Fire on the Track: Betty Robinson and the Triumph of the Early Olympic Women

Fire on the Track: Betty Robinson and the Triumph of the Early Olympic Women

by Roseanne Montillo


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The inspiring and irresistible true story of the women who broke barriers and finish-line ribbons in pursuit of Olympic Gold

When Betty Robinson assumed the starting position at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, she was participating in what was only her fourth-ever organized track meet. She crossed the finish line as a gold medalist and the fastest woman in the world. This improbable athletic phenom was an ordinary high school student, discovered running for a train in rural Illinois mere months before her Olympic debut. Amsterdam made her a star.

But at the top of her game, her career (and life) almost came to a tragic end when a plane she and her cousin were piloting crashed. So dire was Betty's condition that she was taken to the local morgue; only upon the undertaker's inspection was it determined she was still breathing. Betty, once a natural runner who always coasted to victory, soon found herself fighting to walk. 

While Betty was recovering, the other women of Track and Field were given the chance to shine in the Los Angeles Games, building on Betty's pioneering role as the first female Olympic champion in the sport. These athletes became more visible and more accepted, as stars like Babe Didrikson and Stella Walsh showed the world what women could do. And—miraculously—through grit and countless hours of training, Betty earned her way onto the 1936 Olympic team, again locking her sights on gold as she and her American teammates went up against the German favorites in Hitler's Berlin.

Told in vivid detail with novelistic flair, Fire on the Track is an unforgettable portrait of these trailblazers in action.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101906156
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/17/2017
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 789,028
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Roseanne Montillo is the author of two other works of nonfiction, The Lady and her Monsters and The Wilderness of Ruin. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, where she taught courses on the intersection of literature and history. She lives outside of Boston.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

On Track

Early 1928 had been one of the coldest winters Charles Price could remember. He felt a gust of wind blow against his neck as he stood on the platform waiting for the train, then huddled deeper into his heavy coat. He looked up toward a gray sky heavy with clouds, removed his wire-rimmed glasses, and wiped away the snowflakes that had rested on his lenses. He assumed the wind was coming from the west and, looking up once again, further guessed that the flurries would soon turn into a more substantial snowfall. A science man, he delighted in gathering such details from his surroundings. He was eager to get home, even though a stack of papers on his desk was awaiting him. Correcting his students’ assignments could wait, but he preferred to deal with them right away. He was a disciplined man, never giving precedence to leisure when a task awaited him.

At thirty-seven, Price shared his home with his wife, Ethel, a few years younger than he, and his three children: Jane was now twelve; Raymond, eight; and baby Harry was still in diapers, at barely a year old. Their house, just one stop away from Thornton Township High School in Harvey, Illinois, where he taught biology, was a modest one-story brick structure at the end of a bland, dimly lit lane a few blocks north of Main Street, where the spindly trees wouldn’t reach their maturity for decades to come. He knew the house he had purchased was small, but it nonetheless thrilled him that he owned it, as much as it thrilled him that he owned the latest-model radio he had seen advertised in the local newspaper, The Pointer—a splurge, but one that he had desired since the gadget hit the market. The radio afforded him intervals of respite and entertainment that he could not get anywhere else.

As he tightened his coat, he hovered at the edge of the platform, where he finally heard the whistle of the train as it rattled over the elevated rails. From his vantage point on the platform, Price looked up toward Broadway Avenue, where the main doors of the high school were located. It had become the largest school serving the Riverdale, Harvey, and Dolton areas, as well as the other smaller communities nearby. A history buff, he had learned when he started teaching that the school dated to 1892, when it had been a mere schoolroom located in the basement of the First Methodist Church. Back then, only twenty-two students had crowded the single room, though three years later the number had already grown to seventy-five.

Price liked his job. He was a graduate of the University of Illinois, where he had earned a bachelor of science degree and also pursued his interest in sports. Now he taught biology and was one of the coaches of the boys’ track team. He noticed several of his students crossing the sodden front lawn of the main building and heading toward the train station. He presumed they were continuing their conversations about the snow that had recently fallen, canceling the latest football game, or about the play that would take place in the auditorium two weeks from Sunday. He knew the topics well; they had made up the bulk of the students’ chats in homeroom that morning. Most were not in a hurry, despite the inclement weather, but walked in small groups at the leisurely pace young people always tended to adopt. That is, all but one. A lone girl caught his attention.

Betty Robinson had broken away from the rest and was running to catch the incoming Illinois Central commuter train—the same one for which Price stood waiting on the platform. He turned to his left, from which the train was now fast approaching, and then back toward his student. Quickly calculating the speed at which both were traveling, he knew Betty would never make it; it was a simple matter of time versus speed.

She was one of his biology students and in his homeroom, too; he knew her to be a good pupil and enormously popular with both her teachers and her peers. The previous November he had seen her perform in one of the school plays, a production his family had thoroughly delighted in. Betty’s hazel eyes, which the audience had been able to glimpse even from their seats, had shone from the stage and had captivated his wife, as had her short bobbed hair, an odd shade that was neither bright blond nor the color of hay.

