Rob Lucas [pictured] was surprised when he heard the story of Stella Walsh, a Cleveland Olympian who, after being murdered in 1980 during a robbery, was revealed to have had a genetic condition involving her gender. “I thought I knew all of the big sports stories involving Cleveland but obviously I didn’t,” says Lucas. Intrigued, he began research that ultimately resulted in Stella Walsh: A Documentary, a film being shown at 9:20 p.m. on Wednesday, March 25, at Tower City Cinemas as a part of the Cleveland International Film Festival’s Ohio Shorts program. Lucas will be in attendance.
Although the celebrated athlete died when Lucas was only two years old, Lucas doesn’t believe that time is the only reason she has faded a bit from mainstream memory. “I think women in sports were underreported at that time,” he says. “She was popular, but she still didn’t make the news as much as male athletes of that era.”
Given her records and notoriety, Lucas thought compiling the information he needed for the film would be a fairly simple undertaking. “I mistakenly believed that between the TV stations and her family I would have everything I needed,” he says. “That was not the case.”
Finding photos and film footage of Stella Walsh proved difficult. Because she ran in an era where any recording would have been done on motion picture film, many of the films had been reused or destroyed. Lucas had to look through archives around the world — Poland, Germany, Canada and here in the United States. And finding relatives who knew her that were still alive wasn’t easy either. Walsh had been gone for two decades when Lucas started his research, and her two sisters were deceased. All told, it took Lucas about five years to make the film, but he never lost his enthusiasm. “Every time I thought I wasn’t going to find out anything new about Stella I would uncover something that would completely renew my interest in the project,” he says.
Perhaps he was inspired by Walsh’s incredibly desire to succeed. She participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and ran the 100-meter-dash in front of Hitler. Even with a genetic condition that could have been exposed, she was driven to run in the public eye. “She always competed to the best of her ability and she inspired a lot of people,” says Lucas. “Stella Walsh broke many records and she trained and mentored other athletes who went on to win medals too."
Although response to the documentary, which was shown in the 2014 Austin Film Festival and was part of the Short Film Corner at Cannes Film Festival last year, has been overwhelmingly positive, Lucas knows there are those who worry it could further damage Walsh’s sports legacy or bring her medals into question again. But he set out to present a more factual, balanced and informative version of events than might otherwise be shared.
“Every four years there is an article about gender, and the Olympics and it’s likely to include Stella Walsh,” Lucas explains. “Many of those are speculative and unfair.” Lucas believes Stella Walsh’s story can help the public learn more about gender. “Whether it’s sociological, genetic, biological or psychological, gender can be very complicated. Gender is a spectrum and it’s fluid. I wouldn’t have made the movie if I didn’t feel it was informative in some way and that it would somehow help give people a better understanding of what gender is in relation to sports.”