Wyomia Tyus Today

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

The nineteen-year-old landed in Tokyo, Japan wide-eyed.

A rising star in the best women’s athletic program in the United States, Wyomia Tyus had incredible opportunities for a young woman traveling the world, including Poland, Germany, England and the Soviet Union. But nothing prepared her for the crowds of Tokyo, she told me.

I grew up in Griffin, Georgia, where maybe there was 40,000 people, with half of that in the countryside. When we flew in to Tokyo, I will never forget seeing the lights from the plane, so beautiful. And the big buildings, which reminded me of New York. But there were so many people! That was a little scary.

Tyus told me that her coach, the legendary Ed Temple, made sure that his athletes’ lives were more than just running and jumping. He would tell his athletes to experience things, to go on sightseeing tours and see as much as possible. And being in the Olympic Village was eye opening, as she described in her autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis.

Coming from Georgia and Tennessee, not knowing anything but “you’re black” and “You’re white,” and then seeing all these different hues and colors, all these different ethnicities, there was nothing I could do but grow. It made me have a better understanding of people in general – and of myself. Everybody always talks about the differences between blacks and whites, but the truth is, certain aspects of the black and white cultures in the South were pretty much the same: people who came from the farms ate mostly the same, dressed mostly the same, depending on their class. But in the Olympic Village, here were all these people who ate different foods and spoke different languages and word different clothes – they lived differently, and they had a different understanding of the how we lived.

Tyus told me how she could go so long without knowing that the world was so diverse. “It was such a growth period for me,” she said. “I didn’t know these things. How come nobody talked about these things in high school, I wondered.” Having a wide number of experiences and interacting with a diverse group of people became a basic tenet for success in Tyus’ life, and thought she needed her children to understand that. She made sure that she sent her kids to her home, and to her first husband’s home in Canada to experience different ways and thinking. She said her son and daughter were sometimes put off by the way their aunts and uncles talked, and smelled and acted. But their mother had this belief:

Knowing that someone who is so different from you is also a part of you makes you a stronger person. It helps you to be able to appreciate life, to really laugh at life, to see the things that people do as part of a culture. I wanted my kids to know that my dad’s side of the family is different from my mom’s side, and both are different from Duane’s family in Ohio and his grandmother who grew up in Tennessee. This is your family. This is part of you, so you should appreciate difference and not put other people down.

Wyomia Tyus in Kenya_Akashic Books Wyomia Tyus at the Goodwill Games in Kenya. (Photo by Ed Temple/Courtesy Akashic Books)

Of course, this tolerance is tested at times, and like mothers around the world, Tyus needs to balance principles with common sense. While race relations in America have improved significantly in some ways, they have stayed the same in others. Like many other black parents, she has had to provide uncomfortable advice to her children about how to behave in the presence of police, as she explains in Tigerbelle:

  • If the police pull you over, you need to keep your hands on the wheel, you need to say ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir,’ and you need to say everything you’re going to do before you do it.
  • You need to say: ‘Can I roll my window down?’ You need to say, ‘I am reaching for my wallet now.’
  • You need to tell them which hand you are going to use to do it.

Her son is incredulous, but Tyus feels that in the 21st century it is still necessary for a person of color to be extra careful. She’s known this ever since she first moved to California, a place she knew would be very different from Griffin when she moved West as a 23-year-old – temperate weather, more glamorous, and more tolerant of difference. While that was generally true, Tyus still experienced the discomfort of being perceived as a maid in the elevator of her apartment complex, or stared at for swimming in the pool, as she noted in Tigerbelle.

Before I came out west, I thought it would be different—lots of people in the South thought that. To this day, people in Griffin will say to me, “California? Oh, you could have it so free there!” And before I moved, I agreed. California’s so open, I thought. But no. It’s not. Things are just more subtle than they are in the South. Because a lot of the people in California came from the South. And moving to California didn’t necessarily change their ideas. It just meant that they were surrounded by change and maybe they had to bend a little bit.

Unpleasant as that revelation is, Tyus gained this insight because she changed her environment, interacted with different people, reflected on what she understood, and revised her worldview.

Tyus is not an activist. She’s an introvert. She’s inquisitive. And thanks to a world of experience, encouraged by her parents and her mentors, like Ed Temple, she is very self aware and insightful about the world around her. Tyus is not just the first person ever to win back-to-back gold medals in the Olympic 100-meter sprint. She is a learner and a teacher – and we need more people like Wyomia Tyus than ever before.

