Stunt double for Lynda Carter on Wonder Woman. Holder of speed records galore. Trained musician. Olympic potential. These are just a few ways you could describe Kitty O’Neil, one of the most daring women in history, who died over the weekend in Eureka, South Dakota.
At age five, O’Neil simultaneously developed the mumps, measles, and smallpox. Her fever was so high that Kitty lost her hearing and nearly died—but the diagnosis was something of a blessing in disguise. It was O’Neil’s first opportunity to become something spectacular. Her mother, a Cherokee native, taught Kitty sign language, taught her how to read lips, and even taught Kitty to speak by letting her feel vocal cord vibrations and emulate them herself.
That ability to feel vibration served Kitty well—she learned how to play both piano and cello simply through feeling the music. And, if that wasn’t enough, she was also training as a platform diver under Olympic gold medalist Sammy Lee and would have been headed for the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo had she not broken her wrist and developed spinal meningitis.
She wasn’t supposed to walk again. Two weeks later, Kitty was out of bed. In her twenties, she developed cancer that required two operations and still saw her come out kicking. After staring death in the face multiple times, Kitty figured, why not: let’s test some boundaries.
In the 1970s and 80s, O’Neil acted as a stunt double in countless movies, most notably The Blues Brothers and Smokey and the Bandit II, among countless others. She wasn’t afraid to be lit on fire, or to be the first woman to pull off a “cannon-fired” car roll (where explosives are set off under the car, causing it fly up into the air and flip over).
Her most notable stunt, however, came while she was acting as stunt double for Lynda Carter in “Wonder Woman” in 1979. She leaped off the top of the Valley Hilton hotel in Sherman Oaks onto an inflatable air bag set up on the pool deck. That was no easy feat: it was a 127 foot drop. Even the slightest miscalculation, just a smidge off to the side, and O’Neil could have easily been killed.
And, just to one-up herself, she jumped from a helicopter onto an air bag 180 feet below. As she told The Washington Post: “from up there, it looked about the size of a postage stamp.”
All the while, O’Neil was racing just about everything she could. In 1976, she shattered the women’s land-speed record on a hydrogen peroxide-fueled three-wheeler. On a 5/8th mile straightaway in Oregon, she hit 512.71 mph. Her biggest regret? Not being able to take on the men and beat their record.
She was responsible for setting the women’s water skiing record of 104.85 mph and floored a boat at 275 mph. When she retired in 1982, O’Neil had accumulated almost two dozen speed records to her name. All the while at a mere 5’2″ and 97 lbs.
Kitty O’Neil died of pneumonia at the age of 72, after a career spent staring death in the face and a life of battling potentially fatal diseases. Her career is one we should all look up to—as a disabled woman of color struggling with her health, she could have succumbed to her disadvantages. But O’Neil used them as inspiration—if she could conquer deafness, cancer, meningitis, then she could do just about anything. That’s a mindset we could all use a little more of.