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Betty Robinson: the fastest woman in the world who came back from the dead

Updated: Sep 29

As hard as 16-year-old Betty Robinson was running, there was no way she was going to get to the train before it pulled out of the station. Robinson’s biology teacher, Charles Price, a former track athlete, was sure she had left it too late. On a winter’s day in Chicago, 1928, it would be a bitterly cold wait for the next one on the elevated platform. Price stepped onto the commuter train and took his seat. But seconds later, having bounded up the steps, there was Robinson, none the worse for her efforts and happily on her way home from school.

Robinson, who came from the small town of Riverdale, just south of Chicago, thought nothing of racing for the train, but that small moment, that afternoon, was the improbable beginning to a career of meteoric sporting success and a scarcely believable comeback from near tragedy. If a Hollywood screenwriter had dared present her story as a screenplay, the hapless hack would never have been let near a studio again. But it’s all true: Betty ‘Babe’ Robinson may be the most remarkable Olympic athlete you have never heard of.

Who is Betty Robinson?

Born on August 23, 1911, Betty Robinson grew into a good-natured teenager who liked to play guitar, act in school plays and run in races at social events organised by her school or the local church. She knew she was fast – and she was intensely competitive – but never imagined she would be able to do anything with her natural abilities. As for running competitively? It had never even crossed her mind. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1984, she said, ‘I had no idea that women even ran then. I grew up a hick.’

The day after her race for the train, Price timed Robinson running 50 yards down a corridor in school and, further impressed by her speed, encouraged her to train with the boys’ team, as there was no girls’ track team at Thornton Township High, in the town of Harvey, a couple of stops from Riverdale.

Robinson was an exuberant natural but it is still remarkable that she was soon taking on the very best women sprinters in the country. In March, only a few weeks after being discovered, Robinson made her race debut in a regional event, finishing second to 20-year-old Helen Filkey, the US record holder at 100m. She was promptly invited to join the Illinois Athletic Women’s Club (IAWC).

In her second 100m race, in Chicago, on June 2, Robinson beat Filkey and recorded a time of 12 seconds, beating the official world record of 12.2 seconds, set in May that year. The time was not ratified, owing to wind assistance, but a month later Robinson travelled to Newark, New Jersey, for the Olympic trials. Racing three times in an hour, she came second in the final and was selected to represent the United States in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, the first Games in which women were permitted to race in track and field (and the first at which the Olympic torch was lit). Robinson made sporting history at those Games, becoming the first woman to win the gold medal in the 100m, but even that was not her most extraordinary achievement.

Let the Dames Begin

The crossing from New York to Amsterdam on the SS President Roosevelt took nine days and Robinson recalled that she ‘loved every minute of it’, even training on the makeshift track that ran around the deck of the ship. There were 18 female track and field athletes in a US Olympic team of 280. The team included swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, who would win his fourth and fifth gold medal at those Games and go on to play what for many remains the definitive screen Tarzan. It is difficult now to appreciate how well known Robinson had become in such a short time, but it is clear she was already a star. Louis Nixdorff, a member of the US lacrosse team, kept a journal of his trip and noted on July 13,

‘…After spoiling a few pictures we finally succeeded in getting Weissmuller, Joie Ray [1924 Olympic bronze medallist in the 3000m team event], Helen Meany [three-time Olympic swimmer], [and] Babe Robinson, in on some pretty fair snapshots.’ The 16-year-old was certainly in illustrious sporting company.

Of the four American women seeking a place in the 100m final, only one made it through: Robinson. Lining up against three Canadians and two Germans, she was focused primarily on one of the Canadians, 24-year-old Fanny Rosenfeld, who had set numerous national track and field records in the Olympic trials, and who had beaten Robinson in one of the heats. (Both women had won their semi-finals in a time of 12.4 seconds). Robinson may have seemed calm going into the final, preternaturally so for one so inexperienced and young – she was still 23 days shy of her 17th birthday – but the fact that she arrived with two left shoes betrayed her underlying nerves. She had to send someone back to the team’s base on the ship to get the rights, and barely made it to the start line in time. She even considered running barefoot.

