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Evelyn Furtsch Ojeda — April, 2012
Evelyn Furtsch Ojeda was a member of the Gold Medal winning 4 x 100 meter relay at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. She and her teammates Mary Carew, Annette Rogers and Wilhelmina von Bremen set an Olympic and World Record of 46.9 seconds. As Evelyn celebrates her 98th birthday in April, 2012, she is the oldest living United States Olympic Gold Medalist. After the Olympics she attended Santa Ana College for two years, but there was not a women’s track team or running opportunities. Evelyn considered training for the 1936 Olympics, but did not as she had gotten married, had a baby and because of economics during the Great Depression. In 1932 there was no money to send her to the Olympic Trials in Chicago so the people of Tustin went door to door and raised $190 for her to drive from southern California to Chicago with her mother and coach in order to compete. As an 18 year old who had just graduated from high school, Evelyn qualified for the 1932 Olympic team and the 4 x 100 meter relay by being one of the six fastest girls who made it to the Olympic Trials 100 meters final. She fell when crossing the tape in the 100 meters final and was disqualified. Evelyn had run three races within four hours on a cinder track which was ‘pretty beat up.’ She won her preliminary heat and semifinal and was considered a potential winner in the final. Evelyn was presented the Ralph Clark Distinguished Citizen Award in 1984 and was elected into the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame in 1985. Her husband, Joe, passed away in 1972. She currently lives in Santa Ana, California with a granddaughter and several cats.
GCR:It’s hard to fathom that it has been nearly 80 years since you won a Gold Medal as a member of the 4 x 100 meter relay team at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. If you close your eyes does it seem like a long time ago and, at the same time, just like yesterday?
EFOIt seems a long time ago (laughing). It was a long time ago. But it is something that I have lived with my entire life. People remember me for it and it is part of my being here.
GCR:The Olympic Games have grown in stature considerably since 1932. How big of an achievement was it amongst your family, friends and community to not only make the Olympic team, but to win a Gold Medal?
EFOIt was not a well-known event – just to my close friends. Nobody outside of my circle of friends even knew who I was which wouldn’t be the case today.
GCR:How thrilling was it to march in the Opening Ceremonies and to have the Games opened by Vice President Charles Curtis?
EFOWe marched in the Opening Ceremonies and were presented with a uniform that was very conservative compared to today’s running outfits. I do remember Vice President Curtis speaking and at the end of the ceremony they released doves that flew above the stadium. It was very exciting.
GCR:Did you live in the Olympic Village during the Games? Was there much mingling with international athletes and sampling of their cuisine?
EFOAt that time the women lived at the Chapman Park Hotel which were very nice quarters. The men had an Olympic Village which was all fenced off and we weren’t allowed to comingle. They were kept separate. We did socialize with girls from other countries and made friends with everybody. There weren’t different foods being made by the other countries’ staff. They tried our food. The movie stars came to visit and congratulate us – stars like Mary Pickford and others from that era.
GCR:Your major competition in the 4 x 100 meter relay was from the defending Gold Medalist Canadian team. What strategy did your coach, you and your relay teammates implement in training and on race day to put you in position to challenge for the victory?
EFOWhile the Olympics were underway we went to a local high school and practiced passing the baton and perfecting it. We had never run together and the Canadian team was established. We did a lot of work all that week. We did passes where it was a slap into the hand when we weren’t looking. It was just on impulse.
GCR:Mary Carew led off for the United States with you running second leg. As she approached could you tell if she was leading and how smooth was your baton pass?
EFOWith the stagger I couldn’t tell if she was leading. Some people said she was and others said she wasn’t. We had a smooth pass and it was remarked after the race that the reason we won was because of all our good passing.
GCR:While you ran your leg was the Canadian runner inside or outside of you and could you tell if you were gaining or losing ground?
EFOShe was on the inside because I couldn’t see her. We really couldn’t tell if we were ahead until the last girls came off of the bend.
GCR:How smooth was your pass to Annette Rogers and did you watch the rest of the race from the back stretch or jog toward the finish line?
EFOYes that was another good pass which, as I said, was the reason we won. I can’t recall if I moved toward the finish line. I think I just finished and watched from there.
GCR:The final leg pitted Canada’s 100 meter Silver medalist Hilda Strike against Wilhelmina von Bremen who won the 100 meter Bronze Medal. Who held the lead as they got the baton, was there much difference in their speed and could you tell who finished first since both teams had the same time?
