crowd cheered. Press photographers snapped her picture as she was wrapped in a robe and a crown was placed on her head. Beaming, she posed for photos.
She had wanted the car. But more than that, she wanted acceptance. And what did this mean, if not that she was accepted?
She was the queen.
By the summer of 1932, with the Olympics scheduled to begin in less than two months, the only thing anyone in Cleveland wanted to know was what country Walsh would represent. In 1930, she had applied to become a U.S. citizen specifically because of the Olympics, but had yet to complete the process and remained officially Polish. However, Walsh told reporters that she planned to run for the U.S.
The Great Depression changed those plans.
The Great Depression changed those plans.
The factories and steel mills that for so long had drawn immigrants to Cleveland started closing and laying off workers. Her father Julian was cut back to part time, not enough to pay a mortgage and support a family, which now included Walsh’s two younger sisters. Then, one week before Walsh was to take her oath of citizenship, she was laid off from New York Central. The morning she planned to complete her application for citizenship and take her oath, a messenger boy arrived with a telegram from the Polish Consul in New York.
The Polish government saw opportunity in her misfortune. They wanted Walsh to remain a citizen and to compete for Poland in the Olympics. So instead of going to the federal court building, Walsh instead went to the Union Terminal train station to catch a train for New York.
"I’m not trying to duck the United States," she said to a reporter before she left. "But I’ve got myself to look out for. I can’t run forever. If a big company like the New York Central can’t give me a job, where can I get one?"
Four days later, four days in which Walsh’s indecision dominated the Cleveland newspapers, she announced she would run for Poland. The Polish government offered her something American citizenship did not, the promise of a job and money for her education. She couldn’t turn it down. "I am going to run for Poland, but I will always have a warm spot in my heart for Cleveland," she said. "I sure do hate to leave this place."
After competing in the Olympics in Los Angeles, she planned to move to Poland, where she would work, study and continue running. She would make a new life where no one knew her as "Bull Montana," where the only thing anyone knew about her was that she was the fastest woman in the world.
Walsh briefly returned home to Cleveland, packed and then several girlfriends, her parents, her sisters and her coach saw her off with hugs and tears. She then returned to New York, working in the Polish Consulate for a week before joining her Polish Olympic teammates.
What she could not have known at the time was what the impact of this decision would have on her long-term reputation as an American athlete. She might always be a darling of her hometown, but outside of that community, she would be a foreign racer. She might have been Cleveland’s queen, but she could never be America’s girl.
Everything went as planned — at least at first. In Los Angeles, Walsh, running under the name Stanislawa Walasiewicz (shortened from Walasiewczowna when her family first moved to the U.S. before adopting the Anglicized Walsh) won the gold medal in the 100-meter sprint handily, running the distance in 11.9 seconds. The performance equaled the world record she had set in a preliminary heat the day before, making her the first woman in history to break the 12-second barrier. Sports writers went overboard describing her victory for readers, one noting that she had blazed down the chalk-striped straightaway "with a fury no other girl sprinter ever has known."
There was happiness in Cleveland, but it was tempered because she didn’t win that medal for the U.S. Even local Polish leaders wished that Walsh had run for the United States.
"I doubt if there will be such celebrations as have taken place before," said W.J. Norwalk, publisher of the Polish Daily Monitor. "We are glad to see Walsh win, of course, but we would have been more glad if she had finished her naturalization and won as an American. We are Americans."
Soon after the Olympics, just before she was scheduled to leave for Poland, Walsh competed in one last track and field meet on American soil. In Chicago, she stole the show from Babe Didrikson, tying her own world record in the 100-meter sprint, setting a new record in the 200-meter race, winning the broad jump and finishing fourth in the discus. Didrikson, on the other hand, won only the high jump and finished second in the discus, the only head-to-head event in which she was superior to Walsh.
Walsh sailed for Europe in late August. Once she arrived in Poland, she enrolled in the all-female Central University, Warsaw, on a scholarship from the Polish Women’s National Alliance, beginning a three-year course in journalism and physical education.
She found life in Poland harsh and uncaring.
Walsh expected to be treated as a celebrity in Poland, just as she had been in Cleveland. Instead, she was just another person. She found life in Poland harsh and uncaring. In January 1933, as she walked across a set of railroad tracks, she tripped. As she landed on the ground, she knew something was terribly wrong with her ankle.
A doctor told her it was severely sprained, that she had likely tore a tendon and was bleeding internally. Her athletic career was in jeopardy. Word got back to Cleveland that she had been injured, and before long, a reporter sought her out. Walsh was angry that Polish authorities didn’t seem to notice or care that she had been severely injured.
