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.”

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.

wilma_rudolph

When you see a champion, there is almost always a role model.

For Olympic champions like Florence Griffith Joyner, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Evelyn Ashford, the role model is Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic Games. Crowned the fastest women in the world at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Rudolph easily won the gold in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, and anchored the American 4×100 team to victory.

Due to her modest grace and her apparent beauty, as well as a life story of overcoming difficult odds to become the best in the world, Rudolph was in the early 1960s the most famous female athlete in the United States, if not the world.

And while she is well known for helping to integrate her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee when she insisted on the relaxation of segregation laws during her Clarksville Welcome Home celebrations, she has perhaps had a more lasting impact on the success of women, particularly black women, in sport.

wilma-rudolph-1960

At the banquet in her honor during “Wilma Rudolph Day” on October 4, 1960, she made this statement: “In every effort I have been motivated by one thing: to do justice to those who believe in me and to use my physical talents to the glory of God and the honor of womanhood.” David Maraniss, in his book Rome 1960, pointed out that phrase as a symbol of Rudolph’s true lasting influence.

…it was the last phrase of her banquet speech – the honor of womanhood – that resonated deepest and longest. She was by no means the first great woman Olympian, but a unique combination of personal and cultural forces – her style and attractiveness, her candor and pride in who she was and where she was from, the leg braces of her childhood, the fact that she flashed onto the scene so brilliantly at the first commercially televised Olympics, her international esteem – made her a powerful symbol of the rise of women in sports. If there were a Mount Rushmore of women athletes, her profile would be one of the four chiseled faces. “For every woman athlete who came after, she was the person who opened the door,” Ed Temple said later. “Wilma opened that door, and for all women, not just in track and field. She had that smile. She had that charisma.”

Maureen M. Smith wrote the book, Wilma Rudolph: A Biography, and proclaimed, “Wilma Rudolph’s story is more than the races she won and world records she established. It is the story of a young woman who overcame tremendous obstacles that should have kept her from ever experiencing athletic success, and yet she is the epitome of triumph.”

Here was a woman that women, particularly black women, could look up to with pride, and set as the bar for achievement. When Rudolph passed away in November, 1994, here’s what Joyner-Kersee had to say about her idol.

She was someone I could always talk to. She was very inspirational. She was always in my corner. If I had a problem, I could pick up the phone and call her at home. It was like talking to your sister or your mother, someone you knew for a lifetime. I always thought of her as being the greatest, and not only athletically. You respected her as a woman.

jackie-joyner-kersee-with-medals
Jackie Joyner-Kersee with medals

None other than 1960 Olympics teammate and USA team captain, Rafer Johnson, wrote in his autobiography, The Best That I Can Be, that Rudolph’s contribution cannot be overlooked.

One of the most important changes has been the advancement of female athletes. In my day, the public suffered under the assumption that women could not compete in the same sports as men, or had to be protected if they did. I remember women’s basketball, for instance, when each team had an offensive and defensive unit so the players did not have to run full court. Most of the male athletes I knew had great respect for their female counterparts; we were not surprised to see the strides women have made since Wilma Rudolph dazzled the world in Rome.

wilma_rudolph_lucinda_williams_barbara_jones_martha_hudson_1960
Left-right: Wilma Rudolph, Lucinda Williams, Barbara Jones and Martha Hudson at the Rome Olympics

She was by then the Queen of Rome at the 1960 Summer Olympics. American sprinter, Wilma Rudolph, had already won gold in the women’s 100- and 200-meter sprints. But her teammates from the famed Tennessee State Tigerbelles had been left out of the medal count. The 4×100 was their chance to join Rudolph in Olympic glory. And Rudolph, as described in David Maraniss’ fantastic book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, promised to help them get the gold on one condition:

In the warm-up room before the race, the Tigerbelles huddled and prayed together. “Just get me that stick,” Rudolph, who would run the anchor leg, said at the end. “Just get me that stick, and we’re going to get on that stand. We’re going to win that gold medal!” her teammates could barely contain themselves; no jealousy now, just fire burning inside.

Maraniss went on to tell the story how her teammate, Lucinda Williams, in the third leg was going so fast heading into the exchange with the anchor, Rudolph, that they needed two attempts to get Rudolph the baton, at one point Rudolph needing to stop to grab it. In the fumbled exchange, Maraniss wrote that the team lost about a meter to the competition in that moment. But like a locomotive, Rudolph reached the leaders at about 60 meters, and then blew past them to win gold for the team.

Not only did the Tigerbelles share a momentous team victory, Rudolph’s star in Rome and the world went super nova, the first ever American to win three track gold medals in a single Games. When President Kennedy heard that Rudolph was in Washington DC a few months after her return from Rome, he invited Rudolph to the White House and spent so much time talking with her in the Oval Office that he kept his next appointment cooling his heels for thirty minutes.

But as a child, Rudolph, was not the radiant and confident person she was to become. She was born prematurely in 1940, and due to polio, had to deal with a left leg and foot that twisted unnaturally and made it difficult for her to walk. Doctors had her wear braces and special shoes, and she had to be carried from room to room by family members. As one could imagine, to be seen as so different from your family and friends must be so terribly hard on a child. Maraniss wrote:

As Wilma later described her early childhood, she was depressed and lonely at first, especially when she had to watch her brothers and sisters run off to school while she stayed home, burdened with the dead weight of the heavy braces. She felt rejected, she said, and would close her eyes “and just drift into a sinking feeling, going down, down, down.” Soon her loneliness turned to anger. She hated the fact that her peers always teased her. She didn’t like any of her supposed friends. She wondered whether living just meant being sick all the time, and told herself it had to be more than that, and she started fighting back, determined to beat the illness.

