Breaking Barriers: The Daring Adventures of Kitty O’Neil

OV Digital Desk

Image Courtesy: Google Doodle

Kitty O’Neil (24 March 1946 – 2 November 2018)  was an American stuntwoman and racer, given the title as “the fastest woman in the world”.

Life and Career

O’Neil was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, on 24 March 1946 to a Cherokee Native American mother and an Irish father. She contracted multiple diseases when she was a few months old, which resulted in an intense fever that eventually left her deaf. Throughout her life, she has learned a variety of ways of communicating and has adapted to different audiences. She eventually prefers to speak and lip-read the most. The deafness of O’Neil was never considered a hindrance, often being referred to as an asset by her. Eventually, she discovered the sport of diving, but an injury to her wrist and an illness prevented her from competing. In spite of this, she remained committed to fulfilling her dream of becoming a professional athlete.

O’Neil began to experiment with high-speed sports such as water skiing and motorcycle racing. A true action enthusiast, she has also performed dangerous acts such as jumping from helicopters and falling from daunting heights while on fire. As a stunt double in the late 1970s, she appeared in films and television series such as The Bionic Woman (1976), Wonder Woman (1977-1979), and The Blues Brothers (1980). Among Hollywood’s top stunt performers, she was the first woman to join Stunts Unlimited.

After speeding across the Alvord Desert at 512.76 miles per hour, O’Neil was crowned “the fastest woman alive” in 1976. She drove a rocket-powered car called the Motivator and surpassed the previous women’s land-speed record by almost 200 mph. She broke the women’s record by a landslide, indicating that she was likely to beat the men’s record as well. Unfortunately, her sponsors did not allow her to break the overall record as it threatened the status quo — they wanted to reserve the feat for a male driver. O’Neil was never given the opportunity to break the overall record due to a legal action that failed. However, this didn’t hold her back from going on to break records piloting jet-powered boats and rocket dragsters. She died on 2 November 2018, of pneumonia in Eureka, South Dakota, at age 72.

Award and Legacy

One of O’Neil’s most significant achievements was setting the women’s land speed record in 1976, driving a rocket-powered vehicle called the “SMI Motivator” at a speed of 512 miles per hour (824 km/h). This achievement earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

O’Neil’s legacy includes breaking down barriers for women and people with disabilities in the fields of sports and entertainment. She was a trailblazer for female stunt performers and inspired many others to pursue careers in the industry. In addition to her work in the entertainment industry, O’Neil was also involved in charitable causes. She worked with the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, among others.

In 2019, she received the Oscars in Memoriam award. Overall, Kitty O’Neil’s life and achievements serve as an inspiration for anyone facing adversity and demonstrate that determination and hard work can lead to great success. On 24 March 2023,  Google celebrated Kitty O’Neil’s 77th birthday with a doodle.