"It’s hard to get along in Europe once one has been brought up in the American standard of living," she said. "I’d hate to say what I think about this incident. I don’t intend to run in Poland while I’m finishing my course at the Institute of Athletics. I’m going back to the United States when I’m through."
And with that, Walsh’s life in Poland was over. She retained her Polish citizenship, but soon returned to Cleveland. When her ankle healed, she resumed her athletic career. Six months after the accident, Walsh competed again in a meet in Chicago and won five first place awards, in the 100-meter, the 60-meter hurdles, the broad jump, the shot put and the discus throw. In the offseason, just to stay in shape, she played basketball for the Vivian Beauty Shoppes and led the team to the Intercity Tournament Championship. At times, she outscored the competition all by herself. In Cleveland, anyway, she was still a star.
There is a box of archival material at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland called the Stella Walsh papers. It’s a bit of a misnomer, because there is very little in the box written by Walsh. In fact, the vast majority of the contents are documents written by Casimir Bielen. A note attached to the box states that Bielen "compiled the archives to bestow honors on Walsh during her lifetime and protect her public image after her death."
The first half of the box is full of press releases and various hall of fame nomination letters Bielen wrote for Walsh. He helped get her inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the Ohio Hall of Fame, the Senior Citizen’s Hall of Fame, and the Hall of Fame for Women.
"Her feats will serve as a reminder to all what effort and determination can accomplish."
There is a letter from U.S. Representative Benny Bonanno recognizing Walsh for being awarded Poland’s Silver Cross of Merit, that nation’s highest civilian honor. There’s a document that Sen. Howard Metzenbaum read into the Congressional record on May 6, 1979 — Polish Independence Day — that says, among other things, "Since her days of active competition, Walsh has devoted her life to helping others compete in athletics. She has worked with numerous Polish-American organizations and has been an inspiration to thousands … Her feats will serve as a reminder to all what effort and determination can accomplish."
And there is a proclamation from the city of Cleveland, dated April 13, 1970, declaring that day "Stella Walsh Day" and signed by Mayor Carl B. Stokes.
Deeper in the box, however, is a letter addressed to Stokes, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and his reply.
The letter, from Bielen, is dated Dec. 15, 1980, 11 days after Walsh’s murder and one week after the Cleveland TV stations’ initial reports questioning her gender.
"On Monday, Dec. 8, 1980, the night before the burial, TV Channel 3 of Greater Cleveland located at 1403 East 6th Street, Cleveland, Ohio 44114 carried a news story concerning Stella Walsh on its six o’clock news bradcast. In this story they implied, inferred, and stated that Stella Walsh was a male that competed against females. This news broadcast also questioned whether her five gold and four silver Olympic Medals would be forfeited. These news stories were connected with Dr. Sam Gerber, County Coroner. Dr. Gerber denied making any statements or verifications to the charges that were made by Channel 3. Please see enclosed news release for a more detailed explanation.
"Stella Walsh was medically examined by hundreds of doctors before each participating athletic event to qualify. She passed qualifying medical examinations and was permitted to compete. The physical circumstances surrounding Stella Walsh were known to her family, friends, and the world — and accepted — for 69 years …
"We are seeking your assistance in helping restore the reputation of Stella Walsh by reporting this incident to the Federal Communication Commission for investigation. Perhaps a congressional investigative committee could be appointed to conduct a local hearing on this matter.
"Stella Walsh was a citizen of the world. Her reputation was severely tarnished. She deserves the credit and restoration of her Olympic reputation."
Sexuality, after all, was still very much a taboo subject in 1980, rarely discussed openly, particularly sexual issues that deviated from "the norm." Most gays and lesbians were still living closeted lives. The word "transgender," had just been introduced. In most places, anyone who was different was still considered a freak.
As far as Bielen and Cleveland’s Polish community was concerned, it was better to shut this conversation down. Nobody else needed to know about Walsh’s mutation, her deformity, her "freakishness." Walsh’s private, physical sexual uncertainty was a shameful embarrassment. There was no room in that world for gray, for ambiguity, for Stella Walsh as she really was.
It was the summer of 1935 and shortly after setting the Canadian record in the 40-yard dash as well as winning a 60-yard race over Betty Robinson, a top short-distance sprinter from outside Chicago, Walsh hopped on a train and headed from Hamilton, Ontario, to St. Louis, Mo., for the National Women’s Indoor AAU meet. There, she expected to have a rematch with Robinson in the 50-meter dash. But Robinson didn’t show, making Walsh the easy favorite to win every race she entered. The weather in St. Louis was stormy, yet more than 4,000 people filled a dome built for indoor track and field events just to watch her compete.
