Vancouver’s Shirley Olafsson was an athlete with a disability at a time when competitions such as the Paralympics did not exist. She persevered despite that and competed in the high jump against able-bodied athletes, one of the first to do so at the Olympic Games in 1948.

“If I had had two good legs I could have been a great jumper, but I made do,” Olafsson said with a hint of regret in 2011.

Shirley you jest. Modest to a fault, she was overlooking the fact that by any standard she was a great jumper. Olafsson was BC’s premier women’s high jumper from 1945-52, winning the provincial title each year and often ranking in the top-three in Canada. And she did it all taking off and landing on the same single foot, her right, a significant disadvantage versus most other competitors.

Born Shirley Gordon in Vancouver, Olafsson had what doctors called a “turned foot.” She lacked a left heel bone. From age two to four she wore a heavy cast and later underwent several operations, effectively locking her foot in place and stunting its growth. She spent much time at Vancouver’s fledgling Children’s Hospital. In high school she wore an embarrassing brace and two sizes of shoes—5½ on one foot, 9½ on the other. Some called her a “cripple.” None of it helped her self-confidence, yet never deterred her either. What Olafsson had in spades was an incredibly strong will.

“All my life I’ve struggled,” she related years later. “Even now I struggle. Anything I do, all the time. Nothing’s changed because my foot is frozen the same as when I was young. It doesn’t move.”

Walking was a challenge; wearing heels impossible. Standing for long periods taxed her frail leg. Despite great pain and discomfort, Olafsson experimented with different sports in high school, encountering mostly trial and error at first. A mean-spirited field hockey coach suggested she’d make a better goalpost than a player. She enjoyed basketball, but often found herself on the bench, although she was added to the 1944-45 Vancouver Hedlunds squad that won the Canadian title.

Millie Cheater, Olafsson’s good friend at King Edward High and a future Canadian Olympic sprinter, convinced her to try track and field. Testing every event to see what Olafsson could manage with her foot, they surprisingly settled on the high jump. It required she adopt her own unorthodox take on the scissor technique by both taking off and landing on her strong right foot to protect the left. It also meant she needed to jump an extra three inches just to clear the bar.

“Every time I decided to try something new I would say to myself, ‘Well, I think I can do this, I’ll just have to work at it a little harder than everyone else.’”

Olafsson practiced by herself every day after school while patients at a hospital across the street watched from their windows. When she made a height successfully, they clapped for her. The modest encouragement helped. Despite the obstacles, Olafsson soon proved she had a gift for high jump and soon was winning high school and later BC championships.

At the 1948 Canadian championships in Montreal, she leapt a personal best 5 feet 2½ inches (1.59m) to finish second and earn a surprise spot on the Canadian Olympic track and field team sailing for London to compete at the Olympic Games, the first in 12 years owing to World War II. Her teammates clearly held her in high esteem as she was elected captain of the Canadian women’s track and field team competing in London. With over 83,000 spectators filling Wembley Stadium’s stands, Olafsson performed admirably on the infield below, finishing tied for 11th in the women’s high jump with a best jump of 1.50m (4ft 11in).

The next year Olafsson won both the Pacific Northwest and Canadian championships. In 1950, she was again elected a team captain competing for Canada at the British Empire Games in Auckland, where she finished fifth in the high jump. As Tom Hawthorn noted in his 2019 obituary of Olafsson, one of the 50,000 spectators at Auckland’s Eden Park that day was a registered nurse who had cared for a six-year-old Olafsson at Vancouver’s Children’s Hospital in the 1930s. The nurse couldn’t believe it was that same little girl she was now watching as one of the world’s best high jumpers.

Retiring in 1952, Olafsson began working for the Vancouver Park Board and remained active coaching elementary students in various sports for decades.

Recognition for Olafsson’s amazing career in the face of adversity came late in her life. In 2008, she was one of ten Canadians chosen to run in Beijing’s Paralympic torch relay, carrying the torch in the heart of the massive Chinese metropolis. Two years later, she ran along Richmond’s No. 1 Road carrying the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic torch. Later she often visited Richmond elementary schools for presentations which included allowing the children to carry her torches around the school’s track.

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.