It’s not too often that an Olympic athlete’s most famous race is the one that he or she did not win. But this is the case with Lenore Kight Wingard, an Olympic swimmer from the 1930s and a Pittsburgh-area resident.
At the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, she won the silver medal in the 400-meter freestyle, finishing second to American teammate Helene Madison. The finish was incredibly close, so close in fact that it took the judges 20 minutes to decide who won the race. In the end, they ruled that it was Madison who won with a time of 5:28.5, compared to Wingard’s 5:28.6. Both swimmers beat the previous world record by two seconds.
“No second-place competitor deserves more fame than Lenore Kight… Her coronet should be just as bright as that of the winner,” legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote of the race.
In addition to her silver medal that year, she returned home with a gold medal in the International Relay.
The time in between the 1932 and 1936 Olympics was busy for Lenore. She married Cleon Wingard in 1935 and moved with him to Cincinnati, where he accepted a teaching job. They went on to have two children, Cleon Jr. and Diane.
In 1936, she continued to make her mark on the record book. By that year she had broken 21 American freestyle records and seven world records.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics brought an entirely different experience for her. Not only was she competing off of American soil, but that was also the year the Olympics were held in the politically unstable country of Germany.
She remembered a time where it took her two hours to get back to where she was staying because Adolf Hitler was coming down the street.
“Where we stayed, we were fenced in, always guarded by soldiers,” she told The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1991. “When it was over, I was glad to get home.”
Following the 1936 Olympics, she became a professional swimmer and gained a sponsorship with Wheaties in 1937. She was even featured on a Wheaties box. At the time, Olympic regulations prohibited professional athletes, those earning money for playing or sponsorship, to compete in the Olympics. It wasn’t until after the 1988 games that the International Olympic Committee abolished this rule, making all professional athletes eligible for the Olympics.
As she got older, the accolades continued. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, Helms Hall of Fame (Los Angeles), Maryland Hall of Fame, and the Western Pennsylvania Hall of Fame.
Wingard’s love for the sport continued even as she got older. She was a swimming instructor for many years and at the age of 75 she set another American swimming record. She set an American record of 36.17 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle meet for women ages 75-79.
On February 9, 2000 Wingard died at the age of 88 from Alzheimer’s disease at Mercy Franciscan Hospital-Mount Airy Campus in Cincinnati.
Several photos and objects from her collection are on display in the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. To view an online finding aid of the collection, click here.