800-meter Olympic champ Mims remains pioneer 50 years later
The moment felt surreal to Olympic 800-meter gold medalist Madeline Manning Mims as she stood on a track in North Carolina over the summer and performed a pitch-perfect rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Making it all the more so were those listening in the crowd: her close friends, John Carlos and Tommie Smith.
Fifty years ago, Mims proudly posed on the top step at the Mexico City Games, soaking in a national anthem played in her honor. She was the first black woman — and still the only American woman — to claim the Olympic 800 title. It was three days after Carlos and Smith struck one of the most iconic poses in Olympic history: raised black-gloved fists on the medals stand during the national anthem on Oct. 16, 1968, to protest America's social injustices.
Mims didn't raise a fist on the podium, she just waved her right hand to a cheering audience. Still, the longtime sports chaplain has been fighting for people in her own way ever since coming home from those history-making games in Mexico City.
"It's interesting to be at this stage of my life, where I have the opportunity now to look back and realize why I am where I am," said Mims, who was known as Manning back then. "I'm at an age where I see everything fitting together, like a puzzle and I see the picture now and I realize the purpose with which I was born."
To help others.
The 70-year-old Mims has been at every Summer Olympics — except for the boycotted Moscow Games — since '68. That includes three Olympics as an athlete — she was also part of the 4x400 relay team that captured silver in '72 — one behind the scenes as a motivational speaker ('84) and the rest as a sports chaplain, lending a spiritual ear for any athlete in need of it.
She's helped athletes use their platforms to empower people in the community for decades, and founded the United States Council for Sports Chaplaincy (USCSC ) in 2003.
"I saw a platform to play a role in other athletes' lives," she said. "Just be here with the message they need in their life."
A gospel singer as well, Mims performed at the USATF Hershey national junior Olympic track championships in July. Afterward, she had dinner with Carlos and Smith, along with other members of the '68 Olympic team.
The stories flowed.
Mims' Olympic victory should've been huge news. It was and it wasn't. The protest by Carlos and Smith eclipsed plenty of story lines.
"I never thought I was overshadowed. It was part of my experience," said Mims, who will attend USA Track and Field's "Night of Legends " event on Dec. 1 in Columbus, Ohio, that will recognize the '68 squad. "One of the things I was able to accomplish was I helped open a door for women of color to run long distance. That's why I never felt overshadowed or neglected."
To even get to that stage was a medical marvel.
At 3 years old, she was diagnosed with spinal meningitis and not expected to live. She recovered, but was constantly sick until she was a teenager. The pattern was the same: Throw up, doctor would give her a shot and bed rest.
Sick of always being sick, she stopped reporting her illness to anyone.
"I didn't realize I was becoming an overcomer, forcing myself to work through the sickness, to get stronger," Mims said. "I became a champion not by being better than someone, but persevering through the hard times, through the sickly times."
Her affinity for track was discovered thanks to President John F. Kennedy and the physical fitness program he helped set in motion. Testing things such as endurance and strength, Mims scored through the roof. Not only for her high school in Cleveland, but for the nation. She became a standout in basketball, volleyball and track, with running capturing her heart.
Next step, Tennessee State where she rose to prominence. As a 20-year-old, she earned a spot on the U.S. team for Mexico City. Before her race, she remembers Smith talking to a group about the possibility of a social protest.
He reiterated over and over: No pressure to follow along.
"His message drew us closer together, drew us in like a family. That's why we're so close today," said Mims, who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "Tommie didn't want the pressure of any type of demonstration and boycotting to be on the hearts of those who worked so hard to get there."
On Oct. 19, 1968, Mims beat Ileana Silai of Romania in what was an Olympic record time. Mims' memory of the podium ceremony? Disbelief.
When she went back to the athletes' dorms, with the gold medal around her neck, she happened by a television that was replaying some of the Olympic events. She watched a women's race and started cheering for the person out front, because she was American and because she was black.
Suddenly, it sank in — that was her on the screen.
"I watched that as if I'm somebody else. Because it didn't hit me that it was me," Mims said. "I was just so excited for her."