Women of the Year
Illustration by Patrick Faricy for TIME; AP, Getty
March 5, 2020 6:33 AM EST

Named the greatest female athlete of the 20th century by the Associated Press, Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, a tough-talking Texan, excelled in a stunning number of sports: track, golf, basketball, baseball, tennis, swimming, bowling and billiards among them. She was once asked if there was any sport she didn’t play. “Yeah, dolls,” she replied.

Born into a Norwegian immigrant family in 1911, Didrikson caught the eye of a Dallas insurance company with her basketball skills when she was 18; she quit school to join the firm’s Amateur Athletic Union hoops team. She was named an All-American from 1930 to 1932. In ’32, she was the sole representative of the Employers Casualty team at the U.S. amateur track-and-field championships; over the course of three hours, she finished first in five different events—broad jump, shot put, javelin, 80-m hurdles and baseball throw—and tied for first in the high jump, single-handedly outscoring every other team at the event. “Implausible is the adjective which best befits the Babe,” the New York Times later declared.

At the Olympics in Los Angeles a few weeks later, she became the only female Olympian ever to collect individual medals in a running, a throwing and a jumping event (the 80-m hurdles, javelin and high jump). That record still holds.

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Almost overnight, Didrikson shot to global fame. By refusing to conform to early–20th century expectations of femininity, Didrikson showed that women more than belonged on the playing field. They too could break athletic barriers, just like the men.

And yet, her athletic opportunities proved sparse. “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring,” one sports columnist wrote. Didrikson turned to vaudeville to make money. But even as she sang and played harmonica, she couldn’t be kept from competition. In 1934, Didrikson took her talents to the golf course. Over the next two decades she won 82 tournaments—-including an incredible 14 consecutive events in one stretch—and became a founding member of the LPGA. A year after being diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953, she won the U.S. Women’s Open by a record 12 strokes.

A proud pioneer of what’s now known as trash talk, she was unafraid to inform her competitors they were playing for second place. And how exactly did she launch those booming tee shots? “I just loosen my girdle,” Didrikson said, “and let the ball have it.” —Sean Gregory


This article is part of 100 Women of the Year, TIME’s list of the most influential women of the past century. Read more about the project, explore the 100 covers and sign up for our Inside TIME newsletter for more.

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