Puyallup woman broke barriers at 1936 Olympics

Gertrude Stelling Willhelmsen finished fourth in javelin competiton

Puyallup Historical SocietyApril 23, 2014 

Pierce County has had only a handful of athletes qualify for Olympic track and field events. Yet in 1936, two people from Puyallup High School competed in Berlin.

Last month, we remembered “Shorty” Hunt and his Olympic gold medal. Gertrude Stelling Wilhelmsen, who also competed in those Games, warrants equal coverage.

Olympic track and field events opened to women in the 1928 Games. Four years later, Stelling Wilhelmsen, who had the state high school record in the javelin throw, entered the U.S. Olympics team trials, and finished fourth, just out of contention for the 1932 team.

She returned home, married, had a baby and continued to train with the high school team for a spot in 1936. That summer, her sister, Hildegard, a runner, traveled with Gertrude to the U.S. team trials in Rhode Island. There, Stelling Wilhelmsen qualified in both discus (second place) and javelin (third place), but her sister failed to qualify as a runner.

At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Stelling Wilhelmsen placed seventh in the discus and eighth in the javelin — highest among her U.S. teammates.

Stelling Wilhelmsen’s achievements are documented in the book “Puyallup: A Pioneer Paradise,” which contains a delightful publicity photograph of Stelling Wilhelmsen receiving last-minute javelin-throwing tips from a competitor from Montana. The attractive young track star was quite a hit with her fellow Americans because she spoke German and could interpret for them.

Stelling Wilhelmsen remained a sports enthusiast all her life. During World War II, she played shortstop and center field for the Tacoma Tigerettes, a fast-pitch team, and later she competed and set records in the Washington state Senior Games.

Laurie Minnich played golf with Stelling Wilhelmsen and said that she could certainly hit the ball.

In 1996, at the age of 83, she carried the Olympic Torch on one leg of its journey to Atlanta.

Today, Shorty’s oar hangs above the trophy case at the main entrance to Puyallup High School and Stelling Wilhelmsen’s track shoes appear in the middle of the case.

In the Puyallup Public Library, the display of the “Boys in the Boat” crew race will shortly be followed by an exhibit on the intrepid Gertrude.

Andy Anderson: 253-848-1770

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