Defying Death, Defining Speed: The Betty Robinson Story

“I had no idea that women even ran.” – Betty Robinson

It happened on an afternoon after school. Betty Robinson was running to catch a train. Her science teacher watched her from his seat on the train. She’s fast, he thought to himself, but not enough so to make it. Shortly after, not only had Betty caught the train, but she was sitting right next to him.

What a remarkable talent, he thought. Along with being a science teacher, he also coached the track and field team. It was a boys-only squad, but he was so impressed with Betty’s running ability that he convinced her to join. Just four months later, 16-year-old Betty earned a place on the 1928 U.S. Olympic team. That was the inaugural year for women’s track and field at the Olympics.

At the Olympic games held in Amsterdam that year, Betty won the 100m gold medal in a world record setting time of 12.2 seconds. Betty said years later about that 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.”

To date, she is still the youngest athlete to win this event. She also won a silver medal in the 4x100m relay at those games.

Betty returned home to Riverdale, Illinois, where she finished high school and enrolled at Northwestern University. She continued running, winning medals and setting records, with a focus on the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where she was a favorite to win. But about a year before the Olympics, Betty took a tour flight in a biplane piloted by her cousin. It was supposed to be a pleasant activity away from the rigors of training.

Shortly after taking off, the plane experienced engine problems and crashed. A rescuer found Betty severely injured and unconscious. He took her to the morgue, thinking she was dead. Fortunately, she ended up at the hospital, where doctors treated her for about eleven weeks.

As Betty recovered, doctors told her that she would never compete again. She refused to accept that conclusion. “Of course I am going to try to run again,” she said.

Before the accident, she had set her sights on coaching the 1936 Olympic team. Now, her goal was to run in those games. It took Betty six months to get out of a wheelchair and two years to walk normally again. Soon, she was once again training for competition.

Injuries from the accident prevented Betty from taking the starting crouching position required of sprinters. This meant she couldn’t compete in the 100m dash she was best known for. But she could take part in the 4x100m relay. Focused and working hard as usual, Betty made the team. “It was really a struggle to make the team in 1936. I had to work overtime,” she said.

In the 1936 Olympic Games, Betty Robinson once again became an Olympic champion. Then she retired from the sport.


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Click here to read a snapshot biography of Track and Field Olympic champion Jim Thorpe.

To cite: “Defying Death, Defining Speed: The Betty Robinson Story.” Published by Historical Snapshots.