Lucinda Williams Adams, a long-time Dayton educator, grew up bearing the weight of segregation but was able to find her stride and become an Olympic gold medalist.
Adams, born in 1937, was raised in a small town outside of Savannah, Ga. A tomboy at heart with a desire to compete against her two older brothers, she developed a talent for speed and caught the eye of Joe Turner, a junior high school boys track coach.
“I just wanted to run with the boys,” said Adams, 81, from her home in Florida.
Turner recognized that desire and molded her into a competitive high school runner. She was later spotted by Ed Temple, the track coach at Tennessee State University, who invited her to Nashville for a high school track program. During her senior year of high school,she was awarded a scholarship to attend TSU.
Adams boarded a Greyhound bus with a bit of money tied in a handkerchief and a boxed lunch packed by her mother and headed off to college to become part of the Tennessee State women’s track and field team, the Tigerbelles.
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“It was not easy,” said Adams. “I was homesick and it was so hard, but I knew that everybody was counting on me. I couldn’t quit, I knew I had to make some hard choices. I couldn’t let those people down. I couldn’t let my family down because I was the first person in my family to go to college.”
As a college freshman, Adams’ small-town life took on an international flair. She and five Tigerbelle teammates earned spots on the 1956 United States Olympic team and competed in Melbourne, Australia.
But back home, they were challenged by racial segregation. While traveling to track competitions, she and her teammates were forced to use the bathroom in bushes along the road and to sleep in their car.
“I was always taught as a youngster that there were certain things you could do and certain things you could not do; certain places you could go and certain places you could not go,” she said. “We knew that and my Mom always said, ‘do not worry about those things because one day you will be able to help make a change.’”
Segregation, she said, motivated her, and in 1958 she won two gold medals competing in the first U.S. vs. USSR Track and Field Meet in Moscow. At the Pan American Games held in Chicago she won three gold medals and set the American record for the women’s 220-yard dash.
In 1960 Adams and the Tigerbelles headed to Rome for the XVII Olympiad. There she sprinted around the track on the third leg of the 400-meter relay and passed the baton to anchor Wilma Rudolph, but not without a bit of drama.
“The hand-off was not as smooth as it should have been,” she said. “Wilma did not judge my speed. I knew that was my last chance to get a medal so I was coming in with everything I possibly could. I ran up her back and we had a bobble in that exchange.
“I also knew that once she got that baton no matter who was ahead of her she was going to catch them. It was frightening but we had confidence enough that we knew we were going to do it.”
Adams was right, and she and her teammates won a gold medal.
Adams moved to Dayton with her husband, Floyd Adams, who worked at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. She spent 36 years with the Dayton Public Schools systems, teaching at Meadowdale and Roosevelt high schools and then, as an administrator, she was charged with girls’ health and physical education.
Today when Adams encounters young people she shares the advice that helped her win a gold medal:
“I tell them to dream big,” she said. “Dream, even though you might not think they will turn into reality. If you work hard, believe in yourself, and respect yourself and others and you have God given abilities you can make it. You can be successful but you’ve always got to be humble and you’ve got to be able to work hard.”