In 1936, Thelma Jarvis crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a ship full of Olympic hopefuls bound for Berlin – a 17-year-old girl the hometown papers described as pretty, quiet and a little bit nervous.
She’d learned to dive in Toronto, which boasted one of Canada’s three pools equipped with a diving tower, all of them outdoors. She and her team could only practice in the warmer months of the year, and still, her hair would freeze on the way home.
When she arrived in Berlin, a touring car pulled into the Olympic Village carrying Adolf Hitler, who rose from his seat to welcome her team in English – a courtesy the Nazi dictator extended believing the Canadians weren’t much of a threat.
“He had about five young ladies with him,” she recalled from her Raleigh home. “They looked at him like he was god, but he looked like a little Napoleon.”
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At 98, Jarvis watches the Olympics open in Rio de Janeiro from a special vantage point, an athlete who 80 years ago experienced the pressure, the spectacle, the politics and even the cheating.
As a young Thelma Boughner, she and her teammates paraded around a stadium where the spectators gave Nazi salutes, and she attended a lavish party thrown by Joseph Goebbels, a name bound for infamy. When Hitler famously walked out on the sprinter Jesse Owens, refusing to watch a black man compete, she stayed to watch.
“I was very impressed,” she said. “He won everything.”
After 80 years, she still resents how a German dentist rubbed arsenic on her gums while treating a cavity, leaving her sick throughout the games and eventually costing her three teeth. She still pans her own performance, which brought no medals: “Terrible. My coach said I looked like a sack tied in the middle.” And though the Americans dominated diving that year, taking most of the medals thanks to their year-round, indoor pools, Jarvis still points to Nazi scheming.
“He just wanted to win at any cost,” she said.
I’m a diver, and I went to the Olympics. And that’s one of the proudest things that I did in my life.
But mostly, as this year’s athletes arrive in Brazil, Jarvis recalls an adventure few could ever match – a piece of history that lives in the scrapbook on her dining room table and in her framed medallion, which shows she competed in Berlin. As a young girl, the entire world watched her perform half-gainers – a happy distraction from the darkness on the horizon.
“I’m a diver,” she told me, “and I went to the Olympics. And that’s one of the proudest things that I did in my life.”
Jarvis married a Navy pilot from Hertford. They settled in Raleigh in 1953 and raised three children. For many years, her family operated Tastee-Freez franchises across North Carolina. Her children now joke that she never told her in-laws that she’d been a top-notch athlete. They’d have thought it unseemly.
“She taught me to dive before she taught me to swim,” said her oldest son, Ken. “She would do exhibitions in the Great Lakes and they would have to break the ice for her to dive.”
He opens her scrapbook to photos of Jarvis with a swimmer from Japan and a signed portrait of the cyclist “Torchy” Peden, whom she may or may not have dated – a question lost to foggy memories. Then he flips to Toronto news clippings from 1936, which rave, “Young, pretty, talented and attractive, she impresses one as being anything but a diving star, very reserved, and as quiet as a church mouse and a little nervous.”
Along with the run-on sentence, I fault the Toronto scribbler for pegging Jarvis wrong. No timid girl crossed the ocean as a teenager, faced down the world’s Olympic talent and accurately assessed the century’s greatest villain. Her life, if not her medal, is golden.