JENNIE WINGERSON IS TWENTY - ONE, has sunny blonde hair, long shapely legs and honey skin, and competes in the world's least likely sport, apart from free-style wrestling, for beautiful girls who want to keep their good looks. Jennie's sport is the pentathlon, which is the female counterpart of the decathlon, the grueling, sweaty, two - day, ten - event competition that separates ordinary athletes from the world's greatest athletes. The pentathlon is softer: five events — eighty-metre hurdles, shot put, high jump, broad jump and two-hundredmetre sprint — over two days. By this test, Irene Press, a chunky Russian girl who is the reigning pentathlon champion, is the world's greatest female athlete. But Jennie Wingerson of Canada, who will certainly be the loveliest entrant in the Olympic pentathlon at Tokyo this October, intends to show the world that she's as good as she looks; she's run up a fine record in meets at home and in the U. S. and Britain this year, and she's determined to challenge the stars of the pentathlon in Tokyo. Russian girls are best at the pentathlon — with their blunt, muscular bodies, they look like pentathlon winners. Each of the five pentathlon events is scored on a complicated points system based on times and distances, and the four highest point totals ever recorded in competition arc held by Russian girls, beginning with Irene Press’s 5.137 points. The Russians will be at Tokyo in October, and. as if their competition isn't enough, Jennie will also have to beat Diane Gerace of Trail, B.C., who beat her, in what Canadian track-and-field people considered a violent upset, at the Olympic trials in Toronto early in August. Diane is slender and blonde and might be the best looker on Canada's team if Jennie weren't along.
Diane is a marvelous high jumper — she holds the world's indoor mark, five feet nine, and she'll compete in the high jump at the Games — and she outscored Jennie, who jumped poorly, so decisively in this event at the trials that Jennie couldn't catch her over the rest of the competition. Both girls easily topped the Olympic standard, 4.500 points, but Jennie's superiority in more events — she beat Diane handily in everything else except the broad jump—together with her greater strength makes her a better bet to move up on the Russians at Tokyo. Lloyd Percival. coach of the Don Mills Track Club which is sending four athletes to the Games, claims that if Jennie and Diane perform at their top potential in the Olympics Jennie will beat Diane by 250 points and both will finish in the top six.
It was Percival who introduced Jennie to the pentathlon. That was four years ago. when Jennie was running the girls at Oakwood Collegiate in Toronto into the ground and whipping them at volleyball, badminton, swimming and basketball. Jennie’s father, w ho was a competitive bicycle racer and who gave Jennie her size, took his daughter around to Pcrcival's club to find out how good an athlete she really was. Percival tested her in his unique laboratory for measuring physical skills, and he says now that the test results and Jennie's strength — she had, at sixteen, reached her present proportions: five feet 1OV2 and 145 pounds — convinced him immediately that she was cut out to be “Canada's greatest woman athlete.” The pentathlon was a rare event at North American track meets in those days and. as a substitute for it. Percival used to enter Jennie in five or six different events at every meet. Jennie thrived on the work, ran up a long list of firsts, was named the outstanding woman athlete of 1961 by the Ontario Amateur Athletic Union, and when, at the 1963 Pan-American Games in her first international compe-
tition. she ran second in record time in the eighty-metre hurdles, the only event she entered. she became as fired up as Percival with the conviction that she could win at the Olympics.
The Pan-Am Games also marked the beginning of the end of Jennie's relationship with Percival. Neither of them will say much about the break, except that it was over training procedures; Percival, who has been on the losing end of more controversies than anyone in Canadian sports, calls the split “the unhappiest thing that's happened to me in athletics." But for most of 1964 Jennie has been entered in meets as "Wingerson. Toronto unattached," and there seems no chance that the rift will be patched up. Actually Jennie is attached; her coach is a twenty-five-year-old former Canadian decathlon and hurdles champion named Bob Meldrum. who is also a Percival expatriate. Meldrum is as proprietary with Jennie as Cus d'Amato used to be with Floyd Patterson. He says a lot of things like, “What Jennie really means to say is . . .," and he's a constant user of the managerial “we.” When Meldrum says, “OK Jennie, let's loosen up, we're going
to run our two hundred and our three hundred." he means Jennie's about to run her two hundred and her three hundred. In fact. Meldrum is more proprietary than d’Amato; he and Jennie have been keeping steady company for four years, and when Jennie flew to Britain for three meets last July Meldrum sent her oft with one hundred dollars to spend on herself. Jennie brought back seventy of them, which says as much as anything could about their relationship.
Under Meldrum's hand, Jennie ran spectacularly successful spring and summer seasons. She had a 10.8 hundred-yard dash in Toronto (one tenth of a second off the national record). a 6.5 indoor fifty-yard hurdles in Baltimore (a Canadian open record), a 10.8 eighty-metre hurdles in Toronto (ditto), and at a meet in Cleveland in June she won firsts in the 220. the hurdles and the shot put, which earned her a place on the American team competing in the U. S.-Russian dual meet in July, until someone pointed out that she was a Canadian. At St. Lambert, Quebec, where the Olympic trials were held in mid-August for all events except the decathlon and pentathlon, Jennie kept her feet well enough in the fortymile-per-hour winds that swept the track to win places on the Olympic team in the hurdles and the hundred-metre dash, in addition to her own pentathlon.
Until the team leaves for Tokyo in early October. Jennie and Bob are continuing their regular summer-long workouts at a pleasant green stadium in East York, the quiet, homey Toronto suburb that's also headquarters for Bruce Kidd, the fine distance runner, and Bill Crothers. the world-class eight-hundred-metre man. Jennie has lots of time to train these days; before she left for the British meets in July she worked as a bookkeeper-clerk in a Toronto insurance office, but when she got back she found in the mail her unemployment insurance book and a short note of dismissal. Meldrum drives her through practice sessions in each of her five events for tw'o hours at noon and four after supper five days a week.
The training sessions are sometimes pretty noisy affairs; Meldrum is an intense, combative coach and Jennie has a fierce competitive instinct. And training doesn't end when they leave the stadium; Meldrum makes Jennie carry her track clothes wherever she goes — for emergency workouts. One afternoon in late August at Meldrum’s small meat-packing plant in east-end Toronto, just as he was cutting a couple of pork chops, he envisaged the answer to Jennie’s problems with the high jump. Jennie was in the plant that day helping draw up the accounts, but for the rest of the afternoon, in track clothes, she practised Meldrum's new technique in the plant backyard on a standard improvised around a few spare tires and a dismantled rake handle. A few more workouts like that and if Jennie can jump, say. five-five and if she can hold her good times and distances in the other pentathlon events, C anada's prettiest athlete may produce a bronze or. hold your breath, a gold medal for the rest of us Canadians to brag about at last.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.