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Rekindling Wilma’s legacy: Tennessee State University struggles to revive Olympic tradition – athlete Wilma Rudolph

It was only fitting that the route for the Atlanta-bound Olympic torch ran right through the heart of the historically Black Tennessee State University (TSU) campus in Nashville. After all, the school has a storied tradition in women’s track and field.


In four decades, 40 TSU athletes have competed in the Olympic Games, winning 29 medals — 16 gold, eight silver and five bronze. During its heyday, Coach Ed Temple fashioned the Tigerbelles into an unprecedented assembly line of national champions, Olympic champions and world record-setters. Wilma Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus, Edith McGuire Duvall, Madeline Manning Mims and Mae Faggs Starr, all former Tigerbelles, are legends of the sport.


But that was then. The Tigerbelles haven’t had an Olympian since Chandra Cheeseborough won two gold medals in both sprint relays and a silver medal in the 400-yard race at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Now there’s a move afoot to recapture those days of past glory.


The first part of this restoration started two years ago when Temple retired and TSU hired Cheeseborough as the Tigerbelles’ coach. Cheeseborough, who was coached by Temple in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is keenly aware of the school’s legacy and everything it represents.


“We’re trying to rebuild this program,” Cheeseborough asserts. “We want to get back to where we were. We’ve been dormant for a while, but TSU can make a comeback.”


However, there are no quick-fix solutions to reviving women’s track at TSU. In today’s college sports universe, predominantly white schools are actively pursuing — and signing — the vast majority of elite-level Black athletes. That’s the prime reason UCLA, Arkansas, Louisiana State and Texas have emerged as perennial collegiate track powers.


Cheeseborough knows it will take time for TSU to acquire a sufficient number of top-grade performers capable of successfully competing at the national and world-class levels. That is why the head Tigerbelle is taking the gradual approach in helping to initiate the turnaround.



“We need quality athletes who can handle the academics,” she says. “Then we have to start winning our conference (Ohio Valley). From there, we concentrate on getting folks to qualify for the nationals. And when we start placing at the nationals, that gives us a much better chance to get the top athletes.” Once all those things fall into place says Cheeseborough, TSU will be on equal footing with its mainstream counterparts in attracting Olympic-caliber athletes.


Temple, who guided the Tigerbelles to 34 national championships during his 44-year career, is cheering Cheeseborough’s efforts. He’s not sure, however, if the program can return to the lofty heights of years past. “I don’t know if they’ll ever get back to that level,” Temple acknowledges. “Everybody has their time and we certainly had ours. The success of those past teams opened the doors (for Black athletes). And once the doors opened, it was like a floodgate and it spread out the talent.”


Towards the latter part of Temple’s career, women’s track at TSU started its slide. “It got to the point where the program was taken for granted,” explained the retired coach. “The program was up for a while, then it started going down. People didn’t understand that you have to put something in to get something out.” Dr. James Hefner, Tennessee State president, understands that principle and has committed the university to supporting the Tigerbelles.


“We have an Olympic tradition,” says Hefner. “I’ve made it clear to everybody that we must return to our tradition. That’s the reason why the Olympic torch came through our campus. it’s my belief that under Cheeseborough, we can do that,” For starters, the state of Tennessee appropriated $112 million to TSU for the construction of new buildings on the school’s main campus and downtown campus.


Five of the eight buildings to be finished by 1998 are already completed. The new dormitories have suite-style rooms, cafeterias, honors floors, cable TV and computer labs. The Wilma Rudolph Residence Center, which sits on a hill overlooking Nashville, has all the comforts of the other residence halls plus a beauty salon.


The Student Center offers many of the conveniences of a shopping mall. A local bank and the Nashville Sports Council (the same group that was responsible for bringing the NFL’s Houston Oilers to Nashville) will help finance the renovation of the track facility, named after Temple. “That’s important,” says Hefner, “because track athletes visiting the school must see a track that reflects Ed Temple, a track that reflects Olympic tradition.”


With a high-profile coach and significantly upgraded campus and track facilities, Hefner is confident that the university can successfully compete for the elite athlete.


“It’s a different era now,” says the TSU president. “Young people have different options, so you have to appeal to them at different levels. We have the coach, the metamorphosis of the campus, and later on, a renovated track. Those things make an impression and it makes it easier for us to go into detail about our academic programs. But Hefner tempers his confidence with patience.


“All this is not going to happen overnight,” he concedes. “It’s going to be a process of evolution. Over time, we will get back to where we need to be in track. We’re like a caterpillar getting ready to change into a butterfly.


COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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