Betty and Katty

Betty and Katty

Long before Dan vs. Dave, the press hyped a matchup between two of the early twentieth century’s fastest women.

Betty and Katty
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 010, July 2019

By Liam Boylan-Pett

Extra! Extra! 

A paperboy begins his routine on a street corner in Pittsburgh, shelling copies of the November 17, 1929 edition of The Pittsburgh Press. It is a Sunday, which means the paper includes a copy of Every Week Magazine, a special section for feature stories. 

The headline above the fold of the Press that day is not exactly an attention grabber: BUSINESS, GUIDED BY HOOVER, WILL DEVISE NEW SAFEGUARD. Not quite worthy of the “Extra! Extra!” being shouted from the street corner. There is a story about a bootlegger, too, but Every Week Magazine is a selling point, with its generalized reporting and less newsy storytelling.

“Get your Every Week Magazine, here,” the paperboy shouts. He starts summarizing the contents to whomever will listen as they pass by on the street. “What to do about Football?” the paperboy yells. “France Goes Back to the Duel” he says, abridging a story about the “old-fashioned way of avenging an insult by sword or pistol combat” regaining popularity in France.

There was one more story that made top billing: “America’s Fastest Girls.” 

“There are two American girls,” the paperboy shouts out, “Katherine Mearls and Elizabeth Robinson—Katty and Betty. They have both run the one-hundred yards in eleven and one-fifth seconds. That’s the world record, and they share it. Who’s going to speed away first?” 

It was a good question, indeed. 

* * *

Nearly one year after she won the first Olympic Gold Medal awarded to women in the 100 meters at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, 17-year old Elizabeth “Betty” Robinson (she was also referred to as Babe in the papers) added a few world records to her resume. 

On July 27, 1929, Robinson crouched in the starting position, her spikes digging into the cinders, then took off at the crack of the gun, running across the track at Soldier Field in Chicago. The 93-degree temperature did not slow Robinson, who sprinted away from the field in her I.W.A.C. (Illinois Women’s Athletic Club) Chicago penny. She had already broken one world record that day, finishing 50 yards in 5.8 seconds. With 4,000 spectators filling the stands, she won the 100 yards, too. She ran 11.2 seconds, chopping two-tenths off the previous world’s best. 

In one day, Robinson won two A.A.U. titles and broke two world records. She was only 17, but she was the best sprinter in the world. 

A few days later, however, Katherine “Katty” Mearls had something to say about that title. 

Up in Nova Scotia in early August, Mearls, the 21-year-old who missed the 1928 Olympic Games after trying to make the team in both swimming and track and field, lined up against Canada’s Myrtle Cook. Cook had been on Canada’s winning 4 x 100-meter relay team that won gold in Amsterdam the year before, but she was no match for Mearls in Halifax. Mearls rocketed out of the start and pulled away as the race unfolded, taking the win by three yards over Cook. Her time was 11.2 seconds—she matched Robinson’s World Record. She did it again ten days later, running 11.2 in her home state of Massachusetts to even the mark one more time.

Women’s participation in sports was still extremely new—as mentioned, it was only one year earlier that women ran in the Olympics for the first time, and the longest distance was 800 meters—but the press was paying attention to Betty and Katty. 

From historians to content creators, humans have been reporting on—and in some instances, creating—rivalries since we started writing down what happened in the world. There’s Homer covering the Trojans and the Greeks. The Bible gave us David and Goliath. In 1992, Reebok catapulted Dan and Dave into the U.S.’s national conscience (not all rivalries lived up to the billing).

In 1929, shortly after the stock market crashed to kick off the Great Depression, Every Week Magazine created a rivalry of its own: Betty vs. Katty. The piece, which did not list an author, posed the plot immediately:  

“Katherine and Elizabeth are the two fastest girls in the world. One is just as fast as the other. And both of them are so good they’re world champions. For they have each broken all records, except each other’s. And which of them will finally beat the other, no one knows.” 

There was one more question the piece did not address: Would the rivalry be more Homeric or Dan and Dave? 

* * * 

Betty Robinson was 16 years old when she made it big. Standing at the start line of the first 100-meter dash for women in Olympic history, she was not nervous. Sure, she was the only American in the final—her teammates Elta Cartwright and Mary Washburne didn’t make it out of the semifinals—and she had been beaten by Canadian Fanny Rosenfeld in the first round of the race, but this was still her first season of track, and Robinson just wanted to race. 

