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Unveiling Kitty O’Neil: The Untold Story

Kitty Linn O’Neil was not just an American stuntwoman and auto racer. She is also a symbol of breaking barriers, famously referred to as ‘the fastest woman in the world’ due to her unparalleled speed records. Despite being deaf since infancy, she surpassed expectations and became a celebrated figure in stunts and motorsports, embodying the spirit of perseverance and excellence.

Her contributions go beyond mere thrill-seeking; Kitty O’Neil’s legacy is enshrined in her numerous speed records on land and water and her pioneering work as a stuntwoman in popular television shows like ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘The Bionic Woman’. This article aims to unveil the untold story of Kitty O’Neil, exploring her early life, stunt work, record-breaking achievements, and the indelible impact she left behind.

Early Life and Facing Adversity

Kitty O’Neil’s journey from early adversity to becoming a symbol of resilience is a story that begins in Corpus Christi, Texas. Born on March 24, 1946, her life took an unexpected turn when she became deaf due to a high fever caused by measles, mumps, and smallpox when she was just a few months old. Despite this, O’Neil’s mother, Patsy Compton O’Neil, a full-blooded Cherokee, dedicated herself to teaching Kitty lip-reading and speech, ensuring that her daughter would not be limited by her hearing loss. This early challenge was met with unwavering support from her family, particularly her mother, who later co-founded the Listening Eyes School for the Deaf in Wichita Falls, Texas.

  • Overcoming Physical Challenges: Kitty didn’t let her deafness deter her. She was a competitive diver in her youth, showcasing her athleticism and determination. However, her sports career faced another setback due to illness, including a broken wrist and spinal meningitis, which ultimately forced her to quit competitive diving.
  • A Shift in Focus: After recovering from meningitis, Kitty’s passion for diving waned, leading her to explore other adrenaline-pumping activities such as water skiing, scuba diving, skydiving, and hang gliding 1. This pivot marked the beginning of her journey into the world of stunt work and auto racing, areas where she would later make significant contributions and set world records.

Kitty’s early life was marked by significant personal loss and health challenges. Her father, an officer in the United States Army Air Forces, died during her childhood, leaving a void in her life. Yet, these adversities only fueled her drive to push boundaries and pursue her passions with even greater enthusiasm. Kitty O’Neil’s story is not just about overcoming obstacles but about transforming them into stepping stones for remarkable achievements.

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Breaking Boundaries in Stunt Work

Kitty O’Neil’s foray into the world of stunt work marked a series of groundbreaking achievements that not only showcased her daring but also paved the way for women in the industry. Her journey began in the mid-1970s when she was introduced to the stunt scene by Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton, leading to her training with renowned figures like Hal Needham and Dar Robinson. This training was the foundation for what would become a storied career in stunt work.

kitty o'neil (1)
kitty o’neil (1)

Pioneering Achievements:

First Woman in Stunts Unlimited: In 1976, Kitty broke gender barriers by becoming the first woman to perform with Stunts Unlimited, a testament to her skill and the respect she commanded within the industry.

Record-Breaking High Fall: Kitty set a women’s high fall record by plunging 127 feet from the Valley Hilton rooftop in Sherman Oaks, CA, into an inflatable airbag in 1979, showcasing her fearless approach to stunt work.

Stunt Double Roles:

    • Kitty’s versatility and bravery were on full display as she doubled for actresses like Lindsay Wagner in “The Bionic Woman” and Lynda Carter in “Wonder Woman,” contributing to some of the most iconic scenes in television history.
    • Her work extended beyond television, with stunts in movies such as “The Blues Brothers” and “Smokey and the Bandit II,” further cementing her legacy in Hollywood.

Kitty O’Neil’s impact on the stunt industry was profound, breaking gender barriers and setting new standards for stunt performance. Her dedication and achievements not only inspired a generation of stuntwomen but also highlighted the importance of representation and equality in Hollywood.

