Betty Robinson became one of the famous athletes, male or female, to come out of Chicago between the wars, by virtue of her becoming America’s and the world’s first Olympic female gold medal winner in track and field, cementing her legacy to this day.
Elizabeth “Betty” Robinson appears to be the only elite track and field athlete from Chicago whose career was not cultivated with training and competition in the city’s park and playgrounds system, and appears to be the only one with virtually no competitive experience prior to her winning a national championship and an Olympic championship. This was due to Robinson growing up in a suburb and not being exposed to competitive track and field for girls, which Chicago had in abundance. Her ascension to the top of the track and field world as result occurred proverbially and figuratively overnight.
The great runner was born Elizabeth Robinson, August 23, 1911, to Harry and Elizabeth Robinson, her father, an immigrant from Ireland; and her mother, Canadian born of Irish immigrants. Her parents had lived in Riverdale, Illinois, a south suburb of Chicago, since 1901, where Harry Robinson eventually found employment in the local bank. Robinson grew up learning music, ballet, and sewing. At her local high school, Thornton Township, she participated in theater, glee club, sewing club, and Latin club. At that time, high schools did not offer competitive sports for girls, deeming them physically and emotionally damaging to their health and well-being. Robinson remembers herself only racing at informal affairs at church picnics and the like, in which she recalled she always won.1
Robinson was discovered in February 1928 by her high school biology teacher and assistant boys track coach at Thornton High, Charles Price. He was at a train station near the school when he looked down from the platform as the incoming train approached and saw Robinson considerably far away racing to catch the train, in which she had to run up a stairway. As an experienced track coach, he knew she had no chance, and entered the train, sat down, and opened his newspaper. A few moments later Robinson arrived at the empty seat next to him as the train pulled out of the station. He was stunned and the upshot of the meeting was he asked to time her the very next day.2
The next day, Price timed her, and like in a Hollywood movie discovered her time for the 50 yard was close to a world mark. It was not a tenth of a second as legend had it, but good enough for Price to know that even with the Olympics only six months away, she had the potential to be an Olympic medal winner, with proper track shoes and instruction and training in racing fundamentals. He had to rush her training, and at the end of March put her in her first organized meet, the Bankers indoor meet. Entered in the 60 yard, Robinson was beaten by Helen Filkey, one of the world’s best sprinters and hurdlers and a member of the IWAC. Filkey tied the world’s record in the event, but what was stunning about the race is that unknown Robinson pushed Filkey to the record in a very close race. The IWAC immediately scooped her up, and thereafter she trained at the IWAC clubhouse on Chicago’s near North Side.3
Robinson did not compete again until June at Soldier Field. This was the huge extravaganza of an all-women meet jointly sponsored by the William Randolph Hearst’s afternoon daily, the Chicago American and the Central AAU. The meet served as a trial for Chicago competitors to compete in the Olympic qualifying and national tournament in New Jersey in July. Robinson’s second official race of her career had her beating Filkey in the 100 meter in a wind-aided world record time. This qualified her to compete in New Jersey in July at the Olympic Games trials and national championship, where in only her third meet, she qualified with a second place in the 100-meters. In only her fourth meet at the Olympic Games in August, she upset veteran runners to win the 100 meters in world record time, notably Fanny Rosenfeld of Canada in the finals race. She went from a complete unknown to the become the queen of American track and field in a remarkably short time.4
Robinson continued to compete for the IWAC in her senior year at Thornton High, and during 1929 continued to compete at a world class level. She considerably raised the IWAC’s profile nationally and internationally. In June, at the annual Chicago American/Central AAU meet, she tied world records in the 50 yard and 100 yard dashes, helping the IWAC win the team title. Then at the National AAU in July, held in Chicago at Soldier Field, she won the 50 yard and 100 yard, both in world record time. Her wins helped the IWAC easily achieve its first National AAU title.5