He watched, mesmerized, as Betty filled her lungs with the cold air and lunged toward the station. There was nothing particularly sophisticated about her running; she was obviously untrained. With big long strides, arms aflutter and hair buoyed by the wind, a book bag slung over one shoulder and papers in hand, she appeared as if she were running to catch a runaway dog or a wayward child. But her ungainliness amused him, and he admired her determination. Being a coach, he appreciated her efforts, regardless of their seeming futility. She was still some distance away when the train stopped in front of him and its doors opened; he walked inside, finding a seat near the window.

He removed a newspaper from his pocket and settled in for the short ride home. There was no need to remove his coat or to make himself too comfortable. He was about to deposit his briefcase on the empty spot next to him when a stack of books landed on the seat. He recognized them: they included the required biology text he assigned to his classes. He looked up to see Betty Robinson, shaking snow off herself before sitting down. She unbuttoned the top of her jacket, flashing him a confident grin that would eventually earn her the nickname of “smiling Betty.”

Price was stunned. Having mentally estimated her running speed against the train, he’d never thought it possible that she would reach it on time; he should have removed the stopwatch from his briefcase and timed her.

He asked her if she liked to run. She shrugged her shoulders and said she did, although no more than anything else she enjoyed. She was also a reader; she liked to care for her nephews and enjoyed the company of her cousins. Most especially, though, she enjoyed dancing and performing in school plays, she said, her face brightening as she spoke of those activities.

The train whistled as it slowly made its way to the next stop, snow coming down a little more heavily. But she did like running, Price insisted. Betty casually told him that she liked to run up and down her neighborhood with her friends and across her family’s and neighbors’ backyards during the late afternoons, when the sun slowly dipped behind the clotheslines and the grass was cool against her feet. She ran during the church picnics her parents brought her to, winning almost as many ribbons for those races as she did for her cakes. She also ran at her father’s Masonic meetings, with the same results.

Had she ever been timed? Price asked. Had anyone ever used a stopwatch to see how fast she could run? Betty seemed a little taken aback by this and said no one had ever shown any interest in doing that.

The train slowed as it approached Price’s stop. When it pulled into the station, its doors opened and he got up. Before leaving, he turned back to Betty and made her a proposition that would change the course of her days: Would she mind meeting him tomorrow afternoon in the first-floor corridor of their high school? He wanted to time her, to see how fast she could really run.

Betty considered his request; she liked Mr. Price, with his quiet, awkward manners and the thoughtfulness he brought to even the most boring lessons he taught. So she agreed, and the doors closed behind him. She watched him walk over the elevated platform into the waning light, still unsure of what the conversation had been about or why it had mattered so much to him that she’d come for a run tomorrow.


Chapter Two

A New Arrival

Elizabeth “Betty” Robinson was born on August 23, 1911, in Riverdale, Illinois, to Harry and Elizabeth Robinson. Harry had arrived in the United States in the late months of 1888 from his native village in Ireland, where he had spent his free hours between dawn and dusk practicing his own athletic interests, including sprinting up and down the country lanes, all the while dreaming of ways to cross the Atlantic. People had watched as the years went by and the exercises strengthened him, so that by the time he had managed to leave his country, the tall young man, who stood over six feet, had distinguished himself by his powerful legs.

After disembarking in the United States, Harry remained in New York for a few short months before making his way to the Midwest, where he met his future wife, Elizabeth Wilson, a young woman born in Goderich, Ontario, Canada. Lizzie and her two sisters, Debora and Fannie, had been born to parents who had also emigrated from Ireland. Just months after Lizzie’s birth, the Wilsons moved to Chicago, where nearly two decades later she married Harry Robinson. Lizzie was a very opinionated woman who’d gone to work in a candy factory and who, unlike her fellow workers, did not know how to bite her tongue or hide her thoughts when in the presence of a man. Perhaps it was this innate straightforwardness that initially appealed to Harry. He had no idea that the willful girl would eventually drive him mad and would, in her later years, develop a peculiar fondness for watching wrestling on television.

Just days after their marriage, the two moved to Nebraska, where in 1899 their first daughter, Jeannette “Jean” Robinson, was born. Not two years after Jean’s birth, the restless feeling Harry had always suffered from reared its head again, prompting him to relocate the family back to Illinois. Chicago and its surrounding towns were providing favorable opportunities for recently arrived immigrants and business-minded men like himself. By 1901, thousands had flocked to the Windy City, but it was one of its suburbs that appealed most to Harry, an up-and-coming community in need of a new infusion of blood: Riverdale.

The Calumet River to the north and 138th Street to the south bordered the town. It was only seventeen miles south of Chicago, a mere extension of it—far enough away to be called a village—yet close enough for residents to be able to find work in the city’s factories or shop in its fine stores. The village worked very hard to develop a separate identity from its larger neighbor, so much so that an article went so far as to state, “There is no desire on the part of Riverdale settlers to be part of Chicago. Indeed, it would cause quite a stir if anything like that should come up.”

