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Fitness | KATHY SMITH

Women Who Proved the Power of Passion

November 09, 1998|KATHY SMITH

Born in 1940 Mississippi, Willye White grew up in a time and a place that were less than hospitable to the dreams of black children. Though they hoped and prayed for the kinds of opportunities open to white kids across the tracks, segregation and prejudice kept them in a world that was disgustingly similar to the one their slave ancestors had faced every day.

Somehow, Willye discovered that she loved to run. That love, and her strong legs, carried her out of the cotton fields and onto the 1956 American Olympic team. After winning a silver medal in the long jump, she competed in the next four Olympic Games as well, making her the only American woman to appear in five Olympiads.

For anyone, Willye's accomplishments would be incredible. But when viewed in the context of her less-than-humble beginnings, they are downright miraculous. Which is why, at a banquet last month, the Women's Sports Foundation presented her with its Wilma Rudolph Courage Award. It was a fitting tribute, both to Willye and to Wilma.

Wilma, who died too soon in 1994, was also from the Jim Crow South. And as if that handicap weren't enough for a black girl, she also had to overcome an early childhood bout of scarlet fever and pneumonia that left her, at 4, with a paralyzed leg. But by 10, Wilma's indomitable spirit proved stronger than physiology. And her desire to run faster than the wind changed women's track forever. As a member of the 4x100-meter relay team, Wilma won a bronze medal at the 1956 Olympics, then captured three golds at the 1960 Games in Rome, earning herself a temporary place in the history books--and a permanent one in our hearts and minds.

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Tears filling my eyes, I listened as Willye accepted her award in an overly modest speech that recounted the greatness of Wilma's character. (Example: refusing to take part in separate black and white welcome-home celebrations back in Tennessee after the Rome Games, she eventually prevailed and united the town, if only for an instant, with a single ceremony.) I cried because it was absolutely clear to me how the passion that these two women felt for running had transformed them, both athletically and personally. Their lives, which could easily have been marked by despair, were made productive and inspiring by passion.

Passion. While we tend to use it as a synonym for powerful emotions like anger, I prefer to think of passion as describing boundless enthusiasm. In that sense, passion is the one variable capable of turning an ordinary life into real living.

A few years ago I watched the PBS series in which Bill Moyers conducted several lengthy interviews with the great mythologist Joseph Campbell, who urged us to follow our "bliss." His words really resonated with me, because I interpret bliss to mean passion. My sense of things is that having a passion is a recipe for happiness and success, if not also long life.

I say that having once read a fascinating report on longevity in which a researcher who had studied 100 people in their 90s or older said he could find only two traits common to all of his subjects. The first: They'd eaten a consistent diet their whole lives and had never experienced either extreme weight losses or gains. The second: All of the old people were extremely interested in something outside of themselves--religion, a hobby, volunteering, etc. Each of them, in other words, displayed a passion for something.

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That study is completely consistent with my own experience. It was out of my lifelong passion for physical activity and exercise that I constructed my career. I didn't plan it, per se; I just followed my bliss, beginning in the early 1980s, when I put together everything I'd ever learned about exercise, fitness and health into teaching a small aerobics class in the San Fernando Valley. Though the pay was next to nothing, I felt lucky, rich and successful. How could I not? Every day at least one woman would approach me after class and confide that she hadn't enjoyed her body like this for so long. Exercising was kindling her own passions.

Now, all these years later, I still revel in my passion for exercise. And I've learned that being connected passionately to one area usually leads to other areas of passion, including passion for life itself.

Whether or not our goal is to live past 90, we owe it to ourselves to make the most of the time we're allotted here. Using their passions as a springboard, that's what Wilma Rudolph and Willye White did, and in the process they made history.

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Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith

Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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