Every woman in that race knew she was making history and the occasion was too much for some. From a crouch position (starting blocks were not used until the 1948 London Games), there were two false starts, which led to the disqualification of Canadian Myrtle Cook and German Leni Schmidt. Cook burst into tears, while Schmidt shook her fist at the starter and, apparently, swore revenge. Then the four remaining runners retook their places on the cinder and crushed-brick track.

Robinson was in the lane next to Rosenfeld, which was just how she wanted it because she preferred to have her biggest threat in her line of vision. Germany’s Erna Steinberg was on Robinson’s immediate left and another Canadian, Ethel Smith, two lanes over. Steinberg bounded out of her crouch start at the gun, with Robinson right on her heels. By halfway, Rosenfeld, who had started poorly, drew level with the now leading Robinson, but the young American kept her focus as the two powered across the finish line, both briefly raising their arms. Footage of the race shows Rosenfeld glancing anxiously over at Robinson, who faces confidently forward, smiling, as if she had just had the time of her life. She had certainly run it: Robinson had won the first gold medal in her sport in a time of 12.2 seconds (as recorded in the Official Report of the 9th Olympiad Amsterdam, equalling the world record; elsewhere it was listed as 12 seconds flat, a new record). She had been a runner for five months.

The Canadians felt Rosenfeld had won and lodged a complaint, but the judges’ original decision was upheld. Betty Robinson was an Olympic champion – and a hugely popular one. Chicago Tribune reporter William L Shirer wrote that ‘an unheralded, pretty, blue-eyed blond young woman from Chicago became the darling of the spectators when she flew down the cinder path, her golden locks flying, to win’.

Six decades later, Robinson was interviewed for a book with the lugubrious title Tales of Glory: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told By America’s Gold Medal Winners, by Lewis H Carlson and John J Fogarty. This is how she remembered the race:

‘I can remember breaking the tape, but I wasn’t sure that I’d won. It was so close. But my friends in the stands jumped over the railing and came down and put their arms around me, and then I knew I’d won. Then, when they raised the flag, I cried.’ In postrace footage, available on YouTube, Robinson smiles into the camera, looks bewildered, then smiles again, an open, guileless teenager’s smile of delight tinged with the embarrassment that often comes with such attention. She was a star.

Robinson went on to win a silver medal in the 4x100m relay. She anchored the team but had too much to do against the favoured Canadians, and Myrtle Cook, so distraught after disqualification in the 100m, brought her team home. Robinson did not seem too bothered.

Triumph and Disaster

Robinson and the rest of the team were greeted by huge crowds when their ship docked in New York. A ticker-tape parade followed, and there were speeches, lunches, a meeting with baseball superstar Babe Ruth and some sightseeing. And, by the by, Robinson celebrated her 17th birthday. After that, it was back to Chicago, for more adulation, more parades and more speeches. When she finally returned to Riverdale, there was yet another parade, with an estimated 20,000 people turning up to cheer the returned champion. They had banded together to buy her a diamond watch and she was given a silver cup by her high school.

After the madness had abated, Betty returned to high school for her final year, and then went on to begin a degree in physical education at Northwestern University. It seems she had an idea she wanted to coach the 1936 Olympic team. But before that, of course, she had her sights on the defence of her 100m title in the 1932 Olympics, which were to be held on home turf, in Los Angeles. She continued to run in school and college, setting records in 1929 in the 50-yard dash (5.8 seconds) and 100-yard dash (11.4 seconds) in Soldier Field, Chicago, on a murderously hot (33C) July day. Fred Steers, chairman of the national committee on women’s athletics, probably thought he was being complimentary when he described the ‘most sensational performances of the meet’ from ‘the slim, smiling Chicago girl, who runs like a man’.

In March 1931, she set world records for 60 yards (6.9 seconds) and 70 yards (7.9 seconds). She was in top form and her training was going well. Then, on June 28, the unthinkable happened.

