On August 2, 1932, Lillian Copeland, at the age of 27, set new Olympic and global records in discus. She threw the discus 133’ 1.625”, winning a gold medal.
This was not her first record-breaking achievement; she had already gained acclaim as one of the earliest and best female track and field athletes. According to the Jewish Women’s Archives, by 1926 she held National Amateur Athletic Union titles in shot put, discus, and javelin. As a student at USC, she won every track event she participated in. She also played tennis and basketball.
The 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam were the first which allowed women to compete in track and field. When trying out for the Olympics, Ms. Copeland entered for discus even though she was already a four-time national champ in shot put. Why? Shot put was not yet an Olympic event. She would participate in discus and also with the 400-meter-relay team which set a new world record in the trials. Ms. Copeland took silver in discus.
Back at college, she earned her B.A. in political science in 1930, and entered law school at USC. Meanwhile, in 1931 she took two more national championships in shot put and javelin. Alas, in 1932, shot put still was not an Olympic event, but the Olympics were held right there in her hometown of Los Angeles, so Ms. Copeland simply had to excel in discus, taking gold. Her throw actually eclipsed the record-breaking throw of her teammate, Ruth Osburn, a half-hour earlier.
All told, from 1925-1932 she had set six world records each in shot put, discus, and javelin. In 1935 Ms. Copeland participated in (and paid her own way to go to) the second World Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv, and titled in discus, shot put, and javelin. She was prepared for the 1936 Olympics, but joined many others in boycotting the Berlin games. The Nazis had excluded Jews from German Olympic teams.
Lillian Copeland went on to join the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 1936, where she worked until retiring in 1960, spending many of those years in the Juvenile Bureau, a sergeant in the Lennox and Firestone stations. She qualified as an expert marksman (marksperson?) in the sheriff’s department competition in 1938, with 274 points out of 300.
The daughter of Minnie Drasnin, from Grodno, Poland, Ms. Copeland lost her father at a young age. Abraham Copeland was her stepfather, manager of a produce company. (Produce is good for you!) Lillian Copeland passed away on July 7, 1964, after a long illness. In 1980 she was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, and in 1994 the United States Track and Field Hall of Fame.
Join us next week for more about Jewish sports figures in the month of August.