SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – As a child she slept in a dresser drawer. Her family home burned down and she lost everything. The daughter of a sharecropper and a dry cleaners worker, she saw her share of challenges growing up in the segregated South. In spite of it all, Wyomia Tyus persevered and went on to become an Olympic gold medal champion.
Wyomia Tyus is WSAV News 3’s Tina Tyus-Shaw’s aunt. Her historic accomplishments have made Tina and her family proud over the years, but the story of her journey to Olympic gold is one for the history books.
Born in Griffin, Georgia, Wyomia Tyus grew up on a dairy farm to parents who didn’t have a high school education. Her father was a sharecropper with barely one day of a formal education, and her mother, a dry cleaners worker, who finished eighth grade.
Her father preached the value of humility and hard work.
“It was a teaching moment for him, I think, because he let us be children. Let us be free, and he was always saying ‘you know this is how this world is supposed to be.’” explained Wyomia, “Basically what he was referring to…it was during the Jim Crow era. And when blacks never had rights and all this he was saying it’s going to change.”
Growing up in the Jim Crow South, she always leaned towards athleticism. At Fairmont High School she played basketball and ran track.
At 15, her father died. She was devastated. Just when she thought she had nothing else to give, her life would forever change when she met an iconic track and field coach at one of her races. His name? Ed Temple, coach of the renowned Tennessee State University Tigerbells, a team known for winning and producing champions.
“I was 15. He saw me run. He invited me to come up and train at one of his summer camps he had for young girls,” said Wyomia, “I kept thinking how am I gonna get there, my mamma don’t have money to send me anywhere. Thank goodness my school got me there. They gave me 23 dollars to get there.”
Ultimately, Temple offered Tyus a college scholarship.
Training was grueling under the sweltering Tennessee sun.
At TSU, she ran alongside Olympic champion sprinters Wilma Rudolph, and Edith McGuire.
In 1964 at the summer Olympics she surprised everyone and beat her best friend and team rival McGuire in the 100 meters.
“Even standing on the victory stand in Tokyo my head was like I have won now because Mr. Temple always said your year was ’68. I won now, but I gotta go back and win,” said Wyomia.
Then in 1968, she became the first person to win gold medals in the 100-meter race at consecutive Olympic games.
Wyomia returned to her hometown to promote her memoir titled “Tigerbelle, The Wyomia Tyus Story.” In the book she lovingly honors and remembers her coach.
“This man put over 40 people on an Olympic team and won 23 medals, 13 gold, more than countries and things like that. A dynasty, yeah, and nobody’s ever come close to that,” explained Wyomia.
“His key thing was always you know track will open the door. Education will keep the door open. So he was very high on education to the point he had a 98% graduation rate.”
In Griffin, there is no shortage of supporters for the hometown girl who put their little town on the map.
“I’ve had this card since I was 8 years old, and I’ve been trying to get it signed since then. I made sure I was here today and got it personally autographed,” explained one fan, “She’s just an example that you can do anything you put your mind to. Any goal, you can reach it.”
After the 1968 games she made her home in Los Angeles where she married, raised a family and worked as a naturalist in outdoor education.
Just like wyomia is celebrated in her hometown of griffin, she is honored as an icon in L.A.
On Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles in Echo Park you will find a special tribute to Wyomia, a bronze plaque recognizing her athleticism, her advocacy, and her contributions to this country.
32 brass plaques devoted to famous athletes were installed for the 1984 summer Olympics.
“I was so very proud and just happy about the whole thing,” said Wyomia.
As she continues her life and work, she draws from the love of her family, her community, and from the great legacy of coach Temple.