The February Project 2005

Monday, January 31, 2005

Hey Track Star*

20th of 22 children
you were born in 1940
in Clarksville, Tennessee,
to parents too proud to collect welfare
father a porter who did odd jobs for extra money,
mother who cleaned white people’s homes,
served them coffee in bed on Saturday mornings.
At six you told yourself,
“Wilma, you ain’t never
gonna be serving coffee
to no white folks in bed on Saturday mornings.”

At six you weren’t in school,
noticed that something must be different between you and the rest,
nothing more than your crooked left leg,
turned in left foot,
which couldn’t be it, you said.
you have polio, your mother spoke of to you.
but what was that,
what was that.

Poor, your mother was your main medical coverage
serving you hot toddies
and wrapping you in many blankets.
The neighborhood kids made fun of you
and your crooked leg.
“Someday I’ll do something that will make them all take notice,” you said.

At 12 you were still wearing the brace on your leg,
taking it off whenever no one was looking.
You’d never really played sports
and, with no television in your home, had barely seen them,
except when your father organized holiday weekend baseball games
against the neighboring town.

At six you began therapy and treatment on the leg,
took a Greyhound every week
with your mom or an aunt
to Meharry Medical School in Nashville.
You were leaving Clarksville,
you were traveling.

One day
your mother packaged your brace up
and mailed it to the Nashville hospital
from where it had come.
you went to the playground that summer,
your body now healthy,
and everyone was playing a game called basketball.
“Tomorrow,” you said, “you’re going to see what it feels like to play a little basketball.”

Seventh grade was a big year for you,
now in the new Burt High School.
you asked your father if you could try out for the basketball team.
he told your older sister Yvonne,
already on the team,
“Yvonne, you take Wilma along with you to play basketball, you understand?”

You sit on the bench all of seventh grade basketball season,
and just get into blowouts for a few moments during eighth grade.
your coach announces to your squad that he is starting a track team,
who would like to join,
and you do,
winning every race you run for two straight years,
sandwiched around a ninth grade basketball season where it’s only blowout action for you, again.
Maybe, people told you that summer, you should focus on what you’re best at.

But you still wanted to play basketball,
wanted to get off the bench and show what you could do.
and so you practiced harder the summer before 10th grade,
and right after the buzzer rang for the first game of the season
the coach pulled on your warm-up jacket sleeves;
you were a starter.

You won your conference championship in basketball,
traveling to Nashville for the state tournament,
winning your first game,
being eliminated in your second.
Ed Temple, the track coach at Tennessee State College,
worked many of your games that year as a referee,
never calling you by your number,
always Rudolph,

You went to the big Southern meet
at the Tuskegee Institute.
Watch the girls from Atlanta they said,
they run year-round because of the good weather.
You saw them at the starting line,
and though they looked tough
figured you’d win,
because you always did.
And you lost,
every race.
When you returned to Clarksville
you continued to skip classes to practice running,
remembering Tuskegee each time.

Coach Gray,
your high school track coach
said Ed Temple was going to call on your parents.
And the Tennessee State women’s track coach did,
convincing your father to send you to his summer track program.
It was there that you first used starting blocks,
and were made to run 20 miles a day to help your conditioning.
It was there that you learned the tools to go along with your natural gifts.

Your summer track team went to Philadelphia to race,
and this was no Tuskegee.
You were entered in three races
--the 75- and 100-yard dashes, and 440-yard relay--
winning all your qualifying heats and each final.
Nine races, nine wins.
And afterward a meet director approached Coach Temple.
The man had two Brooklyn Dodgers with him
and would the coach have a couple of his girls take a picture with them,
and you were one of those selected.
And as you approached them
you hoped they wouldn’t say anything,
as you felt ashamed of your Southern accent when you weren’t back home.
But one began asking you questions,
complimenting your racing style,
telling you
“don’t let anything, or anybody, keep you from running. Keep running.”
Finally you had a black hero,
and his name was Jackie Robinson.