“Every new experience brings its own maturity and a greater clarity of vision.” Indira Ghandi

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Ed Temple and Wyomia Tyus walking_Duane Tillman_Tigerbelle
Ed Temple and Wyomia Tyus walking, photo taken by Duane Tillman, Akashic Books

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.

Carla Mims, Edith McGuire, Vivian Brown and Wyomia Tyus and Ed Temple Ed Temple with, from left, Carla Mims, Edith McGuire, Vivian Brown and Wyomia Tyus at the women’s Olympic track and field tryouts on Randalls Island in New York City in 1964. Ernie Sisto/The New York Times; Mark Humphrey/Associated Press, 2015

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.

Wyomia Tyus card

wyomia tyus with four medals Two-time Olympian, four-time medalist, Wyomia Tyus

Being a black athlete in America in the 1960s was a challenge. Being a black woman athlete was often an insurmountable barrier.

“Black women were less than second-class citizens, and they had to work – they had to work hard,” she wrote in her excellent autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis.

There were not a lot of options for women in sports at that time, and the options we did have were especially restricted because they were for girls. When I started playing basketball, girls couldn’t run up and down the court – you had to play half-court: three guards on one side, three forwards on the others, and you could only dribble three times before you had to pass or you’d be called for traveling.

But if anybody made do with limited opportunity, it was Wyomia Tyus. She grew up in Griffin, Georgia, in a house with no plumbing and unsteady access to electricity, that, on her tenth birthday, burned to the ground, leaving the family of six with nothing but memories. And yet her family persevered, and Tyus continued to grow up in a supportive household, as she told me.

By growing up in a small town, my parents worked very hard, they always said that it is not always going to be this way, you will have opportunities, that you don’t see this when you are young. I didn’t mind being poor. I didn’t think about it. I thought I had as much as everyone else. Thanks to my parents, I felt free. I felt I could do whatever I wanted to do. They taught us that we could that we just had to work hard. You can’t quit. You just have to work it.

Tyus learned from her brothers how to compete, and never to give in, as she wrote in Tigerbelle.

They could knock me down twenty times, and I’d be back up fighting. ‘Could you just stay down?’ they would always say. But I never would. My attitude was: You’re going to know you’ve been in this war. I might get the worst of it, but you’re going to know that you’ve been in a way. They taught me all of that.

Being brought up in a nurturing home was important. Natural athletic ability was critical. But Tyus was lucky that one of the few people in the country who could help grow her career was in town one day – legendary track coach, Ed Temple of Tennessee State University.

“I was lucky,” she told me. “I don’t take that lightly. I always think about how Mr. Temple saw me run and thought that I had the potential to come to Tennessee State and run and maybe go to the Olympics. He was going to other meets in Mississippi and Alabama. That’s how he would choose the girls. And I wasn’t winning when he saw me. I was doing ok, but he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

Tyus would go on to star in one of the few institutions in America that developed women track and field athletes in the 1960s. Generally speaking, however, women, and especially black women, were constantly ignored and belittled.

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the coach of the US men’s track team decided that the women were not really part of the US Olympic squad as he refused to allow the entire shipment of sprinter’s starting blocks to be used by the women sprinters, as explained in Tigerbelle. “What are you talking about?” Mr. Temple said to him. “I thought we were the American team – that we were all the American team.”

The women’s track team were just about resigned to using the starting blocks available to the Japan team when American sprinter, Bob Hayes, spoke up. “What kind of craziness is this? You can use my blocks any time you want.” The male athletes then began sharing the equipment, trumping the sexist attitude of the coach.

Tyus and teammate, Edith McGuire, went on to finish gold and silver in Tokyo. And Tyus came home to a parade in her hometown. But, while everyone in the universe knew that Bob Hayes was the star of stars at the Tokyo Olympiad, little did the rest of the United States know or care about the fastest woman in the world.

Tigerbelle Wyomia Tyus Story CoverAs the Americans began their preparations for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the track and field women were again dismissed as an afterthought. As she wrote in Tigerbelle, it was necessary to train in a high altitude venue to match conditions in Mexico City. Lake Tahoe, California was perfect and scenic. But only the men were invited to train there. The women of the track and field team were shipped to Los Alamos, New Mexico.

When we got off the bus, we all looked around and said, “Wow, there’s nothing here.” Because there was nothing in that town—nothing but all the nuclear weapons development facilities. As time went on, we began to understand why it was so isolated. There was a long-distance runner who would just go off and run, and one day she headed into an area that she shouldn’t have been in. That’s when the coaches called us together and told us, “You should not be running anywhere but where you’re told.”

