Dutch track athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen (1918–2004) ran so fast she was called “The Flying Housewife.” She was so fast she was given a bicycle to encourage her to slow down. She was so fast she was the first woman to win four Olympic gold medals and the first to do it at one Olympics. She was 30 at the time, the mother of two, and pregnant.
Blankers-Koen (pronounced kune) had a 30-year career in international track and field competition. She ran in the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki when she was 34 and finally retired at 37 after winning the Dutch national title in the shot put in 1955.
Francina Elsje Koen, born in the Netherlands’ town of Hoofddorp, was the only daughter of a prosperous government official. As a tall, lean teenager with five brothers, Blankers-Koen showed promise in a number of sports: tennis, swimming, gymnastics, ice skating, fencing, and running. Her swimming coach pushed her to pick one. She settled on track and was off and running.
She began competing in 1935, and made it to the Olympics the next year at just 18, finishing fifth in the women’s 4×100-meter relay and sixth in the high jump. She also met her hero there — American Jesse Owens — and his autograph became a treasured keepsake. In 1940 she married her coach, Jan Blankers, a former jumper and sports journalist who was 14 years her senior. She gave birth to her first child, a son, the following year. Although married women — let alone mothers — were not expected to continue their athletic careers in those days, Blankers-Koen was back on the track within weeks of giving birth. She later bore a daughter.
According to her obituary in The New York Times, Blankers-Koen carried her two children to her workouts in a bicycle basket, and trained just two hours a day, twice a week.
“I got very many bad letters, people writing that I must stay home with my children and that I should not be allowed to run on a track with — how do you say it? — short trousers,” she told the Times in 1982. “But I was a good mother. I had no time for much besides my house chores and training, and when I went shopping it was only to buy food for the family and never to buy dresses.”
Blankers-Koen was expected to shine in the 1940 Olympics, but both the 1940 and 1944 games were canceled because of World War II. Competition continued, however, in German-occupied Netherlands. Despite the difficulty of even finding enough food during the war years, Blankers-Koen set six new world records between 1942 and 1944.
At the 1948 summer Olympics in London, she won gold medals in four of the nine women’s track and field events — the 100 meters, the 80-meter hurdles (in which she set an Olympic record), the 200 meters, and the 4×100-meter relay. According to Olympic.org, she might have won more medals had Olympic rules not limited her to three individual events. At the time, she also held world records in the long and high jumps.
In her lifetime, she won five European titles and 58 Dutch championships, and set or tied 12 world records — the last, for the pentathlon, in 1951 at 33. She was honored by the International Association of Athletics Federations in 1999 as the Athlete of the Century and was knighted by Queen Juliana.
Her son told the Times in 1982, when Blankers-Koen was 64, “I remember when I was growing up, there were always so many people greeting my mother on the street that I was embarrassed. I’d walk five paces behind her. I don’t have that feeling anymore, but I still walk five paces behind her. That’s because she walks so fast. Mother still goes everywhere in a hurry.”
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called “Living with Grief.”