By 1878, an abundance of lumberyards had grown along the Calumet, what is now the Indiana River, replenishing the area with additional employment. It wasn’t long before settlers discovered that the clay in the area made for excellent bricks, and soon large brickyards such as Purlington & Company and Pather Brickyards sprang up and dotted the landscape. With that discovery eventually came an influx of Canadian, French, British, and Irish workers who made Riverdale their home, the Robinsons included.

For Harry, this was the place where he wanted his family to settle. He witnessed the industrial efficiency of a small town on the move, with factories planting roots there and bringing with them not only prosperity but also a sense of optimism as everyone rushed headlong into the new century.

By 1901, a second daughter, Evelyn, was born. Though a son had not appeared, as Harry had always wished, he and his wife now believed that her childbearing years were over—until 1911. It was on a steamy August day in 1911 that Betty Robinson made her debut, during one of the hottest spells the town had ever felt. This precocious child with hazel eyes and blond hair (which would eventually darken to a more chestnut hue) quickly became the apple of the family’s eyes.

Harry was a happy man. By the time he had gained employment at the Riverdale Bank, which had opened in 1917, little more than a thousand inhabitants populated Riverdale. During the years spanning the 1850s to the 1890s, railroad construction had provided employment to countless immigrants and was also a vital link between the village and Illinois’s larger communities. In the last half of the nineteenth century, streetcar companies such as the Chicago Surface Lines lengthened their service from Michigan Avenue to Riverdale’s 138th Street and Leydan Avenue. Some six years later, Riverdale was connected to Roseland by the Red Line Company. And in 1918, the Acme Steel Company relocated to Riverdale, purchasing large swaths of land along the river and adding to the fleet of factories and brickyards on its banks. Though the steel plant did not add much physical charm to the landscape, the fact that it employed nearly twelve hundred people made up for its unsightliness.

Right away, Harry became a part of the town’s establishment, ingraining himself so deeply in the bank’s daily operations that by 1928 he had become its president. His employees respected him, though occasionally they regarded him as rigid. They would respect him more only a year or two down the line, when the bank, just like other banks across the country, teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, yet he continued to employ them. But in 1928, he had no vision of a darker future looming ahead, nor could he be bothered to think about it.

As he settled into middle age, his hair, a thick mop into which he smeared a daily dab of pomade, began to sprout gray at the temples. He sported a sweeping black mustache that he kept neatly trimmed and curled at the ends. He had become a prominent member of the town, moving about its streets in double-breasted, dark-tailored suits over pressed white shirts, a sign of success. Another mark of his achievements was buying a large, three-story brownstone for his ever-expanding extended family. It was located at 3 East 138th Street, then a quiet, respectable leafy street inhabited by other families raising young children of their own.

On the first floor lived Evelyn and her family. Prior to World War I, Evelyn had married a local boy, Frank Mills. Frank, who had been drafted, returned from the war with a reminder of his time abroad that didn’t fully disclose itself until 1930, when he died of complications from mustard gas exposure. He never saw his daughters, Betty and Patricia, grow up into young ladies, or his son, Jack, follow his footsteps into the army.

Table of Contents


Part 1 Amsterdam, 1928

1 On Track 9

2 A New Arrival 14

3 A New Pair of Shoes 21

4 The Debut 24

5 Off to the Races 33

6 Off to the Games 41

7 The SS President Roosevelt 59

8 Queen of the Track 76

9 A New Babe in Town 87

10 Welcome Home 103

Part 2 Los Angeles, 1932

11 Flying High 123

12 Summer Woes 131

13 California Dreaming 142

14 Go West, Young Women, Go West 152

Part 3 Berlin, 1936

15 The Nazi Games 175

16 Rebound 183

17 Off to Berlin 197

18 Phenoms 207

Epilogue 245

Acknowledgments 249

Notes and Sources 253

Index 275

Reading Group Guide

1. Women athletes had to fight hard for legitimacy—and even participation—during the 1928, 1932, and 1936 Olympics. Did the views of female athletes evolve over that time? And how have our attitudes about female athletes changed since then? How have they remained the same?

2. Were the women on the track and field teams unable or unwilling to form close relationships until the relay team in 1936? Why do you think that was? What was the significance of that run, especially for Betty? Was winning gold as part of a team in Berlin more important for Betty than winning gold in Amsterdam?

3. Each of the women described in FIRE ON THE TRACK was different. Yet, they were each devoted to their sport. What was it about the track that they were drawn to?

4. How do you think Stella’s background and gender identity influenced her? Do you think she should have been eligible to compete with female athletes?

5. How did reporters shape to public perceptions of women athletes in the early 20th century? Do you think they still hold such sway today?

6. How were the athletes able to translate what they learned on the track to their life off it?

7. Had you heard of any of these women before reading FIRE ON THE TRACK? Why do you think their stories aren’t better known?

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