Instead of focusing on peak performance, the women were wondering “what am I breathing in?”

Tyus went on to win the gold medal in the women’s individual 100-meter sprint as well as the women’s 100-meter relay. But her accomplishments were drowned out by the feats of a very strong American men’s squad in Mexico City, and also more generally by an American press that could not see the value in, or perhaps, could not overcome the fear of promoting the accomplishments of black women.

At the time, they were not about to bathe a Black woman in glory. It would give us too much power, wouldn’t it? Because it would have been a moment, if you think about it: “She won back-to-back gold medals; nobody in the world has ever done that. Let’s paint the US all over her—let’s drape her in a flag!” You would think. But no. I would never see them hanging a flag on me. Because one thing the Olympics is not about is giving power to the powerless.

Her coach Temple wrote tellingly in his book, Only The Pure in Heart Survive, that Tyus’ incredible feat of back to backs would likely be forgotten. He wrote the following in 1980, eight years before Carl Lewis became the first man to be crowned fastest in the world two Olympiads in a row.

If a man ever achieves this, everyone will probably say he’s the first – until they look back over the records and discover that Wyomia Tyus did it long before any of them. Maybe by then she’ll get the recognition she really deserves. 

And yet, Tyus understands that the unsupported minority need to leverage what they get. And she understands that history is on her side.

If you make history, there’s no way they cannot put you in it. It may not be the way I want, but every time they talk about the 100 meters, they have to mention my name. Maybe softly. Maybe just once. But they have to.

Wyomia Tyus Park_Akashic Books

In 1999, over 30 years after her historic back-to-back 100-meter Olympic gold medal, the name of Wyomia Tyus was shouted out loudly and proudly, with the opening of the Wyomia Tyus Olympic Park, a 164-acre swath of greenery with picnic areas, ball parks and soccer fields, not far from where Tyus grew up in Griffin, Georgia.

Surrounded by friends and family, Tyus was overwhelmed by the recognition. “I was speechless, to tell you the truth. I was shocked and pleased and didn’t know that people cared so much. It was great.”

Wyomia Tyus on medal stand 1968 Wyomia Tyus, fastest woman in the world, on medal stand 1968

These were not the Innocent Games of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. These were the Protest Games of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Hundreds died in anti-government demonstrations only 10 days before the start of the Games, while black American athletes, who had contemplated boycotting the 1968 Olympics, were locked in an ongoing debate about how to protest the plight of blacks in America.

Reigning 100-meter Olympic champion, Wyomia Tyus, a black woman from Griffin, Georgia, was in Mexico City to run, but could not ignore the rising tensions. The ’68 Olympics contrasted significantly with  the ’64 Olympics, when she was a quiet, inexperienced 19-year-old, not expected to medal, let alone break the world record and win gold as she did.

She was in Mexico City, with a chance at making history – to be the first person, man or woman, to repeat as Olympic champion in the 100-meter sprint. And yet, perhaps surprisingly, Tyus was calm and relaxed, as she was when she was crowned fastest woman in the world in Tokyo. Tyus told me she was confident.

The press was saying I was too old at 23 because I wasn’t running that well in ’67. I used that. I thought differently – these athletes should be afraid of me. The pressure – it’s on them.  I had the knowledge. I had the strength. Nobody else was going to beat me. I didn’t say that. But those were the thoughts in my head.

When Tyus lined up for the finals of the women’s 100 meters sprint, she was ready. And as three-time Olympic high jumper, Dwight Stones explains in an Olympic Channel video, Tyus had become an accomplished master of the psych out. And her way was to dance…to a hit of the time, The Tighten Up, by Archie Bell and the Drells.

She would just intimidate you out of any chance of beating her. She wasn’t really that. She was actually kind of shy. But on the track, she was an assassin. Everyone there is very nervous. Of course you’re nervous on some level. Good nervous? Maybe bad nervous? And Tyus was maybe nervous too. But the way she manifested it was, at the starting block she would start doing the Tighten Up. And what that did, it would loosen her up, and tighten up everyone else. That’s why she did it. It was just another technique that she thought of that they had never seen that would take everyone else out of their game.

Wyomia Tyus anchoring 4x100 in 1968 finals
Wyomia Tyus anchoring 4×100 relay in 1968 finals

As she wrote in her powerful autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story,co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis, Tyus didn’t just dance her way into the psyches of her competitors, she crawled her way in. She made sure she was the last person in place, delaying as long as she could before she was set. Her husband, would call it “cheating.”

