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Barbara Howard is lively in speech, a little slowed in the flesh.

She spends most days at a seniors centre near her Burnaby home, lifting weights and stretching stiff muscles. The exercises are a routine she has maintained all her life and not one she is about to disrupt even after turning 90 earlier this month. Arthritis in a knee limits her mobility.

Once, she was one of the fastest women in an empire that covered one-quarter of the globe.

At 17, as a schoolgirl from eastside Vancouver, she boarded an ocean liner for a month-long voyage to Australia, where she was to compete as a sprinter at the British Empire Games. She had never even left the city of her birth before.

She returned thinking herself a failure.

"I thought I'd disappointed Canada," she said. "I was ashamed when I came home that I didn't have a gold medal."

She planned to earn redemption at the coming Olympics, but the outbreak of war led to the cancellation of the Games. Miss Howard completed her education.

She had not returned from Australia empty-handed. She brought home two medals and a prized souvenir. Only decades later, after working in near-anonymity as a physical-education teacher, her youthful athletic achievements ignored or forgotten, has she received belated recognition as a trailblazer.

Miss Howard is believed to have been the first black female athlete to represent Canada in international competition. One newspaper called her "the coloured flash."

She was still in elementary school when teachers first noticed her swiftness afoot. When the principal rang the school bell in the yard, she remembers sprinting the last block-and-a-half to arrive at her desk before the start of class. She was school champion in her senior year at Laura Secord Elementary, before moving on to Britannia High.

Her family had a long history in Vancouver, as her maternal grandfather arrived by train from Winnipeg soon after the city's incorporation. He owned and managed the Abbott Street Shaving Parlour and Baths, at No. 25, sandwiched between a hotel and a bakery.

Her mother, Cassie Scurry, a dressmaker, married Samuel Howard, an American-born stationary engineer. After her father died when she was 8, her mother's brother supported the household.

Though a neighbour addressed family members by an abhorrent, though common, racial epithet, Miss Howard does not remember much discrimination based on her skin colour.

"My mother was very protective of us," she said. "We had a happy life."

Her first track suit was a pair of men's long johns. Her mother dyed them navy blue. "They were warm," Miss Howard said. "They did me fine."

In Grade 11, still two years from graduation, she competed in a time trial, racing 100 yards in a stunning 11.2 seconds, besting the Games' record by one-tenth of a second.

The performance earned her a spot on the Canadian team.

The athletes left Vancouver on the Aorangi, a liner aboard which they trained as best they could. Including a stop at Fiji, the voyage lasted a numbing 28 days, long enough to spark at least one romance among the athletes. (Bill Dale, a runner from Victoria, and Mary Baggaley, a swimmer from Vancouver, later married. Mr. Dale died earlier this month.) Miss Howard shared a small cabin aboard ship with Ann Clark, manager and chaperone for the Canadian women's team.

The conditions at Sydney were primitive, and the athletes were bothered as well by heat and flies. One athlete in particular had to cope with the curiosity of crowds.

"Barbara Howard, dusky sprinter from B.C., caused quite a stir among Sydney's populace during her appearance at the Empire games," reported Globe sports columnist Fanny (Bobbie) Rosenfeld, an Olympic gold medal-winning relay sprinter. "She apparently was quite a novelty … appearing on the front page of every newspaper. They seldom see coloured athletes down there … the photographers and autograph seekers kept on her trail."

One admirer presented her with a stuffed koala bear, which she clutched tight to her chest.

Miss Howard finished sixth in the 100-yard dash, a half-second behind the Australian victor.

"I remember walking into the oval and being overwhelmed," she said. "None of my high-school gang were out there cheering for me."

She then managed to contribute to two relay teams, winning a silver and a bronze medal.

She returned home determined to make a faster run at the 1940 Tokyo Olympics. But the deteriorating world events led those Games to be moved to Helsinki before being cancelled. The 1938 British Empire Games would be the world's last great athletic competition for a decade, by which time Miss Howard's running days were over.

She finished her education, earning an education degree at the University of British Columbia. She became a teacher and a consultant, and continued her volunteer work with the United Church.

She does exercises and receives hand massages through the seniors' programs at the Confederation Centre in Burnaby, where, for many years, her peers were unaware of her athletic past. A few months ago, a poster series featuring women athletes were distributed to libraries and recreation centres in the Lower Mainland. One featured a smiling, 17-year-old girl holding a stuffed koala.

The doll now has moth holes and the black nose has faded, but it rests in a place of pride on a couch in her bedroom, a souvenir of a girl's unforgettable journey.

Special to The Globe and Mail