It was 1948. Fanny Blankers-Koen was 30 years old, a mother of two, and pregnant with her third child when she stepped on the track at the London Olympics. But it was not without skepticism. Her critics argued she should stay at home, that running at all while pregnant was dangerous. Plus, she was a mother. Perhaps it was time for her to leave athletic pursuits behind. After all, she’d already competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics as an 18-year-old.
It was in that moment that Blankers-Koen made history. She ran—and won—the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and the 4x100m relay, becoming the first women ever to take home four Olympic Gold medals. It’s a victorious sweep that still stands today.
Blankers-Koen (then Koen) was born in 1918 in Lage Vuusche, a small town in the Netherlands. Her dad was a track and field athlete (he threw the shotput and discuss), and she grew up surrounded by five brothers. So, it was no surprise Koen became an athlete. While she competed in a handful of sports, it wasn’t until she started running that she found her stride.
In her third race ever—the 800m—the 17-year-old Blankers-Koen set a national record, landing her a spot on the 1936 Dutch Olympic Team. But she couldn’t compete … at least not at that distance. You see, the Olympic powers that be deemed a half mile “too physically demanding for female contestants.” So, they removed it. Completely. (It would not be re-added to the program until 1960!)
Shortly after Koen's record-setting performance, she met her coach and future husband, Olympic triple jumper Jan Blankers. Under his guidance, she trained for both sprinting events and the high jump. Off to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, she went. She was 18.
Throughout the following years, even with two Olympic cancelations because of World War II, Blankers-Koen continued to win races and set track records around the globe, while simultaneously starting a family. (She miraculously returned to training and competition mere weeks after giving birth to her first son).
Still, she would spend her whole athletic life as a target for her choices to pursue athletics as a mother. But that, perhaps more than her four Olympic gold medals, is what makes Blankers-Koen such an extraordinary female athletic role model. Her commitment to her athletics paved the way for generations of women to come. Blankers-Koen no doubt played a significant role in eradicating the idea that motherhood was a hindrance to athletic success. On April 25, 2018, she would have turned 100 years old.
Top photo: By IISG (08-03-1947_02340 Fanny Blankers-Koen) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Bottom photo: By Snikkers / Anefo [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons