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Evelyn Furtsch Ojeda is first female U.S. Olympic champion to reach 100 years old

Apr 17, 2014, 9:56 AM EST

Evelyn Furtsch Ojeda Courtesy Tustin Area Historical Society

Happy 100th, Evelyn Furtsch Ojeda.

Furtsch Ojeda is the first U.S. female Olympic champion to live to 100, a birthday she marked Thursday and is celebrating all this week in her California home with about 40 friends and family members. She was part of the 4x100m relay team that won gold in world record time at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

“All of a sudden, everybody is making a big event of all these [Olympians] that are 100 years old,” Furtsch Ojeda, who married after the Olympics, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I’ve never thought about it before. I’m basically a family person and very close to all my family, and they’re all very close to me. It’s been a good 100 years.”

James “Babe” Rockefeller is the only other U.S. Olympic champion to reach 100, and Furtsch Ojeda is the eighth oldest living Olympian, according to OlympStats.com. Rockefeller, who passed away in 2004 at 102, won gold in 1924 rowing coxed eights.

Furtsch Ojeda, then 18, ran the second leg for the U.S. in the fourth lane of the 1932 4x100m relay, receiving the baton from Mary Carew and passing it to Annette Rogers. Individual 100m bronze medalist Wilhelmina von Bremen ran anchor, crossing the finish in a then-world record 46.9 or 47 seconds.

Von Bremen, at 6 feet tall, towered nine inches above the anchor for the silver medal-winning Canadian team. Furtsch Ojeda’s family posted race video on YouTube in February. On Wednesday, they found more video in this British highlight reel.

“It’s good memories,” Furtsch Ojeda said. “I’ve enjoyed reliving it, but life goes on.”

How different was track and field back then? Furtsch Ojeda had to dig her own starting block with a trowel in individual races. The gold medal she received was not draped around her neck, because medals then were awarded in boxes and not with ribbons.

Furtsch Ojeda has done a few interviews in recent years, the most comprehensive with garycohenrunning.com in 2012.

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Courtesy Tustin Area Historical Society

Based on interviews, book excerpts and Olympic historians, here’s a slice of her competitive history:

The U.S. was in the middle of the Great Depression, so the people of her hometown in Tustin, Calif., went door to door to raise $190 to send her to the Olympic Trials in Chicago.

Furtsch Ojeda was fortunate to make the 1932 U.S. Olympic relay team because she fell in the 100m final at the trials, despite being favored to earn a spot in the individual 100m.

She was surprised to receive a call saying she made the relay pool. Two women who finished ahead of her at the Olympic Trials 100m were not selected for the relay final.

Women and men stayed in different housing at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, but Furtsch Ojeda recalled movie stars such as 1929 Academy Award-winning actress Mary Pickford visiting the quarters.

She vividly remembered the 4x100m relay final, as told to garycohenrunning.com. She said that the four women had never run together before. They practiced baton exchanges during the Olympics at a local high school.

In the final, Carew led off and handed to Furtsch Ojeda:

With the stagger I couldn’t tell if she was leading. Some people said she was and others said she wasn’t. We had a smooth pass and it was remarked after the race that the reason we won was because of all our good passing.

Furtsch Ojeda handed to Rogers:

Yes that was another good pass which, as I said, was the reason we won. I can’t recall if I moved toward the finish line. I think I just finished and watched from there.

Both the U.S. and Canada finished in the same time to the tenth:

It was close and they were side-by-side the whole way. We couldn’t tell who won. The photo finish showed Wilhelmina was just a stride ahead.

Furtsch Ojeda was Olympic teammates with the legendary Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who won the 80m hurdles and javelin and took silver in the high jump in Los Angeles. Furtsch Ojeda has one IMDB credit, doing an interview for the ESPN SportsCentury episode on Zaharias in 2000.

“[Zaharias] was always bragging about herself, saying things like, ‘I am the greatest,’” she told garycohenrunning.com. “She didn’t interact with me personally though she was friends with Mary Carew. She was the star and got all of the publicity.”

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