By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN — After Margaret Matthews-Wilburn won the bronze medal in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, for the 4×100-meter relay, she was swept up in euphoria.
That glorious moment in Melbourne would turn to sadness decades later when Matthews-
Wilburn discovered her bronze medal missing after speaking to students and showing them her prized medal during a school assembly.
“I didn’t know for several weeks that it was missing,” she said.
The bronze medal had vanished. But Matthews-Wilburn’s stupendous achievement and coveted bronze medal would not be lost to the ages, thanks to her goddaughter, Dr. Rochelle Stevens, a two-time Olympic gold and silver medalist.
“I was devastated to hear what had happened. I was like, ‘You never told me,’” said Stevens, who learned that Matthews-Wilburn’s bronze medal was missing when the two Olympians were interviewed for a television show.
On Dec. 23, Stevens surprised the legendary track star with a replacement bronze medal that arrived in time for a surprised medal ceremony at Word of Life Healing Ministry, where the Rev. Beatrice Holloway is senior pastor.
Holloway is Stevens’ mother and her former Olympic coach.
“Thirty years is a long time to be without my medal. It is so precious to me now,” said Matthews-Wilburn, who sprinted to a third-place finish in the 4×100-meter relay with teammates Mae Faggs, Wilma Rudolph and Isabelle Daniels.
Stevens knew how important the bronze medal had been to Matthews-Wilburn, who was 21 when that special moment in Melbourne was indelibly etched in the history books.
That’s why Stevens contacted Cindy Stinger of the United States Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland. While the glory days in track and field are gone, the bronze medal had been a source of pride for Matthews-Wilburn, a member of the famed Tigerbelle Sports Club at Tennessee State University.
“She’d never requested another medal or reported it missing,” said Stevens, compelled to do something without tipping off Matthews-Wilburn. “She said, ‘If I could get a duplicate…it doesn’t have to be the real thing, I would be happy.’”
Stevens requested a replacement medal in January. “They told us that it would take six to 12 weeks,” she said.
After an 11-month investigation, IOC voted to replace the bronze medal. The United Parcel Services delivered the replacement medal in December.
“We got it back and I thank God for Rochelle. It took a lot of effort,” said Matthews-Wilburn, choosing to rave about Stevens’ exploits on and off the field rather than talk about her on.
“Rochelle is a special person,” she said.
While it seems Matthews-Wilburn is downplaying her achievements, Rudolph spoke highly of her teammate’s athletic prowess on the field in a 1988 Sports Illustrated story that Ralph Wiley wrote entitled “Born to be a Champion.”
Wiley captured the heart and soul of the formidable Wilburns, a family of athletes: Barry Wilburn, cornerback for the Washington Redskins’ 1988 Super Bowl team; Kelvin Wilburn, who played cornerback for one year at TSU; their father, Jesse Wilburn, a star running back for TSU; and, of course, Matthews-Wilburn, a sprinter and the first American woman to leap a record 20 feet in the broad jump in 1957.
Rudolph spoke highly about Matthews-Wilburn’s athleticism in Wiley’s story: “She could beat anybody on a given day, and she let you know the day might be today.”
A native of Griffin, Ga., Matthews-Wilburn was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 1998. She is a retired educator in Memphis.
After returning home from the ceremony, Matthews-Wilburn found herself at peace. “I slept with it [bronze medal] on my pillow,” she said.