Little Running Goes A Long Way For Calumet Region Teenager.
Chicago Sun Times - May 10, 1992
by Arch McKinlay
| Betty Robinson whizzed by her biology teacher so fast she
almost turned him around. It was her normal pace after a day at Thornton Township High
School: a sprint to the Illinois Central station in Harvey, two steps to Riverdale and
then a leisurely jaunt to her home.
"Betty, you were really off to the races yesterday," Brad Price, the biology teacher, said in the home room the next day. "Do you always run like that?"
"Well, I win the races at the Lutheran Sunday School picnic," she said. "And my father belongs to the Masons, so I win the races at their picnic, too."
"Look, would you mind if I timed you in the 50?" the former University of Illinois trackman, asked. "You could run the school's corridor."
After a pop-eyed Brad Price looked at his stopwatch, he quickly arranged for Betty to work out with the track team of the Illinois Women's Athletic Club. At her first workout, Betty ran away from everybody. The embarrassed club signed her up on the spot.
So, every other day, three times a week, 16-year-old Elizabeth Robinson would take the 45-minute I.C. ride to the Loop, scurry up North Michigan Avenue to the club near the Water Tower, change and hurry over to the Armoroy on Chicago Avenue to work out. On odd days, she worked out in her high school's corridors. In the summer, she worked out with the IWAC team in a park near the lakefront.
After working out just a few weeks, Betty and her team members routinely participated in the Olympic tryouts, which were held in Chicago. Although women had competed in Olympic sports like swimming before, they had never competed in track and field. Betty Robionson was the only member of the IWAC to make the team.
The 1928 Olympic team traveled to Amsterdam in its own boat. Once there, the men set up in a modest Olympic village. The women stayed on board ship and took a water taxi to wherever they were working out.
On the day of the big event, however, Betty faced disaster. She had taken to Amsterdam two pairs of track shoes, one with long spikes, the other with short spikes, but on the day of the race she had grabbed the left show of each. Frantically, she dispatched someone back to the ship for the literal right shoes. Meanwhile, Betty didn't have time to be nervous. With two left shoes and the starter practically loading his pistol with blanks, Betty considered running barefoot.
Mercifully, the proper shoe finally arrived, and in moments the teen-ager was digging starting holes in to the cinders. (Blocks did not exist then.) Then she was off, flying 100 meteres down her lane like she was late for the last I.C. back in the Calumet Region. And in less time that it took to lace up her shoes, her teamates were all over her. At the age of 16, Betty Robinson of Riverdale had become the first woman runner in the world to win an Olympic gold medal!
After winning another gold medal as anchor of the 400-meter relay team, Betty return to
the staes, put in a year at the new junior college at Thornton High and then went to
Northwestern University. Meanwhile, thinking ahead to the 1932 Olympics, she ran for the
IWAC in various parts of the country, winning everywhere except one race in Teas where her
club felt she was robbed. To correct the injustice, her backers arranged for a match race
in Chicago. Betty left no double about who won.
One torrid summer's day in 1931, though, Betty returned to Riverdale desperate to cool down. Although she loved to swim, she was prohibited from doing so by the conventinal wisdom that said it would ruin her running muscles. So she prevailed on her cousin, Wilson Palmer, to take her for a ride in his two-seat airplane that he kept at a grassy field in Harvey. She enjoyed the ride, but not the sudden stop.
The crash left her with a cracked knee, a thigh bone broken in two palces, a smashed hip, a left arm broken in two places and a gash on the forehead that went into her eyelid, almost taking her eye. She woke up in a hospital.
She spent the entire summer there, adjusting to the fact that there would be no 1932 Olympics for her. In fact, Betty didn't run even casualy for a year, exercising only enough to recover muscle tone.
After a year, Betty decided to go downtown and work out agina with the IWAC team. She quickly discovered a problem. Not only did she lack the speed she once had, but because of her injuries, she couldn't bend down to run from a crouching start.
Despite this, Betty kept trying. And then she mad a useful disfovery. With a running start, she could run with anybody. So the indomitable young woman concentrated on the relay.
When the 1936 Olympic trials concluded, the judges chose six girls, four for the 100 meters and two extra, Betty was one of the six, and went to Berlin with the team. Out of the six, Betty was chosen for the 400-meter relay, this time as thirrd leg instead of anchor, which was run by helen Stevens, whose 11.5 seconds record in the 100-meters in the 1936 Olympics would stand for many years.
The relay team won, and Betty Robinson left Berlin not only with another victory, but with reputation of being the only person to ever win an Olympic gold medal while running on a broken leg.
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October 3, 2000
Updated: December 19, 2013
Information provided by the Riverdale Historical Society