Three years after her Olympic triumph, Walsh was still the top female sprinter in the world, 24 years old, in her prime, and running faster than ever. She was, once again, the favorite for gold, this time in Berlin.
The story of what happened next is best told in "The Life of Helen Stephens," a biography of the Missouri sprinter by Sharon Kinney Hanson:
"At the starting line in one of several trial heats, unbeatable Stella crouched confidently, a veteran competitor seven years Helen’s senior. Helen took a side-glance and thought, There she is, there’s Stella. Helen knew Walsh’s records well. But this was the first time she’d seen her in the flesh …
"Helen made a good takeoff. She took the lead, broadened it, and victory was hers, again repeating her 6.6 time, some say a full four feet ahead of second-place Stella Walsh.
"Spectators went wild. Sportswriters went crazy, bolting onto the track, passing by the former titleholder, pushing toward the kid who had just stomped Stella …"
For the first time in her racing life, Walsh was not No. 1.
One reporter asked Stephens what she thought about having just beaten Stella Walasiewicz. Stephens didn’t recognize that name. She knew who Walsh was, but Stella Walasiewicz? "Stella who?" she replied in a long, Southern drawl. That was all the press needed to fan the flames of a rivalry. They went straight to Walsh and told her the 17-year-old girl who had just beaten her didn’t even know who she was.
Walsh, who only wanted acceptance and for people to recognize and know her, was beside herself. She claimed Stephens jumped the gun.
"I don’t like to complain," Walsh said, "but I was robbed."
For the first time in her racing life, Walsh was not No. 1. Not only had she been beaten in a race she had once owned, but she had lost to a full-blooded American girl who had every intention of running for Uncle Sam in Berlin.
Making things worse for Walsh was the fact that Stephens, although hardly a beauty, (her nose was as long and beaked as Walsh’s was broad) certainly looked more feminine than Walsh. She was tall, lanky, less muscular and a blonde, an all-American country girl who the press loved. Walsh? She was a foreigner who looked like a man.
Photo Credit: Tony Bowler
After the 1936 Olympics, Walsh liked to say she was going to retire from track and field. She often said it any time she did poorly in a race. But she never really retired. Despite losing out on gold in Berlin, she continued racing, and racing successfully, although she often dodged racing Stephens.
Less than a year after her silver medal, in June 1937, she led the Cleveland Polish Girls’ Olympic Club to an easy victory in the first American-Polish Olympic Games in Pittsburgh, winning nine out of the 10 events she entered. In 1939, she set a women’s pitching record, throwing a baseball 94 feet per second. In 1943, she won a district AAU meet in Cleveland, falling just 16 points short of the world record for points scored in a meet.
Then, in 1956, at the age of 45, she married Harry Olson, a former professional wrestler and boxer from California. The marriage allowed her to become a citizen and she tried out for the U.S. Olympic team in her signature event, the 200-meter dash.
She failed in that bid, but just barely, finishing third in her heat. At the time, she said she was retiring, a familiar refrain. She split with Olson after only a few months, but stayed in California for a while, abandoning her adopted hometown for a second time. She worked on and off in a factory for a few years and as a volunteer track coach in Van Nuys, and was the subject of a fawning feature in Life Magazine, but ultimately, in 1964, returned to her parents’ house on Clement Avenue.
It was home.
Carl Stokes replied to Bielen’s letter a couple days later. He did not give Bielen the answer he wanted.
"It is my feeling, however, that a congressional investigation of the news stories would be more detrimental than useful. Since congressional investigations and hearings attract publicity, my intervention might only cause the rumors to become more widespread. It would be more effective, I believe, for local initiative to be taken. I might point out, however, that to ignore the situation, given that the news services no longer carry the story, may be the best alternative since to respond to the stories dignifies their claims."
Bielen was undeterred. He tried to think of any possible angle he could that might stop what he saw as attacks against his friend’s legacy. A story on the front page of the Plain Dealer two days after Walsh was murdered gave him an idea. The headline was, "Crisis in Poland."
"Aside from her cold blooded murder," he wrote, "the treatment by TV is having more propaganda value to the Communist. The Communist bloc countries — especially the Communist of Poland — are using her murder and ugly smearing for their ends to ‘divert the attention of the worshippers of Walsh away from the internal power struggle’ between the Polish people and its Communist rulers.
"Further smearing will only further assist the Communist. This now becomes a sensitive ‘State Dept. problem.’"
Bielen started an S.O.S. campaign — Save Our Stella. He added a typed, unsigned note to his file on Walsh.
