At 14, U.S. Olympian Barbara Jones Slater almost quit track and field.
However, it wasn’t because of an injury or a lack of interest. It was because she was worried her friends wouldn’t support her.
“My friends started to say that they didn’t want to be my friends anymore because I was winning,” Slater said. “They thought I was thinking I was better than they were, but I wasn’t. I told them that I’m was not trying to be better than you. I was trying to do my best.”
Growing up in Chicago, Slater knew she couldn’t quit that easily. Her parents wouldn’t allow it. So, she tried to make excuses to avoid practicing. Those excuses included a random “fake” injuries, such as saying that her leg hurt.
It almost worked, but not until she got a visit from Olympic legend Jesse Owens.
Owens traveled to Madden Park in Chicago on a special request. The request came from Slater’s coach Alice Holmes.
When Owens arrived, he wasn’t alone. He brought with him a gift that forever changed Slater’s life.
“He told me all about the Olympics and what happened to him in 1936,” she said. “He also gave me a medallion that he wanted me to keep. With it he said to always remember ‘you have to dare to always be different in order to inspire.’”
Those words prompted Slater to enter the Olympic trials in Philadelphia. There, she finished third in the 100-meter dash. This earned her a spot on the 1952 U.S. Olympic team as a 4x100-meter relay member.
In Helsinki, Finland, she went on to win the gold medal as a part of the team. The victory also sent her into the record books as the youngest Olympic gold medalist at 15 years and 123 days old.
“We went out and broke the world record,” Slater said. “I am still in the Guinness book of records as the youngest Olympian to win a gold medal.”
The victory was a career-defining moment, and all she could do was thank Owens for his support.
“When I came back, I showed him my gold medal,” Slater said. “He said (her gold medal made his medallion) look little. I told him that it was your medallion that helped me get this one. So I keep (Owens’) medallion to show it and remind me of what it (track) is all about.”
Years later, Slater went on to become the “fastest woman in the world” after winning the 1958 women’s international track meet. In 1960, she won gold again with the 4x100-meter team. This was also when she was attending Tennessee State University as a famous “Tiger Belle.”
It was here that she met one of her great inspirations, track coach Edward Temple.
“My mom called Temple and told him I was available,” she said. “Mr. Temple told my mom to put me on the train tomorrow and that’s how I got to Tennessee State in 1957.”
Slater enrolled at Tennessee State after her scholarship was taken away at Marquette. It wasn’t because of her grades, but because the archbishop gave it away to swimming and gymnastics team, she said.
For Slater, she feels it happened out of racial prejudice because of most African-American athletes being on the track team or on the boxing team.
“It still exists, the prejudice,” Slater said. “The scholarships went to swimming and gymnastics. Therefore, I was out of a scholarship.”
It just so happened to work in her favor. Under Temple, he guided her and numerous others to the Olympics. He also established a streak of having Olympic winners from 1948-84.
His influence on education also stood out to Slater. He made sure that each women’s athlete graduated and worked in the community. That is one reason why Slater has focused so much on academics.
Slater has mentored children for the past 35 years. She is teacher with two degrees — a bachelors in health and physical education (Tennessee State) and a masters in physical education from Georgia State.
Yet, one of her bigger works has come as a contributor to the Jackie Robinson Foundation in Chicago. She feels that it is important to give back to his cause because Robinson believed in her from an early age.
“We worked with him through his program to help athletes that were not involved in any times of activities.”
The program’s mission was to help kids get active and grow through sports. The program has been a success for Slater and she has been awarded for her work.
In 2007, she won the Presidential Medal Award in Fitness and recently, she was awarded by President Obama with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Health, Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. She also has been inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
Now as a renowned Olympic legend, Slater lives in Stone Mountain. She also speaks with kids to pass down her knowledge and experiences that didn’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I just spoke with the DeKalb Academy fifth graders going to the sixth grade,” she said. “My theme to them was to never let a challenge allow you to quit. I let them know that I wouldn’t have this opportunity if I had quit. It is so important to me that kids know who they are and listen to the people that love you.”
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