Anne Vrana O’Brien – Pioneering Olympian

The City of Huntington Beach continues celebrating Women’s History Month.

For as long as she could remember, Anne Vrana, the American born daughter of Hungarian immigrants, loved to run.  By the time she started high school in the 1920’s, there were still no competitive athletic opportunities for females.  She wistfully watched the boys track team practice.  One day, their coach relented and invited her to run the 440 with them.  Clad in long black gym bloomers, black stockings that covered her knees, a blouse, and tennis shoes, she beat them all.  Their team captain, and future husband, Howard O’Brien asked her what she was doing there.  She replied, “I just like to run.”

Her Olympic dreams began at her first real competition – the 1927 National Track Meet. She tied world record paces and won both a gold and silver medal.  Soon after, she qualified for the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.  It was the first Olympic Games that included Women’s Track and Field. Boarding the SS President Roosevelt, it was her first time away from home.  She celebrated her 17th birthday on the trip. Although she didn’t win, she loved the experience that she later recalled as a “great revelation to me.”

In 1930, she married Howard who encouraged her to continue.  Anne was determined to compete in the 1932 Olympics. An unfortunate fall at the trials left her as an alternate to the team.  She travelled with them, but did not compete. Still, in that same year, she set a world record in the 80 meter hurdles.

After her daughter was born in 1934, the family moved to Huntington Beach where Howard agreed to help dig the first whipstock well.  Committed to making the 1936 Olympic team, she pushed her baby’s stroller to the Huntington Beach High School track where she trained every day, positioning the stroller so her daughter could watch. The people of Huntington Beach embraced her.  She was invited to the Chamber of Commerce to share her experiences and was often featured in the local news. Her hopes were crushed when women athletes learned that there was only enough funding to send male competitors to the national trials. In a single day, the Anne O’Brien Club was formed.  Led by various generous community leaders, the fire department and the police department raised the money she needed.

She won the trials and headed to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Given Germany’s expansionist policies and their own team’s “Aryan only” policy, a growing boycott movement in the U.S. and elsewhere cast a shadow on the event. The U.S. team included 18 African-Americans, among them legendary athlete Jessie Owens. Anne won her way to the finals and her team felt sure she had beaten her German opponent.  However, the photos of her finish, like those of another American woman athlete, were “lost.” Anne herself felt a sense of foreboding.  Watching Hitler in his box, she was convinced a “double” filled in for him often and team members were constantly accompanied by a “guide.” Outside news, especially of the Spanish Civil War, was kept from them and Nazi soldiers drilled behind the Olympic dorms in the dead of night. Less than three years later, the German invasion of Poland triggered World War II and the Olympics games were not held again until 1948.

When she returned to Huntington Beach, she was honored “en masse” at a banquet where the Anne O’Brien Club presented her with a plaque. They considered Anne the City’s first representative to the Olympic Games. The whipstock mine her husband had worked on proved successful, so they were able to buy a few other wells.  The family later moved to San Juan Capistrano where Howard expanded into ranching, and Anne coached the high school boys’ team. 

Years later, she was asked about having been a former Olympian.  She replied, “There’s no such thing as a former Olympian.  They don’t take that away from you.” Anne passed away in 2007 at 95 years young.

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