Robinson had graduated from Thornton High in June of 1929, and in the fall entered Northwestern University, majoring in physical education. There she received top notch training from the university’s track coach, Frank Hill, and continued to compete at a world class level. At the third annual Central AAU meet in June of 1930, Robinson tied her 100-yard world mark in 11 seconds flat in the first heat. She and eight other Chicago track stars earned a trip to the National AAU meet in Dallas. While helping her IWAC team win the national title for the second year, she was beaten in the 100 yard by fast emerging Stella Walsh.6
Robinson began the 1931 season, taking revenge on Stella Walsh who had defeated her in the 100 meter the previous year. In February, she competed at a new indoor meet, the Illinois National Guard meet, in Chicago, which featured a variety of events for men, women, and high school boys. The women’s 100-yard dash event featuring Robinson and Walsh was designed to draw a large crowd, and fans got their money’s worth. Robinson beat Walsh in a close race. At two indoor meets in March, Robinson prevailed–setting records in the 50 yard, 60 yard, and 70 yard races in the Bankers meet; and then breaking the 7 second barrier with a 6.9 in the 60 yard at the Central AAU. Robinson’s Chicago fans were already starting talking about her chances in the 1932 Olympics. However, it was not meant to be.7
Robinson’s subsequent career followed the Hollywood script of disaster and redemption. At the top of her game in June 1931, she went up in a private plane that crashed. The pilot was taken to the hospital but Robinson was presumed dead and was taken to the mortuary presumed dead, where the mortician just before he was to work on her discovers a spark of life in her. That was the first most dramatic report of the crash, but the reporters quickly learned that Robinson was taken to a local infirmary. Unfortunately, author Roseanne Montillo in her 2016 biography made the first false report the prologue to her book. She only mentioned in passing that the report was false in one sentence deep in the book that could easily be overlooked, as I did initially. Turned out she was trying to sell the book for movie rights. Robinson suffered a crushed arm, fractured hip, and a broken leg. Doctors told her she would never run again, maybe never walk again. But through hard and long fought perseverance, she worked to learn to walk again, and then run, but not as fast as before. She also could not start a race in a runner’s crouching position.8
When she returned to Northwestern in early 1932, she could walk but was far from being able to run. She could barely stand. With health issues and with economic problems, she reluctantly dropped out of Northwestern, and got a job as a secretary, giving up her dreams of becoming a physical education teacher. Robinson knew that the 1932 Olympics was not possible, so she set her goal to compete in the 1936 Olympics. Few thought that was possible, as she was still not running. She remained engaged with the track world, for example, serving as a timekeeper in the 100 yards at a Central AAU meet in 1933.9
In 1934, Robinson was physically ready to return to track competition, running for the Lincoln Park District team. It was the leading Chicago park district team in the city, and inherited most of the elite competitors following the demise of the IWAC in the summer of 1933. She was only able to compete on the 400 relay team, and at the National AAU indoor in New York in April the Lincoln Park team finished only fourth. In August, at the Central AAU meet, however, Robinson and her relay teammates set a meet record in the 400 yard.10
Robinson had competed for the first time since her airplane crash in 1931, but it was evident that in individual sprints her inability to crouch and spring out of the blocks limited her effectiveness. In the National AAU indoor in March, 1935. In St. Louis, she probably competed in the 400 only, where her team, took second. In the Central AAU outdoor meet in August, however, Robinson, competing for Lake Shore Park (a North Side Chicago park district) actually won the 200-meter race.. One reporter noted her competition was weak and her time “was not particularly impressive.” In the 100 meters, she finished third behind Annette Rogers and Tidye Pickett. Although the runners are not listed, Robinson probably also competed in the 400-meter relay.11
‘Robinson for 1936 joined a new private woman’s track club, the Illinois Club for Catholic Women (ICCW), which had taken up residence in the old Illinois Women’s Athletic Club’s headquarters building; Robinson rejoined two of her former IWAC fellow competitors on the ICCW club, namely Annette Rogers and Catherine Fellmeth, In the indoor Central AAU meet, which included a new sprint star, Helen Stephens from Missouri. Robinson competed with Rogers and Mary Terwilliger, and Mildred Knet in the 400 meter relay to win a first place for the ICCW team. Helen Stephens drew the headlines when she tied the world’s indoor record in the 50 meters. Robinson limited herself to just the relay event. In June, at the Central AAU outdoor meet, Robinson had her best competition since before her plane accident in 1931, competing well in the 100 meter (taking second after Rogers), 200 meter (first place), and the 400 meter relay (first place). The Chicago Tribune hailed her performance as a “comeback.”12