That’s exactly what she did. From the gun Robinson kept an eye on Rosenfeld to her right. Rosenfeld got out quickly, pulling slightly ahead of the field. But Robinson stayed in contact. By 50 meters, Robinson had pulled even. Neither sprinter could seize the lead from the other until the final few steps of the race, when Robinson inched ahead to win by less than a stride. She was the first American woman to win a gold medal on the track—and the first woman to win a gold of any kind in track and field at the Olympic Games. 

It was only her fourth time competing at a meet. 

Born in Riverdale, Illinois, outside of Chicago, in 1911, she only took up track after being spotted by an assistant track coach. It was a shocking rise, but Robinson was talented (she had equaled the world record of 12.0 seconds in the 100 meters in just her second ever track meet). Her dad had been a great runner in the early 1900s, and he passed down a rudimentary trick that Robinson felt made a difference for her: Robinson said she folded “her thumb against the palm of her hand so she can pull herself forward with her shoulders.” Running with her hands in like blades cutting through the air worked—Robinson was a star. 

The year after the Olympic Games were a whirlwind. She raced around the Midwest, easily dispatching challengers. At the 1929 U.S. Championships in Chicago, she set two world records. 

Then a woman over in New England matched one.

* * *

The first track meet Katherine Mearls ever ran in was not actually on a track. In October 1924, Mearls was a 16-year-old who had proven herself an athlete growing up on Fourth Street in South Boston and at the family’s summer home on Lake Boone in Massachusetts. Playing with siblings and friends, most everything came easily to her. But swimming in the lake and racing around the block was just for fun—not that she ever stopped having a blast when it came to sports. Once a teenager, Mearls joined the Boston Swimming Association, which had a track team, too. That’s who she represented when she showed up to the Boston Common in October 1924 for the first track meet of her life. She swam for the team a few times throughout the year—excelling enough to be described by the Boston Globe as a “wonder girl”—but she was excited to be competing in a footrace in the city park. Even if this track meet wasn’t really on a track, but a makeshift straightaway and loop lined with cinders that was more like a flat cross-country course.

“There were no lanes or anything,” Mearls later told the Globe. “You just ran.” Lining up against the best Boston had to offer, and in front of the nearly 10,000 spectators that flocked to the event, Mearls raced four times throughout the day and also participated in the high jump. She almost swept the competition—and it was fierce.

She won the fourth of four heats of the 50 yards in 7 and 4/5 seconds, then faced a true challenge in the final. Dressed in a white-collared shirt that blew in the wind like a billowy blouse, Mearls, was in a step-for-step battle with Alta Cheney of the Posse School. Cheney had won her prelim in 7 and 2/5 seconds, and both athletes stepped up their game in the final, digging into the cinders with each step as they raced across the Boston Common. Neck-and-neck the entire way, Mearls and Cheney crossed the finish in a blanket in 7 seconds flat—the race was so close the officials gathered to discuss what would have gone down as a photo finish. It was clear who the crowd thought had pulled off the victory: When the officials announced Mearls as the winner, the decision was met with “boohs,” according to the Globe.  

Mearls would not rely on the judges in the 100 yards, however, making quick work of the field—which included Cheney, again—to win in 13 and 1/5 seconds. For good measure, Mearls took second in the high jump, scissor-kicking over 3 feet, 10 inches. The “wonder girl” nickname was true in the pool and on land—Mearls was one of the best athletes in Boston. 

The rest of the country and the world was next. At least, that was the plan. 

Over the next three years, Mearls competed often. She won swim meets in the breast stroke, won the high jump at one competition, then the shot put at another while still excelling in the sprints. She even matched the national record in the 50 yards, running 6 seconds flat in Boston in June of 1926. Mearls was one of the best athletes in New England, but still had room to improve: She failed to make the final of the 50-yard dash on a stiflingly hot day at the 1926 national championships in Philadelphia.

In 1927, one year before the Olympics were set to play host to women in track and field events, Mearls made a name for herself nationally. After taking fourth in the 40-yard dash, Mearls won her first national title at the national indoor championships in Boston. Leaping from a stand-still, she jumped 7 feet, 11 and 3/4 inches to set an American Record in the standing broad jump. 

That was in March. One month before, she jumped into the pool and swam a national record in the 100-yard breaststroke to win the National A.A.U. Junior title.  

By April, the Globe was declaring “Katherine Mearls one of the best women athletes in the U.S.” The article, which was accompanied by a cartoon that depicted Mearls not knowing what to do with all the medals she was winning in swimming and track and field—there were 85 of them, along with 10 cups, according to the piece. “A smiling blue-eyed girl of 18 years,” the story read, “who loves athletics for the sheer joy of participation, while naturally taking some pride in her ability to smash records and win championships — such is Katherine Mearls, a star of the Boston Swimming Association and one of the leading all-around women athletes of the United States.”