"The family of Stella Walsh has been warned to stop their fight against TV stations or the body of Stella Walsh would be dug up by court order to prove that she was a man with male sex organs. And the lawyers would also get a court order to force Gerber (the coroner) to release tests proving that Stella Walsh was a man. Please help them. They live in fear."
On Jan. 9, 1981, Judge Thomas J. Parrino ruled in favor of WKYC Channel 3. He ordered the coroner’s office to release the autopsy report in two weeks. According to the Plain Dealer, "The coroner’s office has said more time is needed to complete laboratory tests and it does not want to release an incomplete report."
The media had found a story rich in irony that combined sports, sex and celebrity.
In the meantime, Bielen made a last-ditch effort to save Walsh’s reputation and started raising money to fund a lawsuit against the Cleveland TV stations, the "Olympian Walsh Defense Fund." He started the effort by contributing $5,000 of his own money.
"An immediate action program calls for the circulation of petitions urging a boycott of products being advertised on TV3," he wrote. "This will also be a battle between the ‘Polish Mass Media’ and TV 3. Publishers and editors of Polish and other ethnic newspapers are eagerly and willingly looking forward to battle, dressed in their heaviest protective armor."
Bielen, assailed on all sides by a changing world, was tilting at windmills. The media had found a story rich in irony that combined sports, sex and celebrity, one that had all the elements of a great narrative — a meteoric rise, a tragic death, and an unbelievable revelation. After decades of obscurity everywhere but in Cleveland, the world re-claimed Stella Walsh.
As the press waited for the official autopsy report, the truth began leaking out. Even Bielen, her defender, provided more details about Walsh’s condition with every interview.
"When she grew up, a couple of blocks from where I live, other boys and girls knew she had these physical deformities," he said. "She was ridiculed. We knew this. She was a hermaphrodite. It was common knowledge that she had this accident of nature. She wasn’t 100 percent pure female."
As the press revealed more about Walsh’s life, everyone wanted to talk to Harry Olson. If anyone had intimate knowledge, he would. He answered calls from reporters who simply wanted to ask if he and Walsh ever had sex. He said they had, but only a couple of times, and always with the lights off.
"I feel stupid as hell for marrying her," he told the Plain Dealer. "It’s really strange. I guess she was a freak of nature. I’m very shook up about this." Embarrassed and humiliated, Olson was as confused as was virtually everyone else of his generation.
"[Her gender issue] is so nebulous that I don’t know what to say," he said. "I tried to get information from the city of Cleveland and all I got was the door slammed in my face." Like Bielen, he just wanted the story to go away.
On Jan. 23, 1980, the autopsy report was made public. Stella Walsh had no uterus, an abnormal urethra and a non-functioning, underdeveloped penis.
"The report speaks for itself," said assistant county coroner Lester Adelson. "Everything is there as I objectively reported it. We used every means to find the truth: I’m not interested in sensationalism. I’m not interested in prurient interest. The only axe I’m grinding for is the truth."
This report essentially ended Bielen’s effort to save Stella Walsh. The information was out there, irrefutable. There was nothing more he could do. He never did file a lawsuit against Channel 3. The boycott didn’t amount to much.
The Walsh family bickered amongst each other, everyone accusing everyone else of leaking Walsh’s secret to the media. Thirty-three years later, the only family members left are nieces and nephews who never really knew their aunt. The house Walsh grew up in and lived the vast majority of her life is owned by someone with the Walasiewicz surname, but one who eschews interview requests and prefers to remain private. The shades are always drawn in the house, the door always closed.
Soon after Walsh returned to Cleveland from California, Dan Coughlin, a young sports reporter at the Plain Dealer, walked into the Sunrise Café, a bar and grill on East 71st Street, just south of Harvard Avenue in Cleveland. His editor had assigned him to write a story on Walsh.
Coughlin remembers finding Walsh behind the bar, where she made drinks and took telephone reservations for cottages on Kelley’s Island. It was early evening and the bar was empty.
He was shocked that such a remarkable athlete like Walsh would be relegated to tending bar in a joint that was empty at 5 p.m. Still, he sat there and talked with her for hours. A story ran in the paper the next day, and Coughlin became the guy she went to whenever she had an event or athlete who needed covered, or needed someone to remember who she was.
For Coughlin, though, the most memorable moment in his relationship with Walsh took place one day in 1967. Walsh challenged Coughlin, more than 30 years younger, to a 100-yard race. He tried to put her off, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer and he finally agreed to race her at Cuyahoga Heights field, a track at the end of East 71st Street, right on the edge of Slavic Village.
"I pull up there, take one last drag on my Pall Mall, grind out the butt on the cinder track," Coughlin says. "She has the girls’ track team out, driving starting blocks in. One girl has a starter’s pistol. A couple girls have stopwatches. Another group is holding a tape at the finish line. And there she is, dressed in her Olympic track outfit. She took this thing so seriously."
