Betty Robinson Schwartz was born on 23 August, 1911 in Riverdale, Illinois, a small town south of Chicago. Betty died on 17 May 1999. Betty Robinson Schwartz who in 1928, as a 16-year-old high school junior became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field. Betty suffered from cancer and Alzheimer’s disease in recent years.
Betty’s life story included prodiongious athletic glory, a life-threatening accident and an amazing Olympic comeback and sounded like the product of an overimaginative screenwriter.
Betty’s career began when a high school teacher and assistant track coach in Harvey, Illinois, saw her running for a commuter train (the legend is that she caught it). Betty later ran 50 yards for him in a school corridor, and a track career began.
These were the nascent days of organized women’s track and field at the national level. As she told The Los Angeles Times in 1984: ”I had no idea that women even ran then. I grew up a hick. That is when I found out that they actually had track meets for women.”
3 weeks after being discovered, Betty made her racing debut in a regional meet and finished 2nd to Helen Filkey, the United States record-holder at 100 meters. In her next meet, the Chicago-area Olympic trials, she equaled the world record of 12.0 seconds (the current world record is 10.49, set by Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988). In her third meet, the United States final trials in Newark, she finished 2nd and made the Olympic team.
In 1928, the year Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, female track and field athletes were allowed to compete in the Olympics for the first time. The 1928 Amsterdam Games would mark the fourth meet of Betty’s career, just 4 months after she took up the sport at age 16.
A week after qualifying for the Olympics, she and her teammates sailed to Amsterdam and worked out on a quarter-mile linoleum track laid around the ship’s deck. In Amsterdam, she finished second in her trial heat and first in her semifinal and became the only American to reach the finals.
The finish was close in the finals, and the judges declared Betty the winner over the favored Fanny Rosenfeld of Canada in an official time of 12.2. Because the 100-meter race was the first of five women’s track and field events at the 1928 Games, Betty Robinson Schwartz had won the 1st gold medal handed out in her sport.
”When the flag went up after the race,” she said, ”I started crying like a baby.”
Rosenfeld and her Canadian teammates later defeated Betty Robinson Schwartz and the American team in the 4×100-meter relay, with the United States team taking the silver.
After Betty Robinson Schwartz won the gold, Douglas MacArthur, then the president of the American Olympic Committee, presented her with a small gold charm shaped like the world. When she returned home, she was honored by ticker-tape parades down Broadway in New York and State Street in Chicago. In her hometown, she received a diamond watch from an adoring public and a silver cup from her high school.
Betty Robinson Schwartz was still a world-class athlete when a biplane she was riding in with her cousin crashed near Chicago in 1931. Both survived, but Betty Robinson Schwartz spent 11 weeks in a hospital with severe head injuries and a broken leg and arm. A silver rod and pin were inserted to stabilize the leg, which was placed in a hip-to-heel cast. For 4 months, she was in a wheelchair or on crutches, and the leg became a 1/2″ shorter.
”If I had not been in such good physical condition,” she said, ”I would not have lived through it.”
As it was, she was out of competition for three and a half years. When she tried a comeback in 1936, she could not bend a knee, so she had to make a standing rather than a crouching start in the 100 meters. Still, she made the Olympic relay team, along with Harriet Bland, Annette Rogers and Helen Stephens. This time in Berlin, the American team — with Betty Robinson Schwartz running the 3rd leg captured the gold when a member of the record-setting German team fumbled the baton pass before the last handoff. Betty Robinson Schwartz had completed an improbable comeback.
In 1939, she married Richard S. Schwartz, who owned an upholstery firm. They had 2 children.
Besides her son, she is survived by her daughter, Jane Hamilton of Denver, and 3 grandchildren.
Betty career included world records at 50, 60, 70 and 100 yards. Betty was inducted into the National Track and Field, the United States Track and Field and the Helms Halls of Fame. After she stopped running, she was a coach, timer and public speaker.
Betty never received the publicity and public adulation of such American successors as Babe Didrikson, Wilma Rudolph and Griffith Joyner. Years after her Olympic triumphs, she said: ”I suppose most Americans don’t even recognize me. It happened so long ago I still can’t believe the attention I get for something I did so long ago.”
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