She was called “Wonder Girl.” Babe Didrikson Zaharias broke four world records in 1932 Olympics track and field, taking home medals in javelin, hurdles and high jump. In women’s professional golf, she was first to win the Western Open three times, and the first American to win the British Ladies Amateur Championship.
The Associated Press placed her in the top 10 athletes of the 20th century.
Decades before the “10,000-hour rule,” Zaharias added relentless practice to her talent. According to sports writer Paul Gallico: “Not enough has been said about the patience and strength of character expressed in her willingness to practice endlessly, and her recognition that she could reach the top and stay there only by incessant hard work.”
Zaharias underwent cancer surgery in 1953. Within months, she was back playing, and the next year she won the U.S. Women’s Open by 12 strokes. She died in 1956 at age 45.
EL: You were nicknamed “Babe” as a kid after you hit five home runs in one baseball game?
Zaharias: Yes. Babe Ruth was big. I could throw from deep center to home, and one time they measured it at 300 feet. Later I got to pitch an inning in pro ball, for the Cardinals in an exhibition game with the A’s.
EL: You excelled at many sports. You were an All-American forward in high school basketball. You started playing golf in 1932, and on your 11th round drove the ball 260 yards. How did you get to be so competitive?
Zaharias: All my life I’ve had the urge to do things better than anybody else. I am out to beat everybody in sight, and that is just what I’m doing. Before I was ever in my teens, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. My goal was to be the greatest athlete who ever lived.
EL: How did you plan to do it?
Zaharias: The formula for success is simple: practice and concentration, then more practice and more concentration. The more you practice, the better. But anyway, practice more than you play. Don’t look at it as a chore; look at it as recreation.
EL: We’ve heard you drive 1,000 balls a day, take lessons for five or six hours and play until your hands bleed. So … no luck involved?
Zaharias: Luck? Sure. But only after long practice and if you can think under pressure.
EL: Does your will to win ever let up?
Zaharias: Nope. I expect to play golf until I am 90—even longer if anybody figures out how to swing a club from a rocking chair. As long as I’m improving, I will go on, and besides, there’s too much money in the business to quit.
EL: What trips up leaders?
Zaharias: Rules. Know the rules. You have to play by the rules of golf just as you have to live by the rules of life. There’s no other way. Study the rules so that you won’t beat yourself by not knowing something.
EL: Any other tips?
Zaharias: It’s not enough just to swing at the ball. You’ve got to loosen your girdle and let ’er fly.
Sources: Biography.com; The Christian Science Monitor; The Atlantic; www.babedidriksonzaharias.org.