Walsh gave Coughlin a 10-yard head start. The pistol went off, and Coughlin outran the Olympian. Barely. Then Walsh told him his finish had merely qualified him for the finals, during which there would be no head start.
"The starting gun goes off and all she did was kick cinders into my face," he says. "She beat me by about 10 yards." She was still a champion.
The two went to a saloon after the race, where an ebullient Walsh proceeded to drink Coughlin under the table. After that, Coughlin was Walsh’s favorite reporter. Whenever she saw him, she gave him a huge, bear hug and planted a kiss on his lips.
"It was embarrassing," Coughlin remembers. "Of course, there were rumors about her.
"She was built like a man."
In the mid-1970s, Walsh started coaching a young Polish-American girl by the name of Terri Nolan. The two traveled to Poland in July 1977 for the Polish World Olympics in Krakow. Walsh, at the age of 67, ran in the Masters Division 60-meter sprint while Nolan, who was 15 years old and a sophomore in high school, ran the 400-meter and 100-meter races. Walsh, of course, won again, besting women who were more than 20 years younger. Nolan, who now lives in Maryland and has the last name Tomoff, also won both of her races.
Tomoff says that Walsh was a brilliant coach who never said an unkind word to her. For Walsh the coach, starts were of utmost importance. She was supportive, wanting nothing but the best for her athletes. Off the track, she was a funny, kind, gentle, woman who cared about her widowed mother more than anyone else on the planet.
And while Tomoff always wondered exactly what was going on with Walsh, gender-wise, she never said a word. It didn’t matter, anyway.
"I knew there was something different about Stella," says Tomoff. "But I went with it. It is what it is. She lived so supremely as a woman and never discussed that particular thing."
That was the thing about Walsh. She was always a lady. She may have looked like a man, but she lived every single day of her life as a woman, and an athlete. She never questioned her parents’ decision to raise her as a girl. She was who she was, and she seemed perfectly happy with that.
What does it mean to be male or female? How does one tell if you are male or female? For most people, the answer is easy. It’s an either-or proposition.
Most of us are baffled by those who live in the gray. Yet that’s just where Walsh lived.
We live in a black and white world that wants easy answers to easy questions. Most of us are baffled by those who live in the gray. Yet that’s just where Walsh lived, in a borderland then unrecognized. Just as she was never really accepted as either American or Polish as a sprinter, she was also neither entirely a man nor a woman. That did not mean, however, that she was more of one, or less of another, or, certainly, less a human being. She was just different.
Fully two months and one week after her death, the coroner’s report was released. It included the results of chromosomal testing.
"The majority of her cells examined had a normal X and Y chromosome, and a minority of her cells contained a single X chromosome and no Y chromosome," coroner Gerber wrote. Normal males have XY sex chromosomes, while females have XX. "Individuals with this form of sex chromosome mixture (called mosaicism) may present a variety of physical forms ranging from almost normal males to individuals that would be indistinguishable from females with Turner Syndrome (a condition in which females have just one X chromosome)."
Gerber added that when Walsh had been born, it would have been difficult to determine her sex. Gerber said that her penis likely became more evident in puberty.
This happened then, as it does now, more often than one might think. According to Dr. Milton Diamond, a professor at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine and director of the Pacific Center for Sex and Society, wholly one to two percent of all people in the world live in some intersex borderland, somewhere between male and female. As difficult as it may be for society to accept such variation, it is even more difficult in sports, which separately values achievements by men and women. Most recently, female South African runner Caster Semenya’s gender was questioned after she won the gold in the 800-meter at the 2009 World Championships. She was actually barred from competition for one year before being allowed to continue her running career, coming back and winning silver in the 2012 Olympics in the 800-meter race.
Walsh’s chromosomal condition explains her muscular build, her manly looks and the fact that she started going bald later in life. But does it fully explain why Walsh was able to dominate women’s athletics for the better part of her life? Is that the only reason Walsh was such a standout?
Look at the photos of Walsh and one can tell that, compared to her competition, she was physically superior. But does that mean she was a man? Does that mean she was a cheat? All because of her genetic makeup, her chromosomes, were different?
Despite the preponderance of the XY chromosome, Gerber ruled that, "Socially, culturally and legally, Stella Walsh was accepted as a female for 69 years. She lived and died a female."
Perhaps that was her greatest victory of all. The fact that, amid such confusion and anguish, such prejudice and uncertainty, Walsh lived her life as herself. In that, she was unambiguous.
She was nobody else but Stella.