Wyomia Tyus is among a special group of women athletes. They were and are the Tennessee State Tigerbelles. Under the leadership of longtime coach Ed Temple, these women were pioneering champions decades before there was any such legislation as Title IX. They excelled in an era when women’s sports in general got scant coverage, and the achievements of Black women athletes even less attention. A lot of HBCUs didn’t even have women’s teams, or for that matter sufficient track facilities period, when Ed Temple began building one of the greatest sports legacies in college sports history. Over a 44-year-period Temple led the Tigerbelles to 34 national titles. Tigerbelles won 23 Olympic medals, 13 of them gold.
Ed Temple would be head coach of the U.S. Olympic women’s team in 1960 and 1964, and assistant coach in 1980. He also was head women’s coach for a pair of lesser recognized but equally important international meets, the 1958 and 1959 dual competitions between the USA and USSR. He was also head women’s coach at the 1959 and 1975 Pan-American Games. Before passing in 2016 at the age of 89, Temple was inducted into nine Halls of Fame, and had a statue erected in his honor near the right field entrance to First Tennessee Park.
Ed Temple had numerous remarkable women in his program over that esteemed career, and one of the greatest was the sprinter Wyomia Tyus. In 1968 she became the person (male or female) to win goals medals in the 100-meters in two consecutive Olympic Games. It would be 20 years before anyone would equal that feat and 50 before it was surpassed. Now the new book “Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story” (Edge Sports) chronicles Tyus’ rise to glory, and offers an inside look at Ed Temple and his amazing ability to motivate and inspire.
Tyus grew up on a dairy farm in Griffin, Georgia with no expectations of doing much beyond spending her life working in the family business. But track became not only a way out, and but the means by which a highly introverted individual became able to express herself, and the route that eventually brought her world fame and stardom.Yet Tyus acknowledges that in the beginning she thought about quitting the Tigerbelles due to the hard regimen, the loneliness of being away from home, and Temple’s insistence on rigorous practices and maintaining a strict lifestyle.
Tyus describes the different waysTemple made ends meet, from ordering far more pairs of shoes from manufacturers than necessary to insure all his athletes had the right sizes, to organizing trips for competitions both near and far. Over the early years Temple had to scrounge around for meets, find a way to have practices and keep his athletes sharp without having anything remotely like today’s modern facilities. He would load his team into station wagons and go to events, often having to deal with the realities of the Jim Crow South.
It’s interesting that even as the Tigerbelles fame grows, Ed Temple never changes his approach, or coasts on his laurels. Tyus describes their early morning practices and film sessions in which Temple would break down each women’s form and continue to insist they could do better, even when they’ve won medals and acclaim. However that stern demeanor as a coach was contrasted with his concern and love for his athletes off the track, and his insistence they get their degrees, knowing there was nothing like a pro track circuit at that time.
Wyomia Tyus’ descriptions of the Tigerbelles’ team unity, the friendships that developed even in the midst of hard times, and their eventual championships, both individually and as a team, provide a look at a time and era in sports and women’s history that doesn’t get nearly the exposure as it deserves. It’s also a shame track and field in America is now largely overlooked except in Olympic years, when it’s a sport with a lot more opportunities for all types of athletes than basketball or football.
“Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story” is a book all fans of any sport, but particularly those who love track and field, will enjoy. But it also covers an equally important slice of history, both for HBCUs and women’s sports, that should never be forgotten nor undervalued.