Observers of Robinson’s performances at the Central AAU felt it looked promising for her chances of making the Olympic Games in Berlin in August, but were leery of the stronger competition that she would face in the National AAU and Olympic qualifying meet in July in Providence, RI. A total of six sprinters were selected for the Olympic Games, three for the 100 meters event and three for the 400 meters relay. To make the Olympic team, Robinson had to finish at least fifth place in the 100 meters. She beat out three other runners to qualify. At the Olympic Games, Robinson was teamed up with Rogers, Harriet Bland, and Helen Stephens, who ran the last leg. Robinson ran the third leg, and she was eight yards behind the favored German team when she handed off to Stephens. The German anchor, however, dropped the baton, and the Americans won easily. The consensus of most observers is that the Americans would have won anyway, because the German anchor was the team’s slowest sprinter, while Stephens was the Americans’ fastest. While Robinson was not the runner she was before she went down in a plane in 1931, she achieved her aim not only to run in the 1936 Olympics but to win a gold medal as well.13
Robinson having done what she set out to accomplish, retired from track and field. While getting her 1928 Olympic Gold medal seemed almost effortless, her 1936 Gold was the product of an exceedingly hard and long grind, painful both physically and mentally. She was emotionally exhausted. She was a track celebrity, was highly attractive, and Hollywood showed a little interest before backing away. She was dating and had her choice of suiters–some of dubious reputation–but settled on a Richard Schwartz, Jewish businessman from Hyde Park, marrying him in 1939. They had two children, and whenever Olympics came aground she would be contacted by the media as the first woman to win gold in track and field. In 1977, Robinson was named to its USA National Track & Field Hall of Fame. Elizabeth Robinson Schwartz died on May 18, 1999.14
1. Roseanne Montello, Fire on the Track: Betty Robinson and the Triumph of the Early Olympic Women (New York: Crown, 2017), pp. 14-20.
2. Montillo, pp.9-13.
3. Walter Eckersall, “Helen Filkey Sets World Hurdle Mark,” Chicago Tribune, 31 March 1928; Louise Mead Tricard. American Women’s Track and Field” A History, 1895 through 1980 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1985), p. 138; Montello, pp. 21-23.
4. Jimmy Corcoran, “16-Year-Old Girl Star of Meet,” Chicago American, 4 June 1928. “Miss Cartwright Wins Three Titles,” New York Times, 5 July 1928; Eric L. Cowe, p..73.
5. Leo Fischer, “I,W,A.C. Wins Track Honors, Betty Robinson Stars,” Chicago American, 24 June 1929; “Women Set Five New World’s Records in National Title Track Meet in Chicago,” New York Times, 28 July 1929.
6. Leo Fischer, “9 Girl Track Stars Earn Trip to Dallas;” Chicago American, 30 June 1930; Miss Robinson and Miss Filkey Break Two World Track Marks,” New York Times, 29 June 1930; Cowe, p. 99; Betty Eckersall, “Girl Champion Tells About Campus Life,” Chicago Tribune, 17 October 1930.
7. Betty Eckersall, “Miss Robinson Is Victor Over Stella Walsh,” Chicago Tribune, 24 February 1931; “Conger Outruns Sivak to Take Traylor Trophy,” Chicago Tribune, 20 March 1931; Cowe, p. 31.
8. Oscar Bloom, “Illinois W.A.C. Scores on Track with 84 Points,” Chicago Times, 18 June 1933; Joe Gergen, The First Lady of Olympic Track and Field: The Life and Times of Betty Robinson (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2014), pp. 85-96.
9. Tricard, pp. 138-41; Gergen, pp. 86-87; Montillo, pp. 1-3, 128, 136-40.
10. “Stella Walsh Breaks World Sprint Record,” Chicago Tribune, 15 April 1934; “Lincoln Park Girl Teams Triumph in Central A.A.U. Track Meet,” Chicago Herald and Examiner, 5 August 1934; Tricard, pp. 138-41; Montillo, pp. 136-40.
11. “Women Track Stars in A.A.U. Meet Tonight,´ Chicago Tribune, 22 March 1935; “Betty Robinson Wins Dash in C.A.A.U. Meet,” Chicago Tribune¸ 11 August 1935; “Lake Shore Wins in Central Track Meet,” Chicago Herald and Examiner, 11 August 1935; Joe Gergen, p. 99.
12. “Helen Stephens Ties World Sprint Mark in A.A.U. Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 26 March 1936; “Five Women’s A.A.U. Marks Fall in Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 14 June 1936.
13. Tricard, pp. 227-230; Gergen, pp. 145-48.
14. Montillo, pp. 245-47.