Legends: On The Run
Georgia's Wyomia Tyus sprinted to the gold in two different Olympics
Wyomia Tyus, once the fastest woman in the world, arrived four years ahead of schedule. She was a teenager, a mere freshman at Tennessee State University. Her coach, Edward Temple, was grooming her for the 1968 Olympics. But Tyus had her own timetable. And she wanted Olympic gold.
“I took her to the 1964 tryouts for experience with no idea she could make the team. I was plain shocked when she came in third, in the 100-meter dash, good enough to make the U.S.A. squad,” Temple says.
And so it was off to Tokyo where Tyus again stunned her coach and thousands of onlookers as she won her preliminary heats and tied Wilma Rudolph’s world record for the 100 meters of 11.2 seconds. She then defeated Edith McGuire, the pre-Olympic favorite, to capture the gold. Both Rudolph and McGuire were Tyus’ teammates.
Four years later she became the first woman to repeat as a champion in Olympic competition. She out-ran another teammate, Barbara Ferrell, in the 100-meters with a world record time of 11 seconds flat.
“I never set out to break records,” she says. “My goal was to win.” And win she did. She picked up a silver medal in ’64 on the U.S. 4 x 100 relay team and added another gold in 1968 by anchoring the U.S. 4 x 100 relay team to another world record.
Her Olympic haul totals three golds and a silver.
Tyus, who is 61 years old and lives in Los Angeles, was born and raised in Griffin. Spalding County has honored her with the 164-acre Wyomia Tyus Olympic Park.
She is a member of numerous halls of fame, among them the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame. Just months ago Tyus was inducted into the Atlanta City Sports Hall of Fame.
As a student in Griffin’s Fairmont High School, she set 50-, 60-, 70-, 80- and 100-yard dash records; she set national AAU records all four years she was at Tennessee State.
After the ’68 Olympics she retired from running for four years and then came back as a professional. She was undefeated in 1974 and 1975 and set a new world record for the 70-meter dash.
Tyus grew up on a Griffin dairy farm where her parents barely scratched out a living. “I never thought we were poor,” she says. “We had food on the dinner table and a place to sleep. I had three older brothers, and I had to run to keep up with them. What motivated me was that I did not want to be left behind.
“When I was 14 our house burned down. We moved into a one-bedroom apartment in the city. My brothers and I slept in the bedroom and mom and dad slept in the living room.
“The next year my father died. Mother became the sole breadwinner. I knew if I was going to college I had to get a scholarship. So I ran harder than ever. I qualified for the AAU Outdoor Nationals and won three events. As a high school junior I went back to the Nationals and won four gold medals.”
Coach Temple was operating a summer track program, and Tennessee State told Tyus her attendance would be a one-way ticket to a college scholarship. To say Coach Temple saw possibilities would be a considerable understatement. Tyus had a full scholarship and began her quest for gold.
She earned a degree in education, moved to L.A. and taught courses in the local school district in outdoor education. She has been an administrative analyst at UCLA’s African-American Center, worked in community relations for Universal Studios, served as track coach and was a consultant to the National Football League Players Association. She toured Kenya and Ethiopia as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. State Department.
She walks one hour a day and enjoys watching cooking shows on television. “If I can believe my kids [Simone and Tyus],” she says, “I have the best restaurant in town.”
Her advice for prospective Olympic runners: “It is more important to train mentally than it is physically. You have to want to be the best. You may not be the best every day but you can want to be the best every day. Have a dream and never give up on it.”
Gene Asher is a veteran sportswriter and businessman.