Long before Kitty O’Neil was a legendary stunt artist and record-setting daredevil, she had to overcome losing her hearing as a baby. Rather than let her impairment be a barrier to success, she often referred to it as an asset, as it let her focus on her tasks while on her way to becoming “the world’s fastest woman.”
On Friday, Google dedicated its Doodle to O’Neil on her 77th birthday, highlighting the inspirational figure she became.
Born March 24, 1946, in Corpus Christi, Texas, O’Neil was 5 months old when she was simultaneously diagnosed with mumps, measles and smallpox. The conditions caused a high fever that led to her deafness. Her mother, a Cherokee homemaker, taught O’Neil speech and to lip-read rather than use sign language. (Her mother would eventually become a speech therapist and open a school for the hearing impaired.)
As a teenager, O’Neil began competing as a platform diver and was a favorite for the 1964 Olympics before a wrist injury and a bout of spinal meningitis derailed 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. Motorcycle. Water skiing. Boat. Anything.”
She raced drag boats, motorcycles and sports cars before embarking on a career as a stuntwoman that saw her leaping off buildings, being dangled out of high-rise windows and getting set on fire. Her stunt work can be seen in movies such as The Blues Brothers and Smokey and the Bandit II, as well as TV shows like The Bionic Woman and Baretta.
Along the way, she set records for women’s high-fall (twice), women’s speed on water and women’s fastest waterskiing. But she’s perhaps best known for setting the women’s land speed record. On Dec. 6, 1976, she drove a three-wheeled rocket-powered car called the Motivator to an average speed of 512.71 mph during two runs — shattering the previous record of 321 mph.
O’Neil retired from stunt work in 1982 after many of her colleagues were killed while performing. At the time, she held 22 speed records.
O’Neil died of pneumonia in 2018 at the age of 72.