It was a 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 (how times have changed). So she asked her cousin, who was part owner of a small plane, to take her flying. ‘That’s why I went, to cool off,’ she later said. The takeoff was uneventful but before the plane had even reached an altitude of 600ft, it became clear something was wrong. The engine seemed to stall and the plane went into a nosedive, plunging into a marshy field. 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 the trunk of his car (or on the flatbed of his truck: accounts differ) and drove her to a nearby undertaker. Thankfully, he did not act too hastily. Robinson had a badly broken leg, hip and arm, and internal injuries, and was in an out of consciousness for the next few days. [The pilot was taken directly to hospital. He survived, though years later his damaged left leg was amputated].

Robinson spent the next 11 weeks in hospital, where a pin was inserted in her smashed leg and her various injuries slowly healed. But the 1932 Olympics were out of the question and many felt Robinson, with her left leg now shorter than the other, would never compete again and would walk with a limp for the rest of her life. Robinson, naturally, was having none of it. ‘Of course I am going to try to run again,’ she said. Speaking to RW, Robinson’s granddaughter, Brook Doire, said her grandmother ‘did not like to be told “no”’. ‘She was not a fan of the word “impossible” and when told she would not be able to do something she would find a way to make it happen and surprise those who had doubted her. This included doctors.

The comeback kid

Robinson’s recovery was slow, painful and expensive but it was aided greatly by the fact she had been training so hard prior to the accident. ‘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,’ she said years later. During her recuperation she found that she could indeed still run, ‘not as fast as I used to, but fast enough to make a team’, she said. She decided to try for the Olympic team that would travel to Berlin for the 1936 Games, and so returned to the IAWC to begin training. Because of her injuries she was unable to get into the starting crouch position, so competing in the individual 100m was impossible. But as a member of the 4x100m relay team, she would not have to crouch if she wasn’t the first runner. ‘It was really a struggle to make the team in 1936. I had to work overtime,’ she said. 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, for Jesse Owens’ four gold medals, but Betty Robinson also made her mark. The German relay team, who had set a world record in their heat, were favoured to win and, indeed, they had a lead of nine metres coming into the final leg, with Robinson just behind for the US. But the Germans’ last handover was disastrous; anchor runner Ilse Dorffeldt received the baton smoothly but then dropped it as she changed from one hand to the other: the Germans were immediately disqualified. Robinson handed to Helen Stephens – who had already won the 100m final – and the US won in 46.9 seconds. Robinson had won another Olympic gold and was certain her team would have won even if the Germans had not made that dreadful error. ‘I wish they [the German women] hadn’t dropped the baton...Helen was the faster. We would have won anyway.’

She later said that ‘it’s indescribable how lucky I felt to be there and getting another medal.’ But she added, wistfully, that it had been hard to watch the 100m.

Keeper of the flame

Robinson retired from running after the 1936 Games, though she stayed involved in the sport. She was an AAU timekeeper for many years and also an active public speaker, lecturing for the Women’s Athletic Association and the Girls’ Athletic Association to promote women’s running. She got married, had two children and moved to of Glencoe, on Chicago’s North Shore, where she worked in a hardware store for many years.

Robinson was not the kind to brag about her sporting achievements – she kept her medals in a top dresser drawer in a Russel Stover’s candy box. However, notes her granddaughter, ‘she held them with such care when she showed them’.

In 1977, when Robinson was inducted into the USA National Track & Field Hall of Fame, she said, ‘I suppose most Americans don’t even recognise me. It happened so long ago I still can’t believe the attention I get for something I did so long ago.’ She has yet to be inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame, though her granddaughter says she was not particularly bothered by the lack of recognition: ‘I think her family has been more disappointed than she ever was.’

It is fitting that Robinson was to have one more day in the sun. In 1996, while living in Denver, the then 84-year-old was chosen to carry the Olympic torch for a few blocks as it made its way across the United States to Atlanta for the Games. 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, filled once last time with the Olympic spirit.

On May 17, 1999, Betty Robinson died. She was 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.’

It is no surprise that the movie rights to a biography about Robinson were sold a few years ago: 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 terrible injuries to win a second Olympic gold. That Hollywood script may yet be written and the opening scene is a cinch: a teenager runs for a train one day and her life is changed forever.


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