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Ethel Catherwood: North Dakota’s Largely Unknown Olympic Champion

2024 Paris Olympics: Hometown Hopefuls
Follow 52 Olympic hopefuls as they work to achieve their dreams in the 2024 Paris Olympics in NBC's Hometown Hopefuls series.

Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer of 2024. In this edition of the series, a special historic lookback for one of North Dakota’s rarely discussed Olympic champions.

For some, North Dakota’s Olympic medals are synonymous with Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux, the superstar hockey twins who won silver twice – in 2010 in Vancouver and 2014 in Sochi – then brought home a gold, in 2018 in PyeongChang. But there’s another native North Dakotan who won gold in 1928, long before the Lamoureux twins were born. Her name was Ethel Catherwood.

Catherwood, born in Hannah, North Dakota in 1910, later moved with her family to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She shined on the baseball diamond and basketball court and even set a Saskatchewan record the first time she threw a javelin, but Catherwood’s real talent was in the high jump. After setting a Canadian high jump record and then two world high jump records at championships in Canada, Catherwood went off to the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. The women’s high jump event made its Olympic debut that year, and Catherwood won gold. But after that victory on the world stage, she seemed to struggle with her identity as an athlete.

The core of Catherwood’s career came at a time when women weren’t always welcome as professional athletes; in fact, the founder of modern day Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, publicly objected to women competing in the games. Before the Olympics and after, people seemed as concerned, if not more so, with Catherwood’s physical appearance as with her athletic abilities. Still, Catherwood joined six other women to form Canada’s first team of female athletes at the Olympics. Six of the seven Canadian women, Catherwood included, competed in track and field events. Together, they were known as the Matchless Six. Yet Catherwood was singled out, and received undue media focus on her looks.

Following Catherwood’s gold medal, Negley Farson, an Olympic correspondent, wrote that the Canadian athlete was a “slim, blue-eyed fairy, who high jumps five feet three inches.” A few years later, a wire service referred to Catherwood as a “gorgeous Canadian beauty who had the boys at the 1928 Olympic Games goggle-eyed.”

Even before the gold medal, at the 1927 Canadian Track & Field Championships, Lou Marsh of the Toronto Star wrote this about Catherwood: “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.”

The attention Catherwood received went far beyond the media. Her hometown celebrated her return to Saskatoon by declaring a civic holiday, and gave her $3,000 to help fund her piano education. Catherwood also received two offers for roles in motion pictures, which she declined. Catherwood continued to compete off and on, winning both the high jump and the javelin throw in Canada’s championships in 1930. The next year, after finishing third in the high jump, she retired. And then, it seemed like she wanted nothing to do with track and field or her status as the greatest high jumper in the world.

Throughout the rest of her life, Catherwood seemed uninterested in – and sometimes even bothered by – journalists who wanted to keep telling her story. In a 1980 interview with Today Magazine, Catherwood said, “It was an unfortunate period of my life. I was never an athlete. I was a natural. It was no big thing. I went, I did it, and quite frankly, I’m sick and tired of the whole thing.”

Catherwood passed away seven years later, in September 1987, from bone cancer. Despite her challenging relationship to her sport, which was only exacerbated by her challenging relationship with the media, Catherwood is still remembered for her history-making jump.