Penny Sized History: The Matchless Six

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For Canada, there was a great deal of excitement leading up to the 1928 Amsterdam Summer Olympics. In all, 62 men and seven women would take part in 49 events across eight sports. Many expected Canada to do well, but due to the era, most thought that success would come from the men, rather than the women.
They could not have been more wrong.

The 1928 Olympics would be the first time that women would compete in track and field, and Canada’s group of competitors would include six track athletes and one swimmer. At the time, it was believed by many that women lacked the strength and stamina to compete at the Olympic level, but once again, critics could not have been more wrong.

The Matchless Six, as they would come to be called, were made up of Canada’s six female track competitors. They were Florence Jane Bell, Ethel Catherwood, Myrtle Cook, Fanny Rosenfeld, Ethel Smith and Jean Thompson.
Quickly, they made names for themselves and became the talk of the Olympic Games.
Rosenfeld and Smith would capture silver and bronze for Canada in the 100 metre race, while Rosenfeld, Smith, Bell and Cook would take home gold and record time in the women’s relay race. In the high jump, Catherwood took the only gold medal won by a Canadian woman in Olympic track and field.
All in all, the women took home four medals and first place in the unofficial standings in women’s track.
Upon returning home, the women were greeted as national heroes by enthusiastic crowds.
Thanks to their stellar efforts, they proved that women could compete at the Olympic level and that Canada had some of the best athletes in the world.
Let’s look at the women of the Matchless Six, who were in many ways a dream team of athletics.

Fanny Rosenfeld
Born in Russia in 1904, she came to Canada with her parents when she was only an infant.
Rosenfeld excelled at many sports in her life including basketball, hockey, tennis, softball and track and field.
Her ability in athletics was evident early on when she took part in the 1925 Ontario Ladies Track and Field Championships. In one day, she won first in the discus, shot put, 220-yard dash, low hurdles and long jump, while taking second in the javelin and 100-yard dash. As a hockey player in the 1920s, she was called the Superwoman of Ladies’ Hockey.
In 1933, due to arthritis, she retired from competing but would begin coaching throughout the decade. In 1936, she became a journalist and would cover women’s sports for the next 18 years.
She would become a strong advocate for women in sports as a coach, sports administrator and writer for the Globe and Mail. She would be named Canada’s Female Athlete Of The Half-Century and the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award is named in her honour and given to the top female athlete of the year.
She would pass away in 1969. Bobbie Rosenfeld Park in Toronto is named for her. In 2016, she was a finalist to have a banknote honouring her.

Ethel Catherwood
Born in North Dakota in 1908, Catherwood was raised and educated in Saskatoon. She excelled at baseball, basketball and track and field. In 1926, she would break the British-held high jump record, which led to her further success in the event in the 1928 Olympics.
At the games, many journalists focused on her physical attributes and she was called the Saskatoon Lily. The New York Times called her the prettiest girl athlete of the games, showing the still prevalent sexism of the time.
Today, she still remains the only Canadian female athlete to win an individual gold medal in track and field.
Following the 1928 Games, she was offered a movie contract, which she turned down.
She would retire from competitions in 1931 and take a business course before getting married and moving to California.
In 1955, she was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, followed by an induction in Saskatchewan’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1966. In 1986, she would be inducted into the Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame.
She would pass away in California in 1987.

Ethel Smith
Born in Toronto in 1907 to a poor family, Smith would lead a life of perseverance that showed in her Olympic success. She would quit school at 14 in order to help support her family, but would train and compete outside of her work in order to become a world-class athlete. She would win the 220-yard event at the national championships in 1927 and the 60-yard competition at the Ontario Championships in 1929. She would retire from competition that same year and pass away in 1979.

Jane Bell
Born in Toronto in 1910, Bell was a gifted runner, especially in the 100-yard event. In addition to being a world-class runner, she also excelled at swimming, curling and golfing.
Following her running career, she would become a physical education teacher at Margaret Easton School of Physical Culture in Toronto. She passed away in 1998 in Florida.

Myrtle Cook
Born in Toronto in 1902, Cook excelled at hockey, bowling, cycling and tennis. Following the 1928 Olympics, she would continue to compete before retiring from competition in 1931. She would help to establish the Toronto Ladies Athletic Club, the first of its kind in Canada. Widely respected, she would coach the men’s baseball team, the Montreal Royals, in base-running techniques and during the Second World War she was involved in training military recruits. She served on nearly every Canadian Olympic and Commonwealth Games committee from 1932 to 1972, giving her the honour of taking part in 11 Olympic Games in one form or another. She would pass away in 1985.

Jean Thompson
Born in Toronto in 1910 as the fifth of seven children, her family would move to Hamilton during her youth. In 1924, her mother sadly died in a car accident and the following year she began to train in athletics. By 1928, she had won the national title in the 800 metre, setting a world record in the process.
In addition to excelling in running, she won national titles in 1929 in shot put, discus throw and the long jump. In 1930, she graduated from the Margaret Easton School of Physical Education, and later worked for a brokerage firm. In 1933, she settled in Quebec with her husband. She would pass away in 1976.

While the Matchless Six get most of the attention for Canada at the 1928 Olympics, there was a seventh female athlete and I would like to at least speak about her.
She was Dorothy Prior, born in 1901 in England, she would compete in the Women’s 200 metre breaststroke, taking fourth in Heat Three. She would go back to compete in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, taking third in Heat One. It is not known when she died.

Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, Canadian Women In International Sports, Sports-Reference.com and Web Archive.

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