Margaret Abbott became U.S.’ first female Olympic champion without knowing it

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When the Olympics were reborn in 1896, after 15 centuries, none of the 176 participants were women.

The 1900 Paris Games included the first female competitors. There were croquet players and yachtswomen, even athletes in ballooning.

Three women won Olympic titles, including one American: 24-year-old golfer Margaret Abbott.

Abbott’s story was told often in 2016, when golf returned to the Olympic program after a 112-year hiatus. She was technically the reigning champion, as only men’s golf events were held at the 1904 St. Louis Games.

Back in 1900, Abbott, who was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, and raised in Chicago, was in Paris for art. She studied under Edgar Degas and Auguste Rodin.

She took part in a nine-hole competition that, at the time, wasn’t labeled as an Olympic event. She won — with a score of 47 — and earned a porcelain bowl rather than a gold medal. (Most of the prizes for events in 1900 were not medals. Also, the men’s golf tournament was 36 holes.)

Her mother, Mary, also played (tying for seventh), making them (still) the only American mother and daughter to compete in the same Olympic event.

But the Abbotts, and many more athletes in Paris, thought they were competing in sideshow events to the Paris Exposition, more commonly known as the World’s Fair. (Other competitions at those Games, which spanned from May to October, included tug of war, fire fighting and pigeon shooting.)

Confirmation of golf as a 1900 Olympic event didn’t come until after Abbott’s death in 1955.

Abbott was a forgotten pioneering sports figure until historian Paula Welch came along. Welch, the first University of Florida women’s basketball coach, researched Abbott on and off for a decade. She eventually found a photo and tracked down her family.

“[Abbott] was not necessarily thinking about being the first, nor was she thinking about being a pioneer, but she was,” Welch told Golf Channel before the Rio Olympics.

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