Sandlapper
The Magazine of South Carolina

Olympian Kathlyn Kelley Owens

A high jump competitor from the South Carolina upstate reflects on the 1936 "Nazi Olympics" in Berlin. It was an unsettling . . . and unforgettable . . . experience for a young athlete.

by Thomas K. Perry

 

Basketball, softball, baseball - she enjoyed them all, but it was running and jumping that led young Kathlyn Kelley at Keowee School in the South Carolina upstate to a very particular moment in time.

One of her high jumps, a 5'11/2" effort in a 1935 meet at Seneca High, was enough to excite coach Julian Davis, and for good reason. The women's world record of 5' 31/4" was held by the legendary Babe Didrickson Zaharias, and here was this skinny student challenging the master.

"Mr. Davis took me to Clemson to meet Frank Howard and Jess Neely, and they agreed to have the track coaches work with me," Kathlyn - now Kathlyn Kelley Owens - says. "That was a big deal, because I had received no formal coaching in any track or field event."

So began the big push, first to the Olympic trials at Brown University, then to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. At the trials she tied for third, and in the "jump-off" she actually went higher than the second-place finisher.

From then on, it was a flurry of activity until the US Olympic team boarded the steamship Manhattan for the voyage to Germany's capital city. She performed well at the games - not a medal-winning effort, but good enough to place seventh among the world's best. For Kathlyn, the impressions made by her teammates overshadowed any fleeting athletic glory.

"Jessie Owens was such a great man, quiet and dignified, and everyone liked and admired him. Our flag bearer was 16-year-old Alfred Joachim, and during the opening ceremonies he did not dip the flag when we marched past Adolf Hitler. Not one member of the American contingent saluted. I don't think any of it was planned quite that way, but as it turned out we were right in what we did.

"Later, I shook hands with Hitler. He even arranged for members of his bodyguard to escort our women's team around Berlin. The gentlemen spoke fluent English, and we had a pleasant enough time, but with everything that would soon happen. . . . I've never forgotten those moments."

After the Olympics, Kathlyn attended Greenville Women's College on a track scholarship. The Olympic team reunited in September 1946 for the 50th anniversary of the modern Olympics.

"The USOC brought the former competitors together at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City, and we got to meet some of the folks who kicked everything off in Athens back in 1896. That was a fun evening," remembers Kathlyn, who today lives near Atlanta.

Hers was more than an Olympic adventure. It was a young life waltzing in time as the destiny of the world was played out in those days prior to World War II. For the tall, athletic lass from the South Carolina foothills, it was an incredible journey where regrets were few and the memories delicious."

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