EFOIt was close and they were side-by-side the whole way. We couldn’t tell who won. The photo finish showed Wilhelmina was just a stride ahead.
GCR:What did you and your teammates do to celebrate when you knew you had won the Gold Medal and what excitement were you feeling?
EFOThey made an announcement and it came up on the scoreboard. I don’t remember exactly what we were doing but we were happy as we came in first and we broke the World Record at the time.
GCR:What do you remember of the medal ceremony as the Los Angeles Olympics were the first games to use a podium to award medals?
EFOTwo of us were on the podium and two were down below. Mary Carew was on the podium and I was just below her. It was a group shot. It was very exciting to stand there while they played the national Anthem. We all had big smiles. I have an old original Olympic book which has pictures of us.
GCR:Were many of your family and friends in attendance and how was it getting tickets both in terms of availability and price?
EFOThere was no problem getting tickets. Spectators could just walk up, buy a ticket and go in. And the prices were very affordable. Someone I know has an original ticket and I don’t remember the exact price, but it was very small – somewhere under a dollar.
GCR:Did you watch many of the other track and field events or attend other sport competitions?
EFOWe went to the Coliseum every day to watch the events because we were competing in the last event of the Olympics.
GCR:Your Olympic teammate, Babe Didrikson, won one Silver Medal and two Gold Medals, even though there were only five total women’s track and field events. What was she like as a competitor and did you get to know her and some of your other teammates personally during the Games?
EFOShe was always bragging about herself, saying things like, ‘I am the greatest.’ She didn’t interact with me personally though she was friends with Mary Carew. She was the star and got all of the publicity. Jean Shiley was our group leader - she won the high jump. Wilhelmina von Bremen was from San Francisco and was a bit older than us. She didn’t hang around with us and I can’t tell you a thing about her.
GCR:Did you attend the Closing ceremonies and was it both exciting to be with the international athletes and sad to see the Games end?
EFOEveryone attended the Closing Ceremonies. We marched as a team. In a way it was sad the games were done, but the excitement was over and everyone just took off.
GCR:After the Olympics was their much publicity, recognition from local organizations or other accolades in your home town?
EFOThere wasn’t much. I went to Santa Ana College and no one knew who I was or that I had been in the Olympics. The City of Orange put me on their theater stage one day between shows, unfurled an American flag and presented me with a basket of flowers. They were more aware of the Olympics as they had had a male Olympian in the past and were more into the spirit than any other town. That was the only recognition I received after the Olympics.
GCR:Let’s go back to the Olympic Trials where you started strongly by winning your qualifying heat and semifinal in the 100 meters. Did you feel pretty confident about your chances to make the team as you went into the 100 meter final?
EFOI think I did but it was crowded and we were bunched up at the end.
GCR:What happened in the 100 meter final where you stumbled and fell just before the finish line and didn’t finish?
EFOI don’t know what happened as it happened so fast, but I fell at the tape and so I didn’t get to run the 100 meters in the Olympics.
GCR:How did it come to pass that you and Annette Rogers replaced third and fourth place finishers, Elizabeth Wilde and Louise Stokes, on the relay?
EFOWe were surprised when I returned to Los Angeles that my father had a telephone message that I was on the relay team and that I should go to Los Angeles. I was driven to the Chapman Park Hotel, given a room and went immediately to practice. I joined six other girls and began training with Coach George Vreeland. I could have been chosen or could have been not chosen by him. He was the coach who selected me to run in the second position in the 400 meter relay. He tried us out and we were the ones he picked. It was a surprise to some that he picked Annette Rogers who was a high jumper, but she just did an outstanding job. She tried out for the relay and was picked.
GCR:You were used to the coaching methods of your high school coach. Were there training methods or techniques that Coach Vreeland used that helped you to become a better runner?
EFOI don’t think so. I was a natural runner and from my gym teacher on up nobody wanted to change me. I did have a large stride. Everyone thought that what I was doing was the right thing to do. The main thing I was training for was starting in the starting blocks which were holes. We had spikes and we dug holes in the cinder track.
GCR:You had to get good at digging the proper holes to get a good start.
EFORight, that’s right.
GCR:So you had to bring your little trowel to the track. If your mom or dad were wondering where the trowel was when they were going to work out in the garden, then you had it at the track, right?