It is true that we Tigerbelles took our time getting into the blocks. I’d always been taught that you stand in front of your blocks and you shake your legs out—you shake and shake. Take deep breaths. Touch your toes and make sure you’re still shaking while you do. Then you kick your legs out to put them in the blocks—you kick, kick, kick, and put that one in, and then you kick, kick, kick, and put the other one in. Then you sit there on your knees and you look down the track.

While Tyus went through her routine, her competitors stayed still, their fingertips on the track keeping their bodies steady as they waited impatiently for Tyus to stop moving.

On that cool, overcast day on October 15, 1968, the fat belly of  rain clouds looked ready to split, and Tyus was actually not as unruffled as she appeared to be. She didn’t want to run in the rain so she wanted to get moving. Unfortunately, her teammates were jumpy. First, Margaret Bailes left early. Then Tyus found herself 50 meters down the track before Barbara Ferrell was called for a false start.

When the pistol fired a third time and all sprinters were off cleanly, Tyus created little drama, leading nearly from start to finish. While she needed to lean to win gold over her teammate Edith McGuire at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, this time she hit the tape ahead of Ferrell with time to spare. With a time of 11.08 seconds, Tyus set a world record for her second Olympics in a row.

True, Usain Bolt was the fastest man in three straight Olympiads, 2008 to 2016. Carl Lewis was Olympic champion in two straight from 1984 to 1988, while Gail Devers delivered two straight sprinting golds for women in 1992 and 1996.

But the first person, man or woman, to be crowned the fastest in the world in back-to-back Olympiads was the woman from Griffin, Georgia, Wyomia Tyus.

Edith McGuire and Wyomia Tyus in 100-meter finals_1964 Tokyo Olympics_The Olympic Century
Edith McGuire and Wyomia Tyus in 100-meter finals, from the book, 1964 Tokyo Olympics – The Olympic Century

“I want foxes, not oxes,” is how Ed Temple would tell his athletes to watch their weight.

Temple was the coach of the Tennessee State University women’s track and field team – aka The Tigerbelles, and he was upset that 19-year-old Wyomia Tyus, who traveled to Tokyo in October 1964 on the US Olympic team, spent too much time at the dining halls of the Olympic Village. Tyus gained 5 pounds right away.

“That’s just too big,” complained Temple to Tyus. “You’ve never been this big, and here it is, the most important race of your life…you need to push away those potatoes, you need to push away the rice, and you need to push away from that bread.”

That’s how Tyus explained her predicament in her autobiography, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story, co-authored by Elizabeth Terzakis. She was not as concerned as her coach. Temple had wanted her to add pounds to be stronger anyway, she thought. After all, he had done all he could to keep Tyus’ expectations realistic.

When Tyus made the US squad as the third fastest American woman in the 100-meters at the US Olympic Trials, Temple told her, “Tyus, we really don’t expect much from you. Your year is ’68.” Tyus explained that Temple wanted his inexperienced athletes to gradually get used to high-pressure competition, like handling the press and the moment of the big race.

Tigerbelle Wyomia Tyus Story Cover

So Tyus wasn’t expecting to win the 100-meters – that honor was supposed to go to Edith McGuire, the fastest Tigerbelle at the time and heir apparent to fellow Tigerbelle, Wilma Rudolph, who famously blazed to three sprinting gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

And yet, Tyus, the quiet woman from Griffin, Georgia, was sensing an opportunity. Temple ran his Tigerbelles through rigorous practices, and because Tyus was running in both the individual 100-meter and 100-meter relay competitions, she took on an extra practice load. In trying to suss out the right combinations for the relay, Temple would work on a variety of combinations, with Tyus often on the receiving end of the baton.

He tried several people, and they were always passing to me, so I was always running. I guess that was his way of getting me to run off the weight. Instead, it just made me really strong—good and strong. When it came down to qualifying for the final in the 100, I was running well in every heat; in fact, I was winning each heat, and easily—easily meaning that I wasn’t struggling or really trying hard to win. Even Mr. Temple had to say, “Tyus, you look so good.”

Temple was beginning to wonder if Tyus could medal. Tyus’s confidence was growing in leaps and bounds in these practices, and she began to believe she could take gold. In fact, she won her three heats prior to the final handily. When she lined up in lane 6 against the 7 other fastest women in the world, looking at the immaculately managed cinder track, wary of her teammates McGuire and Marilyn White to her right, and the two speedy Poles, Halina Górecka and Ewa Klobukowska on her far left, she was ready. She just needed to hold off her best friend, McGuire.

