Pioneering stuntwoman passes away, leaves lasting legacy

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A fearless woman behind some daring stunts in Hollywood has passed away. Kitty O'Neil died at the age of 72 after a case of pneumonia.

From the racing suit she wore when she set one of her many world records to the rocket car she drove when she set many more, there are mementos of Kitty O'Neil's achievements scattered around Ky Michaelson's home in Bloomington, Minn.

"She was probably the one person I ever met in my life who had no fear," said Michaelson.

O'Neil lost her hearing after a childhood illness, but that didn't stop her from becoming an aspiring Olympic diver, then a successful stuntwoman who doubled for Lynda Carter on the Wonder Woman TV show. She became the fastest woman in the world in 1976, when she set a land speed record by driving a rocket car 512 miles an hour across an Oregon desert, a record that still stands to this day.

"Kitty was driven because of her handicap,” said Michaelson. “She just wanted to show everyone she could do it. She could do it better than anybody."

O'Neil became almost as famous as the people she doubled for, with her own action figure and a TV movie about her life called Silent Victory, starring Stockard Channing. Michaelson says O'Neil eventually moved in with him in Bloomington to get away from the madness of Hollywood and lived here for a few years before falling in love and moving to Eureka, South Dakota.

"She loved the people,” he said. “The friendliness. She made a lot of friends while she was here. In fact there are a number of racers in this area she knew when she would come back."

Just last month, Michaelson's son Buddy visited O'Neil to get her hand and footprints immortalized in concrete, but she had already cemented her legacy as pioneer in the stunt and racing worlds with a need for speed beyond compare.

"If you could dream it, you could do it and Kitty could do just about anything," said O’Neill.

In addition to Wonder Woman, O'Neil performed stunts for the Bionic Woman as well as movies like The Blues Brothers, Smokey and the Bandit 2 and Airport 77. Michaelson says some artifacts from her career are on display at the Eureka Pioneer Museum.