Betty Robinson: the Olympic Athlete Who Won Gold After Almost Dying

Jan 12, 2023 | People of History


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About the Episode

We’re starting off the new year with an inspirational story of another awesome woman of history, and this is one of Charlotte’s new favourites! She talks about Betty Robinson, an Olympic track athlete who competed in the 1920s and ’30s, who had an absolute rollercoaster of a life.

From winning her first gold medal at just 16 years old to almost dying in a plane accident and then rising from the ashes again to win another gold medal — Betty’s story is one everyone should hear.

Related episode: Nellie Bly: the American Feminist Who Transformed Investigative Journalism (#25)

Whether it's a year-long excursion or a short city break, listen to this episode for tips on reducing costs, organising your trip, making the most of your time while you're away, and more.

Full Episode Notes

If you can’t listen to the episode for accessibility reasons, or you just want to refer to the notes as you listen, you can find the full in-depth notes for this episode below.

Betty Robinson: The Incredible Comeback Story of One of the World’s Best Olympic Athletes (#149)

We haven’t had an awesome women of history episode for a while, so I thought my first episode of the year would be one of those! And this woman’s story is incredible. I’m going to be talking about 1920s Olympic athlete Betty Robinson, who is another person who needs a whole film made about their life.

Born in 1911 in Riverdale, Illinois, Elizabeth Schwartz (née Robinson) was an American athlete and winner of the first Olympic 100 metres for women. She was just a 16-year-old student when she achieved national acclaim as an Olympic champion.

Her talent was discovered by her science teacher Charles Price, a former track athlete. Robinson was a typical teenager who used the train to get to school every day, and on one particular day in 1928, she was running late. Price, her Biology teacher, already boarding the train from the upper platform, noticed her from afar and knew that she would be late to class because there was no way she was going to make the train. Moments later, she sat down next to him.

Astonished, he complimented her speed and suggested she allow him to time her in the hallway at school the next day. Following this, Robinson received a request to train with the male track team at her high school, and not long after, she was also being invited to the Illinois Women's Athletic Club. She later noted, “till then, I didn't even know there were women's races.”

Robinson ran her first official race in March 1928, at the age of 16, at an indoor meet where she finished second in the 60-yard dash to Helen Filkey, the US 100m record holder at the time. At her next race 3 months later, an outdoor 100 metres, she beat Filkey and equalled the world record, though her time was not recognised because it was deemed wind-aided.

Before long, Robinson was off to the Olympic Trials in New Jersey. This would be the first event Robinson ran for the club. Not only did she win, but she broke a world record and went on to the final tryouts.

In those days, track and field was not sophisticated: runners dug holes for each of their feet before the start, training was lax, equipment was poor, racing diets and opportunities for support were almost nonexistent. Despite this, most modern female athletes are running only a second faster than Robinson and some of her competitors; the 100-metre world record she broke in those first tryouts in 1928 was with a time of 12.0 seconds, compared with Florence Griffith Joyner's world record of 10.49, 60 years later in 1988.

So, after the successful Olympic tryouts, only four months after she took up the sport, Robinson was on a boat to the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam to represent her country. She was the only US athlete to qualify for the 100m final. With three false starts and two runners disqualified, the inexperienced Robinson became increasingly jittery. The race was so close that it was only when friends jumped the railing and came onto the field that Robinson realised she had won the gold, with a time of 12.2 seconds. She recalled later, “When the flag went up [to declare the winner] after the race, I started crying like a baby.”

At this time, women’s athletics hadn’t been on the Olympic programme, and its inclusion was still ridiculously disputed among officials. This meant that Robinson was the inaugural Olympic champion in the event. Not only that, but it was also the first gold medal for the United States in Track and Field. She still remains the youngest athlete to win Olympic 100m gold, being only 16 years old at the time. She also competed in the American 4×100 metres relay team where they came second, adding a silver medal to her record.

In a post-match video, Robinson can be seen smiling, bewildered, at the camera, then smiling again with a huge, open, unsophisticated smile of teenage delight. She was immediately a star. Chicago Tribune reporter William L Shirer wrote that “an unheralded, pretty, blue-eyed blonde young woman from Chicago became the darling of the spectators when she flew down the cinder path, her golden locks flying, to win”. (Not sure why her appearance is so important, but she’s a woman, so it’s not surprising given this is journalism.)

(Just to add to the minor sexism, Fred Steers, chairman of the national committee on women’s athletics, probably thought he was being complimentary when he described the “most sensational performance” from “the slim, smiling Chicago girl, who runs like a man”.)

Back at home, Robinson set her intentions to train and return to the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. She enrolled at Northwestern University where she studied for a degree in physical education, hoping to become a coach at the 1936 Olympics. But after this, something happened which was very likely to ruin her chances of ever running again.

While training for the next Olympics with the track team, it was a particularly hot day and Robinson wanted to cool down. She had been forbidden from swimming by her coaches, on the grounds that the activity “used different muscles”. So she asked her cousin, who was part owner of a small plane, to take her flying.

The takeoff was uneventful, but shortly after, it was clear something was wrong. The engine stalled and the plane went into a nosedive, crashing into a marshy field and crushing the occupants. People were quickly on the scene and what they saw was horrifying. Both bodies had been mangled in the crash and neither was conscious. Robinson appeared to be either dead or dying, her condition so bad that the man who pulled her from the wreckage placed her in his car and drove her to a nearby undertaker. She was unresponsive, bleeding from a gash on her head, and her arm and leg were crushed. (The pilot was taken directly to hospital. He survived, though years later his damaged left leg was amputated.)