EFOThat’s correct (laughing). That’s about it.
GCR:During your childhood what was the role that physical activity and sports played in your life. Were you always an active child who liked to play sports with both girls and boys?
EFOI played all the girls sports in high school. My father worked for a wholesale grocery store and the company would have summer picnics. We would go to parks or beaches and the kids would always have races. I won every race I ever ran from the time I was six years old. I beat everybody. So I had that background.
GCR:How did you get your start in organized running and in track and field when you were in high school?
EFOIn 1931 and 1932 I was 17 and 18 years old and attending Tustin High School. There was not a track team for girls and my teacher, Grace Shultz, told the Tustin Boys Track Coach, Vincent Humeston, that I was a fast runner. A gym teacher took photos of me running and of my stride and sent them to Mr. Humeston who invited me to run with the boys’ team. Those people affected my running career. Without them I would never have been in the Olympics.
GCR:What was the positive effect of Coach Humeston on your running development and what were the highlights of your training sessions?
EFOWorking on the start and finish were the keys. In between I didn’t change what I was doing naturally. I trained with 220s and 440s. They were just for buildup as I specialized in racing the dashes. Back then we didn’t have those events. Those distances were considered too long for girls as we were known as the weaker sex.
GCR:You competed in a big national meet in New Jersey in 1931. What do you recall of the long cross country trip via automobile and how did this taste of big-time competition inspire you to train for the 1932 Olympics?
EFOMr. Humeston was impressed enough with my running to contact the Los Angeles Athletic Club to see if they were training any girls for the Olympics. Eileen Allen was training a few girls and invited me to try out with them. I won all of the races and was invited to join the team. The Los Angeles Athletic Club sent three girls to a national meet in New Jersey in 1931. I was one of the three girls. After an 11-day trip in the car with Mr. Humeston and my mother I came in second in the 100 meters beating Stowe Walsh who was considered a World Champion of the day. Mr. Humeston was very cautious and we stopped along the way and trained at high school tracks. The trip was well planned. We didn’t know what was going to happen with the Olympics as during the depression it was very difficult as there just weren’t funds for anything.
GCR:With the economy in the midst of the Depression in 1932, the people of Tustin raised $190 door-to-door to send you to the Olympic Trials in Chicago with your mom and your coach. How heart-warming was this and did you feel like it wasn’t you running, but the hopes and dreams of your entire town?
EFOThe Los Angeles Athletic Club just could not afford to send any girls to the Olympic Trials due to the economics of the Depression. After the people of Tustin raised the money to send me to Chicago, I did feel that I was representing Tustin.
GCR:When you went to Santa Ana College after the Olympics were there any track and field competitions or other sports in which you participated?
EFOThere was no track team for girls offered. There wasn’t anything for women. No one at the college knew who I was or what I had just done. California was way behind the northeast because Mary Carew and Annette Rogers belonged to clubs which trained women. Mary was in Massachusetts and Annette was in Chicago. Both of their areas were organized and California was way behind in women’s track and field.
GCR:You got married to Joe Ojeda and had a baby before the 1936 Olympics. Did you consider trying to train for the Berlin Games or had you just moved on to the next stage of your life as wife and mother?
EFOI was questioned by Mr. Humeston as to whether I would like to train again for the Olympics but it was not easy for me to do. The finances that we were in at that time were not that great and it just didn’t work out for me. For some people it did for a second time like for Annette Rogers who was on the relay that won again in 1936 at the Berlin Olympics.
GCR:Did you meet your husband before or after the Olympics, was he athletic and how proud was he of your athletic accomplishments?
EFOI met him way before. In junior high he broke his hip playing football, his leg was in a cast and they saved it. He was an entertainer just as is my family who were all into music. The people he lived with were a couple, Jim and Julia Ryan, and they belonged to the same Lodge as my parents. They brought him up to entertain. He sang and then afterward he danced with all of the girls. I was only sixteen and he was four years older and this was a long courtship. It was just a friendship at first and after the Olympics we got married. He was very proud of me.
GCR:Decades went by before the Olympics returned to Los Angeles in 1984. Was there periodic attention during this time given to former Olympians such as you or was it in conjunction with the 1984 that you and your 1932 Olympians were discovered again?
