We watch their feats with amazement and marvel at their skills. From the comfort of our living rooms, we cheer them on, rejoicing in their victories and agonizing in their defeats. They make it look easy—sprinting for the finish line, floating through air, waving in triumph. What we don’t see are the hours and hours of hard work and giving it their all that goes into the making of a famous athlete.

I’m looking forward to 2016, not because it is an election year, but because it is an Olympic year. The Olympics offer so many teachable moments. These moments can appear in more apparent lessons like geography, history and current events as well as less obvious lessons in math concepts and physiology. However, some of the most important lessons that come out of the Olympics are the lessons in the resilience of the human spirt. Most Olympic athletes are inspiring in their own right, but I know of three famous African Americans who are especially inspiring because of the racial hurdles they had to overcome just to compete. During Black History Month in an Olympic year, what better time to shine the spotlight on these legendary African-American athletes who have not only competed, but also excelled despite the prejudices they faced. These athletes have broken racial barriers, left their mark on their respective sports and done so with grace and style. They have provided a living example of those abstract character traits we try to instill in our students every day: courage, determination, perseverance, and one of the most difficult concepts of all, forgiveness.

“I forgot that I wasn’t the kind of guy who could ever go halfway at anything.” ~Jesse Owens

I first ran across Jesse Owens’ story in my sophomore literature anthology. In the 80s the focus was on teaching the “classics” of literature and after completing such a unit, I had a few days to fill in until I started my next one. I found the story of Jesse Owens. I love history, sports and the proverbial underdog, so Jesse Owens’ story had me hooked. Having run track and broad jumped in my younger days, I could imagine the scene that was so vividly painted in the excerpt from his book Blackthink: My Life as Black Man and White Man. I could feel his indignation as Hitler walked out of the stadium in Berlin before Jesse’s first broad jump and his panic after his first two jumps did not qualify him for the finals. I rejoiced in his triumph as he did eventually qualify, going on to win four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics. I could imagine the German crowd chanted his name, “Jaz-eee-ooh-wenz” (Owens 352-58). The road to this triumphant moment was not an easy one, nor the road that followed. His story of hard work, unlikely friendships and eventual forgiveness can be found for younger readers in Jesse Owens: Running into History in the Time for Kids Biographies (Grades 2-4, Level Y, Lexile 830); A Picture Book of Jesse Owens in the Picture Book Biographies (Grades 1-3, Level P, Lexile AD930) and Jesse Owens On My Own Biographies (Grades 2-4, Level P, Lexile 490).

Jesse Owens Running Into History A Picture Book of Jesse Owens Jesse Owens On My Own Biographies


Then there is that other ground-breaking African American track athlete—Wilma Rudolph. I learned more about Wilma, or Skeeter as she was nicknamed, one day when I happened off the interstate into the town that claims her as their own—Clarksville, TN. Can you imagine being the 20th of 22 children?! As if that alone was not difficult enough, Wilma contracted polio when she was 4 and was told by her doctors that she would never walk again. However, Wilma and her family were determined this diagnosis would not become a reality, and with the aid of braces, Wilma learned to walk and eventually to run, later becoming a basketball and track star. She won her first Olympic medal when she was only 16 in 1956, but Wilma really shined at the 1960 Olympics in Rome where she became the first American woman to win three gold medals, shattering records in the process.

A new film about Jesse Owens is coming out this month. A great opportunity to learn more about this amazing man!

When she returned to Clarksville, she was to be honored in a welcome home parade, but when she learned it was segregated, Wilma refused to participate. City officials reconsidered. The parade became the first integrated event in Clarksville history. In 1952, Wilma walked away from fame to finish her college degree and become a coach and teacher. While Wilma accomplished much, her life was not a long one. She died of brain cancer at only 54 years old. (Wilma Rudolph, Bio.com). Once again, an athlete overcame the hardships of poverty, disease and discrimination to become a living legend. Her inspiring story of persistence and determination is available for younger readers in Wilma Rudolph: Against All Odds in the American Biograhy series (Grades K-5, Level L, Lexile 560) and Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Women (Grades 1-4, Level Q, Lexile AD730).

Wilma Rudolph Against All Odds Wilma Unlimited


Perhaps best known as a three time heavyweight boxing champ, another famous African American, Muhammad Ali, would also win a gold medal in 1960. Legend has it that Ali, whose name then was Cassius Clay, took up the sport of boxing after his bike was stolen when he was only 12. Growing up, I didn’t know much about boxing, but even I knew of some of Ali’s famous fights with opponents such as George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and Leon Spinks. Everyone could recite Ali’s boastful chant: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. I’m the greatest, Muhammad Ali.” What I was unaware of at the time was Ali’s stand against the Vietnam War, a stand that would strip him of his title and three years of his career, a stand that would make him unpopular with many, but one he took just the same.

Years later I was reintroduced to Ali as he carried the Olympic torch when the games were held in Atlanta in 1996. Parkinson’s disease had ravaged Ali’s body and silenced his once quick tongue, but nevertheless, he proudly carried that torch. In 1999, Sports Illustrated named Ali the Sportsman of the Century and in 2005 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Ali could have quietly hidden the debilitating effects of his Parkinson’s disease from the world. Instead he showed remarkable courage and humility by allowing the world to see him, not as he once was, a strong and boastful fighter, but instead a man whose body had been changed, but whose spirit remained as strong and proud as ever (Muhammad Ali, Bio.com). Ali’s story is told in Who is Muhammad Ali? from the popular Who Is Biographies series (Grades 3-6, Level R) or in The Greatest: Muhammad Ali by esteemed author Walter Dean Myers (Grades 5-10, Level Z, Lexile 1030).

Who Is Muhammad Ali The Greatest Muhammad Ali


These heroes aren’t fiction, but three real-life people who grew up to become Olympic legends despite serious challenges. Their stories share the common elements of courage, persistence and determination and have the power to inspire all who read about their remarkable lives. Use these stories and others to create a Black History Month unit that explores the resilience of other Black American athletes, or wait until the Olympic Games begin to read these and other stories of struggle and triumph. Have students choose an Olympic athlete to research and prepare an article to share. Whether they are in to sports or not, all students can connect with the human experience and find inspiration from the stories of these real life Olympic heroes.

Owens, Jesse and Neimark, Paul. BLACKTHINK: My Life as Black Man and White Man. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1970 as taken from Question and Form in Literature. Scott Foresman and Company, Glenview, IL 1982. pp. 352-358

“Wilma Rudolph Biography.” Bio.com. 2 Feb. 2016. http://www.biography.com/people/wilma-rudolph-9466552.

“Muhammad Ali Biography.” Bio.com. 2 Feb. 2016. http://www.biography.com/people/muhammad-ali-9181165#related-video-gallery.

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