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Betty Robinson: The Olympic Gold Medalist Who “Came Back From The Dead”

By Karen Rosen | April 28, 2015, 9:49 a.m. (ET)

Betty Robinson #879 reaches the finish line to win gold in the women's 100-meter at the Amsterdam 1928 Olympic Games.

Betty Robinson’s claim to fame should be winning the first gold medal in a women’s Olympic track and field event.

Instead, she’s known for a case of mistaken mortality. Presumed dead in the wreckage of a small plane crash, Robinson was placed in the trunk of a car and taken to a mortician, who luckily noticed she was just unconscious, although badly injured.

Five years later, Robinson won another Olympic gold medal.

Now that’s a comeback.

Louis J. Nelson and Better Robinson pose for a picture on Dec. 1, 1934. 

Robinson was only 16 years old when she ran a world-record time of 12.2 seconds and won the 100-meter at the Amsterdam 1928 Olympic Games, the first Olympiad in which women were allowed to compete in track and field. She also won a silver medal in the 4x100-meter. In Berlin in 1936, Robinson competed on the relay for her second gold medal.

The facts on the track are indisputable, even though largely overlooked today. The story of Robinson’s brush with death has, however, taken on a life of its own.

It was featured last year on Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum,” and on websites including mentalfloss.com (Robinson was No. 1 on the list of “7 People Whose Death Notices Improved Their Lives,” ahead of Mark Twain and Sherlock Holmes) and TopSecretWriters.com. Google “Betty Robinson” and “plane crash” is the first phrase that pops into the search box.

“The main thing to them is she came back from the dead, which obviously she didn’t, but that’s the hook that gets people involved,” said veteran sportswriter Joe Gergen. “I’ve read about eight versions of this.”

Gergen tells the definitive version in his book, “The First Lady of Olympic Track: The Life and Times of Betty Robinson,” (Northwestern University Press), which came out in 2014.

The biography could help Robinson, who died in 1999 at age 87, regain her place in history as more than an Olympic oddity. Gergen envisions a movie based on Robinson’s life, “a Chariots of Fire from a female point of view,” he said.

Robinson was simply a suburban Chicago schoolgirl running for a train when she caught the attention of a biology teacher who was already on board. Of course, Robinson caught the train, too. The teacher asked if he could time her in a school corridor, then suggested she start training with the boys.

Robinson’s career was on the fast track. She tied the world record in her second track meet and made the Olympic team in her third. In almost no time, Robinson was on a ship to Europe, where legendary swimmer Johnny Weissmuller offered to be her chaperone.

Gergen said he was fascinated by “the whole idea of being 16 years old, never having been away from home, maybe 100 miles away with family, and then to be on a boat going to a foreign country with no experience. And then you can imagine nine days at sea and all these people are running and jumping, boxing and wrestling on this boat — that has got to be hilarious.”

The athletes stayed on the boat another three weeks while they competed at the Games.

Robinson was one of four U.S. women entered in the 100, but the only one to make the final. After two Canadians false-started, that left only four contestants.

Gergen, who did extensive research in the newspapers of the time, said the Associated Press reported, “Bobbed hair flying to the breezes, the Chicago girl sped down the straightaway flashing a great closing spurt to beat the Canadian favorite, Fanny Rosenfeld, by two feet.”

Robinson is still the youngest 100-meter champion in Olympic history.

General Douglas MacArthur, then the president of the American Olympic Committee, was so impressed he invited Robinson to accompany him to other competitions and receptions. He also heaped praise upon her in his report, citing “that sparkling combination of speed and grace by Elizabeth Robinson which might have rivaled even Artemis herself on the heights of Olympus.”

Returning to New York, Robinson, whose nickname was “Babe,” met Babe Ruth. In Chicago, she was the main attraction in a parade of 1,200 cars, with 20,000 people lining the route. In the same year that Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, Robinson was a trailblazer for female athletes.

With the next Olympics in Los Angeles in 1932, Robinson wanted to defend her 100-meter title and then become a coach, which according to the rules at the time would make her a professional and no longer eligible to compete in future Olympic Games.

Gergen wrote that Robinson was “in the best shape of her life” on June 28, 1931. The day was hot, but Robinson’s coaches didn’t want her to go swimming because it involved using different muscles. Robinson thought she’d cool off in the sky. She called her cousin, who had recently earned his pilot’s license and had a biplane.

“Wearing goggles, a leather helmet, and what one newspaper said were colorful beach pajamas, Betty climbed into the front seat,” Gergen wrote.

According to Gergen, witnesses said the plane had reached an altitude between 400 and 600 feet when the motor stalled and the plane went into a nosedive. Gergen said that Robinson's cousin, Wilson Palmer, had the presence of mind to cut the ignition before impact, avoiding a potential fire.

