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Buffalo’s Best / Women’s No. 8: Kit Klein

The Buffalo News polled sports staffers as to the top 10 male and female athletes from Western New York. Here’s No. 8 among women:

Name: Kit Klein.

Sport: Speed skating.

Hometown: Buffalo.

High school: Masten Park High School (now City Honors).

Born: March 28, 1910.

Died: April 13, 1985, age 75.

Career overview: Catherine “Kit” Klein was Buffalo’s darling, world-champion speed skater of the 1930s. She was so famous, she was featured on the Wheaties cereal box. A crowd of 12,000 gathered at Delaware Park in 1931 to watch her win the city skating title. Her 1,000-watt personality endeared her to the public and enhanced her publicity. She won the first official world all-around speed skating title in 1936 in Stockholm. Speed skating did not become an official Olympic sport until 1960. But it was a demonstration sport at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics, where Klein won gold in the 1,500 and bronze in the 500. There were three exhibition races held at the 1936 Olympics, and she won two, which earned her a brief meeting with Adolf Hitler (“He was a very mild sort of man,” she said.). She set the world record in the 1,000 meters in 1935.

“I always had a flair for the dramatic,” Klein said in an interview with The Buffalo News in 1984.

Memorable moment: Klein considered the 1936 world title her highlight, and she had predicted victory before the event in an interview with the Chicago Daily News. The all-around gold was decided by four races – 500, 1,000, 3,000 and 5,000 meters. Klein won the 500 and 3,000, the latter in a world-record time of 6 minutes, 12 seconds. She clinched the title by placing a close second to Finnish great Verne Lesche in the grueling, 5,000-meter finale. It was 43 years before another American (Beth Heiden) won the women’s all-around.

“I was half a lap behind with three laps to go; I knew I had to close the gap, and I did,” said Klein, who finished just 50 feet behind Lesche.

King kisser: She nearly was deported from Norway at the world championships in 1935 for planting an exuberant kiss on King Haakon VII and other risqué behavior that grabbed headlines.

Said Klein: “Queen Maude was a little shocked but the King explained that I was just an enthusiastic American.”

Youth: In eighth grade she made what was reputed to be a girls elementary school world record in the broad jump, at 7 feet, 2 inches. She took up speed skating in her junior year of high school. She would cross the Peace Bridge on foot or by bicycle to train at dawn each morning at a rink in Fort Erie. Then she would work out at Humboldt Park after school. A fiercely independent streak helped her succeed. She drove by herself from Buffalo to Milwaukee for the 1932 Olympic Trials.

Tabloid news: In April 1935, famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell revealed that Klein secretly had married former world light heavyweight boxing champion George Nichols in 1933. The story broke as Klein announced her engagement to Dr. Thomas Outland. Klein and Nichols had tied the knot on a whim in Ripley, after attending a late-night party. Klein called it a “prank.” Nichols backed up Klein’s story and testified in a subsequent divorce proceeding that they never lived together.

“I’d rather forget the whole thing,” she told The News in ’84.

Going out in style: On the voyage home from Sweden aboard the S.S. Washington in ‘36, Klein tossed her skates into the Atlantic Ocean in what she called “a gesture of finality,” signaling the end of her competitive career.

“I’ve reaped the harvest,” Klein said. “I’ve won everything there was to win. The Olympics, the world championships. What more can you do?”

Post-career: Klein signed a movie contract with Metro Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, but her film career consisted only of bit parts. She had a successful professional career skating with the Ice Follies across North America. She settled with her husband in Harrisburg, Pa. They retired to Florida in 1968.