AT THE tumultuous 1968 Mexico City Games, Wyomia Tyus did something no other Olympian, man or woman, had done before. She won the gold medal in the 100-meter sprint for a second consecutive time, pairing it with the gold she'd won at the '64 Games in Tokyo. The feat, which has been matched only twice since, by Carl Lewis and Gail Devers, made history, but like much else at those '68 Games it was overshadowed by the famous medal-stand protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
Not that Tyus minded. When Smith and Carlos were suspended from the team and sent back to the U.S., Tyus dedicated her second gold from the '68 Games, which she won in the 4√ó100 relay, to the pair. She says that before the Games, there had been much discussion among members of the track team as to how to address civil rights issues that were boiling over in that heated summer; finally it was decided that each member would act according to his or her conscience. "You're doing it for yourself," she says now of her gesture. "You're doing it because this is what you believed in."
Tyus grew up on a dairy farm in Griffin, Ga. A standout high school runner, she was discovered at the age of 15 by Tennessee State coach Ed Temple, who eventually invited her to join his famed Tigerbelles track team. She was one of 40 Temple-coached runners to become an Olympian; her career haul of four medals included the three golds, plus a silver from the 4√ó100 in Tokyo.
But Temple stressed to her that she was in school to get an education. "When I was competing, all I heard was, 'You need to get out and get a job,'" says Tyus. "'You can't just run all your life. You need to do something.'"
July 13, 2008
So she pursued her degree in recreation even as she dominated U.S. sprinting, eventually winning seven senior AAU titles. Tyus got her degree in '68 and after the Olympics moved to California. She raced for two years in the Professional International Track Association (winning 30 of the 40 races she entered), worked as a television commentator for ABC at the '72 Munich Games and coached track at Beverly Hills (Calif.) High. She also helped start the Women's Sports Foundation, with Billie Jean King, Donna de Varona and others.
Eventually, Tyus found a profession that united her passion for learning with the love of open space she'd developed as a kid. In 1994 she began working as a naturalist for the Los Angeles Unified School District. She and other staffers host elementary school students from throughout L.A. for weeklong visits to the Clear Creek Outdoor Education Center in the San Gabriel Mountains. The kids hike through the rugged landscape, learning about geology and the flora and fauna of the region. "I enjoy being outdoors and seeing the changes with young people coming to camp," Tyus says. "They want to know this, try that. It's so warming to me, and it makes my job so much easier."