Back in Tennessee,
Coach Temple mentioned the Olympics to you for the first time,
asks if you’d like to compete in the U.S. Olympic trials,
and you say you would,
even though you have no idea where that year’s Olympic site Melbourne, Australia is.
Coach Temple drives you and the other girls to the trials in Seattle,
and there, Olympian Mae Faggs, one of the passengers on that trip, says,
You stick with me in the race, you make the team.”
And so you stuck with her,
and, now a 16-year-old high school junior from Clarksville, Tennessee was going to the Olympics.

You’d never been on an airplane
before you flew from Nashville to Los Angeles,
where the Olympic team was training for two weeks
before departing for Melbourne.
Each time a stewardess would ask if you wanted something to eat you’d say no,
until Mae Faggs whispered in your ear that you didn’t have to pay for it,
So you ordered some food,
but were still too afraid to touch it,
so your teammates cleaned it off,
one item at a time.

After two weeks in Los Angeles
the team began its trip west to Melbourne
stopping in Honolulu,
where you marveled at the ocean and the palm trees.
You and two teammates from the women’s track team went to do some shopping.
Walking down the street and looking at you
a white woman with a dog was frightened.
She picked up her dog,
walked across the street,
and looked back at you three.
“We all felt sad,” you said,
“because here we were,
as members of the United States Olympic team,
and that didn’t really matter at all
because we were still black, no matter what we did.”

Once in Melbourne you were ready to compete in your two events,
the 200 meters and 4 x 100 meter relay.
You finished in the top three in your first heat in the 200,
but a third place finish in the next heat eliminated you,
sending you to your room where you didn’t leave,
inconsolable at having disappointed yourself and your country.
Watching Australian track star Betty Cuthbert win her third gold medal on TV
reenergized you for the relay,
where Mae Faggs got your team psyched
and you earned the bronze medal,
against expectations.
You didn’t know yet that the next Olympics were scheduled for Rome,
you only knew that you would be in them.

Your were welcomed home to Burt High School in Clarksville with an assembly
where you gave a few words
before finding Coach Gray,
and saying that you knew the opening of the basketball season was tonight,
and could you play,
to which he said yes.
And your team went on to win the state championship,
you averaging 35 points a game,
Nancy Bowen almost 38.
You went to prom with your boyfriend Robert,
and afterward you and your friends raced to Hopkinsville, Kentucky,
where you could drink without questions,
and then you raced back from there to Clarksville,
and Nancy Bowen’s ride drag raced on the way,
losing control while going 90,
crashing into a bridge’s concrete pillar,
him and Nancy dead on impact.

Your senior year you went in with your parents for your annual physical,
and the doctor asked you to come back alone in a few days,
which is when you found out you were pregnant.
You didn’t tell anyone,
your basketball coach figuring it out when you were slower and heavier,
and the doctor covered and said you had a stomach tumor.
Afraid to disappoint your parents,
your sister Yvonne told your mother for you,
and your mom told your dad,
and even Coach Temple at Tennessee State had heard by now.
Your parents pledged their full support,
and Coach Temple said he still wanted you after the baby was born,
even though he never accepted women with a baby into his program.

You started your freshman year at college,
your sister Yvonne in St. Louis watching your baby Yolanda,
your mother in Clarksville watching Yvonne’s five-year-old Tony.
(It’s complicated.)
During a track-shortened December break,
you returned home
since you needed more time than the three days you had to see Yolanda in St. Louis.
A visiting Yvonne greeted you by saying she’d like to adopt Yolanda,
setting you off on a midnight ride to St. Louis with Robert
to bring back your baby,
your father forgetting his Robert ban once he saw your little one.
“This baby ain’t going nowhere,” he said.
“It’s staying right here.”

Confused as to whether you should continue with track
or follow the hints Robert had been leaving
and quit school and track, and become a wife and mother full-time,
you talk with one of your teachers.
“Wilma,” he said, “you can have both.”
And soon after you enter the 1960 U.S. Olympic Trials,
qualifying in three events—the 100 and 200 meters, and the 4 x 100 meter relay,
setting a world record in the 200 that would stand for eight years.

