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The Fastest Girl in the World

Betty Robinson was discovered when a coach saw her running for the train. Four months later she won the first Olympic gold medal in women's track. Then she mangled her leg in a horrifying plane crash. Think that slowed her down?

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NBC was revving up to cover the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. I was working as a freelancer, hired to produce a series of promos, short features about the runners in the torch relay leading up to the games. Each night, as the relay made its way from Los Angeles to Atlanta, a 20-second spot would focus on one of the runners. Many, selected by the United Way, were people like Eugene Lang, who went back to his old school in Harlem and told the kids that if they worked hard and got into college he would pay their tuition, or Ruby Bridges, whose escorted walk into her newly integrated Louisiana school was immortalized by Norman Rockwell. Also running were former Olympians--lots of former Olympians. Whether they had stumbled after their first step or broken records, if they'd competed in an Olympics and were running in the torch relay I had their names.

That's all I had--not when or where they were running, not the events they'd been in. Just names. So I checked off some I thought the average person would know--Peggy Fleming, Joe Frazier, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Picabo Street. Near the end of the list was the name Betty Schwartz. I'd never heard of her, but for some reason, probably because I'm Jewish, I decided to look her up. Given name Elizabeth, maiden name Robinson--still never heard of her. But I saw she'd won a gold medal in the 100 meters and a silver in the 400-meter relay at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. A torch carrier who'd competed 68 years ago? That was more than enough to hang a piece on.

I got Betty's phone number and called her at her home outside Denver. When her 87-year-old husband, Richard, answered I explained what we were doing and said I wanted to feature his wife in a spot. The first thing Mr. Schwartz asked was how much we'd pay her. I was on a shoestring--it was just me, an editor, and an assistant a few days a week, plus a crew of two traveling with the torch and shooting tape.

I told him that we weren't paying anybody. I'm not sure he believed me. But even if Mr. Schwartz knew a big payoff wasn't coming, he gave it a good try.

Just showing a torch bearer running a few feet was always a last resort for me. I asked for pictures of the young Betty running in the 1928 Olympics, and Mr. Schwartz agreed to send me some.

They arrived by FedEx. What a cutie. If this smiling young girl had been an Olympic champion in our day she'd be on the Wheaties box for sure.

I called Mr. Schwartz to tell him I'd received the package. When he called me Charles, not Chuck, I knew there was trouble. "Charles," he said, "if you use those pictures I'll sue you for a million dollars."

I thought he had to be kidding--he'd sent me the pictures, right?--but I couldn't be completely sure. So I explained that I didn't have a million dollars and reiterated that we weren't paying anybody. Think it over, I told Mr. Schwartz. I'd call the next day. And thus our ritual began: every morning at 8:15 or so I'd give him a ring. If I wanted to profile his wife, I'd have to get past him.

Finally one morning Betty herself answered the phone. I introduced myself and asked how she'd become an Olympic runner. That's when Betty Robinson's story started getting interesting.

It was mid-April 1928. Late for school, Betty told me, she'd sprinted to catch the Illinois Central train that would take her from her home in south suburban Riverdale to Thornton Township High, in Harvey. On board was C.B. Price, the boys' track coach at Thornton. He complimented Betty on her speed and asked if she'd run in any races. Just a few at church picnics, she told him. He asked her to see him the next day after school.

The following afternoon he measured off a 50-meter course in the school hallway and told Betty to run as fast as she could. Her time was so impressive he asked her to train with his boys' team. She beat the boys. Later that spring five-foot-six, 110-pound Betty began training in Chicago, at the newly formed Illinois Women's Athletic Club. Helen Filkey, the U.S. women's record holder in the 100-meter dash, was another early member of the team coached by Elizabeth Waterman at the club.

In June IWAC's runners were among hundreds of women participating in a regional track meet at Soldier Field. Betty, who didn't even own a pair of spikes, showed up to run the 100 meters in ordinary tennis shoes and won, beating Filkey. At the finish line the officials gathered, checking their stopwatches. In her second race ever, 16-year-old Betty Robinson had run the 100 meters in 12 seconds, tying the women's world record. (The current world mark is 10.49, set by Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1988. Marion Jones won at the 2000 summer Olympics with a time of 10.75 seconds.)

The Chicago Evening American sponsored Betty at the Olympic trials in Newark, New Jersey, just three weeks later. Up against the country's top women runners, she placed second and made the Olympic team. She sailed for Amsterdam and the summer Olympics with teammates like Johnny Weissmuller, later famous as Tarzan, and Buster Crabbe, who'd go on to play Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

I asked Betty if she was nervous before her first Olympic final. She told me she hadn't had time to be--when she got to the stadium she realized she'd brought two right shoes and had to send someone back to the ship for a matching pair of cleats. Panicked, she'd considered running barefoot.

The shoes arrived in time, but the tension continued to build, as two of the runners in the race were disqualified after twice making false starts. On the fifth try Betty took the gold in a close finish, beating the favorite, Fanny Rosenfeld of Canada, with an official time of 12.2 seconds. The 100 meters was the first of five women's events to be run at that year's games, the first in which women were allowed to compete in track and field. I was talking to the first woman Olympic gold medalist in track.

