SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — When you hear the name Wilma Rudolph, people automatically think of Olympic royalty.
She’s the athlete who won gold medals in the 1960 Olympic games – and set records in the process. One of her most memorable races was the historic 4×100 relay, where she anchored team USA to a gold medal.
But on that memorable day, the victory was celebrated by a team of talented athletes.
Lucinda Williams Adams made the historic baton hand-off to Rudolph. She is also a champion, and many people don’t know and her story began right here in Savannah.
It was the summer Olympics, and history was already being made because the female U.S. track team was made up of all African-American women, something unheard of during the Jim Crow era. And then the historic hand-off in the relay race that would seal a gold medal for Team USA.
“We had a mistake in the passing of the baton that once I got that baton in her hand then we were going to get that gold medal,” Williams Adams said.
She still remembers that day like it was yesterday. And she recently returned to her high school to share Olympic memories with track and field athletes and the Woodville-Tompkins Alumni Association.
“The part of the story of being here at Woodville is the most glorious story that I have because it taught me the values of who you are, of who you represent, and what you’re going to do once you leave here,” Williams Adams said.
As a youth growing up in Bloomingdale and Savannah she came from a family of modest means, but strong values.
“My folks were poor. We didn’t have anything. I remember having two pairs of shoes, a Sunday pair and an everyday pair. And now without bragging I don’t know which one to wear.”
It’s been 66 years since the young Lucinda trained here which was known back then as Woodville High School. Her coach was the legendary Joe Turner, a boys track coach.
“It was the coach that inspired me, who recognized the talent in me to be a runner. He was the one,” Williams Adams said.
“He would put us on that old school bus, bring us out here to Savannah State, and here’s where they had a track, back in those days and that’s where we would practice,” she added. “We never used any weights, never, never had any machines, never knew anything about visioning, but we knew about hard work.”
Her hard work in high school and at the Tuskegee relays would lead her to a track and field summer camp hosted by the iconic Tennessee State University track coach, Ed Temple. That’s where she met Wilma Rudolph and the two of them along with the rest of the women in the TSU program set their sights on Olympic greatness.
“You had to have track in your heart, otherwise there was no way to withstand the heat and the running of the hills, and the stadium, and the cross country because we didn’t have any modern technology at all,” Williams Adams said.
All of these experiences are important parts of the story she shares with the young people she meets, hoping to inspire their own journeys to greatness.
“You have to believe who you are but decision-making is so important. You have so many distractions. Far more than what I did. Because the student comes first, and the athletics come second.”
“I always want to quit, and so I learned that just to always try and keep trying,” Dezirae Young said, a sprinter on the Woodville-Tompkins team.
“Anything that I want to do put my mind to it, and I can keep doing it as long as I keep the faith in myself,” said Emmanuel Heathwood, a runner on the Woodville-Tompkins boys track team.
When asked what he thought of when he saw Williams Adams’ gold medal, Heathwood said, “How it would be nice for me to have one.”
An Olympic icon, Lucinda Williams Adams inspiring future generations.
WSAV News 3’s Tina Tyus-Shaw had the opportunity to run briefly under coach temple alongside Lucinda’s daughter, Kim. Tomorrow, we’ll bring you part two of her story, where we’ll talk more with Lucinda Williams Adams about her journey to the Olympics and how her success shaped the track and field arena.