When she was 5 months old, a simultaneous diagnosis of the mumps, measles and smallpox left Kitty O'Neil with a scorching fever that caused her to lose her hearing and nearly killed her. Her mother, a Cherokee homemaker who may have saved her life by immersing Kitty in an ice bath, resisted teaching her sign language and instead showed her how to read lips and form words of her own, placing Kitty's hands on her throat so she could feel the vibrations of her vocal cords.
In the years that followed, Kitty learned the piano and cello, feeling the music through her hands and feet, and trained as a platform diver, winning dozens of competitions. Her coach, Olympic gold medalist Sammy Lee, assured reporters that she was a shoo-in for the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo. She seemed destined to medal when, in the lead-up to the Olympic trials, she broke her wrist and came down with a case of spinal meningitis.
Doctors told her that she might never walk again. But within two weeks she was out of bed, searching for a way to reinvent herself. "I got sick, so I had to start all over again, and I got bored," she later told the Midco Sports Network, a regional broadcaster based in South Dakota. "I wanted to do something fast. Speed. Motorcycle. Water skiing. Boat. Anything."
So Ms. O'Neil, who was 72 when she died Nov. 2 of pneumonia, set about becoming a stunt artist and record-setting daredevil. Amid a battle with cancer that required two sets of operations in her 20s, she raced motorcycles and speed boats, dove off hotel rooftops, leaped from helicopters, set herself on fire, water skied at more than 100 mph and earned the title "world's fastest woman," reaching speeds of about 600 mph while piloting a rocket car across a dried lake bed in southeastern Oregon.