by Anna Rose Johnson

The U.S. women’s gymnastics program has never enjoyed such worldwide domination as in August 2016, when they took home four gold medals, three silvers, and a bronze from the Rio Olympics. It’s been a long and steady climb for the U.S. team to ultimate success at the Olympic Games, beginning with our first medalists in 1948—including a very talented young woman named Consetta Caruccio.

Consetta’s parents, Russell and Lena, emigrated from Italy around the turn of the 20th century and raised their six children in Allegany, New York. Born in 1918, “Connie” was the youngest of the children, and she wasn’t even two years old when her father passed away.

In 1927, Connie’s mother married Joseph Benedetta, an Italian immigrant who lived in Maryland, and the Caruccio family was uprooted to Baltimore. It was there that nine-year-old Connie began gymnastics at the suggestion of her elementary school coaches, Joseph Mueller and Alvina Liebmann. At the age of thirteen, she scored a perfect 60 at an interscholastic meet, one of only two gymnasts in the competition to achieve perfection, but that was only the beginning of her success in the gymnastics world. She soon became quite proficient on the parallel bars (then one of the women’s events), following in the footsteps of Coach Liebmann, a former South Atlantic p-bars champ. Not long after her victories in junior high, Connie was urged by her coaches to join the prestigious Baltimore athletics club, Germania Turnverein, where she would continue to train for years to come.

“You didn’t have to tell Connie more than once when something was wrong,” said Leroy Martin, who coached Connie during the 1930s and 40s. “She had the sense to analyze her own performance.”[1]

In addition to her memorable gymnastics career, she was also successful at track and field—she even competed at a national track meet in Madison Square Garden in 1933. That same year, she competed at a South Atlantic meet, where she won gold in the high jump and set a national record for the 50-yard dash, clocking in at just 6.3 seconds. In addition to her prowess as a gymnast and sprinter, she was also a tap dancer and played hockey in junior high.

Connie’s career accelerated at the 1933 N.A.A.U. Gymnastics Championships in Chicago, where she captured the all-around title with a score of 188.500. (A perfect all-around total at the time was 210.) This major victory would become her first of two consecutive national all-around crowns.

After several years of competing at the highest level of gymnastics, Connie was named to the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, along with fellow gymnastics stars Jennie Caputo, Margaret Duff, Irma Haubold, Marie Kibler, Ada Lunardoni, Adelaide Meyer, and Mary Wright. Connie traveled with her teammates on the S.S. Manhattan to reach Berlin, the site of the last Olympics prior to World War II. The oppressive atmosphere in Berlin overshadowed a competition that has been perennially known for promoting worldwide unity. 1936 Olympic gymnast Leon Stukelj of Slovenia once said, “One the one hand, the organization [in Berlin] was good, but on the other, there was a very somber atmosphere, created by those black-uniformed police everywhere, swastikas and other symbols of imminent world tragedy.”[2] Connie later remembered that the Nazis “made every effort to impress all of us with Germany’s military might.”[3]

Connie, who carried the American flag in the Opening Ceremonies, contributed to the U.S. women’s fifth-place finish in the team competition—an excellent result for a team that had never competed in the Olympics before. Additionally, Connie placed fourth in the unofficial all-around and also won the unofficial women’s parallel bars title, two achievements that boosted her fame in the United States.

Once back home in Maryland, the popular Olympian appeared in several exhibitions, including a YMCA event in 1937, where she showcased her gymnastics and dancing skills. A local newspaper reported that “Miss Caruccio…was besieged by autograph hunters” after her performance.[4]

After being engaged for nearly two years, Connie married William J. Lenz in September 1938, but marriage didn’t mark the end of her gymnastics career. Even on the day of her wedding, she told reporters, “I should like very much and hope to try out for the next Olympic Games.”[5] True to her word, Connie continued to compete in gymnastics, but the birth of two daughters during the next several years kept her away from the gym. “After my children came along I had to give up my hobby for some years; you know, babies take a lot of time,” Connie later remarked.[6]

The following two Olympics had to be canceled due to World War II, but the Games returned three years after the end of the war. The 1948 Olympics were the perfect opportunity for Connie to return to the sport she loved. Reportedly “encouraged by her husband,” Connie returned to training only six months before the Olympics.[7] Despite her small window of training time, Connie effectively secured her place on the U.S. team heading to London, a city that had not yet fully recovered from the scars of the war. She helped her team to an historic bronze medal in the team final, while she placed sixth in the all-around. “I was very nervous at the start but it eased off quickly,” Connie commented during the Games. “There is nothing to hold on to on the bar and once you get up there you are on your own.”[8] She added that there was “pretty great” tension in the lead-up to the gymnastics competitions, as they were postponed due to rain and held at the end of the Olympics.[9] But “despite endless rain, food rationing, housing shortages, and the damage wreaked by Hitler’s bombs,” the London Olympics were a success in the end.[10]

The 1948 Games didn’t mark the end of Connie’s involvement with gymnastics. She went on to become a member of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1960, and she also traveled to the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki as an assistant coach and chaperone to the U.S. women’s gymnastics team. In 1980, four years after being inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame, she passed away from a heart attack at the age of 61.

Often heralded locally as one of the best gymnasts of her time, Connie’s legacy lives on as one of the first female U.S. gymnasts to medal in the Olympic Games, paving the way for all of the success to come. “Gymnastics aren’t really as hard as many people think,” Connie once noted. “They are a sport that most anybody can enjoy. They require a lot of work, but the rewards are great.”[11]

 

Notes

[1] “Mrs. Lenz, Former Gymnastics Star, Dies,” The Baltimore Sun, July 4, 1980, pg. 36

[2] Leon Stukelj, “Leon Stukelj,” International Gymnast, November 1996, pg. 38

[3] Francis X. Whittie, “Mother Wore Tights,” The Baltimore Sun, May 9, 1948, pg. 193

[4] “To Give Circus Again Tonight,” The Daily Mail, April 27, 1937, pg. 6

[5] “City’s Leading Girl Athlete, Olympic Champion, Married,” The Baltimore Sun, September 26, 1938, pg. 4

[6] Francis X. Whittie, “Mother Wore Tights,” The Baltimore Sun, May 9, 1948, pg. 193

[7] Rosemary McCarron, “‘Baby’ of ’36 Olympics Seeks Berth in Final Gym Tryouts,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 22, 1948, pg. 28

[8] “Sixth Place to Mrs. Lenz,” The Baltimore Sun, August 13, 1948, pg. 17

[9] “‘Grand To Be Home,’ Says Mrs. Lenz, Local Olympian,” The Baltimore Sun, August 30, 1948, pg. 14

[10] The Olympic Spirit: 100 Years of the Games (Susan Wels, Tehabi Books, Inc. 1995)

[11] Francis X. Whittie, “Mother Wore Tights,” The Baltimore Sun, May 9, 1948, pg. 193

 

Image © International Olympic Committee. Used by permission

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Anna Rose Johnson writes about women’s artistic and rhythmic gymnastics. She loves Whippets, brownies, and full-twisting double layouts. Her writing portfolio can be viewed at: https://annarosejohnson.contently.com