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A Story of Olympic Proportions

A New Documentary looms on Stella Walsh, Cleveland's Own Intersex Olympian and perhaps the greatest female athlete in history: Our Q&A director Rob Lucas

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Doug Brown: On the documentary's Facebook page and website, I see you were reaching out and asking people for information on Stella. How important has that been to the documentary.

Rob Lucas: It's been pretty helpful, there have been a few people who responded who didn't know her well but  who led me to people who did. Part of the problem is she died 33 years ago, and when she did, she was almost 70 years old and most of her friends were that old too, so it's been tough to find people who knew her well. There were a lot of people who were coached by her, a lot of people she knew at bars. It has been difficult, but I have found people who knew her fairly well.

What do you want to do with it once it's done?

My goal is festivals, it's probably going to be pretty short, it's going to be under 20 minutes. My original goal was for it to be feature-length, but because she was such a private person, it's not like she wrote a book about her gender. In most of the interviews she conducted, it was just about her running and her time, so finding that personal element about her has been difficult so it's going to be short.

So what was it like gathering information on the story? I saw the teaser video online with old news clips and interviews.

That's the fun part --  it's the hunt. It's like a little treasure hunt finding little clues that lead to you something else. When you do find something really cool, that's the exciting part. I really do enjoy doing research, it's part of what I do at my job so I think I'm pretty good at it. I got to one point maybe a year ago where I realize I may have found all of the footage that I can find. It's also one of the most frustrating things, that so many people who knew her really well are dead and some of what I'm looking for is in a basement in Slavic Village somewhere and someone's grandkids don't even know it's there. Who knows? I was never able to find the holy grail I'm looking for, but I think I have a very good succinct story about her life and her gender.

How do you think she would be viewed today? Obviously back then there wasn't as much knowledge about the gender issues she was dealing with.

I think she would probably still keep it a secret, but now with the Olympics, it would be much more public. Caster Semenya is the African runner who has had questions about her gender recently, and she still kind of keeps it ambiguous. Even the Olympic committee has stated that she had to undergo gender testing and that they would not release the results, but would just say that she was allowed to race as a woman. I think that Stella would be in a very similar situation as Caster in the sense that people would probably question her gender. She probably would have gone under the genetic testing. Because we don't know what Caster's status is, I'm guessing Stella would probably be allowed to run one way or another, probably as a woman.

Was Stella's gender ever really brought up in the 1930s and '40s? What have you found out about that?

I found that people somewhat speculated in the news media using specific terms. I think most people suspected that she was a lesbian, but I don't necessarily think that people thought she was a man. One interesting story about the 1936 Olympics was that Stella ran against a woman named Helen Stephens and it was a huge rivalry between the two. Helen was an American from Missouri. Stella, although she lived almost her entire life in the United States, ran for Poland. Helen was one of the fastest young people who had never run in the Olympics and Stella was following up on her win in '32. When they raced, Helen won the gold, Stella won the silver. There was a rumor that Stella accused Helen of being a man and Helen had to, that year, undergo a physical test to prove that she was a woman to keep her gold medal. Even back then, people were accusing other athletes and even the news media had questioned whether Helen Stephens was a man. Strangely enough, I didn't really read much from the '30s accusing Stella of being a man, but I read a lot of things like that Stella doesn't have a boyfriend, or that she isn't married yet, or she likes to spend time with women.

With Russia's anti-gay laws and the upcoming Olympics, how do you think Stella would handle that?

I've kind of speculated on that. I mentioned on my Stella Walsh Facebook page that she was, at first, very opposed to having the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. She had been around Europe and saw how much anti-semitism there was, especially coming from Germany, and she toured around Cleveland with a Cleveland Rabbi, opposing the Olympics being in Berlin. I think there was one part that kind of changed her mind, it was that she was so competitive and she wanted to go back to get another gold, that she realized at one point that protesting might hurt her chance of going back to the Olympics, so she kind of stopped. I didn't know her, but she was such a unique individual that I can see her protesting against [Russia's law].

So what's your major takeaway from the Stella Walsh story?

At least for me, this isn't totally specific to Stella, but what a spectrum gender is. Whenever I read articles about gender, especially in the mainstream news media, in a lot of the comments I read people saying there's man and woman and no in between. That is just not true, especially not a psychological level but even on a physical and genetic level. If you took a look at Stella's DNA and chromosomes, it would still be difficult to say if she was a man or a woman. Even the coroner said Stella Walsh lived her entire life and died as a woman. As far as I know, she never posed as a man, she never competed as a man. What does make gender?

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