When the gun went off, I just remember running, not thinking, until I was at the 80-meter mark, and then asking myself: Where’s Edith? Because Edith was always catching me at 80 meters. Where is she? I wondered. I can’t hear her. I can’t see her. But it don’t mean anything because she’ll be here.

McGuire was there. But with a perfectly timed upper-body lean, Tyus hit the tape 0.2 seconds ahead of her teammate. At 11.4 seconds, Wyomia Tyus was the fastest woman in the world, and the world record holder in the 100-meter sprint.

Free and easy won the race. Tyus told me she was in great shape and had little to lose, as opposed to the weight of the world on her teammate McGuire.

They expected her to win three gold medals like Wilma. She had the pressure on her. I had none. After all, I had never beaten her. I got third in the Olympic trials. Edith and Marilyn White, they were running so well. But I think I won because I was running so relaxed and care free.

Standing on the medal stand, Tyus felt a burst of euphoria, the protective bands of caution and reserve loosened, at least on the inside. Here’s how she described in her book:

I was excited. And for me to say I was excited means I was excited. Once I was on that victory stand, I started thinking, I’ve got to do this four years from now. Instead of standing there feeling everything and enjoying my win, I was thinking: I’ve got to try to be here in four years – I’ve got to come back here and do this again. That’s what went through my mind. Not, Yay! I won it! I did it! I won a gold medal! That was not even going through my head. It was: four years? Oh my.

Katelyn Ohashi UCLA’s Katelyn Ohashi performs at the Collegiate Challenge in Anaheim on Saturday. Ohashi earned a perfect score during a now-famous floor routine that went viral on social media. (Richard Quinton / UCLA)

 

She shimmied and swayed to Proud Mary. She flipped and pranced to Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson. She egged the crowd on with a tongue-wagging swagger. When she did her final run of flips, ending in a dramatic split landing, she rose with a hair-waving flourish that brought the gymnasium down.

The only thing that could break Americans out of their annual NFL playoff craze was Katelyn Ohashi of UCLA, who scored a perfect ten in the floor routine at the Under Armour Collegiate Challenge on January 12, 2019. Her 90-second performance hit the internet like a hurricane, prompting tweets from celebrities and appearances on national television.

The most casual fan of gymnastics in America were re-tweeting the video of her routine and wondering who Ohashi was, and why she didn’t have the gold-medal cache of a Simone Biles or an Aly Raisman. But as experts have cited, her viral routine, which garnered a perfect 10.0 score, was perfect only at the collegiate level. Slate writer and former gymnast, Rebecca Schuman explained the difference in levels in this podcast.

Flip, flip, flip, split jump, and then she lands in the splits. First time she did that, everybody thought it was a mistake. That’s one of these things that’s only in the NCAA because it looks completely amazing, but it’s really easy. It’s really easy. Everybody in gymnastics can do the splits. You learn the splits when you’re five years old. And the floor on a gymnastics mat actually has 16 inches of mats and springs, so it’s almost like a trampoline.

One of the major differences between the elite levels and the collegiate levels of gymnastics is the level of difficulty. In the case of the floor exercise, women at both levels have the same 90 seconds to work their magic. But while the NCAA has a ceiling of the Perfect 10, the elite level has no such ceiling. The more you can work in a higher level of difficulty, the higher your potential score.

If you take a look at Simon Biles’ or Aly Raisman’s floor routines in the All Around finals at the Rio Olympics, there is definitely a lot more high-speed flipping and tumbling at the Olympic levels. Even to my amateur eyes, I can see the elites challenging themselves to four major tumbling runs, while Ohashi does only three. Ohashi spends a lot more time dancing and engaging the crowd between runs two and three than an elite would ever do.

Thus the reason for Ohashi’s seeming overnight fame is rooted not in the revelation that Ohashi should be challenging Biles for a spot on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic squad. It is rooted more in her back story, one that reflects the make-or-break nature of the highest levels of athletic competition, particularly in gymnastics.

Ohashi, the Seattle native, was indeed on track for Olympic greatness. By the time she turned 16, she was a junior national champion and an American Cup champion, where she beat Biles in competition, the last person to actually do so. Unfortunately, she peaked at the wrong time, as Schuman explained.