Coach Temple was selected as the U.S. women’s track coach for the Olympics,
and a few days before the games he sat you down,
told you how you could really win gold in all three races,
told you how he had been dreaming about it.
And at your last practice the day before your first race
the team went to a field behind the main Olympic stadium,
and the sprinklers were watering the grass,
and, it being 100 degrees, you all were skipping through the water.
So you went to go through,
not seeing the hole behind the sprinkler,
and you heard a pop,
and they pulled it out,
and it began to balloon,
and they iced it,
and back at your room the trainer wrapped it as tight as possible.
The next morning, race morning,
you awoke to discover it could hold your weight.
“Thank God, it’s only a sprain, I can handle that.”

So you raced through your heats in the 100,
the Italian fans, having taken a liking to you,
chanting “Vil-ma, Vil-ma,”
and then won the final going away by five to seven yards.
And you listened to Coach Temple as he reminded you to take it easy for a few days on your ankle
Because after the turns in the 200, you’d be set,
and after you took the last turn in the final you were in first again.
You were ready for the 4 x 110 relay,
knowing a victory would make you the first American woman to win three golds,
and you were the anchor,
and there was nothing that would stop you,
and after you took the baton
there wasn’t,
and your relay team had set a world record in the process,
and you had your third gold medal.
Vil-ma, Vil-ma, Vil-ma.

Some of the other girls on the American track team were jealous of the attention you were getting.
Following one post-Olympic meet,
you returned to your room with an hour to get ready for a banquet,
searching for the curlers you all shared while your teammates stood by
not finding them,
and going there with your hair a mess.
Coach Temple yelled at the other girls afterward.
But it was even worse when at a meet in London
where the crowd wanted to see
your world record holding relay team.
The other three girls decided to run slowly,
leaving you with 40 meters to make up on your anchor leg,
and as you realized what they’d done
you swore you’d catch up,
and at the tape you did.
“When we get back to Tennessee State,” Coach Temple said to them,
“all three of you are on probation.”

You returned home to Clarksville for a parade to honor you,
followed by a banquet that was also for you.
These were the first events in the history of your hometown that were not segregated.
And at that banquet,
a Judge Hudson, old and white,
spoke of how the black and white keys on a piano,
when played by themselves,
made very nice music.
“But, ladies and gentleman, the absolute best music comes out of that piano,” he said,
“when you play both the black keys and the white keys together.”

You thought about what was left for you in track.
You could train for three more years
to compete in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo,
but anything less than three golds, you thought,
would tarnish your accomplishments in Rome.
And you and Robert wanted to raise your daughter together.
Now was the time to retire, at 21,
but only after a good performance.
So you trained for a dual meet against the Soviet Union,
and won the 100 going away.
In the relay you took the baton far behind,
but caught and passed them.
A little boy afterward tried to fight through the crowd to get your autograph.
You untied your track shoes,
signing each of them and handing them to him.

Robert and you were finally to marry,
but no church in Clarksville was big enough,
so you had it in a field, which a local florist had helped transform.
Soon after you began teaching second grade at your former school
and serving as the girls’ track coach.
By May you had a second daughter, Djuana,
and a little over a year later, your first boy, Robert, Jr.
You decided to move from Tennessee,
to earn more money and become a better teacher.
So first a job in Evansville, Indiana,
and then one with the Job Corps in Poland Springs, Maine.

And then St. Louis,
where you stayed until your sister Charlene took ill and you moved to Detroit,
and 18 months later you felt it was time to leave there,
and you flew home on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated
your favorite aunt dying that same morning.
It was the worst you ever felt,
and your depression grew.
You asked Bill Russell,
the basketball player you had befriended at the 1956 Olympics,
what you should do.
“Try something completely different, a change of scenery,” he said.
“Try California.”

Your oldest daughter Yolanda is 18 now,
running for Coach Temple at Tennessee State,
back where you became a runner.
You settle in a suburb of Clarksville with your family,
not far from where you grew up,
prepared for what’s to come.
“I’ve learned a family’s a powerful thing,” you said.

*Title taken from a song by The Lookers


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