Won 1st Gold For U.S. Women
Chicago Tribune - January 27, 1980
by Sam Smith
| IF YOU'VE been in the Henry C. Wienecke hardware store in Glencoe,
you may have seen her going through her paces - dashing here to find the right size nuts
and screws, scooting there for a hammer, or maybe bolting after an odd-sized bolt for a
You might say Mrs. Betty Schwartz is a woman on the run. But that's no surprise.
Fifty-two years ago, then known as Elizabeth Robinson, she sped into international competition and emerged as this nation's first female Olympic track and field gold medal winner.
"IT WAS SO thrilling," she said of that early August day in Amsterdam in 1928 when she flashed to unexpected victory in a world-record 12.2 seconds in the women's 100-meter dash. "I had a terrific time; the people were great; we had such fun together. If everyone could be an athlete and find out how great it is to be in this kind of friendly competition..."
She stopped for a moment thinking about this year's embattled Olympic games and America's threat to boycott them because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
"This kind of thing has gone on before," she says, recalling her own experiences in the infamous "Hitler" Olympics of 1936, which were used as a Nazi propaganda tool. "The same questions and answers come up. This should be friendly competition that promotes good will. We never seem to do it (pull out), but I wouldn't be suprised if they're called off.
"I was thinking the other day," she added, "who wants to go to Russia anyway?"
FORTUNATELY, THE same conditions did not exist in 1928 when young Betty, just 16, became an American heroine. One journal of the day wrote after her Olympic triumph: "An American girl helped restore the prestige of the Olympic Team today and again brought the Stars and Stripes fluttering to the central flagstaff. Elizabeth Robinson, to the surprise of herself, team officials, and the crowd generally, won the 100-meter dash..."
Her trimph was so unexpected-the only American woman to capture a gold medal in track and field, one of only 15 gold medals for Americans in what was considered a poor showing for the U.S.-because the Olympics was just the fourth competitive race of her life.
She was a Harvey native raised in Riverdale who was attending Thornton Township High School, and her track career had as unlikely a beginning as it did success, a story some would dub as apocryphal as Lana Turner's being discovered for the movies on a drug store stool in Hollywood.
"I WAS RUNNING to catch a train when one of my teachers saw me," said Mrs. Schwartz, who now lives in Lake Forest. "He thought I was fast, timed me, and later gave me my first instructions in sprinting. I happed to be at the right place at the right time."
She was entered in the local track meet. And that biology teacher, Charles Price, with an eye for fast runners, was right: Betty placed second to the then world-record holder. In her next race, she broke the world record for the 100-meter dash, went to the Olympic trials in Newark for her third race, finished second, but still made the team.
And in her fourth meet, five months after her first competitive race, she fought the
nervousness that consumed two other runners who jumped the gun and rallied in the last 40
meters to overtake the heavily favored Canadian, Fanny Rosenfeld, for the first gold medal
in the women's 100-meter dash.
She also was a member of the silver medal-winning women's relay team, but it was not to be only world records and the glow of the spotlight for young Betty.
Three years later she would be on her back in a hospital, struggling not for the finish line and the tape, but for her life.
WHILE IN TRAINING for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Betty decided to go for a plane ride with her cousin. "It was so hot that day," she recalls now, "and I wasn't supposed to swim because I was in training. I thought I could cool off in the plane."
Nobody knows what happended after the private aircraft reached 1,000 feet. It nose-dived into a marshy field near Harvey, the soft ground probably saving her life.
Still, she was seriously injured. Doctors said she would limp and never be able to compete again.
Betty surprised them, as she had in the '28 Olympics.
ONE LEG NEARLY a half-inch shorter, she fought her way after nearly four years out of competion. She began running, and though she had difficulty in her specialty-the 100-meter dash-because her leg would stiffen, she did make the 1936 Olympic team as a relay member, and once again came home with a gold medal.
But the Northwestern graduate, then 25, having been a Miss Chicago beauty contestant a few years back, decided it was time to hang up her running shoes. She hoped to stay active in track and field by coaching, but war in Europe brought an end to the Olympics until 1948.
In 1939, she married Richard S. Schwartz, began a task of raising two children, served as a timer and judge in local meets, officiated when the Pan American Games came to Chicago in 1959, and worked in a variety of jobs leading up to her association with Wienecke's.
THESE DAYS, Mrs. Schwartz winters in Naples, Fla., where she is active in a former Olympians' chapter. She attends an occasional function for former Olympians, like the ones in Atlantic City a few months ago where she ran into her old friend from the 1928 team, Clarence "Buster" Crabbe (Johnny "Tarzan" Weissmuller also was on that team). Last weekend she went to New York for a pre-Olympic track meet in which a race is named after her.
But come April, she'll be back at Wienecke's, shooting out of the starting blocks to grab a wrench instead of a relay baton. But her Olympic flame will burn as brightly as it did 52 years ago.
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August 23, 2000
Updated: December 19, 2013
Information provided by the Riverdale Historical Society