"Both bodies lay underneath the rubble when rescuers reached them," he wrote. "They were unconscious. Noting her broken left arm, mangled left leg, and eight-inch gash across her forehead, the man who pulled Robinson from the debris anticipated the worst. He placed the broken body in the trunk of his car and drove her, in Betty’s words (in “Tales of Gold,” written in 1987 by Lewis H. Carlson and John J. Fogarty) to “an old people’s home, because he had a friend there who was an undertaker, and he thought I was dying.”

“Her son said he thought in those days people would drive around and pick up bodies and actually got paid for bringing them in,” Gergen said. “I went through the papers from those years and you can’t believe the number of plane crashes. Somebody was always trying to break a record, going the farthest here or the fastest there. Apparently a lot of people stupidly thought they could fly and took planes up. It was like going out for a Sunday drive if you had a few bucks.”

Oak Forest, where Robinson was taken, was an infirmary used by the city of Chicago and Cook County for indigent patients. Gergen wrote,  “It was known locally as ‘The Poor Farm,’ and the majority of the elderly inhabitants were hospitalized for chronic care, mental illness, or tuberculosis. Robinson wasn’t in imminent need of an undertaker, but her condition was critical.”

The Chicago Evening American newspaper, the newspaper which had followed Robinson’s career closely, reported that the physicians on duty administered X-rays, inserted silver pins in her damaged leg and applied casts.

“The thigh bone is fractured in several places between the knee and the hip and when it heals it will probably be a little shorter than the other leg,” said Dr. Jacob Minke. “It will be months before she is able to walk again. She has a fractured left arm and internal injuries which may be more serious than is yet apparent.”

Gergen wrote, “While she was presumed dead only momentarily, the next days’ newspapers painted a gloomy picture.”

One newspaper headline said, “Girl Runner Will Never Race Again” and the Evening American wrote, “Lying almost paralyzed on a cot, Betty Robinson today fought to win the hardest race she ever ran – a race in which the Grim Reaper was pacing her.”

Gergen noted that Robinson’s cousin, the pilot, was also unconscious, but was fortunate to go to a hospital right away.

Years later, his left leg was amputated.

While some of the tales about Robinson state that she was in a coma for seven months, Gergen found that to be an exaggeration. He said Robinson drifted in and out of consciousness while spending 11 weeks in the hospital. She was then confined to a wheelchair. According to her obituary in The New York Times, one leg was now half an inch shorter than the other.

“The doctor said if I hadn’t been in such good condition I wouldn’t have come out of it as well as I did,” Robinson said years later.

She was determined to walk and then run again. Although Robinson couldn’t bend her knees enough to get into the starting crouch, she still made the 1936 Olympic team in the relay. Robinson ran the third leg in Berlin, handing off to 100-meter champ Helen Stephens. When the Germans, who were favored to win, dropped the baton, American victory was assured.

When the athletes returned to a ticker tape parade in New York City, Jesse Owens, who had won four gold medals, rode in the first car. Gergen said the members of the U.S. women’s relay were so important that they occupied the second car.

The International Olympic Committee, on its website, calls Robinson’s story “one of the most remarkable in the annals of the Games.”

After Robinson retired from competition, she became a timer and judge at track meets and traveled the country speaking on behalf of the Women’s Athletic Association and the Girl’s Athletic Association. She married Richard Schwartz in 1939 and was devoted to their two children.

In her later years, Robinson battled cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Gergen wrote that at the opening of an Olympic memorabilia show in 1998, Robinson and Olympic discus champion Al Oerter were supposed to cut the ribbon together. Robinson, though, snipped first. “I’m still the fastest,” she quipped.

Gergen admits that despite covering the Olympic Games while a sportswriter and columnist for Newsday for 40 years, he had never heard of Robinson. He found out about her from his daughter, who became friends with Robinson’s granddaughter when they both taught at the same school in Massachusetts.

He met with Robinson’s daughter, Jane, who had scrapbooks and clippings that Gergen said would “fall apart in your hands.” Rick Schwartz, Robinson’s son, gave him a tour of his mother’s suburban Chicago stomping grounds.

True to the book title, Gergen also tells vivid stories about Robinson’s times, when her contemporaries included Owens, Babe Didrikson, Stella Walsh, and the women who seemed so exhausted after the 800 meters in Amsterdam that the event was banned from the Games for 32 years. He examines Olympic politics and customs of the day, offering a slice of Americana in the 1920s and 1930s.

Ron Rapoport, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, praised the book in a cover blurb.

“Betty Robinson is an irresistibly appealing young woman and Joe Gergen deserves our thanks for rescuing her from the mists of the past,” Rapoport said.

Gergen hopes Robinson will eventually be inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame for her achievements, joining fellow 100-meter champions Wilma Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus, Evelyn Ashford, Florence Griffith Joyner and Gail Devers.

“It surprises me,” he said, “that she really has been forgotten.”

Except when someone stumbles upon the “given up for dead in a plane crash” story. That lives on.