Events and People

Lillian Copeland: Sesquicentennial Athletic Star

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Among the many events and activities at the Sesquicentennial were several athletic competitions held at the Municipal Stadium at the intersection of Broad Street and Pattison Avenue. These competitions included everything from track and field meets to the world heavy-weight boxing championship between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney to a lacrosse match between the Caughnawaga Indians of Canada and the Onondaga Tribe of Syracuse.[1]

In early July 1926, National and Olympic caliber athletes traveled to Philadelphia to compete in the women’s, senior men’s, and junior men’s American Athletic Union (A.A.U.) National Track and Field Championships. During the competition, the athletes faced extreme heat mixed with rain, conditions which prevented many spectators from attending the meets. Despite the weather conditions, world, American, and meet records were broken by the athletes.[2]

Lillian Copeland, one of the world record breakers, was a star of the 1926 Women’s National Track and Field Championships held at the Sesquicentennial. A member of the Pasadena (CA) Athletic Club, Copeland broke the world record in javelin with a throw of 112 feet 5.5 inches. On that same day, July 10, 1926, she also won both the discus and shot put competitions to become the only triple winner of the day.[3] During her career, Copeland won a total of nine AAU National Championships- five in shot put, two in javelin, and two in discus. She is often considered to be one of the first great female American weight throwers.[4] The 1926 competition in Philadelphia was the only championship in which she won all three weights events.

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Copeland’s skill also made her competitive on an international level. At the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, Copeland won a silver medal in discus with a throw of 121 feet 8 inches.[5] In 1932 at the Los Angeles Olympics, she won gold in discus with a world-record setting throw of 133 feet 2 inches.[6] Copeland was the only American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in discus until the 2008 Beijing Olympics when American Stephanie Brown-Trafton won gold with a throw of 212 feet 5 inches.[7]

After her success in the 1932 Olympics, Copeland competed in the second Maccabiah Games in 1935, a competition for Jewish athletes, where she won gold. The next year Copeland joined several other Jewish athletes in a boycott of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, making the Maccabiah Games her last major competition.[8] After her athletic career, Copeland worked for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as a juvenile officer. She passed away on July 7, 1964 and was inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1994.

[1] Austin, E.L. and Odell Hauser, Editors. The Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition: A Record Based on Official Data and Departmental Reports. Philadelphia: Current Publications, Inc., 1929, p. 424.

[2] Kelley, Robert F. “2 More Records Set in Women’s Meet.” The New York Times. July 11, 1926.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Lillian Copeland.” Hall of Fame- USA Track and Field.

[5] “Lillian Copeland.” International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

[6] Shaffer, George. “U.S. Wins 2 Olympic Titles; Records Fall.” The New York Times. August 3, 1932.

[7] Crumpacker, John. “U.S. Women’s 1st Discus Gold Since ’32.” The San Francisco Chronicle. August 19, 2008.

[8] “Lillian Copeland.” International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.