Most people would probably assume that winning gold at the Olympics would be the pinnacle of a runner's athletic career. American sprinter Betty Robinson achieved that in 1928 when she became the first woman to win the Olympic 100-meter race at the Summer Games in Amsterdam. Like many Olympians, Robinson wasn’t satisfied with just one gold medal. She would also win gold as a member of the 4x100m relay team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. But it’s what happened to her in between that’s truly incredible.
Robinson was just 16 years old when she won her first Olympic gold. She was unbelievably new to the world of sprinting, having been discovered at her suburban Chicago high school just a few months earlier. Her rise to athletic stardom was meteoric, and her 12.2-second victory over race favorite Fanny Rosenfeld of Canada in the first-ever women’s 100-m final at the Olympics seemed like a fairytale ending.
Robinson planned to defend her title four years later at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, but in a tragic twist of fate, she made the fateful decision to accompany her cousin in his airplane during the summer of 1931. Something went wrong, and the plane crashed, leaving Robinson unconscious and injured so severely that the man who found her assumed she would die from her injuries and drove her to an undertaker.
Betty Robinson survived her injuries, which included a leg broken in three places and a shattered arm. She was determined to overcome her doctors’ predictions that she would never walk again. For five years, Robinson trained in a rehab program that eventually brought her close to her former sprinting greatness in time for the 1936 Games in Berlin. Yet despite regaining her speed, she was unable to crouch down in the starting position needed for the 100 meters. Joining the women’s 4x100m relay team presented the perfect opportunity, and Robinson acquitted herself admirably in the third leg of the relay. In a dramatic final, the U.S. won gold when the German anchor runner dropped the baton, making Robinson an Olympic champion for the second time.
An amazing Olympian you've (probably) never heard of:
- Robinson and her female track and field teammates had to raise their own money to travel to Berlin in 1936, as the US Olympic Committee only funded the men’s team. Robinson worked as a secretary and sold some of her athletic ribbons and pins – but not her 1928 Olympic gold medal.
- After her sprinting career ended, Robinson led a relatively quiet life. Besides helping to sell war bonds during WWII, trying to secure the Games for Chicago in the 1960s, and promoting women's athletics, Robinson married Richard Schwartz, had two children, and spent many years working at a hardware store in Glencoe, Illinois.
- Robinson was inducted into the USA National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1977 and briefly carried the Olympic torch during the relay before the 1996 Games in Atlanta. She died in 1999 at age 87.