Like Tom Longboat, Myrtle Cook McGowan rose from adversity to become one of the most important athletes in Canadian history. Not only did she break a coveted world record and win multiple Olympic medals, she turned Canadian women’s sport into an institution that could foster others like her.
From an early age, Toronto-born Myrtle Cook McGowan dominated nearly every sport she competed in, and when she was only 15, she earned a spot on Canada’s track and field team.
Unfortunately, she would have to wait over a decade to compete in the Olympic Games, as women’s athletics did not appear in the competition until 1928. But when that day came, she would not only break the gender barrier, but she would run faster than any woman had done before. On June 2nd, 1928 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she clocked her 100m sprint at 12.0 seconds, officially breaking the world record.
Two months later, her and five other women arrived at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam — Jean Thompson, Ethel Catherwood, Bobbie Rosenfeld, Ethel Smith and Jane Bell, dubbed “The Matchless Six.” They went on to win the 4x100m relay race in resounding fashion. But, like any great athlete, it was McGowan’s actions off the track defined her legacy as a leader in Canadian athletics.
Before her rise to stardom, she founded the Toronto Ladies Athletic Club, the first of its kind in the country. Bucking convention, the athletic club offered McGowan and women in Toronto the opportunity to compete in sport and to represent themselves—as well as their country—as men had done previously. Years later, Toronto swimmer Marilyn Bell would do the same for Canadian aquatics when she became the first to swim across Lake Ontario.
The accomplishments of The Matchless Six brought celebrity status to the female athletes, who were featured on the front page of The Star as Canada followed their progress in the competition. After the games, 200,000 Torontonians reportedly gathered downtown to celebrate the athletes who triumphed in Amsterdam, including Cook.
While at the Olympic Games, McGowan provided the Canadian press with updates of Canada’s performance in athletics, a correspondence that lead to a career as a sport journalist for forty years. Her column, “In the Women’s Sport Light,” covered up-and-coming female athletes in various different sports, from skiing to swimming to baseball.
Myrtle Cook McGowan (www.historicacanada.ca)