Maraniss went on to describe how Rudolph’s condition gradually improved to the point that she was able to secretly remove her braces so she could run around outside with her siblings. And then her parents did something wonderful, presenting Rudolph with a gift so ordinary and yet so life affirming that it transformed the shy, despondent girl into one filled with promise, bursting with energy.

Then one day her father, who did the shopping in the family, came home with regular shoes for Wilma, marking a dramatic change in her life. As Yvonne remembered the scene: “They were no longer the high-top shoes that she had to have with the braces. And my mother took her in to a room all by herself; she didn’t even let us know she had these shoes. And they put them on her, and she came out of the room, and she was beaming all over. It was like she was a whole new little girl. And after that it was like she knew she was not different, and it gave her more confidence at that point.”

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After that, you couldn’t stop Rudolph from running. A blur on the basketball courts, she picked up the nickname “Skeeter” because she flitted about so quickly like a mosquito. Her head coach at Tennessee State, Ed Temple, marveled at this determined young woman, but also wasn’t sure if she had everything needed to be a champion. Just prior to the 100-meter finals, Temple hid in the tunnels of the Stadio Olimpico, barely able to see Skeeter in lane 3. Rudolph, a notorious slow starter, fell behind. But he also knew that Rudolph, like today’s sprinting God, Usain Bolt, finished like a locomotive.

According to Maraniss, Temple had to be told that Rudolph had won easily in a blazing 11 second, what would have been a world record if not for the wind. His reaction? “You’re joking.” I’m sure it was a remark born out of ambivalence, that moment when one thinks one has a champion, but is not really sure, until proof is presented on a shining platter. That moment, when Rudolph crossed the tape to become the fastest women in the world, marked that rite of passage for champions, when all doubt is erased, expectations and achievements merge, and all is right in the world.

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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. Credit Ernie Sisto/The New York Times

Ed Temple was a black man who became a track coach for a women’s team in Tennessee, who overcame, along with the women on his teams, a severe lack of resources as well as significant racial prejudice in the deep south, to become one of the most historically impactful coaches in American track.

In a career of over 40 years at Tennessee State University, Temple coached 40 Olympians who garnered 13 gold, 6 silver and 4 bronze medals, including the belle of the 1960 Rome Games, Wilma Rudolph, and her successor at the 1964 Tokyo Games, Wyomia Tyus. At the 1960 games, the four members of the American women’s 4X100 team that blazed to gold were all members of Temple’s Tennessee State University team, affectionately known as the Tigerbelles. On September 22, 2016, Temple passed away at the age of 89.

To be black and female in the southern states in America was a challenge in a good part of the 20th century. Black athletes, whose competitions would take them all over the country, had to deal with long hours in cars hoping to find a place that would serve them food or put them up for the night, thanks to legally or socially enforced segregation along racial lines. David Maraniss, who wrote about Temple in his book, Rome 1960, said this in a Nashville newspaper interview in 2008:

We’re talking about the Jim Crow era, a period when the Tigerbelles . . . traveled through the deep South and endured harsh conditions to appear at meets. You look at what he accomplished and the obstacles he faced, and it’s simply one of the great triumphs in sports and history.

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Cassius Clay and Ed Temple both appeared at the 1960 Rome Olympics

Temple believed that for a black woman to persevere and win in America at that time, they had to be disciplined and smart. Temple’s standards were high, so training on the team was painful. The Tigerbelles were locked into practices three times a day, starting at 5 in the morning, resuming at 9:30 am, and then again at 2pm, often times in the searing heat of summer. Tyus, who was crowned fastest woman in the world by winning the 100-meters in both Tokyo in 1964 and in Mexico City in 1968 said that Temple practices were “just brutal. I just thought, ‘this man has got to be crazy.’” The Tigerbelles wrote and sang a song that reflected their feelings towards Temple and his practices: “It’s So Hard to be a Tigerbelle”.

And yet, the Tigerbelles won. But simply winning wasn’t enough for Temple. He was not only their coach. He was their father and mentor, one who showed a bit of tough love and expected them to keep up with their studies. Tyus was interviewed in the book, Tales of Gold: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told by America’s Gold Medal Winners, and she wrote about Temple was a father to her.

Coach Temple was an advisor as well as a coach. My father died when I was only 15, so he became a father figure as well. He was very strict, and he was very tough. He used to say, “If we’re going to run, let’s run. If we’re going to be spectators, then let’s get up in the stands where we belong.” He also insisted that we train the European way, which to him meant “No play; just hard work.” When I look back on it, I sometimes wonder how I made it, but I also know that he was very good for us as women. He was always there to lend a helping hand, but if you needed to be reprimanded, he was also very good at that. And academics always came first with him. We had to have a C average to compete, but he always pushed us to do much better than that. His whole philosophy was that we were not going to be athletes all our live, so we had to take advantage of this opportunity to get a college education. We did, and he was always so proud of the fact that of the 40 of us who competed in the Olympics, 38 have college degrees.

Temple insisted that his Tigerbelles be smart, not only intellectually, but also fashionably. There was a school of thought at that time that blacks who wanted to succeed had to hold themselves up to a higher standard of behavior and appearance in order to simply get accepted in broader swathes of society. According to Maraniss in his book Rome 1960, Temple made sure his women looked good.

As the caravan approached its destination, an order would come from the front: “Get your stuff together.” This mean rollers off, lipstick on, everything brushed and straightened. The sprinters were a free-spirited group; some chafed at Coach Temple’s rules of behavior but grudgingly obliged. “I want foxes, not oxes,” he told them. The Tigerbelles had perfected the art of emerging from the least flattering conditions looking as fresh as a gospel choir, for which they were often mistaken.