The Chicago Tribune once referred to Marie Marvingt as “the most remarkable woman since Joan of Arc.” One would be hard-pressed to find a popular sport in which she did not compete – even when the rules did not allow women to compete. Most notably, when she was refused permission to participate in the Tour de France in 1908, she just waited until the official race had ended to complete the entire course herself – which barely one-third of the male participants had accomplished. For this and her successes in golf, ice skating, shooting, mountaineering, and other sports, the French Academy of Sports awarded her the only multi-sport medal it has ever awarded.
In 1909, Marvingt became the first woman to pilot a balloon across the Channel to England. Her training as a nurse and her passion for aviation combined in her most important contribution to history – which was almost her only failure. Beginning in 1909, and when she served as a volunteer nurse for the French Army in 1914, Marvingt proposed the development of “air ambulances,” but the concept fell on deaf ears. Refusing to give up, Marvingt went on to serve as a flying war correspondent in North Africa and organize the First International Congress on Medical Aviation, which trained nurses, doctors, and pilots for emergency rescue operations using aircraft. Finally, in 1934, the French government tasked Marvingt with establishing a civil air ambulance service in Morocco, where she was awarded the Medal of Peace of Morocco.
As if all of this were not enough, in 1955, at the age of 80, Marvingt learned to fly a helicopter and broke the sound barrier while piloting an American F-10 fighter jet. She died just eight years later, in 1963. It would be hard to imagine a fuller and more daring life.
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