Take a look at any of the dozens of photographs of Mary Frizzell Thomasson from her days as a world class sprinter to her later coaching years and one thing should strike you. She was always smiling.
Frizzell ran through life with a passion and enthusiasm that is as obvious today looking at these photographic glimpses into her track and field career as it was to those who knew her well. She loved track and field and all the experiences that came with it. If it meant pushing the boundaries of society’s perceived notions of women’s participation in sport and femininity at the time, so be it. As far as Mary was concerned, she loved running and every girl should have the chance to feel the joy it gave her.
Born in Nanaimo, by 1925 her family had moved to Vancouver and within a few short years ‘Little Mary’ established herself as one of the city’s finest young sprinters competing for Fairview High School of Commerce beside team mates Lillian Palmer and Percy Williams. In 1930, she won Senior Aggregate Champion at the Vancouver & District Track Championships earning a place on the Canadian team at the first British Empire Games (BEG) in Hamilton.
Suffering from stomach flu at the 1932 BC Olympic trials, she equalled the world record for 60m in 7.6 seconds and the Olympic record for 100m in 12.2 seconds on the same afternoon. Mary recalled later that running fast wasn’t even on her mind that day—she only wanted to get home to bed as quickly as possible.
The 1932 Los Angeles Olympics were an obvious career highlight. Besides mingling with some of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars, like Norma Shearer and Charles Farrell at MGM Studios, Frizzell ran both of her 100m heats against the eventual gold medallist, Stella Walsh, who upon her death in 1980 was actually discovered to be male.
In the 4x100m relay, the Canadian team of Frizzell, Lillian Palmer, Mildred Fizzell, and Hilda Strike tied the American foursome in 47 seconds flat, both bettering the existing world record. However, American race officials awarded the gold medal to the Americans and the Canadian girls the silver. A bitter pill to swallow some 75 years ago, the event was recently discovered to be of greater significance for Frizzell and Palmer. They were not only BC’s first female Olympians, but also this province’s first female Olympic medallists.
The ensuing years brought more accolades. In 1933, Frizzell won the 60m and 100m titles at the Canadian Championships ranking her as the top female sprinter in the country and third in voting for Canada’s outstanding female athlete.
At the 1934 British Empire Games, Frizzell finished fourth in the broad jump. She only made it to London because of Stanley Smith, a lifelong mentor and friend, who created the “Mary Frizzell Fund” to raise her travel money canvassing local businessmen for donations. When the fund fell short of the $300 goal, Smith paid the remaining balance in full himself.
In her last competitive season in 1935, she rattled off four first place finishes at the BC Championships, including a broad jump record that lasted sixteen years.
For the next twenty years, Mary coached for the Pacific Athletic Club. Three of the five Canadian female sprinters sent to the 1948 London Olympics were Mary’s girls. Among the many prominent athletes she coached were Eleanor (Cave) Whyte, Donna Gilmore, and Luella Law, voted the outstanding Canadian female athlete of 1952. At the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, she served as the women’s village commandant.
After fighting cancer for many years, Mary succumbed to the disease in 1972. Thirty-five years after her passing and seventy-five after her historic silver medal performance, she rightfully joined many of her friends and contemporaries in the BC Sports Hall of Fame—Lillian, Percy, Stan, Eleanor, and all the rest.
Trust me, somewhere you just know she is up there still smiling.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.