ELIZABETH ROBINSON SCHWARTZ
The first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in track when she won the 100-meter dash in a then-world-record 12.2 seconds; injuries she sustained in a 1931 plane crash nearly ended her career; no longer able to crouch down for the sprint position, she switched to relays; won gold in 4x100m relay at 1936 games in Berlin; inducted into National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1977. She died of cancer (had Alzheimer’s disease).
Her talent was discovered by her science teacher Charles Price, who saw her running to catch the train after school. He was a former athlete and the coach of the school team.
Robinson ran her first official race on March 30, 1928, at the age of 16, at an indoor meet where she finished second to Helen Filkey, the US record holder at 100 m, in the 60-yard dash. At her next race on June 2, outdoors at 100 meters, she beat Filkey and equalled the world record, though her time was not recognized because it was deemed wind-aided.
At the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, her third 100 m competition, Robinson was the only US athlete to qualify for the 100 m final. She reached the final and won, equaling the world record of 12.2 seconds. She was the inaugural Olympic champion in the event, since athletics for women had not been on the program before, and its inclusion was in fact still heavily disputed among officials. She remains the youngest athlete to win Olympic 100 m gold. With the American 4×100 metres relay team, Robinson added a silver medal to her record.
Six decades later, Robinson was interviewed for a book, Tales of Glory: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told By America’s Gold Medal Winners, by Lewis H. Carlson and John J Fogarty. This is how she remembered the 100 m race:
I can remember breaking the tape, but I wasn’t sure that I’d won. It was so close. But my friends in the stands jumped over the railing and came down and put their arms around me, and then I knew I’d won. Then, when they raised the flag, I cried.
In a post-match video, Robinson smiled, bewildered, at the camera, then smiled again with an open, unsophisticated smile of teenage delight, an embarrassment that often accompanies such interest. She was a star. Chicago Tribune reporter William L Shirer wrote that ‘an unheralded, pretty, blue-eyed blond young woman from Chicago became the darling of the spectators when she flew down the cinder path, her golden locks flying, to win’.
We needed hero’s then as now. She rose to the occasion in act two. When there’s a will there’s a way. She wasn’t done yet.
On 28 June 1931, Robinson was involved in a plane crash and was severely injured. Initial reports had her being discovered unconscious in the wreckage, wrongly thought dead by her rescuer. Actually, the man merely thought she was beyond saving. He took her to Oak Forest infirmary, locally known as the “Poor Farm”, because he knew the undertaker. Doctors determined she had suffered severe multiple injuries and she would never race again. It was another six months before she could get out of a wheelchair, and two years before she could walk normally again. Meanwhile, she missed the Los Angeles 1932 Summer Olympics in her home country.
Still unable to kneel for a normal 100 m start due to the fractures and surgeries on her left leg, Robinson was a part of the US team of 4 × 100 metres relay at the 1936 Summer Olympics. The US team was running behind the heavily favored Germans, but the Germans dropped their baton. Robinson took the lead and handed off the baton to Helen Stephens, resulting in her second Olympic gold medal.