Jeanne Ashworth, first US woman to win Olympic speed skating medal, dies at 80
When the temperature dropped below freezing while Jeanne Ashworth was growing up in Wilmington, she flooded the backyard of her family’s home to create an ice rink, or shoveled out a skating area on the small pond across the street from her parents’ candy and ice cream business.
At 10, she read about the Silver Skates Derby, held in Boston Garden. Paying a quarter to enter, she placed second in 1949 in the girls’ midget one-eighth mile race.
“Boston Garden was huge! The Boston Pops played before the race and during the race,” she recalled in a 2010 interview with the Lowell Sun. “It was amazing! Here you are a Wilmington kid taking a train to Boston. It was kind of like, ‘Wow.’ ”
With an abundance of hard work and ambition, she propelled herself from those early Boston races onto the world stage, becoming the first US woman to medal in speed skating when she won the bronze in 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif. — the first Winter Games in which women officially competed in that sport.
Ms. Ashworth, who went on to become an expert woodworker, building cabinets from wood she harvested and milled, was 80 when she died Oct. 4 in her Wilmington, N.Y., home of pancreatic cancer. She had moved there from Wilmington, Mass., in the years after her Olympic triumph.
A self-taught skater, she kept teaching herself other crafts and pursuits the rest of her life as she turned to woodworking. For several years, she served as the elected supervisor of Wilmington, N.Y., and she even picked up a little blacksmithing.
She also built much of her own home, and though she concentrated on cabinetmaking, she crafted other furniture upon request.
“If somebody wanted something, she’d figure out how to make it,” said her longtime partner Christine LeFevre, who added: “She was really a one-of-a-kind woman.”
In her skating years, Ms. Ashworth overcame the hurdle of racing against competitors from countries such as the Soviet Union, which refined women’s training in the sport. The Soviet team had been expected to dominate women’s speed skating in the 1960 Olympics, but in the 500 meters, a German skater won the gold medal and a Soviet skater took the silver.
“I wasn’t scared, just nervous,” Ms. Ashworth told the Globe after winning the bronze medal in the event. “I was worried about the predictions that the Russian racers would make a clean sweep of the racing events.”
She also competed in the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, and the 1968 games in Grenoble, France — tying for fourth in the 500 meters in Innsbruck.
During her career, she set numerous records while winning national and North American championships, including sweeping all five events at the 1963 national outdoor speed skating meet. The AP reported that “speed skating officials likened her performance for an American woman to the breaking of the 4-minute mile.”
Throughout, Ms. Ashworth drew support from friends and neighbors from her childhood home in Wilmington.
“We were a small town and everybody knew everybody. They were so supportive of my skating,” she told the Lowell Sun in 2010, during an interview marking the 50th anniversary of her winning a bronze medal.
“They raised money to send me to special events. They raised money to send me to Japan for the World Championships,” she said. “When I came back from Squaw Valley, the town of Wilmington was there to greet me at Logan Airport with banners. It was absolutely amazing.”
The oldest of three daughters, Jeanne Chesley Ashworth was born in Burlington, Vt., and soon after her family moved to Wilmington. Her parents, Raymond Ashworth and the former Alberta Black, had their own homemade candy and ice cream business.
“I’ve been skating since I was 7 and started racing when I was 10,” Ms. Ashworth told the Globe in March 1959.
Sportswriters at the time rarely missed an opportunity to note that she was smaller than many competitors. “I weigh 117 pounds and am 5 feet, 1¼ inches tall,” she said in the Globe interview.
She graduated from Wilmington High School. When she won an Olympic medal, she was in her senior year at Tufts University, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical education.
Ms. Ashworth moved to Wilmington, N.Y., in her 20s to be closer to training facilities in Lake Placid, N.Y., and her parents followed.
In New York, she initially wanted to create a self-sustaining farm, but found it difficult to kill animals she had raised. Instead, she became a candy maker at Santa’s Workshop in the area and coached skating. Ms. Ashworth also had done some master’s degree studies at Brigham Young University in Utah, LeFevre said, and formerly was a school physical education teacher.
Ms. Ashworth’s marriage to Harless Walker ended in divorce. She also leaves a daughter from that marriage, Kristen Robin Ashworth of West Stockbridge, along with a sister, Jacqueline Peters of Wilmington, N.Y.; and two grandchildren.
LeFevre met Ms. Ashworth through friends and they had been a couple for 25 years.
“I really think that she was a daring person in many ways. She was quiet, she was low-key, she was under the radar, but she was daring by nature,” LeFevre said. “She took great pleasure in the sort of homesteading life she had here. She read Thoreau — she was really of that similar sentiment.”
The home in which Ms. Ashworth lived was largely her own creation. “She took this house from a small cinderblock place to a two-story house, and everything was handmade. She made the stairs. She made the closets, the islands, the cabinets,” LeFevre said. “She felled the trees, she milled the lumber. She had all the equipment in the shop at the house here.”
Ms. Ashworth’s tools included antiques she had collected. A combination gas-wood stove heats water in an old copper hot water tank she had found and restored.
“This is what her life was about. She kind of lived off the grid before it was part of the green movement in America,” LeFevre said.
“The skating was also part of the do-it-yourselfism of her life,” she added. “More than anything, she was a pioneer woman, and that carried into her skating — how she basically learned it without coaching. She was pretty much self-taught in everything she did.”
A memorial service will be held at 3:15 p.m. Oct. 24 in the Keene Valley Congregational Church in Keene Valley, N.Y.
Ms. Ashworth, who donated her bronze medal to the Lake Placid Olympic Museum, made few concessions to age or illness. During winter sojourns in Florida, “she bought a Sunfish and learned to sail when she was 76,” LeFevre said.
Back home, Ms. Ashworth bonded with her toy Australian shepherd the past couple of years, taught a friend how to use her lathe, and built a walking trail for LeFevre. Because she still liked to prepare wood for her projects, Ms. Ashworth switched to a battery-operated chainsaw in July when it became too difficult to pull the starter cord on a gasoline-powered model.
“She loved cutting down trees and loved making things with wood, so she just kept modifying,” LeFevre said. “She had such a can-do attitude.”