Long before Kitty O’Neil was a legendary stunt performer and record-breaking daredevil, she had to overcome hearing loss as a baby. Rather than seeing her disability as a barrier to success, she often cited it as an asset as it allowed her to focus on her quest to become “the fastest woman alive.”
On Friday, Google dedicated its Doodle to O’Neil on her 77th birthday, highlighting the inspirational figure she has become.
O’Neil was born on March 24, 1946 in Corpus Christi, Texas and was 5 months old when she was diagnosed with mumps, measles and smallpox at the same time. The conditions caused a high fever that led to her deafness. Her mother, a Cherokee housewife, taught O’Neil to speak and lip read instead of using sign language. (Her mother eventually became a speech therapist and opened a school for the hearing impaired.)
As a teenager, O’Neil began competing as a platform jumper and was a favorite for the 1964 Olympics before a wrist injury and a bout of spinal meningitis ended those ambitions.
“I got sick, so I had to start all over again, and I got bored,” she later told the Midco Sports Network. “I wanted to do something fast. Speed. Motorbike. Waterski. Boat. Everything.”
She raced towboats, motorcycles, and sports cars before embarking on a career as a stuntwoman, seeing herself jumping off buildings, dangling from high-rise windows, and being set on fire. Her stunt work has appeared in films such as The Blues Brothers and Smokey and the Bandit II, and television shows such as The Bionic Woman and Baretta.
Along the way, she set records for women’s vertical fall (twice), women’s water speed, and fastest women’s water skiing. But she is perhaps best known for setting the women’s land speed record. On December 6, 1976, she drove a three-wheeled, rocket-powered car called the Motivator at an average speed of 512.71 mph over two runs – breaking the previous record of 321 mph.
O’Neil retired from stunt work in 1982 after many of her colleagues were killed performing. At that time she held 22 land speed records.
O’Neil died of pneumonia in 2018 at the age of 72.