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Shirley Olafsson of Vancouver went from crutches to the pinnacle of athletic competition in just six years.BC Sports Hall of Fame/BC Sports Hall of Fame

On a cold English summer afternoon, the world’s best female high jumpers huddled beneath blankets to await their turn to challenge the bar.

Among the competitors was 21-year-old Shirley (née Gordon) Olafsson of Vancouver, a clerk in the Hudson’s Bay Co.’s business office. The journey to London for the Olympics had been arduous – a transcontinental train ride followed by a five-day ocean voyage aboard the Aquitania in which all 15 Canadian female athletes and their manager shared a steerage cabin and dined in the third-class eating saloon on F Deck.

As difficult as it was to get to London in 1948, the athlete’s trek was nothing compared to what she overcame to become a world-class competitor. She had been born with a clubfoot. Her left heel had no bone and she endured several childhood operations, stunting the growth of her foot. She wore braces on her leg throughout childhood and needed crutches to walk until high school.

To appreciate her athletic achievements, one statistic stands out – her right shoe size was 9½, her left 5½.

In just six years, she went from crutches to the pinnacle of athletic competition.

Ms. Olafsson, who has died at 92, did not win a medal at the Olympics, nor did she win a paper diploma, an honour introduced at the London Games for those finishing in fourth, fifth or sixth place. (It has since been expanded to include seventh- and eighth-place finishers.) She finished in a tie for 11th.

She also competed at the British Empire Games in 1950 in Auckland, N.Z., a voyage aboard the Aorangi lasting longer than the competition. The high jumper finished in a tie for fifth.

While she eagerly promoted the March of Dimes and other charities, she took up sport at age of 15, in Grade 10, because it looked to her to be fun. At first, she was rejected by high-school teams, including a field hockey coach who cruelly told her she would best be used as a goalpost.

“Nobody wanted me anywhere,” she recalled decades later, the hurt still audible in her voice.

Shirley Gordon was born in Vancouver on April 10, 1927, to the former Jane Dawson, known as Jean, a Scottish immigrant, and Harry William Gordon, a carpenter and warehouseman who later worked as an orderly at a veterans’ hospital and who himself served in the Canadian Forces in both world wars.

Her congenital condition led to seven operations, as well as painful rehabilitation regimens. She remembered once counting 21 doctors surrounding her hospital bed as they debated further treatments. She spent much time recuperating. She wore a brace and a boot to the end of Grade 9 at King Edward High School, enduring stares and taunts from strangers.

After watching other children enjoy sports and games, she decided she wanted to compete, though her left leg was shorter than her right, with an undeveloped calf muscle and an immobile ankle.

She joined the school basketball team, spending most of her time on the bench. After watching a track meet, she decided high jump was the sport for her. She hauled equipment outdoors after school, dug her own landing pit, and practised until nightfall. A kindly neighbour later built a landing pit for her on an empty lot near the family home.

She relied on an old-fashioned scissor-kick jump, running to the bar before swinging one leg over to be followed by the other. Her weak left foot made it necessary for her to take off and land on her right, an unorthodox technique.

“I kind of hopped over the bar on one foot,” she explained.

In 1943, she won her first serious athletic competition, jumping 4 feet, 9¾ inches to win a track meet before 7,000 spectators at Brockton Oval in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

In 1944, she finished second in the high jump in the Caledonia Games at the same site. Two years later, she won a Labour Day athletic meet in Nanaimo, by which time she had established herself as the best high jumper in the province.

After graduation, her best friend, the sprinter Millie Cheater, was invited to join a track club sponsored by The Bay. Ms. Cheater insisted she would only do so if the club also took her friend. They were coached by Frank Richard, a track star from Alberta who had competed at the inaugural British Empire Games in 1930.

The 1948 Olympics are remembered as the Austerity Games, as rationing and other postwar deprivations made luxuries out of the most basic foods. The American team brought their own supplies.

Interviewed by a Canadian reporter in London before her competition, the high jumper expressed reservations about the experience.

“I would rather be competing in the Caledonia meet in Vancouver than high jumping in the Olympics 6,000 miles away,” she told the reporter. “I heard how wonderful the Olympic Games are, but I know I would do better in home competition. I am scared but I do not feel a bit excited about it.”

The high-jump competition was held before more than 83,000 spectators at Wembley Stadium, which was about one-seventh the population of Greater Vancouver at the time.

“I remember it was a cold day and we needed blankets,” Doreen (née Dredge) Wolff said recently. Ms. Wolff, now 88 and a resident of Liberty, Sask., finished in fifth place. Only 17 at the time, she remembers sneaking into the first-class areas aboard ship on the voyage across the Atlantic.

“Shirley was very nice,” she added. “A good competitor.”

The Vancouver jumper, who stood 5-foot-9, managed a jump of 4 feet, 11 inches (1.5 metres), two inches shorter than the jump that qualified her for the Games. Her Saskatchewan teammate jumped 1.58 metres in a competition won by Alice Coachman, an African-American from a poor Georgia family who cleared 1.68 metres on her first attempt to become the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

Away from the track, the high jumper was a solid player for the Vancouver Hedlunds, a senior women’s basketball team sponsored by a jeweller.

In 1951, she coached her kid sister’s intermediate-B team basketball team based at Chalmers United Church. She later coached Hastings Community Centre to a provincial championship in 1959. She also served on the executive of the Lower Mainland Amateur Basketball Association.

In the 1950s, she supported herself by operating a mechanical calculator for an oil company, while still living with her parents. She also helped her family in caring for her severely disabled older brother.

She met her future husband while admiring his physique on the court as she served as official scorer of a basketball game. He played for Canada’s national team at the world championships in Brazil in 1954 and at the Pan American Games in Chicago in 1959. Their marriage generated a headline reading, “Wedding of interest in sports circles.”

Ms. Olafsson died on Nov. 23. She leaves a son, a daughter, a sister, and two granddaughters. She was predeceased by Herbert Olafsson, her husband of 32 years, who died in 1992. She was also predeceased by brothers Robert Norman Gordon and James Harry (Jimmy) Gordon.

Ms. Olafsson was inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.

In 2008, she took part in the Torch Relay prior to the start of the Paralympic Games in Beijing. She reprised her role two years later when the Winter Olympics were held in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.

Her admirable athletic determination deeply impressed those who had treated her as a girl. Among the 50,000 spectators at Eden Park in Auckland in 1950 was Fronz (née Doherty) Billingham, who had been a registered nurse in Vancouver in the 1930s. Among her patients then was a six-year-old who wore heavy casts on both legs after surgery. The nurse told a reporter she could not believe that little girl had grown up to compete on the world athletic stage.

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