(Part 1 of a 9-part series on the 2013 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction class)
(Written for the Louisiana Sports Writers Association)
Not long before her death in 1998 at age 93, Anna Koll of New Orleans was told by her nephew, Bill Koll, that she had been nominated for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
Her response was “Why?”
Actually, the response should have been “Why not?” Or, more properly, “Why not sooner?”
That last part could also apply to why it took another 15 years for Koll finally to be elected. Her posthumous induction finally comes in Natchitoches Saturday, June 29 at the sold-out 2013 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
How overdue Koll’s election was is debatable. What isn’t is that she’s definitely deserving.
In a time when opportunities in sports for women were limited, if not sometimes frowned upon, Koll did it all – tennis, track & field, gymnastics, basketball and cabbage ball – and did it well.
Of Koll, Joe Abraham of the New Orleans States proclaimed in 1930, “This young lady is probably the greatest representative of the fair sex ever to be developed here in the field of athletics.”
More than eight decades later, Anna Koll still might be.
Tennis was her top sport.
Koll won the Southern Women’s championship twice, state titles in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee and numerous city championships in singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
She won so many awards that she had the medals fashioned into a bracelet she wore when completing in tennis and also had a necklace for the same occasions.
She also was the first woman in New Orleans to wear shorts instead of a long skirt when playing.
Arthritis ended Koll’s competitive days in the early 1930s, but she continued to teach tennis for decades.
“Aunt Anna was a wonderful competitor,” Bill Koll said. “She’d work with guys to make herself better.
“She was demanding teacher. But all of the kids in the family learned tennis from her and loved doing it.”
And she also encouraged others, particularly girls, just to be active.
First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign couldn’t have expressed it better than Koll did in an essay written for the 1928 Christmas edition of the New Orleans Home Journal:
“You can never start too early to find fun in playing the game. By “the game” I mean any sort of sport. You may never reach the height of a champion of some kind but you will find much pleasure in trying to be the best of whatever you are.
“It is well for a boy or girl to learn many kinds of games. Be an all-around athlete. You will benefit more in the end. Learn the sports of winter and summer. Live out of doors as much as possible. Don’t be afraid of coat of tan. Let the sun’s rays restore the vitality of your body.
“Be the master of yourself by making your body able to perform any task set to it. Go into the game to win. Play your best.”
Remember this was a time of much debate about the limits of activity for women. When the women’s 800 meters final at the Amsterdam Olympics of 1928 resulted in reports (exaggerated) of the competitors writhing on the ground in agony, the outcry was such that women ran no Olympic event longer than 400 meters until 1960.
But Koll, who got her start as a member of the Wiltz gymnasium team, never those attitudes affect her.
Wrote Lawrence diBenedetto, secretary of the New Orleans AAU in 1927, “The New Orleans girls of the long skirt era, of novels and romance, may have been languid young ladies who walked no further than from the front steps of their homes to the carriage door.
“But the short-skirted, bobbed miss of the 20th century exhibits vitality which would rival the athletic prowess of an Amazon.”
He was speaking of Koll and her Wiltz teammates after they won the 1927 Southern AAU championships.
Koll won both the long jump and high jump that day. She was also the reigning city tennis championship at the time.
Koll earned degrees from both Tulane and LSU and also did advanced work at Harvard during a time when women were only allowed to matriculate there during the summer.
She taught for 30 years, primarily English and physical education at McMain High, before going full time into real estate, remaining in the Uptown New Orleans home she grew up all of her life.
“She was a self-taught business person,” Bill Koll said. “But she certainly knew how to buy and sell property.”
While undoubtedly she could have competed on the national level in tennis. Koll chose not to do so, because, her nephew said, she was a frugal woman who did not feel it was worth paying her expenses to go around the country competing.
“If she ever regretted that, she never told me,” Bill Koll said. “But what a great aunt to have.
“She was the neatest person I’ve ever known. She was always ahead of the game.”