Monday, January 29, 2018

Fire on the Track by Roseanne Montillo, 2017

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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.
(304 pages)

What a powerful and educational read this is.

I mean, going into the book I knew absolutely nothing about the history of track in the Olympics, or how difficult it was for women to join in the games. I could have guessed that latter part, I suppose, but it had never really occurred to me before–I never really cared about sports enough to look into those first Olympian women.

And they were an extraordinarily talented bunch, there's no denying it. The story of their struggle, not just for entry but also for respect, equal treatment, fair coverage, and familial support, is a powerful one.

The book delves as intimately as it can into the lives of all the first greats: Betty Robinson (the first woman to win gold in track), Babe Didrikson (who almost singlehandedly won every track event one year!), and Stella Walsh, as well as snippets of the lives of the women they ran alongside and against. While the focus remains largely on Betty's tale at first, it moves on to the other runners during the period of her recovery from the accident and then comes back to her at the end. I think it's a great way of approaching the material.

I also think it's amazing that Betty Robinson could be in such a horrific plane crash and then recover so well as to return to competing in the Olympics. Considering the fact that I am currently in an immobilizing boot because I sprained my ankle at a dance four months ago and it just won't heal, I can barely even comprehend that sort of incredible recovery.

I'm still not very interested in sports, not even track, but I enjoyed learning the stories of these very unique women who led the way for females to compete in less "delicate" sports (basically anything other than gymnastics or swimming) in the Olympics. I was going to recommend the book to my younger sister, a former gymnast, because I thought she would also appreciate it, but changed my mind once I reached some more mature content in the latter part of the book (references to childhood sexual abuse, athletes confused about their sexuality/gender, and Hitler–literally Hitler–coming on to the lesbian gold-winner Helen Stephens at the Berlin Olympics).

I appreciate the inclusion of these sorts of details, because they are also a part of these womens' stories, but their inclusion does make recommending the book to younger readers difficult. If you're an adult, however, and interested in the early Olympics or the rise of women in Olympic sports, then this is definitely the book for you.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


  1. I found your review interesting and felt it captured the essence of the book. However, please do not use "very unique" again. Does not make sense. I will give my name, here because the selections below does not allow me to, Robert Pruter

    1. Thank you, Robert! I'm sorry you didn't like my choice of words. When you're commenting, if you click the dropdown box under the text field you should be able to choose "Name/URL" and enter your name in that way.


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