Picture it: Chicago. 1928. It was a better cold afternoon in Chi-Town and 16-year-old Betty Robinson was attempting to catch her train home, knowing it would be a long, cold wait until the next one; though the odds seemed stacked against her as the train hurdled forward. Sitting on the train watching all of this happen was Betty’s biology teacher and former track star Charles Price who had his doubts about her being able to pull this off. Lo and behold, who marched up the steps to take her seat just in the nick of time? Betty. Little did she know that this seemingly small moment was the beginning of a huge career. Let alone a huge career that would *almost* end in tragedy. Seriously, this is what major dramatic docu-series are made of. Buckle up.
Betty Robinson was born on August 23, 1911, and by all accounts, she was what you would consider a super normal teenager. She liked to play guitar, act in plays, and rarely turned down the opportunity to run in a race. She knew she had to be fast because she just kept winning, but she never gave running competitively a second thought.
After her once track star biology teacher saw her catch that train, he knew he needed to time her. And he wasn’t disappointed. In fact, he encouraged her to train with the boys’ team since there was no girls’ track team at the time. Robinson was so impressive, winning against runners that had years on her, that she was soon invited to join the Illinois Athletic Women’s Club. By her third race, she was asked to represent the United States at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam and became the first woman to take home a gold medal in the 10m.
There was a total of four American women competing for a place in the 100m final and only one made it. Any guesses? That’s right, Betty. And she was doing so at the young age of 16. While she remained calm on the surface, Betty noticed she had arrived with two left shoes for the race. In a bit of a tizzy, she had to send someone out for her shoes, while they made it back just in time, it’s been said that she considered racing barefoot. But it all worked out in the end because just after running for a mere five months, Betty took home the gold. And as you can imagine, there were a number of parades and celebrations to follow.
Far forward to the year 1931, Betty was still training and setting new records, until tragedy struck. On a particularly warm day, Betty was looking for a way to cool off, and since she had been told she couldn’t hop in the pool, she decided to go flying with her cousin because what better way to cool off? After reaching approximately 600 feet, the plane engine stalled and then nosedived to the ground below. Both bodies were unconscious, nor did they appear to be alive. In a twist of fate, Betty only suffered a badly broken leg, hip, and arm, as well as internal injuries, and spent the next several days going in and out of consciousness. Robinson spent the next 11 weeks in the hospital having to have a pin inserted into her crushed leg while the rest of her injuries healed.
While the 1932 Olympic Games were out of the question, the 1936 games were not. And yes, Betty went on to compete, though not as fast as she once was and unable to compete in any meter dashes, through a whole lotta hard work Betty was able to compete as a relay racer. And spoiler alert, the United States won. It was after these games that Robinson retired. Aside from staying involved in the sport by timekeeping and being a guest lecturer, she also got married, had two children, and worked in a hardware store. You would be hard-pressed to hear Betty ever bragging of her achievements and all those gold medals? Well, those were kept safely in a top dresser drawer in a Russel Stover’s candy box.
In 1996 Betty was asked to carry the Olympic torch for a few blocks as the torch made its way across the country, however, after putting up a good fight against both cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, Betty passed away in 1999 at the age of 87.