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Willye White, 67; track and field silver medalist in '56, '64 Olympics

February 08, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Willye White, a two-time Olympic medalist in track and field and the first woman to compete for the United States in five Olympics, has died. She was 67.

White died Tuesday of pancreatic cancer at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, according to Sarah Armantrout, a longtime friend.

White competed in five consecutive Olympic Games between 1956 and 1972. She was a 16-year-old high school sophomore when she won a silver medal in the long jump at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia.

It marked the first time an American woman had won a medal in that event.

She won her second silver medal in 1964 as a member of the 4x100-meter relay team in Tokyo.

She was a member of more than 30 international track and field teams and won a dozen Amateur Athletic Union long jump titles in her career, according to USA Track & Field, which inducted her into its Hall of Fame in 1981. White was inducted into 11 sport halls of fame and in 1999, Sports Illustrated for Women named her one of the 100 greatest women athletes in the 20th century.

Born on Dec. 31, 1939, in Money, Miss., and raised by her grandparents in Greenwood, Miss., she picked cotton to help her family while competing in sports.

In high school, she spent summers training with famed track and field coach Ed Temple at Tennessee State University.

"She grew up before the civil rights movement and overcame all the hurdles she had as an African American woman," said Donna DeVarona, an Olympic gold medalist swimmer who was friends with White since they met in 1960 in Rome.

White, a longtime Chicago-area resident who moved back to Mississippi last year, credited her experience as an athlete with allowing her to see beyond the racism and hatred that surrounded her as a child.

"Before my first Olympics, I thought the whole world consisted of cross burnings and lynchings," she told Sports Illustrated for Women.

"The Olympic movement taught me not to judge a person by the color of their skin but by the contents of their hearts," she said. "I am who I am because of my participation in sports."

After her athletic career ended, she became a nurse and earned a degree in public health administration from Chicago State University. She coached, lectured and served as president of the Midwest chapter of the U.S. Olympians for 12 years. She also helped raise money for the underprivileged, launching the Willye White Foundation in Chicago to help children.

White was divorced and had no children.

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