Southland native, Olympic track star, subject of book
By Steve Metsch firstname.lastname@example.org June 15, 2014 6:36PM
BETTY ROBINSON AND JOIE RAY (U.P.I. 1963).
Updated: July 17, 2014 11:09AM
It’s funny how little, seemingly routine, events can change one’s life.
Thornton Township High School student Betty Robinson was late for her train after school one day in 1928. Charles Price, a biology teacher and assistant track coach at Thornton, stood on the station platform. He saw her running to catch the train in Harvey and thought she had missed it.
Imagine his surprise when she soon sat beside him on the train.
“He’s in shock. He asks, ‘you ever run before? Come after school and I’ll time you.’ That’s all it took. Whammo. Next thing you know, she’s an Olympic star,” Rick Schwartz, 71, the eldest of Robinson’s two children, said.
Robinson, a Riverdale resident, was 16 when Price discovered her sprinting ability. He persuaded her to participate in some amateur races, and her performances caught the eye of prominent track-and-field officials. She was chosen to try out for the U.S. Olympic team and made it — only about three months after Price saw her chasing that train.
Robinson, who died in 1999, was the first woman of any country to win a Olympic gold medal in a track-and-field event, winning the 100-meter dash at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam. That was the first Games in which women were allowed to compete in track and field.
And Robinson added another gold medal eight years later at Adolf Hitler’s politicized 1936 Games in Berlin after surviving a plane crash in 1931.
Her amazing story is the topic of a new book, “The First Lady of Olympic Track,” written by Joe Gergen (Northwestern University Press).
Schwartz is pleased his mother’s story is finally being told and recently discussed her fascinating life over coffee at the Culver’s restaurant in Crete.
“It’s never been put in perspective like (Gergen) did. This has so much information about my mom’s life,” Schwartz said of the book.
His mother was front-page news in Chicago and around the world. Buster Crabbe, Johnny Weismueller and Jesse Owens, three famed athletes, were
friends, and Owens was a frequent house guest.
The book came about because Gergen’s daughter taught at a Massachusetts school where Robinson’s granddaughter taught. The granddaughter brought in Robinson’s medals to show her students. When Gergen heard that, it piqued his interest, and after the retired sportswriter did some research on Robinson, he decided to write a book.
“I’ve done nine Olympic Games, and thought I knew a lot but I’d never heard of her. The story was fascinating to me because of the history
involved,” Gergen said.
After Robinson won the gold in 1928 she came home to a hero’s welcome. But three years later, while a track star at Northwestern University, tragedy struck. A plane flown by her cousin lost power and plummeted to the ground from about 600 feet.
A man who rushed to the crash site thought Robinson was dead and took her to an undertaker. Fortunately, he was wrong.
Doctors wondered whether she would walk again, let alone run. Saying “no” to Betty Robinson was ill-advised.
“She had a very positive attitude,” Gergen said. “It’s hard to believe, to go that long and not compete and then to go and do it again.”
Robinson had a long road to recovery. She eventually walked and then was able to run again, overcoming large odds to make the U.S. Olympic team for the 1936 Games.
One leg, though, was a half-inch shorter than the other, and she was unable to bend a leg in order to crouch. But she could still run. She was part of the 400-meter relay team that won a gold medal at the Berlin Games, seizing an opportunity when a woman on the German team dropped the baton.
The 1936 Games were famous, of course, because Hitler’s goal of using them as a showcase for his Aryan Nation and Nazi ideology was largely ruined by Owens, the brilliant U.S. sprinter who won four gold medals.
Schwartz said his mother “remained apart from the politics in 1936.”
Looking back, Schwartz smiled at the memories of his mother, who died who died in Colorado of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
“My mom was great. She was my mom. The plaques and awards on the walls were always there. ... The fact that Mom was an Olympic champ, I was aware of,” he said, adding that she “never made a big deal about her success.”
“As years went by, she’d be on TV shows and go to Olympic reunions. She did a lot of speaking events,” Schwartz said.
A lesson learned from her story is “if you are determined enough, you can do anything,” Gergen said.
He and Schwartz said Robinson’s life would make for a great Hollywood movie.
Robinson may have written the final scene herself.
At a 1998 ceremony for an Olympics memorabilia and coin show in Colorado Springs at the US. Olympics headquarters, she and another Olympic legend, Al Oerter, were to cut the ribbon simultaneously.
Robinson snipped it first, saying “I’m still the fastest.”