As a 16-year old high school sophomore, Willye White traveled to the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games, where she narrowly missed winning a gold medal in the long jump and instead took a silver medal home to central Mississippi.
“I often tell people that I didn’t win the gold medal of the Olympics — I won the gold medal of life,” White later said in an interview.
Indeed, Willye White lived a rich life, starting with her success in athletics – she became the first American woman to participate in five Olympic Games – and continuing with her education and career as a coach and nurse.
And it all started with her qualifying for the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games and realizing she had a way out of the Mississippi Delta, where as a youngster she chopped cotton for $2 a day.
“My grandfather wanted to teach me the value of work,” White said. “What he did teach me was that life offers many choices. He also pointed out that I could get pregnant and spend the rest of my life in the cotton field, or I could get an education and get out of the cotton field.
“This started me to dreaming, not only dreaming, but dreaming with a plan. I came to the realization that athletics were my freedom. Freedom from ignorance, freedom from segregation. My athletics were my flight to freedom.”
It was in Melbourne that White said she realized the world was different from what she knew in segregated Mississippi – and she liked it. White would enroll at Tennessee State University, which had a terrific track and field program at the time, before deciding to move to Chicago. She qualified in the long jump for the Rome 1960 Olympic Games – where Tennessee State star Wilma Rulolph won three gold medals – and placed 16th. At the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games, White won a silver medal in the 4×100-meter relay and finished 12th in the long jump. White also participated in the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games and Munich 1972 Olympic Games, finishing 11th in the long jump both times.
Back in the United States, White resumed her education, eventually graduating from Chicago State University. She was spunky and took care to look after others who needed it most.
“The Olympic Movement taught me not to judge a person by the color of their skin but by the contents of their hearts,” White said. “I am who I am because of my participation in sports.”
White died of pancreatic cancer in 2007. She was 67 years old.