She was in the tragic of all positions. She was the best elite in the world in the year after an Olympics (2012 London Games). The way the elite world works is gymnasts age out of their peak performance so quickly you generally have your peak years for one or two years at most, unless you’re Simone Biles. Normal human gymnasts peak for one or two years, and then they either injure out, or they just grow, and their center of gravity changes, and they can’t do what they use to be able to do. So Katelyn Ohashi was at the absolute peak of her genius as an elite in 2013. If the Olympics had been held in 2013, she would have won.

And while Biles would go on to win gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, adding fuel to the argument that the USA women’s gymnastics teams of 2012 and 2016 were the best ever, Ohashi fell off the gymnastics map. Her back was fractured. Her shoulders were torn. She competed in physical pain, and through constant hunger pangs. But even greater than the physical pain was the emotional pain. As she explained in a video for The Players Tribune, in the third person, she “was broken.”

Fans would tell her that she wasn’t good enough, that she didn’t look a certain way. She wanted to eat junk food and feel okay the next day, and not have to worry about getting kicked out because she couldn’t make a skill. I was constantly exercising after a meal just to feel good enough to go to bed. She was on this path of invincibility. And then her back just gave out. She wanted to experience what life was like to be a kid again. I was broken.

Fortunately, Ohashi decided that enough was enough.  She dropped out of the elite levels of gymnastics into collegiate competition, attending UCLA with the hopes of finding joy in gymnastics again. She was welcomed by UCLA women’s gymnastics coach Miss Val, and the two formed a bond that emphasized joy and teamwork. As the coach said on Good Morning America, Ohashi said to Miss Val, “I don’t want to be great again. When I was great, there was nothing joyful about it.”

The viral video of her January 12 floor routine was an expression of joy. But the reason why the public, particularly on social media, went wild over Ohashi was the realization that we were seeing her emerge from a long and dark journey. Schuman’s insightful take is that we are relieved, because in a way, we are complicit in the dark journey Ohashi took for our ridiculously high demands for outrageous performance levels, in addition to unrealistic and unfair standards of body shape.

One of the reasons why Katelyn Ohashi’s performance is so magnetic…it’s not just her joy. You can see that her joy is a triumph over something. We also have to think – what do we get out of that? How important to us as viewers, casual or expert, is it, that she has been through the darkness before she gets to the light. How complicit is even the casual viewer who thinks this is the greatest thing they’ve ever seen, because what in her triumph has appealed to them.

So Katelyn Ohashi suffered, trying so hard to be something she was not.

For some, particularly at the highest levels of athletic performance, when the margin for error is so slim, the hard part is coming to grips with the fact that balancing super human performance levels and normal human feelings and urges is beyond the ability of almost everyone who breathes.

No one can be anyone else. You can only be yourself. Understanding that you can only be yourself, if you wish to be happy, is a first big step.

Katelyn Ohashi took that step  when she joined the collegiate ranks and found an ally in Miss Val. That is why we see today the beautiful beaming and ultimately fulfilled young woman we admire today.

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This Aug. 25, 2018 photo shows a view of the dismantled stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which was designed as a temporary stadium. The same can’t be said for the other major venues built for the Winter Games. (Yang Ji-woong/Yonhap via AP)

Much to the relief of the IOC, Sweden has thrown its hat into the ring, and submitted a plan to host the 2026 Winter Olympics. Stockholm-Are will now join Milan-Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy as the only two areas left to bid for 2026.

In November of last year, Calgary, Canada withdrew its bid after Calgarians voted no in a thumbs-up, thumbs-down referendum to host the Games. This was after Sapporo, Japan (September, 2018), Graz, Austria (July, 2018) and Sion, Switzerland (June, 2018) pulled out of the 2026 bid process.

Calgary actually had the facilities required for a Winter Games as this Albertan city hosted the 1988 Winter Games. However, not only are ski jumps, bobsleigh and luge sliding tracks and speed skating ovals costly to build, they are expensive to maintain. For example, as CBC explains, the not-for-profit organization that operates the venues of the Calgary  Olympics have stated recently that they may have to close their sliding center down as repair costs and annual operation costs are in the tens of millions of dollars.

At least Calgary kept these facilities open in order to create a year-round place for athletes to train. Only one year after the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, the six sports centers built for the Games in the northern rural and seaside towns of South Korea are hardly used, according to AFP.  The sliding center, built at a cost of USD100 million, has been closed due to the maintenance cost of USD1 million per yet, and the Gangneug Oval where speed skating events were held, and the ice hockey arena remain open but unused.

