Helen Stephens was 15 and almost 6ft tall when her PE teacher at Fulton High School spotted that she could run fast. He had timed her over 50 yards at 5.8 seconds, which equalled the world record. Teacher Burton Moore thought he had better test the stopwatch again. Her time was 5.9 seconds.

So he took Stephens on to the cinder road in front of the Missouri school and showed her the sprinting basics. She'd been reared on a farm, a tough upbringing which prompted her to observe that, "from the time I was a small child, I was in training, only I didn't know it." And when she went to school, it was with her cousin, who rode there. Stephens would run alongside. "I'd grab the stirrup and run with the horse," she said.

In March 1935, Moore took Stephens to her first track meeting, the AAU championships. She had to borrow a sweat top and spikes from friends. She won the shot putt, set a world record in the standing long jump and 200m, and equalled the world best for 50 metres.

In doing so, she beat Stella Walsh, who had won the Los Angeles Olympic 100m three years earlier. Indignant at having been humbled by a schoolgirl, Walsh described her as "a greenie from the sticks".

The following year, Stephens was selected by the US for the Berlin Olympics. Though Walsh lived in the US, she ran for Poland in Berlin under the name Stanislawa Walasiewicz.

Stephens was a sensation. Seventy-two years ago today she won the Olympic 100m gold in 11.5 seconds, a world best. Walasiewicz was two metres behind. She also anchored the US relay quartet to gold in world record time.

A Polish journalist suggested Stephens was of questionable femininity. This was silenced when she passed a gender test, and she successfully sued a magazine which repeated the libel. But history was to serve an interesting footnote.

Hitler was impressed by the 18-year-old sprinter who had agonised over whether she should withdraw in protest at Nazi treatment of Jews. Stephens is quoted by Olympic historian David Wallechinsky about her post-race experience with the Fuhrer.

"He comes in and gives me the Nazi salute. I gave him a good, old-fashioned Missouri handshake," she said. "Once more Hitler goes for the jugular vein. He gets hold of my fanny and begins to squeeze and pinch, and hug me up. And he said: You're a true Aryan type. You should be running for Germany.' So after he gave me the once over and a full massage, he asked me if I'd like to spend the weekend in Berchtesgaden."

Stephens, whom it later emerged was a closeted lesbian, refused. Her 100m time survived as the world record until beaten by Wilma Rudolph in 1960.

She founded and played for a women's pro basketball team, served as a reserve in the US Marines during World War II, and ran 16.4 for 100m aged 68. She died in 1994.

Ten years earlier, Walasiewicz was shot in a supermarket heist. An autopsy showed that the woman whom Stephens beat in 1936, and had set 11 world records, was actually a man under current athletics rules. Her Olympic medals have never been re-allocated.