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North Dakota’s gold medal winner who nobody knows about

Published: Aug. 2, 2021 at 5:35 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - With the Olympics in full swing, you might be wondering how many North Dakotans have won gold medals at the Games. The answer: three.

You may be familiar with the most recent winners, the Lamoureux twins, who won gold with the US Women’s hockey team in 2018, but the first gold medal winner leapt to the top of the track and field in a remarkable way.

Ethel Catherwood was born in Hannah, North Dakota in 1908. At an early age, her family moved to Scott, Saskatchewan, where she developed into a world-class athlete. Ethel’s biggest hurdle was her gender.

“Part of it was, of course, that women’s athletics, up to that time, were largely nonexistent,” said Doug Wick, a North Dakota author who wrote about Catherwood.

That all changed in 1928, when women were allowed to compete for the first time in track and field at the Olympic Games. Wick feels she was an athlete ahead of her time saying, “She was a pioneer, no doubt about it, in women’s sports.”

Even though she was the first North Dakotan to win a gold medal, she’s largely unknown in her home state and she’s never been considered for the state’s highest honor.

“She’s never had a nomination from anybody,” said Mike Kennedy, Deputy Communications Director for the Governor’s office.

There are several reasons why Catherwood remains a mystery to most North Dakotans. She competed for Canada in the 1928 games, winning a gold medal in high jump. After that, she shunned the spotlight and retired from athletic competitions in 1930.

“Yeah, she’s not ineligible by any means. She could be nominated still,” said Kennedy.

In Canada, Catherwood is recognized as one of the country’s great female athletes. Her image has appeared on a postage stamp and she’s a member of the Canada Sports Hall of Fame. It remains to be seen whether she’ll attain that acclaim in her home state.

The Lamoureux sisters were inducted into the North Dakota Roughrider Hall of Fame last month. So why hasn’t Ethel been inducted yet? Kennedy says its because, for the most part, she wasn’t a big part of the North Dakota community and never returned to the state.

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