SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – While history books highlight the victories of athletes like Wilma Rudolph, Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt, less attention has been given to Wyomia Tyus, who made her mark in track and field.
She was the first athlete to win the 100 meters at consecutive Olympic games.
The Georgia native put her state on the map during the height of the civil rights movement.
And 53 years later, Tyus is still using her voice to empower athletes.
In 1964, at the age of 19, Tyus ran under legendary coach Ed Temple at Tennessee State University. She qualified to represent Team USA in the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.
She was considered a neophyte next to favorite, teammate and best friend Edith McGuire, whom she ran against regularly.
Tyus was not expected to be the winner.
“Mr. Temple said, ‘Great job Tyus. People try all of their lives and can’t make an Olympic team. Your first time out and you make the Olympic team. We don’t expect anything from you,'” she said. “And I went, ‘OK Mr. Temple, thank you.'”
Sixty years later, she remembers the moment the gun went off along with those expectations.
“As I was running, I get to about 70 meters and I’m like, ‘Where is Edith?’ So and I kept going, ‘Where is she?’ Because she’s usually right here passing me at this point,” Tyus recalled.
But she remembered her coach’s advice: “Stay relaxed, just lift knees.”
“And at 80 meters, I tell her right now, today, ‘I could smell you coming, I hear you coming,” Tyus said of McGuire. “At 80 meters, she was there.”
“She comes running up and said, ‘You did it, Tyus!’ I said, ‘I did?'” she said, adding, “I was looking for her to win.”
“I was like, gosh, I got a gold medal. Isn’t that something on my first time out? I wanted to go see Mr. Temple,” she laughed.
In 1968, she won back-to-back gold in the 100 meters setting the world record in Mexico City at 11 seconds flat.
She also won gold as her 4×100 relay team set a world record of 42.8 seconds.
Following her exit from the track and field arena, she moved to Los Angeles, where she pursued her love for nature as an outdoor educator.
“You know, I look back at it and I say, ‘I didn’t know I was poor.'” Tyus said. “People tell me now, that was being poor, but to me, we had all the things that we wanted and things we needed.”
Her story began in Griffin, Georgia, on a dairy farm.
Her dad was a sharecropper and her mother worked at a dry cleaner.
In high school, she played basketball and ran track. That’s when her talents were discovered by hall of fame track coach, Temple, at a high school meeting in Fort Valley, Georgia. He wanted her to try out for his team at Tennessee State.
“He invited me to come up for that summer,” Tyus said, adding, “When he asked me if I would be interested, I said, ‘I think so!'”
At age 17, Tyus competed in the Amateur Athletic Union championship at the Los Angeles Coliseum, where she won all three of her races.
“I also got the opportunity to run with the big girls, as they would say,” she added.
The coliseum is also where she and several others carried the Olympic flag for the Summer Games in 1984.
“It was the first time ever they even had the athletes to bring in the Olympic flag,” Tyus explained. “It’s usually brought in by some others, and so it was very historical.”
“Seems like I’m always in the historical moment of my life, and the first time for certain things to happen. And so it was great doing that,” she said.
Those historical events helped shape the legacy that lives on long after her Olympic gold moments.
WSAV News 3 will be sharing more of Tyus’ Olympic journey in the coming days on wsav.com/olympics. Tune in at 5:30 p.m. Friday to hear how the Griffin community has helped ensure her legacy lives on.