Chattie's sporting dynasty

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charlotte_cooperA DISTINGUISHED sportswoman who died in Helensburgh in 1966 at the age of 96 was not only arguably the first female Olympic gold medallist of the modern era — she was also the founder of an incredible sporting dynasty.

Charlotte Cooper won five Wimbledon singles tennis titles, her daughter played tennis for Britain, one grandson played rugby for Scotland and another chaired the Royal and Ancient Golf Club’s championship committee, and a great grandson holds a school javelin record and played rugby league for Scotland.

Known as ‘Chattie’, she won the 1895 Scottish womens championship — a feat repeated by her daughter 34 years later — and three Wimbledon singles titles before the Paris Olympics in 1900. The last of her five Wimbledon singles triumphs was in 1908, when she was 37.

She was one of the first women players to develop the use of the volley, rather than playing from the baseline.

Her husband, Alfred Sterry, later became president of the Lawn Tennis Association and was a member of the council of the All England Club, and their daughter Gwen played for Britain in the Wightman Cup. Their son Rex rose to the position of vice-chairman of the All England Club.

Gwen married Max Simmers, capped 28 times by Scotland at rugby from 1926-32 and later president of the Scottish Rugby Union, and they lived for many years at Tarandoun, East Clyde Street.

One of their sons, fly half Brian of Glasgow Accies, won seven caps for Scotland from 1965-71 and went on to found the Glasgow Hawks rugby club.

The other, Graeme (pictured below left), also played for Accies, but at centre. He became chairman of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club’s championship committee and later captain of the R & A in 2001-02, and he served as chairman of the Scottish Sports Council from 1990-99. He was awarded the CBE in 1998 for services to sport.

Both gained their early rugby experience at Helensburgh’s Larchfield (now Lomond) School, and occasionally played for the Old Larchfieldians.

Brian’s son Chris played for Scotland in the Rugby League World Nines Championship in 1996, then returned to Rugby Union and played in the centre for the Hawks. He also still holds the Glasgow Academy over 17 javelin record of 40.44 metres, set in 1987.

Charlotte Reinagle Cooper was born on September 22 1870 in Ealing, Middlesex, where, as a young lady, she was a member of Ealing Lawn Tennis Club.

Tall, slender and elegant, she was a deceptively powerful athlete, and won the first of her five Wimbledon singles titles in 1895, wearing an ankle-length dress in accordance with proper Victorian attire. She won again the following year and for the third time in 1898.

The first time women were allowed to compete in the modern Olympic Games was in 1900 — the inaugural Games was four years earlier — but the International Olympic Committee was not in charge of the 1900 Games and many events were scrapped. Only 22 women from 24 countries.

It wasgraeme_simmers held as part of the five month-long World’s Fair and was very much secondary to it.

Award-winning Herald sports writer Doug Gillon says that so incidental was sport that some winners went to their graves unaware that they had been Olympic champions.

He writes: “The other claimant for the first female gold winner of the modern era is Helen, Countess de Pourtales, who was on board the under two ton class Swiss yacht, Lerina, owned by her husband. But historians suggest she was only a passenger, not a competitor.

“All that assumes we discount Kyniska, daughter of King Archidamos of Sparta. She owned and bred the horses which won the chariot race at the 396 and 392 BC Olympics.

“The owner, not the charioteer, won the laurel wreath. Mature women weren't even allowed to be spectators, but in defiance of prevailing custom, she was allowed to collect the trophy, thus technically becoming first female Olympic champion.”

In Paris, Charlotte also won the mixed doubles with Reginald Doherty, making her Britain’s first double Olympic gold medallist.

She was still unmarried at the age of 30 but on January 12 1901 she married Albert Sterry, a tennis compatriot. That year she captured the Wimbledon championship for the fourth time.

After taking time off to have a family, she returned to active tennis, winning her fifth Wimbledon singles title in 1908 at the age of 37 years 282 days, an age record that still stands.

In 1912, at the age of 41, she was still one of the best players in the game and that year made it to the Wimbledon finals.

Mrs Cooper Sterry remained active in competitive tennis and continued to play in championship events well into her 50s. She died in Helensburgh on October 10 1966.