“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.” – Marie Curie
The debris of the biplane smoldered in the south suburbs of Chicago as a man looked through it. It appeared to be a fatal plane crash.
He saw broken wood, cloth, metal parts…and a woman.
The woman, Elizabeth “Betty” Robinson, nicknamed “Babe” by those around her, had been a very rapidly rising star in the track scene. Born in Riverdale, Illinois, she ran her first 100-meter race at 16, finishing second only to the U.S. record holder. In her second race, though unrecognized, she matched the world record.
According to her son, Rick Schwartz, her running career started as a matter of chance. “Her biology teacher was on the I.C. (Illinois Central) train and saw my mom running to catch it.” Astonished that Mrs. Schwartz was able to catch the train, the teacher suggested that they start training together, and the rest is history.
Her fourth 100-meter competition was the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. These games are remembered for, among other things, being the first where the Olympic flame was lit and the first to use the now-standard 16-day schedule. Before that, the games stretched out over a period of months.
There was another first for women as well. In the 100-meter race, Betty equaled the world record and won the race. She was the first to win this event because it was the inaugural attempt at having women run it in the Olympics. Betty then added a silver medal with her performance in the 4×100 meter relay.
Newspapers heralded her as the fastest woman in the world. That was before the aviation accident. Her cousin took her for a ride in a biplane, and it went down.
A man who arrived on the scene of the airplane crash checked Betty’s body for signs of life but found none. After he hefted her mangled body into the trunk of his car, he drove her to an undertaker. Thankfully, the undertaker noticed what the other man had missed: Betty was not dead. She had a crushed arm, broken leg, and was in a coma.
According to her nephew, Jim Rochfort, “The mortician realized that she was alive and took her to the Oak Forest Infirmary where a doctor and nurse saved her. At first they said she wouldn’t live, then they said she wouldn’t walk and then they said she’d never run again.”
Eventually, Betty awoke. Pins were implanted into her leg. That leg, after months of being enclosed in a full cast, ended up an inch shorter than the other. “If I had not been in such good physical condition”, she said, “I would not have lived through it.”
It would be another six months until she could get out of a wheelchair, and another two years until she could walk again. She was beating all expectations. Meanwhile, the 1932 Olympics passed by.
Back on Track
Betty persisted in her rehabilitation and, though one leg was shorter and she was unable to kneel in a normal sprinter’s start, was still competitive enough to win a spot on the United States Olympic team for the famous 1936 games in Berlin.
With Nazis in power, African American Jesse Owens winning four gold medals, the games being the first with live television coverage, the Soviet Union boycotting, the first female Turkish athletes to compete refusing to shake Hitler’s hand, and many more items, it was an Olympic event for the history books.
Betty and her team made sure to be a part of that history. The Germans were favored strongly to win the event, but they dropped the baton, and Betty’s team won.
Despite being considered dead, despite the damage and pain that she had suffered, Betty Robinson earned another gold medal to add to her previous gold and silver from Amsterdam.
A Personal Glimpse
Betty married Richard Schwartz in 1939 and raised a son and daughter. She remained involved in running as a timer and judge as well as traveling the country speaking on behalf of the Women’s Athletic Association and the Girl’s Athletic Association.
Despite her success on the track, fame, pathfinder in opening track for women, and honors that include being inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, she still found ways to connect with her children.
“I always knew that the Olympics was there. When we went to events, we would see Jesse Owens, Jack Brickhouse, Irv Kupcinet and other reporters and athletes, and while it was nice to know that she was an Olympic champ–to me she was just a great mom,” says her son Rick.
Betty Robinson, who shot to the top as a winning runner, died, came back, won again, and promoted women in sports while raising a family, finally passed away, for the second and final time, in Denver, Colorado on May 19, 1999.
She remains an inspiration.
© Mark Dorr 2013, All Rights Reserved