Growing up in rural Georgia in the ’50s, Wyomia Tyus learned early that the rules were rigged against her. “The closest school to my house was within walking distance, but it was whites-only. So each day, I had to ride an hour on a bus to get to school. My father always used to tell us, ‘You will have to work twice as hard to get what you want.’ ” Years later, as a student at Tennessee State under celebrated coach Ed Temple (who also trained Wilma Rudolph and teammate Edith McGuire), she was again a second-class citizen, working to pay her tuition while male athletes got full scholarships.
But on the track, Tyus was peerless. A shy 19-year-old when she arrived in Tokyo in 1964, she was overshadowed by McGuire, the favorite, until Tyus roared by her at the finish in the 100 meters. Four years later in Mexico City, Tyus was even more determined because “I was 23, and people thought I was washed up.” People were wrong. She set a personal best of 11.00 sec. and took the 100 meters to become the first person to win consecutive gold medals in the event (a feat Carl Lewis would duplicate two decades later). After Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Village for their raised-fist salutes, Tyus told reporters she was dedicating her last gold medal, in the 4×100-meter relay, to her two teammates.
Three golds and a silver didn’t make Tyus rich in an era when endorsement deals were rare, particularly for women. She worked in community liaison for a Los Angeles councilman and as a career development coordinator for the Job Corps. Today, at 50, she is a naturalist at an outdoor education camp run by the Los Angeles Unified School District, about 40 minutes from her home. “I get to hike every day,” she says, “and leave the smog behind.” Married for a second time, to Duane Tillman, 55, a hospital official, she has two children, Simone, 24, a special-ed teacher, and Tyus, 17, a starter on his high school basketball team. She imbues them both with the legacy of Smith and Carlos. “What I did,” says Wyomia, “was win a track event. What they did lasted a lifetime, and life is bigger than sport.”