When we think of our love for all aspects of running – be it on the road, trail, or track – we think of the greats before us who brought the sport to life and forged a path for the generations to come. Looking specifically at women in this sport, Wyomia Tyus is up there for us as an “OG” great. The first. She was the first athlete – man or woman – to win back-to-back gold medals at the Olympics in the 100-meters. And yet, it is not until recent times that her incredible accomplishments have been brought to the forefront in the world of sports. As she told us, fame and notoriety were not what drove her then, and they're not what drive her now. She is more concerned with doing what she feels passionately about, and doing it to the best of her ability:
Who Is Wyomia Tyus
“When I speak, I always say, look, we all cannot be on the victory stand. We're all not going to win a gold medal. But we can make a contribution. And that's the key thing, that your contribution should be enough for you…But always set your eye for that first place on the victory stand, and just be happy in what you're doing.”
Wyomia (the “a” is silent) was born in 1945 and grew up in Griffin, Georgia during the Jim Crow era. Despite the social and political climate, Wyomia talks about her childhood home as a safe haven from the more atrocious events of the time – something her parents no doubt worked hard to cultivate. Her father, Willie Tyus, worked on a dairy farm, and her mother, Marie Tyus, worked at a dry cleaner. Together, they ensured that Wyomia and her three older brothers understood how important it was that they succeed in school.
Wyomia was 14 years old when her father passed, and she turned to sports as an outlet to process her grief. Eventually, she was scouted by Ed Temple, Tennessee State women’s track team coach. Her family didn’t have enough money for the train ticket, so her community came together to raise the $23 she needed to get there. Her aunt reminded her to “sit like a lady” during the ride, and when the train reached Tennessee, she was greeted by Coach Temple, as well as fellow Olympic athlete and three time gold medal winner, Wilma Rudolph.
Over the coming years, she would compete in the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, winning a total of three gold medals, and protesting for human and civil rights along the way.
INSPIRED BY THE OUTDOORS
Discovery Park. Photo credit: Amber Fouts // @amberfouts
The Oiselle team had the privilege of spending a couple of days with Wyomia here in Seattle. Our conversation spanned from her childhood and early career in track and field, to her time as a Naturalist at Clear Creek Outdoor Educational School, all the way to her collaboration with us for the Wyomia Tyus collection. Traveling from her now hometown near Oakland, Wyomia brought spring sunshine with her, which made for the perfect opportunity to walk and talk in the fresh outside air - a treat in Seattle this time of year. The great outdoors is where Wyomia is most nostalgic for her childhood and her subsequent career as an educator teaching youth about nature. It is also where she goes to find peace.
“Growing up, I walked through the woods every Sunday with my father and brother, and later, as an adult, I worked as a Naturalist at Clear Creek Outdoor Educational School, so those kinds of environments—tall trees and clear streams, hiking trails and waterfalls—are very dear to me.”
We wanted to learn more about her story - did she always like to run? Did she like to compete? Looking back over her life, who are the people in her life who influenced her most?
IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT THE START
One of the most memorable conversations we had with Wyomia happened over photographs from her time on the track team at Tennessee State. One of these photos was taken during a practice at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, where Wyomia surprised everyone – her team, her coach, and even herself – by winning her first gold medal in the 100-meters. The image depicts a few female athletes practicing their starts on the track. Talking about that day, Wyomia is both honest and blunt about her relationship with starting:
“I was never a great starter, so as you see, I'm not the first one out the blocks…It's a good reminder. I like keeping [the photo] to let me know you don't always have to be first. You can be first at the end. When it counts.”
The balance of earnestness, humility, wit, and the small touch of sass her words strike is typical of Wyomia. It is clear that her sense of humor, her determination, and her nature to look towards the bright side of things, even in times of hardship, has helped her achieve all that she has – both on and off the track.
“I always tell young people, you have to play games with yourself,” Wyomia explained to us. “Okay, this practice is going to be the easiest practice today. I'm going to do everything perfect. Oh, it didn't come out perfect? I gotta do it again. Okay. Okay. So you just play games.”
Wyomia’s mental strength would continue to prove invaluable in the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, setting the stage for her repeat gold in the 100 meters. These games would also provide her with the opportunity to publicly protest, which we’ll touch more on here.
TRACK OPENED THE DOOR
West Seattle Stadium. Photo credit: Amber Fouts // @amberfouts
The world of track and field is still something Wyomia holds dearly and remembers with the fondness and wisdom of a sage. Some of the roles of coaches, teammates, officials, brands, managers, and agents have stayed the same since the days she competed, and some have evolved. Namely, sponsorship:
"I wanted just a job that I could definitely make ends meet and work. And it's not like it is today when athletes get all this money and they get bonuses, they get a whole lot of recognition. That was not happening."
When we were sharing our story of our emerging elite athletes who are 800 meter runners, she said “Ah, sub-2. That’s real good. There’s something there.” Her sparkle for the love of competition is strong as ever, and we could have listened to her tell her story with humble pride and warmth all day. Wyomia loves being in the stadium and enjoys ribbing her brothers to check on how the park in Georgia that was named after her is doing. She takes great joy in seeing how the women of this current generation are taking to the sport, and taking on the competition.
EDUCATION WAS THE WAY OUT
University of Washington campus. Photo credit: Amber Fouts // @amberfouts
In her adult life, Wyomia taught as a Naturalist at Clear Creek Outdoor Educational School. As she reflected on her life and her passions post competing, she continues to have deep gratitude for her parents who instilled in her the importance of education. Ed Temple encouraged these same values, saying to each of his athletes: “track is something that will open a door. Education, it will keep the door open.” Taking her parents and Coach Temple’s words to heart, Wyomia worked hard all through college. Later, she was able to share this same message with the students she taught.
AN ATHLETE FOREVER
Wyomia is a trailblazer in Track and Field, and these days the sports channels and event hosts are making more of a point to celebrate her accomplishments, of which there are many. And yet, there is SO much more to Wyomia than these moments of athletic greatness. Her story is one that - among others - should and needs to be told. Our time with her doesn’t come close to being able to capture the full richness of Wyomia. The stories she shared with us were inspiring, honest and humble. They left us more informed about the past, called us to use our platform in the present to make a difference, and encouraged us to be hopeful for the future, not just for women in sport, but in life. We’ll leave you with the words that helped to shape her, kept her going, and that she’d like to share with us too: Stay in the fight. Stay true to yourself. Wise words lived and a gift to receive so we can instill them in ourselves, too.
We will forever treasure this time with Wyomia Tyus. She’s a champion on the track, yes, but even more so in the race of life and humanity.
Photo credit: Amber Fouts // @amberfouts