Kitty O’Neil was a remarkable woman who overcame many challenges and achieved many feats in her life. She was a stuntwoman, a racer, a diver, a water skier, and a record breaker. She was also deaf since infancy, but that did not stop her from pursuing her passions and dreams. She died on November 2, 2018, at the age of 72, from pneumonia. This article will explore her life story, her achievements, and her legacy.
Early Life and Diving Career
Kitty Linn O’Neil was born on March 24, 1946, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Her father, John O’Neil, was an oil wildcatter and an officer in the United States Army Air Forces. He died in an airplane crash when Kitty was a child. Her mother, Patsy Compton O’Neil, was a Cherokee Native American and a speech therapist. She taught Kitty how to read lips and speak, as well as how to play the piano and the cello.
Kitty developed an interest in diving when she was 12 years old. She joined a swim team and won her first diving competition as a substitute for a diver who did not show up. She trained with Olympic gold medalist Sammy Lee and won the 10-meter diving event at the 1964 AAU Nationals. She was on her way to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics when she broke her wrist while diving and contracted spinal meningitis. Doctors told her that she might never walk again, but she recovered and looked for other ways to challenge herself.
Racing and Stunt Career
Kitty loved speed and competition. She moved to high-speed water skiing and set the official women’s water ski speed record of 104.85 miles per hour in 1970. She also raced motorcycles and cars and became a cross-country champion. She met her future husband, Duffy Hambleton, at a motorcycle race where he helped her after she crashed and severed two fingers. He also introduced her to stunt work in Hollywood.
Kitty became one of the most successful stuntwomen in the industry. She worked on numerous television shows and movies, such as The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, The Blues Brothers, Smokey and the Bandit II, Airport ’77, and September 30, 1955. She performed stunts such as jumping off buildings, falling from helicopters, crashing cars, setting herself on fire, and escaping from sinking planes. She set a new women’s high-fall record by leaping off the roof of a Hilton hotel in Los Angeles at 127 feet.
Land Speed Record
Kitty’s most famous achievement was setting the women’s absolute land speed record on December 6, 1976. She drove a three-wheeled rocket car called the SMI Motivator across the Alvord Desert in Oregon at an average speed of 512.710 miles per hour, with a peak speed of 618 miles per hour. She broke the previous record of 308.506 miles per hour held by Lee Breedlove since 1965.
Kitty’s record still stands today as the fastest speed ever achieved by a woman on land. She was also the first woman to join the exclusive 500 Mile Per Hour Club. She received many awards and honors for her accomplishment, such as the Outstanding Woman in Sport award from the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1977.
Later Years and Death
Kitty retired from stunt work in 1982 after suffering injuries from a boat explosion on the set of The Cannonball Run. She moved to Eureka, South Dakota, where she lived on a ranch with her mother and raised Arabian horses. She also became involved in charity work for deaf children and animal welfare organizations.
Kitty died on November 2, 2018, at a hospital in Eureka from pneumonia. She had no surviving immediate family members. Her ashes were scattered over the Alvord Desert where she made history.
Kitty O’Neil was a trailblazer who defied all odds and inspired many people with her courage, determination, and spirit. She was often called “the fastest woman in the world” for her speed records, but she was also one of the bravest women in the world for overcoming her deafness and other adversities.
She once said: “I’m not afraid of anything. Just do what you have to do.”
She also said: “I really love speed … I’m always looking for something faster.”
She left behind a legacy of breaking barriers and records that will be remembered for generations to come.