This was the world of the female athletes in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, the first games in which women were allowed to compete in track and field (and on a trial basis, at that). Nicknamed “the Peerless Four,” the Canadian track team included some of the strongest and most diversely talented women on the scene. Narrated by the team’s chaperonea former runner herselfthe women embark on their journey with the same golden goals as every other Olympian, male or female. But as the Olympic tension begins to rise with unexpected injuries, heartbreaking disqualifications, and the pressure of supreme athletic performance, each woman discovers new fears and new priorities, all while the weight of women’s future in the Olympics rests on their performance.
The Peerless Four is more than a sports novel, more than a record of how far women’s rights have come in the past 75 years. It’s a meditation on sacrifice, loyalty, commitment, perseverance, and the courage to live a true underdog tale.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Basketball brought me to life, and once I was awake and alive, there was no turning back. I’m not good at school, never have been. There’s a clarity and straightforwardness to basketball, to sports, that I understand. There are rules. You follow the rules and try to win. Life isn’t like that. Too bad, because in life you have to work to make anything make sense. Life is deceptive. In basketball, I’m asked to be smart: to get the ball, pass the ball, fake a pass, dribble, and to shoot the ball through the hoop. When I run, I’m asked to run as fast as I can, beat the others. Cross the finish line first. I have a job to do, and I either get it done or not. There’s nothing vague about it. It’s very clear. Life is tough and disappointing and I can’t control anything, so to me the best answer is sports. There’s no right or wrong answer like with arithmetic. I’m not asked to come up with something like with English. I don’t have to decipher a story or a poem. I’m connected to others, and we’re connected through time, when it was clear and straightforward then, like it is now. There’s no trick answer, nothing that you have to interpret or guess. I don’t understand Shakespeare or algebra or why a poem makes people cry, but give me the ball, and I’ll dribble and pass, and I’ll take the elbow to the face, the lumps and the bruises, gladly, to know that I’m doing something truly fine, something that’s as good as Shakespeare, if you ask me, as good as any poem, even better, if you ask me. It’s action. It has the kind of power and force of the known, and I gave myself over as soon as I discovered basketball. I knew that I’d found an answer to my life. I was alive.
At first, my dad wouldn’t let me play basketball. I was ten and we would go to my brother’s games at the high school. I’m the only girl of five children, and being from a family of boys, I did everything that they did, which confused my dad, since it wasn’t ladylike. That’s how I got into running, because of my three older brothers. I ran to keep away from them.
“I want to do that,” I told my dad at the basketball game, and he shook his head and said, “That’s not for girls.” It’s very simple, really. Boys play sports and girls watch the boys play sports. My dad believes that girls should stay home and work and bring the money home until they get married. Girls shouldn’t go to collegefine by me! Only the boys should. But I wanted to be on the basketball court, and I didn’t care what my dad said.
I’d watch my brother with his squeaking shoes crossing the court, dribbling and passing, making his shots, and he gave meaning to my life, gave me a purpose. I cheered for him with such yearning and enthusiasm that my dad would put his hands on my shoulders, beg me to sit back down. But he couldn’t keep me sitting. It was bigger than him, bigger than me. I became so involved in the games, in my desire to break free from life’s confusions, to have a purpose within me. It was like I became my brother, and I was in the competitive world of men, and I was important.
Before the games, I couldn’t eat because of nerves. I’d pace the house, going over game plans in my head. “Sit down!” my dad would say. “You’re making everyone nervous.” During the games, I’d pace the stands, clenching my fists, waving my fists, shouting. I couldn’t stay still. Cheering is what you call it, but it was more than that. I strutted up and down the aisles, dribbling my imaginary ball with my brother. I faked defenders, turned and made my shots. I took low, sweeping passes. I trotted and swerved and blocked players, careful not to foul. All this I did with a very loud commentary, letting my dad and the spectators and the refs know that I knew everything, that I was in the game, and that I was part of this world whether my dad let me play for real or not. Truly, I believed that my brother depended on me, that in some magical way, I was him, and that his success and his team’s depended on my vigilance. When he made a shot, when he passed the ball with beauty, and the crowd clapped and roared, I believed that they were roaring for me, as much as for him. It felt like an assurance that life could be understandable.
I couldn’t stop moving and talking and my dad became concerned. People stared, moved away from us. A few stayed, fascinated by my antics.
“You’re like a crazy person,” my dad said.
Then my dad decided that I couldn’t come to the basketball games any more. My cheering was too much. The games were my delight, my reason for living, and I locked myself in a closet and cried for two days. I refused to eat. My family couldn’t get me to come out. Even my brother, whom I love with all my heart, because he believes in me and plays sports with me, and he taught me what he knows about basketballhe couldn’t get me to come out. My mom made blueberry pie, my favorite, put it right outside the closet so that I smelled it. But I didn’t care.
“Let her play,” I heard my mom tell my dad. “Girls play basketball all the time now,” said my brother, and my dad said, “Not my daughter.” But he gave in, because I wouldn’t come out of the closet or eat, and I’m his daughter, and he loves me.
He never watches me compete but he might take pride. I don’t know. Whenever I bring home a ribbon, he says, “Don’t get a swelled head,” and that’s it.
So when it came to letting me go to the Olympics, it was difficult. I wasn’t going to be able to have children, he said. Everyone knows that’s not true, I said. My grandmother wants to put a chastity belt on me, and she practically disowned my dad when he relented. They’re Lutherans and serious. Sturdy, good workers, farmers, and grim about life.
Table of Contents
Toronto Daily Star,
Chapter One: Backyard Jumper,
Chapter Two: Amazon,
Chapter Three: Beauty Contest,
Chapter Four: Farmer,
Chapter Five: Slip Aways,
Chapter Six: Onata Green,
Chapter Seven: Winning and Losing,
Chapter Eight: Good Wife,
Chapter Nine: Bell Lap,
Chapter Ten: Flight Phase,
Before the Peerless Four,