In her sole Olympic appearance, Canada’s Ethel Catherwood, nicknamed the “Saskatoon Lily” by legendary sports writer Lou Marsh, was the most photographed female athlete at Amsterdam 1928. Just weeks before the Games, Catherwood lost her high jump world record to Dutchwoman Lien Gisolf, who was competing in front of her home crowd in Amsterdam. When the bar was raised to 5-2½, (1.59m), only Catherwood was successful in front of a wildly partisan crowd, winning the first ever Olympic gold medal awarded in women’s high jump. She was the first Canadian woman to be crowned Olympic champion.
Catherwood was a member of the “Matchless Six”, the group of Canadian women who competed at Amsterdam 1928, the first Olympic Games to allow women to participate in athletics. She was a talented javelin thrower, but unfortunately for Catherwood, it was not contested at Amsterdam 1928. Upon returning to her home in Saskatoon, the Olympic champion, now a national hero, was greeted with a large, joyous celebration and presented with a $3000 education trust fund to put towards her piano studies. She was also offered, and declined, two motion picture roles.
Catherwood was born in North Dakota and moved with her family at the age of 17 to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. An all-around athlete, Catherwood also excelled in basketball and baseball. She first became well-known in Canadian athletics in July 1926 when she set a national high jump record of 4-11½ (1.51m) in Saskatoon, and then cleared 5-2 7/16 (1.585m) to set her first world record a few months later. At the 1927 Canadian AAU Championships, Catherwood won the high jump and the javelin throw. In 1928, she successfully defended her high jump and javelin titles, setting her second world high jump record of 5-3 (1.60m) and a Canadian record in the javelin of 118-8.
Following Amsterdam 1928, Catherwood competed for a few more years, winning Canadian titles in high jump and javelin in 1930 as well as another javelin title in 1931 to go with a bronze in high jump. Hampered by a series of injuries, Catherwood retired from athletics.
Catherwood married twice and divorced twice. She lived the rest of her life in California, remaining highly secretive and avoiding public or media attention. She never spoke of her Olympic experience, sold all of her medals and trophies, denied all interview requests, and would not respond to any invitations of reunions. Even her death in Grass Valley, California in 1987 was not known publically until eight months later in 1988.
Catherwood was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 1949, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1955, Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 1966, and Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame in 1986.
|Amsterdam 1928||Athletics||High Jump - Women||Gold|