A FORMER Wearside athlete today told how her Olympic dreams were left in ruins by the outbreak of World War Two.
Award-winning runner Ethel Fowler, who this year celebrated her 100th birthday, was one of the first British women to complete the 100-yard dash in under 11 seconds.
But after winning the North of England Championships and securing a place at the 1940 Olympics, her sporting ambitions were dashed by the outbreak of the Second World War.
“The Games were supposed to take place in Tokyo originally, but in the end they just didn’t happen. It would have been a dream come true to take part,” said Ethel.
“I may have had a fighting chance of crossing the line first. I am a very determined person, and I wouldn’t have let anyone better me. I’d liked to have gone – I certainly would.”
Ethel, the youngest of five children, was born in Pallion in March 1912. Her father, William Duncan, trained as a carpenter in the shipyards and also served in the merchant navy.
“I don’t really remember much about Pallion, as I grew up in the Chester Road area,” said Ethel. “We didn’t have any money, but we were happy. We all loved each other.”
Ethel’s natural aptitude for sport was nurtured by her school, Cowan Terrace, where she took part in all the activities on offer, from athletics to netball and running.
But it when she left to train as an upholsteress at Binns that her sporting prowess really came to the fore, and she was quickly snapped up for the store’s athletics team.
“I really loved being at school, and played all sorts of games and sports there,” said Ethel. “I didn’t want to leave, actually, as I enjoyed myself so much. But I had to earn a wage.
“I had just turned 14 when I started at Binns as a trainee. Upholstery was a job I had always wanted to do, and Binns offered me that chance. It also offered me the chance of more sport as well.”
Indeed, Binns officials prided themselves on caring for the health and welfare of all their staff – providing top-notch facilities such as a sports field on Newcastle Road and expert coaching.
“There were very few girls interested in sport at that time, but I was very keen. I joined the store’s sports club and just sort of fell into running. It was something that I loved,” said Ethel.
“It’s hard to explain what makes it so special – only another runner would really understand. It’s the wind blowing in your hair, a feeling of being halfway between heaven and earth.”
Ethel trained hard and worked hard over the next few years, completing her apprenticeship at the store – and winning 100-yard and 220-yard races across the North East in her spare time.
“I remember racing at the old cricket ground in Hendon a few times, as well as in Newcastle,” she said. “But in those days, girls weren’t really encouraged to train seriously.
“We had to pay our own fares to the competitions, although we were only earning coppers. But we managed, and it was a special time. Running is such an individual challenge.
“I became the North of England champion for the 100- and 220-yard races, and was one of the first women to do the 100 yards in under 11 seconds. It’s nothing now, but it was back then.”
As Ethel hit top form, however, so the storm clouds of war were gathering over Europe. Despite the hopes of Ethel and her trainers, Olympic success was never to become a reality.
“I’d have loved to have gone, it would have been a real honour, but it just wasn’t meant to be,” she said. “By the time of the next Olympics, after the war, it was too late for me.”
Ethel moved to London during the war, to marry her childhood sweetheart Fred Fowler, a former Bede School pupil who had trained as an accountant. A move to Surrey followed.
Today she lives in Epsom, close to the race course, but remains proud of her Wearside roots.
“Homesickness is a disease, and I still miss the town – and the sea,” she said.
Although Ethel’s Olympic dreams have long since faded, the sprightly centenarian still keeps herself healthy with weekly keep-fit classes, and she even learned to swim a few years ago.
“I soon got over the disappointment of the 1940 Olympics, as far worse things can happen. Looking back, I’ve had a charmed life, thanks to wonderful friends and family,” she said.
“I’d have liked to have gone to see the Olympics in London this year, but the tickets are just too expensive. But I’ll be watching it on television, especially the running events.”
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