EFOThere wasn’t any attention or recognition until the 1984 Olympics as there weren’t women’s sports teams in California. It was an individual sport and wasn’t easy to participate. So nothing happened until 1984 when the Olympics came back to Los Angeles and I was rediscovered.
GCR:Had you been in contact much over the years via mail or telephone with your relay teammates and what were your feelings when the games three surviving members were reunited?
EFOAnnette, Mary and I always kept in touch but it became greater in 1984 because the Olympic Committee had a party on the final day of the Games and the three of us reunited. I recall it like it was yesterday. I corresponded with Annette Rogers and Mary Carew until they died recently so I am the survivor of the group.
GCR:Do you currently enjoy watching much track and field competition or other sports on television?
EFOI enjoy watching track on television and I like to watch golf.
GCR:What do you think about the changes in the past 30 years where track and field is now a professional sport with advances in training, nutrition and other areas?
EFOIt’s the way of the world. Everything is that way. I can’t fault the changes but it was nice when we were all amateurs and there was no money-grabbing. In 1932 we were not allowed to receive any money as we were all amateurs while today there are many professionals in the Olympics. So we never received any money. We ran for the love and joy of the sport. Of course you couldn’t make a career out of it as you had to work somewhere. And it was tough in the Depression as money was hard to come by.
GCR:What tips would you give youngsters staring out in athletics, particularly running, that would serve them well in their pursuit of excellence?
EFOIt’s a matter of keeping fit, exercising, training, eating good food and taking care of your body. You can’t take what some athletes have been taking which has led them to getting in trouble.
GCR:Several groups including the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame have recognized you in recent years. Is it nice to receive some of these accolades and what do your grandchildren think of grandma being an Olympic Gold medalist?
EFOIt is very exciting – yes! After such a long time it feels gratifying when anyone remembers outside of my family. My children and grandchildren are all very proud of me. They each have a framed photo and other mementoes to remind them that I was once an Olympian and am always an Olympian.
GCR:Do you still receive fan mail and autograph requests?
EFOI do receive mail and quite a bit is from Germany. I just received an interesting package from Germany which is a blank frame about eight inches by ten inches. They asked me to draw a heart and autograph it and they are going to auction it off for a heart fund. They sent requests to many Olympians. That was exciting and the first item I received like that.
GCR:You seem very spry for a 97 year old. What did you do for exercise and healthy eating over the years and do you exercise much at present?
EFOI really didn’t do anything special. I was lucky. I never gained weight. I have always been active. When I was 80 years old and retired I went to Santa Ana College and took two semesters of golf. I had never played golf and I enjoyed that. I was always interested in sports. Now I can still walk. My doctor got me a cane but I’m not using it and as long as my legs hold out I won’t be.
GCR:According to the most comprehensive records I can find, it appears that you may be the oldest living track and field Olympic Gold Medalist. What is the significance of combining outstanding achievements with longevity in life?
EFOI can’t tell you – I’m just lucky, I guess. I’ve outlived practically all of my old friends. I have one lady friend who is 90 and we get together but all the rest are gone. The sad part of growing very old is that you lose your friends and even some of your younger family members.
GCR:Did the hard work you did to perform at your athletic best and to work as a team with your Olympic relay members help you to persevere in other aspects of your life through the years?
EFOI always got along with people and am not combative. My competitive thoughts are just to do your best. I don’t think it changed me much. I do appreciate every friend that I have.
GCR:Are there any major lessons you have learned during your life from growing up when athletic opportunities were limited for women, dealing with the Great Depression and World War II and adversity you have encountered that you would like to share with my readers?
EFOFamily means everything to me. I have a great relationship with all of my children and grandchildren. Live every day to the fullest and enjoy life.
