Almost 100 years has passed since the first Canadian Women’s Olympic team, “The Matchless Six”, competed at the 1928 Olympic Games. Since then, women continue to push the boundaries on the stereotypes of what women athletes look like and what they are capable of accomplishing. Since joining the Olympic Games, women’s teams continued to grow, gaining international recognition. In 1981, following a series of legal battles regarding discrimination, the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport (CAAWS) was created. As recently as 2018, Canadian athlete Christa Deguchi, made history after becoming the first female to bring home a medal in the World Judo Championships. As many celebrate Women’s History Month, we want to honor the stories of a few women athletes who broke down boundaries to play the sports they loved, even when they did not look how society expected.
“The Matchless Six”
In the 1928 Amsterdam summer Olympic Games, six Canadian women made history by competing in athletics and gymnastics for the first time: Fanny Rosenfeld, Jean Thompson, Myrtle Cook, Florence Jane Bell, Ethel Smith and Ethel Catherwood. They were later deemed the “The Matchless Six” and showed a versatility in sports that is admirable by any standards. Ethel Catherwood became the first female to bring home gold in the high jump. Thompson and Rosenfeld both ran in the 800 meter race (which was soon deemed too difficult for female athletes and removed from the Olympic Games until 1960). In the Olympic Games that year, all six girls competed and excelled in the relay, 100 meter, 800 meter, and high jump. Beyond the games, the girls excelled in many other sports, including softball, basketball, hockey, tennis, baseball, and javelin throw. Cook and Rosenfeld finished their career by advocating for women’s athletics.
In September of 1954, an unlikely young athlete made history by becoming the first person to swim across Lake Ontario. This unlikely athlete was a 16 year old girl at just 5’1”, Marilyn Bell. The swim that spanned an entire day ended up being much longer than required because of weather conditions, and Bell swam an astonishing 51.5 kilometers. When interviewed about what motivated her, Bell said all her supporters back home made her feel happy to keep going. She continued her career in swimming, breaking more records as the youngest athlete to cross the English Channel.
Abigail “Ab” Hoffman
Abigail Hoffman, who went by “Abby” or “Ab”, started playing hockey with her older brothers at the age of three. By the time she was eight, she was asking her parents to join an organized sports team. However, this was 1956, and as with many sports of the time, women’s teams were not a priority. So despite women playing hockey since its inception, there were no female team options in the Toronto Hockey League when Hoffman’s parents arrived on registration day. A very determined Abby Hoffman made her way to the officials anyway and applied on her own. What a surprise her parents received a few days later when they received a call that “their son” had been accepted onto a boy’s team. Hoffman’s tomboy looks, and a lot of luck, carried her through several months on the boy’s team with no issues. She earned a name for being a defenseman and almost earned a nomination to an all-star league. Her secret was discovered upon a second look at her birth certificate when they verified her age. Since no rules existed at that time barring females to play on the team, she was allowed to finish the season, though similar rules were created in years following. Hoffman then went on to a successful athletic career in swimming and track, competing in several competitions and the Olympic Games. She was also active in sports administration and a supporter of women’s athletic teams, with the Abby Hoffman Cup created in her honor.
Also making history in 1956, Lucile Wheeler brought home the first medal for a Canadian skier. Wheeler began skiing at the age of two and was competing by the age of 10. However, like many record breaking athletes, Wheeler did not look the part. She was one of the first skiers in Canada to wear a helmet during competition. Early helmets offered little in the way of protection, or fashion for that matter, but it offered Wheeler confidence that led to gold medals in 1958. Thanks in part to her boldness, helmets became a regular part of skiing competitions and increased safety protocols. Now Wheeler is joined by a long line of successful Canadian Alpine Skiers that dominate international and Olympic competitions.
Like many of her predecessors, Christa Deguchi doesn’t seem to fit the stereotype that so many people hold for female athletes. A quiet, petite figure is what you see in many photographs of her off the mat, but her strength shines through during competitions. She started her Judo career in Japan, but as her father was Canadian, she later trained in Montreal and currently represents Canada. In interviews, she has expressed the difference in culture between Japan and Canada regarding Judo, and how she has learned to understand and adjust to this change. Despite the difference, she attributes her current motivation to the relaxed nature and positivity of her current coaches. Deguchi became the first Judoka to bring home a medal for Canada, taking bronze at the 2018 World Judo Championships. She is currently looking to bring home a medal in the postponed 2020 Olympic Games.
Continuing the Fight to Overcome Stereotypes
Since the beginning of modern sports, female athletes have actively participated and excelled but women have always had the added challenge of overcoming society’s preconceived notions of what a female athlete should look like. When Marilyn Bell swam Lake Ontario, she had to overcome the idea that women are not built for sports requiring stamina. Abby Hoffman knew at an early age that the boys team would not accept her as a girl because girls are thought to be too weak for a full contact sport like hockey. Lucile Wheeler fought the idea that women should be feminine or look a certain way when she chose to wear the bulky new helmet that led to profound changes in ski safety. These women and many more show that female athletes are strong and capable in sports, just as they are. Women athletes will continue the fight to overcome societal challenges, and their stories never fail to inspire future generations.