I have a long-standing love of fast women.
There, I said it.
But really, can you blame me? There is something elegant and graceful about a powerful human being running at full speed. When it’s a woman, it becomes something even more powerful because it is at once thrilling and empowering.
Exceptional track coaches like Vic Wallace at West Valley, Shane Toy at East Valley, Liz Wardsworth at University and Geoff Arte at Central Valley coax every bit of speed out of their sprinters every spring, and their results are admirable.
Wallace has a special affinity with sprinters and a well-deserved reputation for developing them. Spend an hour listening to him coach and cajole them into faster and faster speeds and you will be surprised at all the nuances that go into lower and lower times.
When you watch a polished sprinter up close, it’s something extra special. Sprinting has a strength, a grace and a rhythm all its own: the staccato rhythm of spikes gobbling up distance.
Track has been around since the ancient Greeks, but for most of that time it was considered unseemly for women. A women’s sports movement in Europe and North America in the 1920s led to the inclusion of five track and field events for women in the 1928 Olympic Games.
Men’s Olympic history dates back to ancient Greece. Women’s Olympic history dates back to the Coolidge administration.
But it has been only in my lifetime that women have had the chance to blossom in all sports – thanks to Title IX. I have been fortunate to grow up in an age of incredible role models.
When it comes to the sprints, there have been some amazing standard-bearers: Gail Devers and Evelyn Ashford. Florence Griffith-Joyner and Allyson Felix.
But before these women came along, there was already a role model in place to inspire them, and she took her place in the pantheon of the Olympic Games in 1960. And by the time she stepped onto the world stage she had already survived both polio and scarlet fever.
Wilma Rudolph became the fastest woman alive at the Olympic Games in Rome, winning three gold medals. She set spark to a flame that still burns in the world of Olympic sprints to this day.
The image lives forever in my memory – the powerful, 5-foot-11 Rudolph, her head thrown back as she powers across the finish line. It’s a sight you can share with a simple Google search. The timeless image of an African-American woman running free and strong and victorious is quintessentially American, set years before the Civil Rights Act or the March on Washington.
Rudolph was 20 years old and already a veteran of the Melbourne Games of 1956. In Rome, on a day when the temperature on the track topped 110 degrees, she ran the 100 meters in 11 seconds flat. The current world record time is just an eye-blink faster at 10.49.
She followed that up by winning the 200 meters in a world-record time of 23.2 seconds and helped the United States win the 4x100 relay.
Rudolph was born the 20th of 22 children. Her father was a railway porter and her mother a maid. Born premature and weighing in at 4.5 pounds, she suffered from infantile paralysis at age 4. She recovered and wore a brace until she was nine, leaving her leg twisted and in need of treatment.
Rudolph was an inspiration throughout her life.
Her wish was that both the homecoming banquet and celebratory parade held in her honor be open to everyone, and they became the first fully integrated municipal events in the history of her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee.
And while she was a regular commentator for televised track events for years, her day job was as an elementary school teacher and coach for the local high school track team.
So many great sprinters followed and continue to follow in footsteps she pioneered.
They may have been empowered by Title IX, but they were inspired by the example she set.
Whether it’s a middle school track meet, a Greater Spokane League dual or an all-comers meet on a summer night at the community college track – wherever young women push to run faster, jump higher or throw farther, it’s a testament to pioneers who made it possible.
Be it Anna Rogers, the all-GSL 100-meter sprinter from Lewis and Clark, or Katie Hawkins, the 200-meter all-GSL pick from CV, or Madeline Liberg, the all-Great Northern League 400-meter specialist from West Valley, their footfalls are echoes that originated on a sun-baked track in Rome made by a young woman from Clarksville.
It’s an open invitation for athletes to push themselves because Rudolph, among many others, refused to recognize limits placed on her and instead pushed the only boundaries that really matter: the boundaries of her own ability.
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