(The story, while mostly in awe of Mearls’ athletic abilities, did also make sure to paint her as what was considered conventionally lady-like: “Katherine is a real girl, a good cook, can sew when necessary, is moderately fond of shows and dances, but as for athletics—you said something, brother!”) 

By 1928, the year of the Amsterdam Olympic Games, many thought Mearls was a shoo-in not only to make one team, but maybe two. Mearls, at the advice of her coaches, however, decided to go all-in on swimming in hopes of making the team and winning a medal. It would prove to be the wrong call. 

On June 22, 1928, Mearls boarded a sailboat for Rockaway Beach in Long Island. “A large crowd of well-wishers” was there to send her on her way, according to the Boston Globe. But the party stopped in Long Island—Mearls had the worst swim meet of her life. On July 2, she won her heat of the 200-meter breaststroke with ease. In the finals, however, she couldn’t summon the effort that had catapulted her into a media darling. She finished sixth in the race to earn a right to go to Amsterdam and failed to make the Olympic Team. “I stayed to the finals,” Mearls told reporters. “Then—I don’t know what happened. I couldn’t take a stroke. No, I wasn’t nervous. Just couldn’t make it.” The athlete the Boston Globe had dubbed the “Wonder Girl” was going to have to make the team on the track. 

There was a problem there, too. 

Mearls had been putting all her efforts into training in the pool. The track and field Olympic Trials in Newark, New Jersey, were only days away. Getting ready for races on land in that amount of time wasn’t going to be easy—and it proved to be too much to overcome. Racing the 100 meters with her mom in the stands cheering her on, Mearls qualified for the semifinals by taking second in her opening heat, but did not advance to the final, which was won by Elta Cartwright of the North Carolina A.C. “It was tough on Ma,” Mearls said. “She was rooting like blazes.” 

It was tough on Mearls, too. While her competitors were in Amsterdam to compete in the first Olympic Games in which women were able to compete in track and field, Mearls was home in New England. “When I didn’t make the Olympic team in 1928, that’s the only time I was ever sad,” Mearls would later say. “But then I figured, ‘That’s the way it’s supposed to be. I wasn’t supposed to go.’ I probably would have got seasick going across the ocean.” 

She had to hear about the success of the women’s Olympic track team via telegrams and radio pieces. Earlier in the year, newspapers had called her the best athlete in the country. Now, she wasn’t even getting a chance as Betty Robinson was across the ocean in the Olympic Stadium, earning the title of Fastest Woman in the World. 

* * *

Then, 1929 happened. Robinson, the Olympic Gold Medalist returned home a hero, did not slow down. She won the 50 and the 100 yards at the U.S. Championships at Soldier Field in Chicago, and she set world records in both. Mearls did not travel to Chicago to compete, but she did still have one heck of a bounce-back year: She won the standing broad jump and took second in the 40-yard dash at the indoor national championships in Boston. Then, after Robinson did her thing in Chicago, Mearls matched the record twice—once in Nova Scotia, and once in Boston. 

That’s when the “Babe vs. Katty Rivalry” came to fruition … America’s Fastest Girls.

“They’re really quite slow numbers when it comes to nightlife,” the article’s tease read in November 1929, “but for stepping out on the track, Katty Mearls and Babe Robinson have no speedier rivals in the world, for they have both run the hundred in eleven and one-fifth seconds.” 

Many articles at the time hinted at the fact that women’s athletics was a fool’s game. The article that pitted Mearls against Robinson couldn’t fathom a woman that wasn’t great in the kitchen. “After [the Olympics were] over,” the article notes, “the American girls went out on a shopping orgy. And Babe was the only one in the crowd who didn’t get herself a new dress. She bought, instead, presents for every girl on the track team back home.” Robinson’s mom did make sure the world knew she was domesticated, though. “And she’s not just an athlete, either,” she said. “She’s a very good cook. An expert typist. And she does acrobatic and tap dancing like a professional.”

Mearls was more interested in talking about track. “Sports are my forte,” she said. She didn’t fit the mold of a typical 1920s woman—or at least what she was supposed to be. No, Mearls was interested in staying involved in sports. She was a bookkeeper for her day job, but that was not enough. “Being a champion is great sport,” Mearls said. “But that is all there’s in it for a girl. With a man, now, it’s different. A boy can turn pro when he gets good. And cash in. There’s plenty of money in sports for men. But not a cent for women.” 

