Canada's Bobbie Rosenfeld led the way — in almost every sport she attempted

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Bobbie Rosenfeld was a trailblazer and champion, willing and able to conquer a variety of sports.

A member of Canada's first Olympic women's track team dubbed "the Matchless Six" — Rosenfeld, Florence Bell, Ethel Catherwood, Myrtle Cook, Ethel Smith and Jean Thompson — Rosenfeld won a gold medal in the 4x100 relay and silver in the 100 metres (Canadian team officials swore she actually edged American Betty Robinson to win the 100) at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam — the first time women were allowed in Olympic athletics.

But she also excelled at everything from baseball, basketball and hockey to lacrosse, softball and tennis. Voted CP's female athlete of the half-century in 1950, Rosenfeld's name graces CP's female athlete of the year award.

Tennis star Leylah Fernandez won the 2021 Bobbie Rosenfeld Award on Tuesday.

After arthritis ended her sporting career, Rosenfeld joined The Globe and Mail in 1937. She wrote for the newspaper for 20 years, often in a column called Sports Reel.

Rosenfeld "set the sports world ablaze with her incomparable ability in every sport she ever tried," the Globe wrote in its 1969 obituary on the Canada's Sports Hall of Famer.

Born Fanny Rosenfeld in Russia (now Ukraine), on Dec. 28, 1904, she came to Canada as a baby when her family elected to leave because of anti-Semitism. Her father Max came first, followed by her mother Sarah with Bobbie and her older brother. Bobbie survived smallpox on the boat to Canada.

The Rosenfelds settled in Barrie, Ont., joining family members who had come earlier. Known by her nickname "Bobbie" after her long hair was bobbed, Rosenfeld grew up trying her hand at a wide range of sports. She excelled at them all, often competing against and beating boys.

She moved to Toronto with her family in 1922 and worked at the Patterson chocolate factory, where she joined the company's athletic club, as well as the Young Women's Hebrew Association's hockey and basketball teams.

She turned heads at a local track and field meet in Beaverton, Ont., in 1923 when she entered the 100-yard dash as a lark and beat Canadian champion Rosa Grosse, in a time just two-fifths of a second off the world record. Rosenfeld won the race despite wearing her big softball "pup-tent bloomers," her Canada's Sports Hall of Fame bio notes. Other times she competed in men's swimming trunks and her father's borrowed socks.

She beat 100-yard world champion Helen Finkley in 1923, won the Toronto grass-courts tennis title in 1924 and tied the 100-yard world record of 11 seconds in 1925.

At the 1925 Ontario Ladies' Track and Field Championships, she won the shot put, discus, running broad jump, 200-yard dash and 100-yard hurdles, while finishing runner-up in the 100-yard dash and javelin — all in a single afternoon.

In 1928, she set national records in long jump, standing broad jump and discus that lasted into the 1950s.

"She ran like the wind," said Jean McCann, who helped found the Barrie Sports Hall of Fame. "I can see her yet, coming down that track."

At the 1928 Olympics, Rosenfeld also entered the 800 metres to help Thompson, who had suffered an injury in training. When Thompson started to drop back after tangling with a Japanese runner, Rosenfeld moved alongside her teammate and started encouraging her.

Thompson finished fourth and Rosenfeld fifth, with observers saying Rosenfeld could likely have won a medal had she not be so selfless.

The Canadian team, which included star sprinter Percy Williams, returned home to a hero's welcome, with thousands lining the streets in Toronto.

Rosenfeld was sidelined soon after by rheumatoid arthritis. A doctor recommended amputation but the family refused and she spent nine months in bed followed by time on crutches — which she set aside one day to rejoin her hockey team. In 1932, she was named Ontario's most outstanding women's hockey player but her arthritis returned in 1933 and she retired.

Rosenfeld turned to coaching hockey and journalism, later becoming the Globe's public relations manager until illness prompted her retirement in 1966.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 28, 2021.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: Correction in third paragraph: Rosenfeld was voted CP's female athlete of the half-century in 1950. An earlier version of story had the wrong year.

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