“The government should have had a long-term plan to use the Olympic venues,” said Han Hyung-seob, 37, a startup founder who took his family on a visit to PyeongChang. “After they invested a large amount of money, abandoning these facilities because it costs too much to maintain is beyond understanding as a South Korean.”

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United Korean Team enters together

February 9, 2018 was the first day of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and I have so many memories of my 10 days in Korea.

I remember….

.…how cold it was – minus 10 degrees centigrade with a wind chill of “can’t-feel-my-face” degrees. And yet, as if cooperating with the Gods of Olympia, no snow fell, no winds blew, and no need for all the heat packs I brought with me to the stadium.

…how astounded I was when Pita Taufatofua the shirtless Tongan and his oil-slick torso came striding in with his nation’s flag…apparently too hot to notice the cold.

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Pita Taufatofua, shirtless in Rio and in PyeongChang, the taekwando-cum-cross country skiier.

…how Trump made an appearance and the Olympics great again.

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Fake Kim Jong Un and Fake Trump walk right by my seat.

…how confusing it was, in those early days when the bus operators were moving the bus stops and changing the times, making me 100 minutes late for a ski jump competition despite leaving 90 minutes early.

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Getting directions from electronic and human volunteers alike was often confusing.

…how nice it was to grab a burger at USA House and McDonalds, which was taking a bow at its last Olympics as a sponsor.

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…how surprised I was to note that Korea had to import zamboni drivers.

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…how enthusiastic the North Korea cheering squad were – their synchronized movements, the sameness of their uniforms and faces, their enthusiastic cheers and singing – they were the must-take photo op of the event.

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…how young Koreans clamored for unification with song and dance while old Koreans clamored for a nuclear strike on North Korea.

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…how thrilling short track skating is.

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…how cool it is to meet some of the legends of Olympic history.

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Valeriy Borzov, IOC member and fastest man in the world at the 1972 Munich Olympics

…how K-Pop girls can warm up a biathlon competition in freezing temperatures.

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…how incredibly athletic figure skaters can be.

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Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot at the end of an exhausting spectacular gold-medal performance in pair figure skating.

…how much more amazing, I thought, it’s going to be in Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics!

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Reiko and Theo with daughter Naomi visiting grandparents in Tokuyama.

After the Tokyo Olympics, Japan was at a peak in confidence. The economy was roaring. Team Japan tallied the third highest number of gold medals at the XVIII Olympiad at 16. The world had rave reviews for the organizers, with IOC president Avery Brundage heaping high praise on Japan:

Japan had demonstrated its capacity to all the world through bringing this greatest of all international spectacles to Asia for the first time and staging it with such unsurpassed precision and distinction. It is certainly the Number One Olympic Nation today.

The world had come to Japan and was excited to see a young, curious and energetic people. And the young, curious and energetic Japanese were eager to see the world.

In 1964, Reiko Kuramitsu was a freshman at Ferris College in Yokohama majoring in English, and was recruited to be a guide and translator for the Silk Center, which opened in Yokohama in 1959 to promote the silk industry.

Reiko worked 9 to 5, and was given special permission to skip classes so she could do her civic duty and help foreigners visiting the Silk Center learn about the great industriousness and skill of Japanese craftsmen. Born in Tokuyama-shi (now Shunan-shi), Yamaguchi in the Western part of Japan, Reiko had progressive parents who encouraged their daughter to study English and expand her horizons.

And with the arrival of the Olympics, Reiko was excited.

It is hard to believe that it was only 19 years after the war. It was amazing to make such a quick recovery. All the spirit came back. The whole country was so excited about the Olympics and Tokyo. Most of the people were able to buy TVs, black and white. All of Japan was talking about the Olympics!

And Reiko felt that something special was coming for her. “Before the games started, I had a premonition that something is going to really happen to change my life,” she said. “I sense things are going to happen in the future. I felt it very strongly.”

As the Tokyo Olympics were coming to a close, a group of Olympians entered the Silk Center. One of them, an Australian, looked so much like the American actor Steve McQueen, that the workers at the Silk Center were star struck, asking him for autographs. Reiko wasn’t interested, and walked away from the gaggle of girls. Ted (Theo) Mittet, a young American rower, was accompanying faux McQueen, and noticed Reiko. He left the Silk Center without saying a word to her.

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Ted “Theo” Mittet in front of the Kenzo Tange National Gymnasium during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

But Theo returned the next day. Reiko wasn’t there, but her friend Sumiko, also from Reiko’s hometown, was. Theo asked Sumiko for Reiko’s name and where he could contact him. “The next thing I knew, I got his express letter from the Olympic village from Theo,” she said. “It just said, ‘Dear Reiko, would it be possible to have dinner together?’ He didn’t even know me. This must be fate.”

