Friday, August 3, 2012


So competitive was multi-sport Babe Didrikson that it was hard for her to make friends on the women’s track and field team during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. 

Even though Babe was expected to medal in each of her 3 events, her bravado and boasting may have denied her from being voted team captain, which was awarded to high jumper JEAN SHILEY. 

But by the end of the Olympic Games, Babe Didrikson (who everyone thought was 19 since she’d fudged her birth year, but was really 21) would be a household name and the “teen-age” star of the entire event.

Babe’s first event was the day after the Opening Ceremonies, where she’d kicked off her tight new shoes in the Coliseum, to prevent the chance of getting blisters. The following afternoon, Babe competed in the javelin throw. Each athlete was given three attempts.  

On Babe’s first try, she let the javelin fly and her hand slipped off the cord. A sharp pain shot through her right shoulder. The javelin flew close to the surface before finally cutting into the ground. When it was measured, Babe had set an Olympic record and broken her own world record with a throw of 143 feet 4 inches. 

The stadium cheered and Babe was beaming, though she’d torn a cartilage in her shoulder and her next two throws were weak. But Babe never told anyone how much her shoulder hurt. She’d just won her first gold medal.

Two days later, it was time for the 80-meter hurdles. Babe Didrikson broke the Olympic and her own world record just qualifying for the finals. Her main rival for the event would be another teammate, EVELYNE HALL.
 Hall would race in the lane next to Babe for the finals. Full of energy, Babe jumped the gun and false started. But when the race finally went off, Hall surged ahead with Babe closing in fast. At the finish, Hall and Babe hit the tape together and it looked like dead heat.  Regardless, it was a new world record of 11.7 seconds. 

“I won!” Babe was said to have proclaimed. But Evelyne Hall thought she’d won too. The medal was awarded to Babe—her second gold medal, even though it appeared to be a dead heat. The outcome left Evelyne Hall with a disappointment she would never forget.

It was now time for the running high jump. Headlines around the world were all about BABE and her shot at winning a third gold medal. Once again, her main rival would be another American, JEAN SHILEY—who had tied Babe for first place in the National Championships. When the bar was raised to 5 feet 5 inches, only Babe and Shiley remained. Both cleared the new record height. It would take a a jump-off to determine gold. The bar was raised to 5 feet 6 inches. Shiley jumped first and missed. Babe went and cleared the height but struck the standard on the way down and the bar toppled, deeming her attempt a miss, also.

The bar was lowered to 5 feet 5 ¼ inches and this time, Shiley made it. Then Babe rolled in midair and cleared it, too, but the judges ruled it a dive, even though Babe had been jumping the same Western roll style all along. The jump was disqualified and Babe had to settle for silver.
But that wasn't really the end of Babe Didrikson’s Olympic journey. She’d been asked to play a round of golf  right after her final competition with legendary sportswriters like Grantland Rice. That fateful day off the track would set the stage for Babe to excel in another sport as no woman had done before. Her new talent in golf would cause Rice to proclaim Babe as: “The most flawless specimen of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical co-ordination the world of sport has ever known.”



“What is it that sparks a story?” A reader asked me that question recently. For some writers it can be how an experience made them feel, an article they can’t get out of their mind, or a culmination of similar experiences that build until they’re strong enough to compound and shape a story.

For me it was the look of a nine-year-old boy I barely knew in the 4-H barn at the county fair.

He’d just finished telling me about his mischievous show calf and how the steer would bolt into the field when the trailer came out, putting the boy’s father in a patch full of pricker bushes. Shortly after telling me that story, the boy was told to lead his calf—the first one he’d ever shown--into the ring to sell at the auction. I followed behind and overheard an older competitor give the boy some advice: “Leave a bucket of water and the halter on the hay bale after its sold and you’re done!”

The inspiration for ELI in my novel, LITTLE JOE
When the boy and his calf entered the show ring, the boy looked as if he’d seen a ghost. Around and around he went with his show animal, until the bidding stopped.

I’ll never forget the look of that young boy once he’d sold his calf. He’d fled into the midway after letting go of the reins, but not before revealing his pain. And I knew I had to write about what he’d been feeling. That I had the end of my story, and now I had to go back to the beginning.

That was four years ago today. It was also a picture book manuscript-turned-into-a-middle-grade novel, later. The Wayne County Fair in Honesdale, Pennsylvania begins this weekend, and it’s where I found my story. The tiny, rural community near Scranton also shaped the first ten years of my married life and enabled me to become a writer, in an office surrounded by cow pastures and wildlife I could see up close for the first time.

I think about the hundreds of kids I watched compete at that Fair back then--sometimes for 10 days at a time--of how much I learned, and how they inspired so many characters in my novel,  Little Joe.