A second later it came back to me that Mr. Schwartz was still threatening to sue if I used Betty's pictures without his permission. I asked to talk to him and told him gently I didn't think he'd win the suit. If he insisted, I wouldn't use the old photos--but, boy, I wanted to. I told him I'd call the next day.

Next day still no dice, but when I called the day after that Betty answered. I'd noticed that in addition to her gold and silver medals in Amsterdam she'd won a gold in Berlin in 1936 but hadn't competed at the 1932 games in Los Angeles. When I asked her why, she seemed reluctant to talk about it. I asked to speak to her husband and got from him a story that, as the New York Times would later put it, "sounded like the product of an overimaginative screenwriter."

After the '28 Olympics Betty was an instant celebrity. The press went wild over her, and when she and the other Olympians got off the boat in New York, they were met by cheering crowds and popping flashbulbs. Mayor Jimmy Walker gave a greeting; Babe Ruth promised to knock one over the fence for Betty; there were parties and tributes. Then it was home to Chicago on the Pennsylvania Limited with her proud mother and father. Union Station was mobbed with well-wishers, and Betty was swept off to a grand ticker-tape parade down State Street.

Life returned to normal back in Riverdale. Betty attended high school. Her father, a foreman at a steel mill, was laid off once the Depression hit.

By the summer of 1931 Betty was attending Northwestern University on an athletic scholarship and running faster than ever. Her boyfriend, Bert Riel, was Northwestern's star basketball player and captain of the team.

On Monday, June 29, 1931, it was oppressively hot all through practice at the IWAC track. Betty's trainer had forbidden her to swim, warning that it wasn't good for the "running muscles." So Betty called her cousin Wilson Palmer, who suggested they go for a plane ride to cool off. Part owner of a Waco biplane, Palmer had received his pilot's license only recently. Betty, her mother, and a nephew and niece made a picnic of it, driving out to a grass airfield on the outskirts of town. Betty pulled on a leather cap and goggles and climbed into the two-seater, smiling and waving as it raced down the airstrip. The plane rose into the hot June sky, then a few seconds later sputtered and nose-dived, crashing through a tree and plowing into the earth.

Betty's mother ran across the field to the wreckage, joined by motorists who'd witnessed the crash. In the jumble of bent metal, shattered wood, and tatters of fabric they found the pilot and passenger bloodied and unconscious. There was an eight-inch gash across Betty's forehead, and one of her legs was twisted in a chillingly unnatural position. She was rushed to an infirmary nearby. Her left arm and shattered left leg were sheathed in plaster, her face and body covered with bandages. The doctors told the press she had a 50-50 chance of recovery. "Crash of Plane Closes Career of Olympic Champ," "Girl Runner Will Never Race Again" read the headlines.

After 11 weeks in the hospital Betty was able to come home to the three-flat her family then shared. Bert moved in with her sister's family on the first floor so he could help with her care. Each day he carried her, wheelchair and all, down from the second floor so she could get some fresh air. Betty began rehab, enduring a painful routine of therapy and exercises. Her left leg, held together with a steel pin, was now permanently shorter than her right.

It was two and a half years before Betty could run again, and then only slowly and awkwardly. After months of training she took to racing her Uncle Jimmy, who was pretty fast. Betty would give him a half-block head start, then try to catch him, her family and neighbors cheering her on.

The day finally arrived when Betty was ready to try running the 100 meters again. The silver pin through her left knee made the four-point starting position impossible, and her trainers told her there was no way she could sprint competitively without starting from a crouch. Betty didn't let that stop her. She qualified for the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin and won a spot on the 400-meter relay team. Running the third leg, she wouldn't need a starter's crouch.

In Berlin the Olympic stadium was bedecked with swastikas. The German 400-meter women's relay team had set a world record in the preliminaries and was the overwhelming favorite to win. They grabbed the lead and were comfortably ahead when Betty got the baton for her leg of the relay and ran the toughest 100 meters of her life. She was sprinting toward her handoff when her German counterpart, well in the lead, botched the pass to her teammate, who dropped the baton. (Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia shows Hitler scowling as the German team blows the race.) The Americans sped to victory, and Betty Robinson had won another gold.

What a comeback. What a story. But Mr. Schwartz was still muttering threats about a lawsuit. I called again the next day and, reaching for anything that might sway him, told him I'm a nice Jewish boy from Chicago--I wouldn't lie to him about payment, I wouldn't lie about anything. Luckily for me he said his son Rick still lived in Chicago, at Talman and Arthur in fact--just a few blocks from where I was born and where my mother still lived. I told Mr. Schwartz my mother and his son were neighbors and that his son should go on over there and check me out.

I knew Mr. Schwartz wouldn't really sue. But calling him started my day with a smile, and I wanted his blessing for the spot. The next day I called one last time. Mr. Schwartz told me he'd talked to his son and that he'd said he could hold his breath going from his door to my mom's. I could have the story, use the photos--whatever. And not to worry about the million I didn't have for him anyway.

So it was done. On May 12, 1996, 84-year-old Betty ran a Denver-area leg of the torch relay, escorted by her daughter Jane. She gave a little cheer as we taped her run. Mr. Schwartz died a year later, Betty two years after that.

And to think that if he hadn't given me such a hard time I'd never have known the half of it.

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