They met for dinner in Chinatown – Douhatsu – one of the popular restaurants in Yokohama at the time.  Reiko brought her friend Sumiko along – after all, she had never met this man before. Reiko sensed that Theo was unhappy that a party of two suddenly became a party of three. And she felt he was annoyed that she didn’t know anything about his hometown of Seattle. But she liked him.

He was cute. He had beautiful brown eyes. More interestingly to me, I learned he was studying to be an architect. I almost went to art school, but instead ended up studying English literature. To me, his interest in architecture meant he was artistic, and that interested me about him more than anything.

They met one more time before Theo took off on his 2-month journey through Japan. He even stopped by Tokuyama and met Reiko’s mother. After Theo returned to Yokohama, they met several times, but their relationship seemed to stall. And then one day, Theo was gone. He had embarked on a ship that took him around the world before returning home to Seattle.

Still they stayed in touch as pen pals, “just good friends.” But as her parents did, Theo encouraged Reiko to be more curious, to be more independent. And at some point, she decided that she would go to the United States, “to see America with my own eyes.”

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Greyhound Bus ad in 1966

While it is routine for single Japanese women to travel abroad today, in the 1960s, very few Japanese did. Overseas travel was not encouraged by the Japanese government, as they wanted to keep their hard-earned export dollars for use by Japanese corporations. And to get a visa to America, you had to go through a few hoops. She had to have sponsors in America, so she talked with her college teachers, and fellow church goers and got introductions to their friends in America. At the particular church she attended, she knew a Naval Commander named George Imboden, whose daughter she had become friends with.

Thanks to all these connections, she was able to convince the American Embassy she had a clear travel plan and people to meet her along the way. She boarded a ship that took 12 days, passing through the Aleutian Islands before arriving in San Francisco. Then she started her American journey in earnest, pulling out her Greyhound Bus ticket, taking advantage of an unlimited travel promotion called “99 days for 99 dollars.”

She was 21. She was on a bus. And she was seeing America: Colorado, Kansas, Tennessee, Georgia, New York, Massachusetts, Washington D. C., Illinois, Iowa. And then back to the West Coast with a visit to Seattle, Washington.

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Reiko Kuramitsu and Karen Mittet on the Bremerton Ferry in Seattle.

Reiko was met by Theo’s family at the 8th avenue bus terminal, and was shocked to see these big Americans. Like Theo, his father and his brother were both over 6 feet tall. Reiko met Theo’s mother, and her sister. But Theo wasn’t there. He was in California, studying at UC Berkley.

So Reiko made her way south to California. She was able to stay with Commander Imboden at their home in Long Beach. When Theo took a summer job at a nursery in Laguna Beach, he arranged for a homestay for Reiko near him. And they got to know each other for another two months.

With her visa at her limit of 6 months, Reiko had to head back to Japan. But before she left, Theo and Reiko got engaged. A year later, they married.

If Reiko stayed in Japan, she likely would have ended up in an arranged marriage, and probably would still be in Yamaguchi.

My life is so much richer (for meeting Theo). I can’t imagine what would have happened if I stayed in Japan my whole life.

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Reiko and Theo in Napa Valley
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Photo taken by author on January 6, 2019, from the fifth floor of a building.

It’s rising!

The New National Stadium, which will be the focal point for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, is about twice as high as it was a year since I last took pictures.

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Current view of inside the stadium, from Nippon Terebi.

The architect of this stadium, Kengo Kuma, is famous for working with wood, and you can now see long slats of light brown cedar wood lining the upper part of the stadium. While criticized heavily for dropping plans for a thoroughly different design by world-renown architect Zaha Hadid, the organizing committee did well in selecting Kuma. His design will certainly merge more harmoniously with the surroundings, particularly the wooded confines of Meiji Shrine. In fact, the New National Stadium is called The Mori no Stadium (杜のスタジアム), or the Shrine Forest Stadium.

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The cedar slats that line the stadium eaves.

As Kuma explained in this interview, he was anxious about whether the color of the wood, which was tinged a light white color, would blend well with the green of Meiji Shrine’s trees. “But when I saw the texture of the trees (as a backdrop to the stadium), I was relieved that it was okay.”

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An Oedo Line train station – Kokuritsu-kyogijo Eki – is right underneath the stadium.

November 30, 2019 is the targeted completion date for the New National Stadium.

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