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Saskatoon Lily: record-breaker, scandal-maker

The Story


There were no indications that lovely Ethel Catherwood would inspire such scandal. When she returned home a gold-medal winner from the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, the pretty track and field star was the toast of the country. Humble and quiet, this high-jumper from Saskatoon was a media darling. But months later she was the very subject of gossip. Rumours swirled of her secret wedding, a quickie divorce, and a surprising revelation that Canada's former sweetheart was in fact an American, as revealed in this CBC Television report.

Medium: Television
Program: Newshour
Broadcast Date: May 3, 1999
Guest: John Dewar
Reporter: Bill Waiser
Duration: 3:46

Did You know?


• Catherwood won Canada's first and only Olympic individual gold medal in women's track and field. The tall and talented high-jumper broke a world record with a jump of 5 feet and 2 9/16 inches.

• "Ethel Catherwood, 'the most photographed girl at the Olympic Games' and statuesque beauty, was jubilant after her feat," reported the Toronto Telegram. "She was lifted to the shoulder of the Canadians, athletes and spectators alike, and smilingly received the plaudits of the huge crowd. She waved her arms to the cheering watchers, and smiled again as the Canadian Flag soared to the top of the main Olympic pole..."

• Catherwood was such a media darling at the Amsterdam Games that she was offered, and declined, two motion picture roles.

• Canada sent its first women's track and field team to the 1928 Olympics. Catherwood's teammates included runners Myrtle Cook, Ethel Smith, Fanny "Bobby" Rosenfeld, Jane Bell, and Jean Thompson. Toronto Star sports writer Lou Marsh named the team the "matchless six."

• Marsh also gave Catherwood the nickname "Saskatoon Lily." At the 1927 Canadian Women's Track and Field Championships, Marsh commented on Catherwood's beauty. "From the instant this tall, slim graceful girl from the Prairies tossed aside her long, flowing cloak of purple and made her first leap, the fans fell for her, " he wrote. "A flower-like face of rare beauty above a long, slim body simply clad in pure white...she looked like a tall, strange lily--and was immediately christened by the crowd 'The Saskatoon Lily' "

• In November 1929, Catherwood secretly wed James McLaren, a Toronto bank teller. Unsubstantiated rumours circulated that Catherwood was pregnant. Catherwood soon fell in love with Byron Mitchell, a diamond drilling expert.

• On Dec. 10, 1931, a Toronto newspaper exposed Catherwood's secret marriage and reported that she had moved to Reno to obtain a fast divorce. On Dec. 12, 1931, Catherwood further revealed to the press that she was in fact an American and was born in Hannah, North Dakota in 1908 before her family moved to Scott, Sask. in 1910.

• Catherwood dallied with the idea of representing the United States at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. But, shortly before the Olympic trials in July 1932, Catherwood announced she would not compete at the upcoming Games.

• On Sept. 10, 1932, Catherwood married Mitchell. They later divorced in 1960.

• Catherwood settled in Palo Alto, Calif. When contacted by reporters, Catherwood said she had sold all of her medals and trophies and denied all interview requests. In 1986, she was inducted in absentia to the Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame.

• On Sept. 26, 1987, Catherwood died in Grass Valley, Calif., at the age of 79.


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