She didn’t know she won

Celebrating Women's History Month.

The first American woman to win an Olympic event was Margaret Abbott from Illinois. She captured first place in women’s golf at the 1900 Paris Olympic games. Except Abbott would never know she had even competed in the Olympics.

Margaret was born in Calcutta, India in 1878, the daughter of Charles and Mary Abbott. She moved to Illinois as a teenager when her mother became the literary editor for The Chicago Herald. In Illinois, the Abbott women joined the Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton where they competed in local golf tournaments. Margaret was coached by several talented male amateurs including Charles Blair MacDonald and began winning championships. However, mentions of Margaret’s golf wins could only be found in the society pages of local newspapers and not the sports sections.

The first time women were allowed to compete in the Olympics was at the 1900 Paris Games. Out of 997 athletes competing in Paris, 22 were women. Events for women were limited to five sports, golf, tennis, sailing, equestrianism and croquet.

In 1900, Margaret was visiting Paris for an extended stay when she learned of a golf tournament that was open to women. So she and her mother, Mary entered the competition. They had no idea it was part of the Olympic games.

Only the second Olympics of the modern era, the 1900 Games held over a six-month period of time were presented in fits and starts from May to October. There were no opening or closing ceremonies, and the competitions were little more than a sideshow to the main attraction that year: the Paris Exposition, familiarly known as the World’s Fair. The competitions were referred to as the Championnats Internationaux, or International Championship, instead of the Olympics. And unlike today, there was not much media coverage for sporting events. As a result, many athletes were never made aware that the contests in which they played were being held under Olympic auspices, including the Abbotts.

The golf competitions in the 1900 Olympics were organized like any other small tournament when Margaret and her mother signed up to compete. They entered the competition because they played golf and happened to be in France at the time.

On October 4, Margaret shot a 47 in the nine-hole tournament, claiming the title over fellow players Pauline Whittier and Daria Pratt, while her mother finished seventh with a score of 65. Unbeknownst to them, it was the only time in Olympic history that a mother and daughter competed in the same sport in the same event at the same Olympics.

Margaret thought she'd merely won the local Prix de la ville de Compiegne Championship and never came across the word “Olympic” while competing. She didn't receive a medal for her accomplishment; medals were not awarded until the Olympics Games at St. Louis in 1904. Instead for her victory, Margaret was awarded an antique porcelain bowl embellished with gold.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that a historical researcher uncovered that the Paris competitions were actually the Olympics Games. Paula Welch, professor emerita at the University of Florida and member of the Olympic Board of Directors, first came upon Margaret Abbott’s name on a plaque in the McArthur Room at the United States Olympic Committee’s headquarters in New York City. Displayed alongside the names of all of America’s Olympic champions, the plaque listed Margaret as the winner of the ladies’ singles Olympic 1900 golf championship. Welch’s interest was piqued and she set out to learn more about Margaret Abbott, and why no one had ever heard of her. She spent a decade conducting research about Margaret and the 1900 Paris Olympics.

Margaret died in 1955 never knowing she won at the Olympics. But thanks to the work of Paula Welch the world now has record of Margaret Abbott’s achievements.

Women's golf would not be seen again at the Olympics until the 2016 Games in Rio where Margaret was remembered as the reigning champion, no longer a forgotten pioneer in women’s sports.