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When the Flying Housewife Flew the Highest
Dudley Doust
January 20, 1969
Despite homesickness, worry over her small children and the grim awareness of her advancing age, Fanny Blankers-Koen managed to take four gold Olympics in medals at the 1948 London
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January 20, 1969

When The Flying Housewife Flew The Highest

Despite homesickness, worry over her small children and the grim awareness of her advancing age, Fanny Blankers-Koen managed to take four gold Olympics in medals at the 1948 London

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On July 29, 1948, the warmest day of a warm English summer, King George VI stood up in Wembley's Empire Stadium to announce, cautious of his stammer, "I proclaim open the Olympic Games of London." Some 6,000 athletes, from every major country except Russia, Germany and Japan, were waiting to compete. One of them was a Dutch mother with corn-colored hair named Mrs. Francina Elsje Blankers-Koen (pronounced Koon). A distinguished athlete in her home country, Fanny Koen was known throughout much of Europe as "The Flying Housewife," and time and again her photograph had appeared in the press: pedaling toward practice with her children plopped in the basket of her bicycle; high-jumping, with the little ones playing in the pit below her. She trained twice a week ("between washing dishes and darning socks") and became, quite rightly, a symbol of the hope and sanity beginning to emerge from the ruins of World War II.

When Fanny and her husband-coach Jan Blankers traveled to London that summer, their children were left in Amsterdam with Fanny's father, who wished her goodby with the promise, "Win, and I will dance around the kitchen table." His daughter was entered in five Olympic events: the 100- and 200-meter dashes, the 80-meter hurdles, the 400-meter relay and the long jump. "I left out the high jump," recalls Mrs. Blankers, who had tied for sixth place in that event at Berlin in 1936, "because I thought I might pull a muscle."

The 100 meters was her first event. Fanny got through her heat and semifinal races with ease, leaving intact the Olympic record of 11.5 seconds set by Helen Stephens of the U.S. at Berlin. On the day of the finals, Monday, she awoke at 5 o'clock, peered out at London's damp, grimy weather, then went back to bed for another try at sleep.

By race time, despite a needling rain, Fanny's nerves were settled. She beat the British girl, Dorothy Manley, by five feet, in 11.9 seconds, a respectable time considering the weather, and, for the first time in the Games, her number—692 —was hung at the top of the scoreboard. The English band broke, uncertainly, into Wilhelmus, the national anthem of The Netherlands. A Dutch radiocaster came up with his microphone. "Poppa," Fanny said into it, "dance now around the kitchen table."

Qualification for the long jump and the finals for the 80-meter hurdles were scheduled for the same day, and Mrs. Blankers was faced with a choice: should she try for both and maybe lose, or concentrate on just one? She chose the hurdles for the feminine reason that it was nicer, "nicer even than flat running, which can be boring." The Olympic record of 11.6 seconds was held by Italy's Trebisonda Valla. Mrs. Blankers' chief rival in London again was a British girl, the pretty young ballet teacher Maureen Gardner.

Miss Gardner's arrival at the track was a psychological coup. As Mrs. Blankers tells it, "I saw she had brought her own hurdles. Any athlete who carries her own hurdles around must really be top-class." Nevertheless, the un-psyched Fanny won her heat handily while the English girl hit a hurdle and barely qualified for the finals in hers. Rain fell all through that night and on through the following morning. It was still prancing in the puddles when the girls arrived at the track for the finals. Mrs. Blankers had spent a restless night. She ate no breakfast. A letter from Amsterdam said the children missed her. She ate no lunch. She refused to sign autographs. But at the track her husband gathered her wits with a neat, five-word crack. "Fanny," he said, "you are too old." Miss Gardner was 19.

The rivals drew adjacent lanes, which suited Mrs. Blankers; from there she could keep an eye on the youngster. When called to their marks they crouched together at the starting line; when told to get set they rose on their fingertips. Then an odd thing happened. Or didn't happen. The pistol didn't go off. Then it did.

Mrs. Blankers' rhythm was upset. She got away a split stride behind the English girl and followed her over the first hurdle. By the second one she had drawn even; then, according to films, she fell fractionally behind, only to regain the lead. The two were legging it spike to spike for the fifth hurdle, where Mrs. Blankers took off late. She hit the hurdle. Now she recalls: "What happened after that was a blurred memory. My style went to pieces, and I staggered in like a drunkard." What happened after that was a nightmare.

Mrs. Blankers had felt the tape drag across her forehead yet, through the corner of one "drunkard's" eye she saw not only the English girl but the great young Australian, Shirley Strickland, as well. It appeared a triple dead heat. The runners waited, shambling about, while the judges studied the photographs of the finish. The band suddenly erupted into God Save the King, and Mrs. Blankers' heart slumped. The band was not saluting a winner, however, but King George, who had just entered the royal box.

At length the winning time was announced: 11.2 seconds, a new world and Olympic record—set identically by Miss Gardner and Mrs. Blankers. The number 692 at last appeared at the top of the scoreboard. Gold medal No. 2 for the Dutch woman. Dutifully, the band played Wilhelmus again.

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