What do you want to be when you grow up?
The classic question for children is supposed to evoke the innocent dreams of roles that represent the exemplary memes of the day: president, astronaut, engineer, baseball player, movie star. For Wyomia Tyus, her answer was admirable, but arguably limited:
“I wanted to be a nurse, or a teacher,” she told me. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I thought I had to say something.”
Thanks to a chance siting at a junior track meet in Fort Valley, Georgia, by the coach of the women’s track and field team of Tennessee State University, Ed Temple, Tyus could begin to dream bigger. Temple made another trip to Georgia to visit Tyus’ mother to convince her to allow her 15-year-old daughter to come to his summer training camps at TSU in Nashville, Tennessee, and train with the women’s team, the Tigerbelles. She was greeted by Temple and the world-famous Wilma Rudolph, the darling of the 1960 Rome Olympics, who sprinted to three gold medals.
Tyus didn’t know who Rudolph was, let alone what the Olympics were, so she was in for an education, not just about track, but about how to think about the rest of her life. “When I went to Tennessee State and saw these Tigerbelles, there was a woman majoring in math,” she told me. “I had never seen a woman teach math. ‘Women make money teaching math,’ I thought. ‘I want to be a doctor,’ another told me. ‘You should think about that.'”
This was the early 1960s, when women were not encouraged to dream about being anything other than the perfect wife for a good man. In an interview with Morning News Anchor Atlanta radio stations, V-103 and WAOK, Maria Boynton, Tyus explained the state of women athletes in America.
In the time I was in school from 1963 to 1968, there were only 8% of women going to college. I’m not talking about black women – 8% of women in the whole US of A that were in college. I feel very honored, very lucky and blessed that I had that opportunity. Today, your opportunities are a lot better, a lot greater. When I was competing, Mr. Temple would always say, “Now you have Title IX. And Title IX gave he opportunity for women to go to college, to get a scholarship at all major universities. You have the same rights that men have, that they have always had. When we were competing, we were Title IX.
Title IX is a federal civil rights law in the United States that was passed in June, 1972, which made discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions that received federal funding, illegal. It laid the groundwork for equal access to entry, financial assistance and opportunities for men and women in schools and universities across the country. And as schools began to invest more equitably in athletic opportunities for women, a whole generation of women in America were given the choice to participate and excel in sports. The copious number of gold medals for America in women’s soccer, softball, ice hockey, and track and field among many sports is thanks to Title IX.
But before Title IX, there were very few places that provided scholarships for women athletes. Tyus said that in the early sixties, Tuskegee University and the University of Hawaii had small women’s track programs. But only Tennessee State University was offering scholarships for women in any significant numbers. On top of that, parents were unwilling to send their daughters to universities to play sports. That idea was simply unfamiliar to most. But Coach Temple had the ways and the means to make it work, according to Tyus in her wonderful autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis.
Mr. Temple was one of the few coaches who had the charisma and ability to convince parents to let their daughters run track. And once they did, he had the ability and fortitude to say to the girls, “you could be more than just a track star. This could propel you into your future. Track opened the doors for you, but education will keep them open.” He gave us a dream – something to look forward to. Most of us were coming from poor families, big families. Most of them came from families of nine, ten 0even thirteen or fourteen. Girls wanted to get out of that and make a better life for themselves, and their parents wanted the same. Mr. Temple gave them the opportunity. He saw possibilities for women way before Title IX – in fact, Mr. Temple used to say that his program was Title IX before Title IX. He had a vision, and he let us see it too.
As Temple explains in this video interview, he set very high expectations for the women on his team, in a most public way.
One of the things I stressed was education. After every quarter, I would get the grades of every girl from the registrar’s office. I’d get them in a room and call their name and go over every grade that they had. If you made a D, or a C, I’m going to talk about you in front of everybody. If you made the honor roll, I’m gonna give you credit. And after year two, that word would pass down to the new ones coming in. “Look now, you better get your schoolwork done, because he’s gonna talk about you.”
In addition to ensuring that his student athletes got a university education, he also made sure that they were supporting each other. He understood that there were so few in the country who could relate to the life of a female athlete at the time, particularly black female athletes, so he made sure they believed in the idea that united they stood, divided they fell. When a shoe company said they were sending Wilma Rudolph free running shoes, Temple made sure they sent many pairs of different sizes so others on the team could benefit. When Edith McGuire was taken around Tokyo by the press, expectant that she would be the next Wilma Rudolph in Tokyo, Temple made sure that Wyomia Tyus tagged along and saw the sights.
And he made sure that the senior students took care of the junior students, as she explained in Tigerbelle.
Mr. Temple arranged it so that there were always older girls there to support the younger girls and so that the younger girls got to be in contact with all the older girls instead of just a few. He knew that not everyone would connect in the same way, and he wanted each of us to be able to find someone we liked and could look up to who would help us.
These interactions between teammates, relationships forged in the fires of competition, led to life-long friendships, a sisterhood of Tigerbelles that continues to today.
Perhaps more than anything else, Coach Temple was a great teacher, someone who understood that the only person who could really effect significant change and growth was that person herself, as she explained powerfully in her book.
I think that Mr. Temple felt that he had done his best to prepare us for the world. He always wanted us to be our own people even if it meant bumping heads with him. If he didn’t agree, he wasn’t going to say anything, and if he did agree, he might say one thing, but not much more. Because his main question was always, “Is this what you want? Is this what you believe in?” As long as you weighed it out and thought about the consequences—what else could he ask for?
Some people felt he could have said more, tried to have more influence, but that was not the man he was. If he ever had said more, I would have listened to him, but nothing would have changed. I was still going to be saying what I said. I would say, “That’s me, Mr. Temple. You taught us to speak our minds.” Which to me meant he had been successful at doing the only thing that really mattered to him: making us feel comfortable being ourselves.