 Inside Stuff
Hobbies/InterestsMost of my hobbies are in the field of music. I love concerts, musical theater, pops concerts. Most of my going out is with my family to go out to eat or to visit their homes
NicknamesI had one older brother so I was called ‘babe’ as I was the baby of the family. My friends also called me that
Favorite movies‘The Umbrellas of Sherbet’ is my favorite. It is a classic and is in French. It is all singing. It is a great movie
Favorite TV showsI don’t watch any shows today except for news and sports. In the 1950s I liked ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘The Honeymooners’ which were the big shows of the day
Favorite musicI don’t think the quality of music is as good as it used to be. I liked Perry Como and all of the old fashioned singers like Tony Bennett and Dean Martin as they were all excellent
Favorite booksI can’t pick out a favorite as I don’t read much anymore – I have to get the large print! My grandchildren always kid me that I read all of their books to help them with their book reports
First carWe had a little old Chevrolet that was second hand. But it ran and took us everywhere we needed to go
Current carI quit driving when I was in my early 90s. There is just too much traffic in the Los Angeles area. My granddaughter who lives with me takes me anywhere I need to go. Also, my daughter lives 15 minutes away and she can drive me
FamilyAfter my two years of college I married Joe Ojeda and we had two children. I now have seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. My husband passed away in 1972 – he was quite young. At 80 years old I retired and I now live in my own home with one granddaughter. My children are Roland and Barbara. Roland is older and he was a banker. He just retired as he will be 70 years old in May. He worked for several banks and travelled the world doing investigating and auditing. Barbara worked for Boeing as a librarian after her children had been raised. She is the reader in the family. She reads everything. My granddaughter who lives with me is a musician. Right now she is at a school playing for fourth graders who may be interested in taking band classes. She does that in the mornings and she plays percussion with five different symphonies. She plays half a dozen instruments including xylophone, marimba, drums and you name it
First JobMy husband worked for J.C. Penney and when they would be busy with sales on weekends I would work in the office. They had little trucks on tracks that all went up to a booth. I would sit up there and make change. I had seven of these cups that came in with a sales ticket and the money; I’d make the change and ship it back. That was very common in the 1930s. It’s the same idea of how banks today have you send in items at a drive-thru with their tubes only what we did was on a larger scale. I could be handling three floors of the building at one time. During the Christmas season it was like ‘bang, bang, bang,’ making change as fast as you can. I’ve always done some type of office work as I majored in old-fashioned bookkeeping which is obsolete today
Other JobsI went to work with my husband in a real estate office and worked there for 20 years as an office manager. After he died I went to work at the Tustin Historical Society and managed the office for five years
PetsOh… don’t mention pets… we have four cats. My granddaughter gave me her cat. Then a cat just found us in the back yard and we brought her in. That cat had six kittens and we gave away four and kept two. We’re just overflowing with cats!
Favorite breakfastWhen I was young we always had oatmeal cereal which my father made. Now I have coffee, which I hate to admit, and I have V-8, which is a nutritious drink. I also have a food bar that has all kinds of nutrition and that’s about it for breakfast
Favorite mealWe eat a lot of Mexican food as does about everyone in California
Favorite beveragesRight now I’m drinking a nutrition drink. I’m not a very good water drinker. I like to drink cream sodas and Sprite and root beer
First running memoryI’ve run all my life - having races with the kids that I always won. And I just remember training with the boys track team
Running heroesThere weren’t any women running in Orange County to look up to or admire. The Los Angeles Athletic Club had some – Anne O’Brien came out from USC and she was trained by the coach there. But she wasn’t necessarily a hero – she was more of a friend. In fact we remained friends up until about five years ago because she lived in Tustin. Now I don’t know what happened to her as she is gone
Greatest running momentI suppose it is the Olympics as that is the only great one I had
Worst running momentFalling at the line in the Olympic Trials. That was bad luck
Honors and accoladesI received many plaques and honors – among them from the City of Orange, the California State Congress, the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame and Tustin High School. I was honored also in three parades at Disneyland in Anaheim for Olympians
Childhood dreamsI was always a teacher. We played ‘school’ throughout my childhood. I had all of the kids in the neighborhood over and I was the teacher. I had the books with the answers so that I could correct their papers. I took care of all of the neighborhood kids. I thought when I grew up I would be a teacher
Favorite places to travelI travelled all over the United States and Canada several times with my husband and my daughter and my granddaughter. I’ve been to Europe twice and to Hawaii twice so I have travelled with my family. London and Paris are my favorites
Final comments from interviewerIt was both amazing and an honor to spend over an hour conversing with the oldest living track and field Gold Medalist in the world. This historic figure in our sport is sharp, humorous and very sweet. When she competed it was such a different time for athletes, in general, and particularly women athletes. I am very pleased to be able to present her thoughts of her Olympic feats from 80 years ago and other interesting tidbits from her life. Her kindness is exemplified by what she said at the end of our phone conversation: ‘I thank you for calling. I appreciate all of the calls I get as I get so few’