Wade by her homestead, 1942, 31 years before life became terrible
Los Angeles, 1932
Gold Medal, Cycling
There’s a lot to the story of Rovie Wade, the Australian female cyclist who was born in the Outback in 1911 and spent her childhood with her hard-boiled single father, a bounty hunter and crocodile poacher who trained his young daughter to help him catch hardened criminals and crocs across the unforgiving landscape. Her adventures before the age of 10 are enough to fill a series of novels, and the rest of her life was equally amazing.
But then came 1973, and the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortions in the first trimester. Suddenly, “Rovie Wade” was a huge liability. The gold medal cyclist lived in America by that time, and spent much of her time on the lecture circuit, speaking to the strength of female power and ability. But now, with her name standing in for one of the most controversial legal events of American history, the message became highly politicized.
“Today, I’m happy to introduce Rovie Wade, a champion athlete and a spokesperson for female power,” an announcer might say, and suddenly Wade might be bombarded with angry jeers or ecstatic cheers, both wildly inappropriate. She was no longer able to speak in the south, where the people assumed she had changed her name in homage to the decision, and in the north she was hailed as a brave pro-choice advocate. “People, that’s not what I’m here for,” she would say, but nobody would listen, because her name sounded like Roe V. Wade.
She had once faced down a band of Australian swamp pirates without blinking as a teenager, but the day she called an old friend to complain about the confusing new name, she found herself crying. “I just want to be Rovie Wade again!” she said.
“Wait,” said the friend. “When you say Rovie Wade, do you mean your name, or Roe V. Wade the Supreme Court case? I honestly can’t tell.”
Things took a further confusing turn when the 1975 Encyclopedia Britannica, the only source of information in the pre-internet age, mistakenly listed her under the Roe V. Wade entry, and left out her gold medal while calling her “an eccentric advocate for abortion, come hell or high water.”
The case also brought some old tensions to the surface with her husband, who had always been annoyed that she didn’t take his last name, McCovey. He left, and when Wade told a newspaper interviewer she was single before making a speech in Boston the next day, the ensuing headline was the most painful chapter in the strange story: “Confirmed Lesbian to Speak on Abortion.”
Despite her protests, the angle of a famous lesbian athlete stumping for abortion proved too tempting for the media to resist, and soon it was spreading like wildfire. Extreme liberal groups like the Students for a Democratic Society offered her exorbitant fees to speak in public, while death threats and anti-Wade rallies were reported all across the south. The Kansas state legislature even took the unique step of exiling her in absentia, a dubious honor previously bestowed only on Adolf Hitler and Charles Darwin.
As the hysteria grew, Wade’s supporters dressed up like her, wearing the traditional prairie dresses that she favored, and many of these look-alikes were assassinated. Wade’s only choice, as she saw it, was to head back to her native Australia. Even there, she proved to be a polarizing figure; abortion was a hot button topic all over the world. In the end, her final option was to go back to the outback, where in 1994, at the age of 83, an army of crocodiles devoured her as revenge for a lifetime of killing their kind.