Olga the magnificent


ON THIS DATE (August 31) in 1972, seventeen-year-old Olga Korbut of the Soviet Union won two gold and one silver medal in individual competition at the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.

Four years later, fourteen-year-old Nadia Comaneci did even better, winning three gold medals, a silver, and a bronze at the Montreal Olympics. In the process, Comaneci introduced gymnastic perfection, receiving the first-ever perfect scores (seven in all).

Who was the better gymnast? Comaneci. Who made the greater cultural impact? I say Korbut because she was the first teenage pixie (4-foot-11, 84-pounds) gymnast, and her exuberance made a lot of us re-think the dehumanizing stereotype of cold, calculating Soviets.

Comaneci, a Romanian, also belonged to a Soviet bloc country, but despite her bangs and big brown eyes, she was as precise and deadly as an AK-47.

That’s no knock on Comaneci. She had a job to do in the 1976 Olympics, and she did it brilliantly. It’s just, she dazzled us through sheer athletic genius, where Korbut was more about joy and tears and passion. We admired Comaneci, but we connected with Korbut, who seemed as emotionally vulnerable as any American of her age, if not more so.

Americans tend, I believe, to overrate the effect of athletics on politics — did Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling in 1938 really humble Nazi Germany? (As a nation, they didn’t act too humble). So maybe I’m wrong here. But I think it did Westerners good to watch and love Olga Korbut during the fourth decade of the Cold War. It’s hard to hate an enemy when you suspect that they’re a lot like us.

Hail the tiny diver

aileen-riggin-03ABOVE: Aileen Riggin dives at the Antwerp Olympics, and poses with a trophy she received from Belgium’s King Albert.

ON THIS DATE in 1920, fourteen-year-old American Aileen Riggin dove into the muddy waters of an Antwerp (Belgium) canal and won the first-ever gold medal in Olympic springboard diving.

The youngest member of the first American women’s Olympic swimming and diving team, Riggin became the tiniest champion ever, standing just four foot seven and weighing 65 pounds.

“Until two months before the tryouts, we had no idea of the dives required, and some were entirely new,” Riggin wrote in 1974. What worried her most, though, was the mud at the bottom of the diving canal. “I kept thinking, the water is black and nobody could find me if I really got stuck down there,” she said, quoted in Greg Kehm’s Olympic Swimming and Diving (2007). “And if I were coming down with force, I might go up to my elbows and I’d be stuck permanently, and nobody would miss me and I’d die a horrible drowning death.”

Riggin survived to compete again, four years later, at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. The Rhode Island-born New Yorker won a silver medal in springboard diving and a bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke, making her the only woman to win medals in swimming and diving in the same Olympics.

Aileen Riggin Soule, ninety-six, died in a Honolulu nursing home in 2002. She had been the oldest living American female gold medalist.

African-American supermodel: “Naomi was the first”

Layout 1ON THIS DATE in 1967, nineteen-year-old Naomi Sims graced the cover of Fashions of The Times, a New York Times supplement. The next year, she appeared on the cover of Ladies Home Journal, making her the first African-American model to be featured on the front of a mainstream women’s magazine. “Naomi was the first,” the designer Halston told The New York Times in 1974. “She was the great ambassador for all black people. She broke down all the social barriers.”

A Pittsburgh native, Sims didn’t set out to be a model but needed money for school while attending New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology in 1967. When agencies turned her down, some saying she was too dark, she went straight to photographer Gosta Peterson, who shot her for Fashions of The Times. The model promoted herself when agencies continued to put her off and by 1969 was earning $1,000 a week.

“Sims was known within her industry as someone who showed up on time and prepared, usually having already done her own hair and makeup because few stylists knew how to work with a black woman,” The New York Times wrote in 2009.

He risked his life to save his pets

Holdosi with his pets.

Holdosi with his pets.

ON THIS DATE in 1937, fifteen-year-old Valentine Holdosi risked his life to rescue his non-human friends during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Forced to flee his Shanghai, China, home during a Japanese attack, he had had no choice but to leave his pets — a German shepherd, a setter, a chicken, and a cage of canaries — behind. But not for long.

After the Russian orphan and his adoptive parents reached relative safety in the suburb of Frenchtown, Holdosi went back for his menagerie, evading Japanese patrols on the way. When he returned to his old home he found the building had been torched and the dogs coated in tar and oil by an animal hater who apparently wished them to catch fire.

With the help of two different police officers who gave them rides, Valentine and his pets reached safety. An editorial in the China Journal stated that, “The courage, resourcefulness and endurance displayed by Valentine Holdosi in the course of this thrilling episode places him amongst the heroes of the Shanghai War of 1937.”

They had the knack

Layout 1ABOVE: Little Eva and Sharona Alperin.

WELCOME TO A special day in teenage rock ‘n’ roll. On this date in 1962, nineteen-year-old Little Eva topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “The Loco-Motion.” On the same date 17 years later, The Knack hit number one with “My Sharona,” written about eighteen-year-old Sharona Alperin, girlfriend of lead singer Doug Fieger.

“The Loco-Motion” and “My Sharona” have something else in common — “the knack” and The Knack. A lyric to the Little Eva song goes, “Well, now, I think you’ve got the knack,” and “My Sharona” appeared on the album, Get the Knack.

little-eva-the-locomotion-london-5EVA BOYD’S ROAD to chart success began in the Brooklyn living room of songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Boyd was baby-sitting the couple’s daughter when King tried out a melody that reminded Goffin of a locomotive. He wrote lyrics for “a brand new dance” that “everyone is doin’.” Boyd sang and danced to it to with Louise, King-Goffin’s little girl, and the couple asked her to make a demo of the tune.

King and Goffin initially wanted singer Dee Dee Sharp to record “The Loco-Motion,” but producer Don Kirshner thought Boyd sounded just fine on the demo. She was still eighteen when she recorded the song, taking the name “Little Eva.”

Although she never matched the success of “The Loco-Motion,” Little Eva did record three more top-40 songs, starting with “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby,” also written by King and Goffin.

 WHILE NOT THE FIRST teenager to inspire a popular song, Sharona Alperin may have been the most viewed. The cover art for the single of “My Sharona” featured a dark-haired, bra-less young woman in a tank top and jeans —Alperin.

Doug Fieger and Sharona Alperin.

“That was, like, my normal outfit, what I wore all the time,” Alperin told National Public Radio in 2010. “I guess I didn’t look at myself as a celebrity, but people were very excited when they met me. And I remember going on tour, and seeing sometimes people dress up. And I’d say, ‘What are you dressed up as?’ And they would say, ‘Sharona.’”

Alperin was seventeen when she started dating Fieger, who co-wrote as well as sang The Knacks’ “My Sharona.” The song spent six weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1979 and was the second-biggest hit of the year, trailing only Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.”

The boy who saw the Night Stalker

romeroTHIRTY YEARS AGO today, thirteen-year-old James Romero, 13, spotted a suspicious car driving past his California neighborhood and took down part of the license plate number, which he passed on to the police. Romero’s sighting provided what the Los Angeles Times called the “first clue to the Night Stalker” killings, eventually leading to the arrest of Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez, who would be convicted of killing at least 14 victims.

Female rifle champ

pflueger-joan-1122111-1ON THIS DATE in 1950, eighteen-year-old Joan Pflueger became the first woman to win the Champion of Champions event at Grand American Trapshoot at Vandalia, Ohio. She smashed 100 out of 100 clay pigeons to tie four men, and then smashed 74 out of 75 to win the shoot-off.

Around 1,500 marksmen from 36 countries and Cuba competed in the 1950 Grand American Trapshoot, an annual event that began in 1900.