Please look at the picture above. Irena SzewiÅ„ska is winning in Uden, The Netherlands on 18 August 1968, nearly fifty years ago. Look at that clean technique, look at that focus, consider her fine form and the domination that she has over the field. Now, look at the crowd! It is like a time capsule into our sport. Irena SzewiÅ„ska, one of our finest trail blazers, is gone. Here is our consideration of this fine athlete.
Irena SzewiÅ„ska is one of the great ones. I grew up reading about her in TFN, and only came to recognize her tremendous stature as I became a track geek. I was at an IAAF event where Ms. SzewiÅ„ska was present, but did not have the nerve to speak to her. She was royalty in Polish and European sport, and, if more Westerners knew about this fine athlete, it would be for the better. Ms. SzewiÅ„ska won Olympic medals in 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976 and competed in 1980, withdrawing after an injury in the semi final of the 400 meters. Also, Ms.SzewiÅ„ska graduated with a degree in Economics from the University of Warsaw. Seven Olympic medals, sixteen European Championships medals, and from 100m to 400m, she was world ranked at 200 meters for fifteen straight years, 100 meters for 12 years, 8 times at long jump and six times at 400 meters (Ms. SzewiÅ„ska only ran event for six years, and became first woman under 50 seconds at 400 meters). A remarkable career, and even more so, when one appreciates the political challenges, as well as the challenges for a women athlete in the 1960s and 1970s.
Irena SzewiÅ„ska has been part of our sport for over five decades! She will be missed by many.
In essence, Irena SzewiÅ„ska was a 200 meter runner who ran the 100m, 400m and long jumped. She was a fierce competitor. Look at her films. She raced against the finest in the world, and won. She won medals a few months after having her first son, which was pretty much unheard of ( Fanny Blankers Koen did it in 1948, but most women athletes, in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, retired before they had children). Challenging the status quo from Poland, in Soviet bloc Poland, mind you, had to be a challenge. I would have loved to speak with Ms. SzewiÅ„ska about her career. So, after some research, here’s what I found out about this magnifiscent women.
Irena SzewiÅ„ska was born Irena Kirzenstein, in Leningrad to a Jewish family in 1946. In both Russia and Poland, Jewish ancestry meant, more than likely, negative treatment, as anti Semitism was part of everyday life. Her father came from Warsaw and her mother from Kiev. They had met in Samarkind, where they were in studies, and, after the birth of Irena, moved to Warsaw in 1947. In 1967, Irena married Januz SzewiÅ„ska, her coach. They had two sons, Andrejs (born 1971) and Jaroslaw (born 1981). One her most impressive medals, I believe was the long jump medal she won in 1971, less than four months after the birth of her son, Andrejs, at the European Indoor Championships (silver in the long jump).
Of her start in athletics, Irena SzewiÅ„ska told the Polish media (Polish Press Agency, PAP) this recollection on 9 June 2018: (translated from Polish):
Her career had come as a bit of a mistake. “I ran so fast in the school trials that the teacher requested a re-run because she thought she’d made a mistake in measuring the time. I started to practise athletics in the autumn of 1960 when I was 14, in a group of students of Primary School No. 37 in Warsaw, where the trainer was the former javelinist, finalist in the Melbourne Olympics (1956) Jan Kopyto,”. Irena Szewinska noted that a juniors match inHradec Kralove, Czechoslovakia, was her first foreign trip. She was 16 at the time and two years later, in 1964, she won an Olympic gold medal in the 4x100m in Tokyo.
Irena won seven Olympic medals, in 1964 (gold at 4x100m, silver at 200m, silver at LJ), 1968 (gold at 200m, bronze at 100m), 1972 (silver at 200 meters), 1976, (gold at 400 meters). In European Outdoors, Irena Szewinska won ten medals, and in European Indoors, Irena Szewinska won six medals. Remember, this was a time when Poland, until 1989, was under the very watchful eye of the Soviet Union, and being a women athlete was one of few ways a Polish national could travel around the world. Remember, from 1928-1968, 800 meters was longest event in Olympic women’s schedule).
Irena SzewiÅ„ska dominated her events with a quiet demeanor. Ranked 15 years in top ten over 200 meters (7 times number 1!), she was ranked number 1 four times over 400 meters, 2 times numerno uno for 100 meters, and for good measure, three times for the long jump! The Polish star competed against the finest athletes that the DDR could muster. My favorites of her victories was the 400 meters in Montreal in 1976, where she took the gold, setting a WR of 49.28, and the World Cup in 1977. In 1977, at the inaugural World Cup, Szewinska defeated the DDR’s Barbel Wockel and Marita Koch over 200m and 400m! That was, sports fans, unheard of! Of course, the Bible of the Sport, TFN, ranked Irena SzewiÅ„ska ranked the Polish sprint goddess first at 200m and 400 meters. Did I note that Irena Szewinska was the first women under 50 seconds?
Being a women in the global sports world was a pain in the proverbial butt. Irena SzewiÅ„ska came into sports politics after her retirement. In 1998, Irena SzewiÅ„ska became a member of the IOC. In 2004, Ms. SzewiÅ„ska became Head of the Polish Athletic Federation. In, 2005, she became only the third women member of the IAAF Council in the sports history.
On June 29, 2018, her husband, Januz SzewiÅ„ska, announced her death, from cancer, at the age of 72. Reports are that she passed away at the Military Institute of Medicine in Warsaw. Januz told Polish Media (translation from Polish Press Agency, PAP): “Irena died at about 23.30 in Warsaw, at the Military Institute of Medicine on SzaserÃ³w Street, She had been fighting illness for a long time but she felt good. Not long ago she was at the Olympic Picnic (one June 9).” Irena Szewinsk had chemotherapy in 2014, and the tumor was thought to have been halted. The tumor had recently returned, and Ms. Szewinska fought the cancer valiantly. She had been to Tokyo several times to supervise the 2020 developments for the IOC.
Irena Szewinska told the Polish Press Agency (PAP) on 9 June 2018, her sincere belief about how sport is so important for the world’s youth. Sport obviously changed the life of Poland’s “most famous athlete”: “the most important thing of all is children. If they taste any kind of competition, discipline or physical activity, we can be sure and glad that they’re on the right road. Sport is a fantastic invention.”
It also should be noted that Irena SzewiÅ„ska was a member of the IAAF Hall of Fame and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Of her death, the President of Poland, August Duda, noted on Twitter: “Mrs Irena SzewiÅ„ska has departed – the First Lady of Polish sport and a dame of the Order of the White Eagle. Winner of 7 Olympic medals, multiple world record holder. A great loss and great sadness. Dear Irena, thank you! You will forever remain in our grateful memory!”. (original tweet posted below).
OdeszÅ‚a Pani Irena SzewiÅ„ska – Pierwsza Dama polskiego sportu i Dama Orderu OrÅ‚a BiaÅ‚ego. Zdobywczyni 7 medali olimpijskich, wielokrotna rekordzistka Å›wiata. Wielka strata i wielki Å¼al. Szanowna Pani Ireno, dziÄ™kujemy! Na zawsze pozostanie Pani w naszej wdziÄ™cznej pamiÄ™ci!
— Andrzej Duda (@AndrzejDuda) June 29, 2018
Quotes courtesy of Polish Press Agency (PAP): http://www.pap.pl/en/news/news,1476703,polish-athletics-champion-irena-szewinska-dies-aged-72.html
We thank PAP for their fine updates on Irena SzewiÅ„ska, IAAF, Wikipedia, and Olympic TV Channel. We offer our condolences to the family of Irena SzewiÅ„ska, one of the true trail blazers of Women’s sprinting and jumping.