Eleonora "Eleo" Sears was ahead of her time, way ahead.
She died in 1968, before most lesbian athletes within the Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association ( CMSA ) were even born. Still, Sears' sporting impact certainly can be seen on sporting fields around Chicago, and worldwide; that's how big of a superstar she was.
Sears was, quite simply, one of history's greatest athletes, male or femaleand also one of the least known mega-stars.
Sears was a pioneer who never did things the 'proper way.' Instead, she just excelled, opening doors for athletes, particularly female athletes, for generations to come. Her sporting resume is almost inconceivable. Just consider:
She was a national tennis champion.
She was the first women's squash champion.
She was an accomplished horseback rider and golfer.
Sears excelled in sports at a time when that just didn't happen for most women.
She also was one of the first women to drive a car, to fight a speeding ticket and one of the first women to ride in an airplane.
Sears also was a lesbian, according to author Peggy Miller Franck, whose new book, Prides Crossing: The Unbridled Life and Impatient Times of Eleonora Sears, details the amazing life and times of a sporting hero born well before the world was ready for her.
"Her sexual orientation certainly formed her character, and gave her the drive," Franck said in a phone interview. "She was tremendously courageous in the way that she was willing to challenge, in a very public way, the very narrow role that woman had.
People of her class, her generation would never acknowledge [ that they were gay, ] but it was very widely known [ that she was gay ] ."
Franck interviewed senior citizens for her book, including many in their 80s and 90s. Most asked Franck if she knew that Sears was a lesbian.
"Eleo was someone who didn't want to be labeled as anything, such as, a woman, or a lesbian, if that [ title ] would impede her freedom of action to do as she pleased," Franck said. "Very few people did not know," that she was a lesbian.
Sears had multiple lesbian relationships, though none was officially announced or confirmed, including one with Isabel Pell in the 1930s.
"I think it was inescapable that everyone knew [ they were together, ] " Franck said.
Born in 1881, Sears was a four-time U.S. Women's National Tennis champion, including three consecutive years ( 1915-17 ) , and is a member of the Tennis Hall of Fame.
She also was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame for her skills riding horses. She is also in the Horseman's Hall of Fame, the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame, the United States Squash Hall of Fame, and the National Horse Show Foundation Hall of Fame.
"Before Eleo, sure, women were involved with sports, but the emphasis at that time never was on success," Franck said. "Instead, it was just about being outside. It was frowned upon, if you tried to win. Sports were never seen as a proving ground for women, but Eleo made it a proving ground."
Sears, the great-great granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, was a social and society superstar too, so to speak. "She accomplished more than any other woman in sports at that time. Her legend still stands today," Franck said.
She knew anyone and everyone who was worth knowing at the time, from the rich and famous worldwide, including presidents and the Hollywood elite.
Franck's dad, William Miller, was her financial advisory and later became vice president of her racing stable.
"She wore her heart on her sleeve," Franck said. "There was nothing that she wouldn't do for you; she'd move heaven and earth, if you had a problem. Conversely, when a relationship turned rocky, there was nobody who could … drop you as quickly [ as Sears ] , and she could be quite harsh in her judgments."
Franck said Sears' sporting accomplishments would rank at least alongside Billie Jean King, if she was competing in a different era.
"There was limited information about lesbians at the time," Franck said. "Plus, at the time, young women were encouraged in school and in life in general to form close friendships with other women. An intensely close relationship was possible, and not frowned upon."
Sears was one of the first women to wear trousers in public, and she was the first woman to play polo on a man's team, Franck said. Sermons were preached against her around 1909, based on the way she dressed.
Still, Franck said, "she was a role-model for many, just not for all."
Sears also was known for marathon walks. Such as the 47-mile trip from Boston to Providence that she did in 1925in 9 hours and 53 minutes. She also once walked the 73 miles from Newport to Boston in 17 hours.
"She had a very dominant personality, yet some parts of her personality, some objected to," Franck said. "Some thought less of her accomplishments because she came from a wealthy family, though I don't understand that."
The 40th anniversary of Title IX will be marked in Juneand Sears certainly was a pioneer in women's sports long before than.
"I heard from various men who I interviewed [ for the book ] that she always was trying to prove that she was as good as a man," Franck said. "She was just insisting on her right to be as good as she could be, which is very much what Title IX is all about."