The Quest for Speed: Setting Records

In my exploration of Kitty O’Neil’s groundbreaking achievements, it’s impossible not to marvel at her quest for speed, which shattered records and redefined possibilities for women in motorsports. Here’s a closer look at some of her most notable speed records:

  • Land Speed Record: On December 6, 1976, Kitty set the land-speed record for female drivers in the Alvord Desert, Oregon. She reached an astonishing average speed of 512.710 mph, with a peak speed of 621 mph, piloting the hydrogen peroxide-powered three-wheeled rocket car, the ‘SMI Motivator’.
  • Water Speed Record: Not limiting her prowess to land, Kitty also showcased her exceptional skills on the water. In 1977, she piloted a hydrogen peroxide-powered rocket dragster to an average speed of 279.5 mph. Additionally, she set a record speed of 275 mph in a jet-powered boat, earning her the title of the fastest woman on water.
  • Other Remarkable Achievements: Beyond land and water, Kitty’s need for speed saw her setting the fastest quarter-mile in history in a rocket dragster at 3.22 seconds. She also ventured into deep-sea diving, setting a record depth of 528 feet while studying the effects of deep-sea diving on the human body. Her diverse achievements across different domains underscore her fearless pursuit of pushing limits and breaking barriers.

Legacy and Impact

Kitty O’Neil’s legacy transcends her records and stunt work, leaving a lasting impact on various fronts:

Recognition and Honors:

Honoured at the 91st Academy Awards and featured in a Google Doodle in 2023, highlighting her enduring influence.

The film “Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neil Story” (1979) and a Mattel Barbie doll action figure were released in 1978, immortalizing her story and achievements.

Advocacy and Philanthropy:

    • A dedicated advocate for women’s rights and the deaf community, serving as a spokesperson for the National Captioning Institute.
    • She contributed significantly to the American Cancer Society, promoting cancer awareness and the importance of mammograms.

Post-Retirement Contributions:

    • After retiring in 1982, she set a remarkable 22-speed record on land and water.
    • A quarter of the Eureka, South Dakota, the local museum is devoted to artefacts from her career, preserving her legacy.

Kitty O’Neil’s story is not just about breaking records but also about breaking barriers and advocating for important causes, leaving a legacy that continues to inspire and impact lives.

Final Words

Through the lens of Kitty O’Neil’s extraordinary life, we’ve journeyed from her early days of adversity to her unparalleled achievements in motorsports and stunt work, shedding light on a trailblazer whose legacy is as enduring as her records. Her relentless pursuit of excellence, despite significant personal obstacles, underscores a narrative of resilience and unwavering determination. Kitty’s story, marked by groundbreaking accomplishments across diverse domains, echoes the possibility of transcendence beyond perceived limitations, championing the spirit of pushing boundaries while fostering inclusivity and equality.


 Was Kitty O’Neil known as the fastest woman alive?

Kitty O’Neil earned the title of ‘fastest woman alive’ in 1976 when she broke records by driving a rocket-powered car at unprecedented speeds. She is celebrated with a Google Doodle in her honour.

Are there any films based on Kitty O’Neil’s life?

The story of Kitty O’Neil’s life inspired the 1979 biographical film “Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neil Story,” with Stockard Channing portraying her. However, a record-setting run she completed was not repeated in accordance with NHRA rules and thus needs to be officially recognized in the drag racing records.

What was Kitty O’Neil’s top speed in her record-setting run?

Kitty O’Neil reached a staggering top speed of 621 mph in the SMI Motivator, a hydrogen-peroxide-powered vehicle. Her average speed during this run across the Alvord Desert in Oregon was 512.7 mph.

Can you share some notable details about Kitty O’Neil’s life and achievements?

Some fascinating aspects of Kitty O’Neil’s life include her overcoming deafness to excel as a stuntwoman in television and films, as well as her career as a race car driver. After her passing, she was cremated, and her ashes were scattered in a private location.

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