- The Forgotten Legacy of Stella Walsh: The Greatest Female Athlete of Her Time by Sheldon Anderson
With The Forgotten Legacy of Stella Walsh: The Greatest Female Athlete of Her Time, Sheldon Anderson recovers and recognizes the importance of Walsh, the Polish-American track-and-field champion who competed for more than three decades. In nine chronological chapters, in addition to a prologue and epilogue, Anderson recounts Walsh's extended array of achievements, from her 100-meter gold medal win for Poland at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics to her American Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) pentathlon performances past age fifty. Through research conducted in multiple archives, as well as a review of American and Polish newspapers, Anderson convincingly demonstrates that Walsh should be celebrated alongside the likes of Babe Didrikson as one of the greatest women athletes of the mid–twentieth century. However, despite Anderson's detailed research, Walsh remains a great enigma. More critically, Anderson misses an opportunity to explore the ways in which the significance of Stella Walsh to sport history exceeds her quantifiable athletic accomplishments.
In his effort to revitalize the legacy of Walsh, Anderson compensates for a shortage of primary sources by situating her in the larger historical context, providing information about developments in Poland, the immigrant communities in Walsh's hometown of Cleveland, and the culture of women's sport in the United States and Europe. Evincing his expertise in Eastern European history, Anderson offers particularly thorough descriptions of Polish politics and culture. He also uses the experiences of other ambitious Polish women who [End Page 402] immigrated to the United States, such as silent film star Pola Negri, to fill in the silences in Walsh's story. Yet, while insightful, this information does not enhance our understanding of Walsh. Instead of placing Walsh at the center of a historical web of developments that may have informed her life, using her as a window into the social and cultural conditions of women in sport could better have highlighted how and why she is an influential, essential figure in the history of sport. This approach would allow for a critical analysis of the "intersecting path of national allegiance, ethnic loyalty, and gender identity" that constitute Walsh's story (ix).
Most especially, Walsh's experiences offer an opportunity to consider how sport has served as a space of identity formation for women. Throughout his work, Anderson includes quotations from Walsh about her national allegiance. Depending on the conditions of the moment, Walsh differentially claimed her Polishness or Americanness, with Anderson affirming her national identifications. For instance, following her participation in the 1930 Millrose Games, Walsh stated, "I didn't just feel like Stella Walsh then, but as if I was part of every girl in the United States," (38). However, prior to the 1932 Olympics, Walsh told reporters, "I am running for Poland because I am a Pole" (56). These contradictions require analysis; they offer an opportunity to explore the ways in which Walsh wrestled with her identity. An examination of her assertions of her nationality could provide an intriguing perspective of how an immigrant woman athlete perceived as gender nonconforming sought to make sense of the different identity categories imposed on her.
Furthermore, Walsh's navigation of her gender identity and others' perceptions of it could provide a valuable contribution to the historiography of women's sport. Throughout the biography, Anderson frequently references the rumors that surrounded Walsh's sex, introducing instances of such questioning before quickly moving on to other aspects of her story. While rightfully remaining true to the sources by refusing to engage in speculations about Walsh's self-understanding that exceeded her self-reported experiences, a more concerted analysis of her choices and actions productively could complicate Walsh's story and convince the reader of her broader importance. In sport history, an athlete's off-track, as much as her on-track, characteristics determine her perceived historical importance. For example, the combination of Wilma Rudolph's...