The undertaker was the first person to realise Robinson was still breathing and was not, in fact, dead – but had suffered multiple severe injuries, including a broken leg, hip and arm and several internal injuries, and was in and out of consciousness for a few days. Doctors determined that if she were to recover, she might not walk again, let alone race.

Her recovery took a long time. Almost 3 months later, she left the hospital with metal pins in her joints and one leg slightly shorter than the other. Doctors told her she would never walk without a limp and that running wouldn’t be possible, but she always had faith and hated to be told “no”. Her recovery was aided greatly by the fact she had been training so hard prior to the accident. She said later, “The doctor said if I hadn’t been in such good condition I wouldn’t have come out of it as well as I did.”

It was another six months before she could get out of a wheelchair, and two years before she could walk normally again. Meanwhile, she missed the 1932 Summer Olympics in her home country, the event she had been training so hard for. For a time after her recovery, she fell into a deep depression that confined her to her bed, but her brother-in-law convinced her to accompany him on increasingly longer walks until she was once again zooming around the block. With her sights set on the 1936 Olympics, she began training again.

As her bones healed and her muscles became stronger, her mind was resolute. When the Olympic trials for the 1936 games came around, she had regained her speed, but she wasn’t able to take up the crouched position at the starting line due to the surgeries and fractures on her left leg.

This wasn’t a problem for her, though. Instead of running the 100m, she was determined to compete again in the 4×100 metres relay. She said, “It was really a struggle to make the team in 1936. I had to work overtime.” But through a combination of determination, skill and experience, she won her place. She was still only 24, though now the oldest member of the relay team.

The 1936 Olympics are best remembered, rightly so, for Jesse Owens’ four gold medals, but Betty Robinson also made her mark that year. The German relay team, who had set a world record in their heat, were favoured to win and they had a lead of nine metres coming into the final leg. But then disaster struck for the German team when, in the final handover, the runner dropped the baton and the team were immediately disqualified. Robinson took the lead and handed the baton to her fellow athlete Helen Stephens, who had already won the 100m final, and they won the race, resulting in gold for the team, becoming Robinson’s second Olympic gold medal.

Robinson retired after this event, but she remained involved in athletics as an official. By this time, she held records in the 50, 60, 70, and 100 yards. She toured the country giving lectures and supporting the United States Track and Field organisation. She was never the kind to brag about her sporting achievements – she kept her medals in a top dresser drawer in a candy box, but her granddaughter once notes that “she held them with such care when she showed them.” Robinson also became passionate about showing up as an advocate for women's rights, encouraging others to pursue their dreams.

She married a man called Richard Schwartz in 1939 and they lived outside of Chicago where they raised a son and daughter. She was inducted into the Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974, but has yet to be inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame.

In 1996, when she was 84 years old and living in Denver, Colorado, Robinson was chosen to carry the Olympic torch for a few blocks as it made its way across the US to Atlanta, Georgia. Though frail, she refused to allow anyone to help her carry the heavy torch or even to hold her arm as she carefully made her way along the streets.

Then 3 years later, on 17th May 1999, Betty Robinson died at the age of 87. She had been diagnosed with cancer and had been struggling with Alzheimer’s for a few years. She was a trailblazer for women’s sport, though she never saw herself that way. As her granddaughter put it: “I think she liked adventure and knew she was doing something different from her peers… I do think she was very grateful and later tried to use her place in history to make an impact for women and athletes. She loved to run and wanted others to be able to do what they loved just as she had.”

She never wanted much recognition for her efforts – she once said, “Hero? I didn't think about anything like that. I just wanted to win the race.” But her story inspires all, and she goes down in history not only as one of the youngest Olympic athletes to bring home a gold medal, but as having one of the greatest Olympic comeback stories you've never heard.

Today, her legacy is kept alive with the Traincatchers Foundation, run by Robinson’s own grandchildren, who aim to inspire women athletes, helping them reach beyond barriers. On the Instagram page run by Robinson’s granddaughter, she says, “My grandmother had one of the greatest Olympic stories you’ve never heard. I’m doing my part to carry the torch she lit with her rebel spirit.”

Throughout her life, Betty Robinson used her platform and voice to be at the table and in the room as policies were created around womens’ access to sport. She travelled and spoke with young people about the joy of running, and shared her story to encourage resilience and promote action. She coached and helped create policies within USA Track and Field and the United States Olympic Committee, and by doing all of this, she broke the barriers for future female athletes.

The mission of the Traincatchers Foundation is to honour Betty by protecting the integrity and spirit of her story, while also furthering the pursuits of amateur athletes just as she did when she was alive. They offer presentations for kids, teens, student athletes, and adults all about Betty’s legacy, how to lead with justice, and motivating young athletes. Obviously this is US-based, but I’ll put a link in the notes on our website if anyone is interested in finding out more!

And I said at the beginning of the episode that I don’t know why a film hasn’t been made about her yet. Well, I then discovered that apparently, the movie rights to a biography about Robinson were sold a few years ago. And how could you not see that her life would make a perfect biopic? She was the first woman to win Olympic gold in the 100m; she remains the youngest woman to win a gold medal in the event; she was the fastest woman in the world for a time; and she recovered from almost lethal injuries to win a second Olympic gold. So if this is the first time you’re hearing about this incredible woman, and the film does come out in the future, I hope you’re reminded of this podcast where you first learned about her!

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