* * *

The Pittsburgh Press was a high level newspaper in 1929, and the story also made the rounds in papers across the country, from The Escanaba Daily Press in Escanaba, Michigan, to the Santa Ana Register in Santa Ana, California. Throughout the country, readers were choosing sides on who they thought was the fastest “girl” in America.  

The only problem was that the track season was done. At best, Babe and Katty would race sometime during the indoor season. At worst, they might never face off at all. 

* * *

Unfortunately, the latter ended up ringing true.  

As Mearls mentioned in the “America’s Fastest Girls” articles, there was no money in the sport for women. Traveling to meets was not cheap, and there was not even prize money if one did pull off a win. So, Robinson and Mearls both kept doing their own thing—one in the Midwest, one in New England. And on top of that, Mearls began gravitating more towards the field events.  

In April of 1930, Mearls won the standing broad jump at the national indoor championships in a meet record of 8 feet, 3 and 3/4 inches. She also entered the throwing circle and heaved the eight-pound shot-put 35 feet, 6 inches to take second place. Mearls did run the 40-yard dash, too, but only placed fourth—the field events were her new bread and butter. 

Robinson, meanwhile, was still the Olympic champion, and shared the world record—which she was set on defending. 

In early July, the greatest U.S. women track athletes descended on Dallas, for the first U.S. Championships held in the south. Running and throwing in stifling heat, Mearls and Robinson were competing at the same meet for the first time since the article that made them “rivals,” but they never lined up in the same race. Robinson made the finals of the 100 and the 200, Mearls was only in the javelin. 

As it turned out, two new up-and-coming stars would steal the show: Stella Walsh, the Chicago Comet, and another Babe, the one named Mildred Didrikson.

Robinson put up a better fight. Racing in the final of the 100 yards, she raced neck-and-neck with Walsh. All through the race, neither could gain an inch on the other, until, at the last moment, Walsh pulled slightly ahead of Robinson. She nipped across the finish line first, and did it in 11.1 seconds, just under the 11.2 that Robinson and Mearls had run to set the world record the year before. Walsh was just getting started. She won the 200, too, breaking another world record in 25.4 seconds. Then she went on to win the broad jump in 18 feet, 9 and 3/8 inches. 

Mearls, meanwhile, was up against the woman who would go on to become the greatest women’s athlete of a generation. Taking second place in the broad jump to Walsh was someone who was soon to be known as Babe. Mildred Didrikson hadn’t made herself a household name yet, but the 1930 U.S. Championships were a coming out party. She took second in the broad jump (which was a different name for the long jump) to Walsh, who won her third event of the championships, then dominated the baseball throw and the javelin, beating out a certain “America’s Fastest Girl” in the javelin. Mearls was second in the javelin behind the ascendant star—Didrikson broke the world record in the event.

In one weekend of racing, Mearls and Robinson were knocked down the totem pole—still great athletes, simply not on top anymore. 

Mearls retired in 1933, when she had her first baby. She married a runner named Al Rogan in 1931 and still competed for a bit, but once she hung up her spikes, she spent the rest of her years not talking much about the sport. Her family said they had to dig through old newspaper archives on their own to learn about Katty the athlete. She is not as remembered as much as Robinson, who was the subject of Fire on the Track, a book about the triumph of the early Olympic women, by Roseanne Montillo. Robinson was in a biplane accident in 1931 and spent 11 weeks in the hospital recovering from injuries. She came back, however, and even though she still suffered complications from the accident, qualified for the relay team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She will forever the first winner of an Olympic track and field gold medal.   

Robinson died in 1999 at the age of 87. Mearls died in Boston in 2001. She was 93. 

They never did race to see who “America’s Fastest Girl” was. Not that they needed to. 

* * *

Much has changed in the world of track and field for women since 1929. There is money in the sport. There are more opportunities to compete. The media does not focus on women’s “domestic duties” as much as they used to (there is still plenty of work to be done, just ask steeplechaser Allie Ostrander).

But much is still the same. There still is not enough money in the sport. Women athletes are often covered differently than their male counterparts. An athlete can be the star one day, chopped liver the next. 

For Katty Mearls, that was fine. She was in it because she loved to compete, and would have loved to see how far women’s sports have come. Back in 1929, when she was being pitted against Betty Robinson, she was looking towards the future. “I’m thinking of starting my own club,” she said. “I’ve been watching some of the younger girls play basketball lately. And I’ve seen some pretty fast kids. All they need is the proper training. There’s championship material everywhere.” 

Thanks to women like Mearls and Robinson who paved the way back in the 1920s and 1930s, there still is championship material everywhere—and still rivalries to be had.

Buy ‘Hurry Slowly’ in print