100 years ago: Vevay girl set World Record in pole vault

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Could girls track teams across the State of Indiana owe their chance to participate to a girl from Vevay?

It’s been 100 years, but it’s entirely possible.

In the May 20th, 1915 issue of the Vevay Reveille Enterprise, a front page article tells just part of the story:

WORLD RECORD

IN POLE VAULT

SET BY A VEVAY GIRL

Pauline Siebenthal, who was a resident of Vevay and at the time a student at Indiana University, traveled to New York to participate in a closed event. At the time, girls sports were very rare, and those that did exist were generally frowned upon. In fact, Indiana University did not have a women’s track team.

The State of Indiana had not yet had a track meet featuring female athletes.

Here’s the article:

A new world’s record for the pole vault has been established by an Indiana University co-ed. Miss Pauline Siebenthal vaulted 6 feet 1 inch, which is five inches higher than the previous accredited record held by a woman. Miss Siebenthal has been receiving track and field instructions under Coach Childs, the former Yale athlete, and the woman athletic director.

The new mark is not official, as it was not made in competition. However, a co-ed track meet, something new at Indiana, will be held when Miss Siebenthal is expected to repeat or better the performance.

Miss Siebenthal is a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Siebenthal, and was born in Vevay. She and her mother spent several months in Vevay last summer, and the family plans to move back to Vevay as soon as Pauline completes her studies at Bloomington.

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More information on the world record was found in the book, “American Women’s

Track and Field: A History, 1895 through 1980″ by Louise Mead Tricard.

In the preface of the book, Tricard writes:

“This history began a century ago in 1895, when the women of the Vassar College Athletic Association ignored all of the athletic constraints placed upon females and inaugurated the first field day for women in the United States, with intense competition in five track and field events. The news flashed around the country like wildfire. It was only natural that other women aspired to break the first records established by the Vassarites.

“By 1922, track and field for women was fashionable in colleges and schools around the nation. Dr. Harry Eaton Stewart organized a competition to select a United States team to compete internationally in the Women’s World Games in Paris. The team was triumphant. Oh his return to the United States, Dr. Stewart was severely criticized by the leaders of the women physical educators, who sought to protect the girls in the United States from the “evils” of competition….

“Little is known abut the champions from Vassar’s 42 years of uninterrupted field days, and less is known about the first international American team that competed against the world in Paris in 1922….”

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Women’s Track and Field records were first started to be compiled in 1904 as part of ‘Spalding’s Records’.

That first year, the book listed 15 world records, with 10 of those being held by women attending Vassar College. In that first list, there were records for the 50-yard, 75-yard, 100-yard, and 220-yard dashes; the 40-yard, 60-yard, and 120-yard hurdles; the high jump, the running broad jump, the standing broad jump, putting an 8-pound shot; the fence vault, throwing the baseball, and throwing a basketball.

The fence vault record, which would become the pole vault, was established at 4’10 1/2″ by D.E. Merrill of Vassar College in 1900.

For some others: Miss Lydia Carpenter held the high jump mark at 4′ 3 3/10″; Miss Fannie Jones held the 100-yard dash mark at :13 1/3-seconds; and Elsa White held the 8-pound shot record with a distance of 29′ 11 1/2″. Harriet J. MacCoy held the basketball throw record at 72′ 5 1/2″.

The first mention of the pole vault comes in the 1911 Spalding’s Official Athletic Almanac, with Ruth Spencer of Lake Erie College, Painesville, Ohio, establishing the record on May 14th, 1910 at 4’9″.

In the 1912 record book, Ruth Spencer raised her record to 5’8″ in May 15th, 1911.

Then, in May of 1915, Pauline Siebenthal of Indiana University set a new record in the pole vault of 6’1″. As a result of her accomplishment, The New York Times, on May 21st, 1915, reported that, “A track meet for women athletes, something new in Indiana, is to be held soon.”

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How unusual was this feat in 1915? Well, females participating in sports, especially competitive sports, was very much looked down upon.

Professor John M. Tyler of Amherst College wrote about physical training for women in an article that appeared in the May, 1909 issue of American Physical Education Review:

The average girl has no open air games. As a rule she never learns to play vigorously and properly, or to use the heavy muscles. She is very fortunate if her mother and aunts are not continually discouraging tom-boy play, and insisting on quiet, refined, dignified and ladylike behavior….

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 So, one could equate Pauline Siebenthal’s world record with an increased interest in allowing girls track and field to grow in Indiana; with her accomplishment making the New York Times. Her likeness also appeared in the September 10th, 1915 issue of the Delaware County Daily Times of Primos, Pennsylvania. That newspaper at the time told readers the Pauline was also an outstanding tennis player; and that her dream was to coach a women’s sports team.

Quite big dreams for a young woman from Vevay in the early 20th Century.

- Pat Lanman