The Olympic Games is truly one of the world’s greatest competitions and biggest spectacle. Athletes from around the world are brought together under one roof to compete for the title of the best in the world. We remember these athletes’ years later for their incredible performances and for usually claiming the title as the best athlete in the world. Rarely do we get to hear stories from athletes, who despite not claiming the gold, silver or bronze medal, still deserve a platform of their own. Mamie Rallins is one of those athletes that deserve that platform.
This remarkable woman participated in her first Olympics at the age of 27, received a full scholarship at the age of 30 to Tennessee State University, and then made her second Olympic team at the age of 31.
In a recent telephone conversation earlier this month JC68 got a chance to ask her some questions regarding her track and coaching career, the 1968 Olympics, and the remarkable quilt she made for Dr. Carlos.
What inspired you to start running track?
I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. At an early age I had an interest in running. I was a “gym rat” lets say. Since there was no track program in the school system during the 60s, at the age of 15, I joined the Mayor Daley Youth Foundation Club. I was only 4’11 when I started running…a small little thing. I was actually starving to death back then. The coach used to take me home to feed me.
Note: Residing with six brothers and her father, Mamie suffered from malnutrition as a teenager. Her mother had passed away when she was 13 so it was extremely hard growing up in a household of six siblings.
Eventually I grew to 5”6 and began running the 80m hurdles. The hurdles were 3 inches lower back then and instead of running 100m we only ran 80m. (Note: In 1972 at the Olympics, the 80m hurdles was replaced with the 100m hurdles) Initially, I wanted to run the 400m distance, but eventually I settled on the hurdles after making a bet with my coach at the time.
What was your most memorable Olympic moment?
The 1968 Olympics but not for what most people would probably think. I was 27 years old at the time which is completely out of the average age range for an athlete attending their first Olympics at that time.
The 1968 Olympics will obviously be remembered mainly for the Black Power Salute that took place on the podium, can you describe the atmosphere and remember exactly where you were at that time?
The atmosphere was crazy as expected for such a huge sporting event. I was in the stands with a majority of the team. I personally didn’t know what was going to happen. The men didn’t inform the women of anything really and since the men were separated from the women in the Olympic village, we heard nothing. Women were never involved or consulted about the boycott or anything like that. Honestly, I was glad, though because I wasn’t going to boycott… this was my time, especially being 27 and at my first Olympics.
You participated in two Olympics throughout your career, how hard is it as an athlete to maintain in top shape and commit to that 4 year goal every year?
Once I got in shape, I stayed in shape. There was a lot of meets throughout the months and years in between. Training with Willie Davenport and Ralph Boston in the off-season also helped. I kept running and training because I truly loved it and loved the sport. There was no money, endorsements or anything like that. We were strictly amateurs running for the love of the sport.
Being a former track athlete myself, there is a specific moment and race that I will never forget. What is that moment for you?
The semi-finals race at the 1968 Olympics. The speaker in my lane did not work so when the gun went off, I was still in the set position. I caught everyone but missed the qualifying time by 1000 inches. Ironically enough, at that very moment the crowd was probably cheering not for my almost incredible comeback but because Mr. Beamon” had just jumped out of the pit. (Note: Mr. Beamon is Robert “Bob” Beamon, who at the 1968 Olympics broke the World Record in the long jump)
Other than track is there any other sports that you participated in or wished you had taken part in? There was an article in the Freelance Star dated May 10, 1972 that said you are a “football buff” who’s your favorite team?
“I love football” Even as we speak the Chicago Bears are preparing to play the Green Bay Packers. When I was in college I always dreamed of being a head coach or head manager for a football team. Note: The Chicago Bears went on to defeat the Green Bay Packer 27-20.
If you were supposed to summarize your track and coaching career in one sentence, how would you do it?
Great and outstanding! Coming from Chi-town and accomplishing what I did is truly a magnificent feat. I didn’t know anything about the Olympics back then. I got to travel around the world for “free”. That was good enough for me.
You also had a successful coaching career after you retired from running track. Tell me about your coaching career and some of the athletes you coached and helped reach success.
I coached at “The” Ohio State University for 18 years. I would say the most notable athlete I coached and helped reach success would be Stephanie Hightower. Stephanie came from Louisville H.S. to Ohio State and broke every record I pretty much had. Note: Hightower was a collegiate track star at The Ohio State University. From 1977 to 1980, she did not lose a race in the 60 meter dash, 60 meter hurdles or the 100 meter hurdles.
Rallins served as Head Women’s Track & Field/Cross Country Coach for 18 years (1976-94) at Ohio State University. During that time she coached 60 Big Ten indoor/outdoor champions, 24 All Americans, nine Olympic trial qualifiers and one Olympian. She also served as assistant athletic director for three years.
You were also the first black female to coach at Ohio State University, tell me about that monumental event?
First off there weren’t that many black students back than so it was different. What many people don’t know is that I was also the first black head coach under the AIAW. I was also the Assistant Athletic Director during the AIAW era.
Note: The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was founded in 1971 to govern collegiate women’s athletics in the United States and to administer national championships. It evolved out of the Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (founded in 1967). The association was one of the biggest advancements for women’s athletics on the collegiate level.
What inspired you to create that wonderful Olympic quilt? How long did it take you to do?
Initially I had created a quilt for “Coach Temple” about 10 years ago. That quilt now hangs at Tenn. U. and features 29 former Olympians that went to Tenn. State. I also created a quilt for Ralph Boston. It was during a visit at Ralph Boston’s house that John saw it and fell in love with it. He asked Ralph who made that quilt and Ralph said “Stixs” made it. John said, “Can she make me one too”…so I told John to tell me what he wanted and the names he wanted on it and I made it for him. 36 names appear on the quilt. Deceased athletes are featured down the middle. It took approx. 4 weeks to do. Each square probably took about 30 min. I got a machine to do all the embroidery. All hand-made.
Note: Coach Temple is Former Tennessee State coach Edward S. Temple, who coached Olympic champions Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus and Madeline Manning as well as Rallins.
“When a person sets seven world records and has had American records and been on two Olympic teams … there’s not too many people who receive a scholarship at age 30 and live in the dorm and make your second team when you’re a sophomore in college at the age of 31. I think I should get the recognition… But that’ll depend on who sells me.”
Your track resume is very impressive despite the fact that you never won an Olympic medal yet very few people outside of the track community know who you are. Do you feel that in today’s sports world athletes are judged and critiqued solely on how many medals, rings, and titles they have won?
Yes! First thing people ask is how many medals you got. They truly don’t understand or appreciate all the hard work and efforts that is put in to just getting there. I broke the world record wearing a pair of Pumas. They didn’t make women spikes back than so I wore a pair of men shoes. 1971-1972 Adidas came along and gave me a pair of shoes.
In the 1960s and ’70s, athletes were lucky to get some free shoes if they did well. Today, most elite athletes are professionals and have agents who accommodate them. A different time, a different era and a different type of beast, Rallins said.
“When I was running, everybody was an amateur. Now it’s become a job for them. They’re like semi- pros because now they’re allowed to make money.”
It was a pleasure interviewing and listening to Mamie Rallins speak. The passion and love for the sport of Track & field can still be felt within her. What she accomplished, and especially the age she accomplished it at, is truly an inspiration to any individual, athlete or not.
Set seven world and 11 U.S. records during her career.
Coached 24 All- Americans and one Olympian.
The country’s No. 1 female hurdler for four years
Made the 1968 Olympic squad at the ripe age of 27 and was 31 for the 1972 Olympics
Served as assistant coach of the USA Olympic Games in 1996
Karen Dennis was the first OSU women’s track coach since Mamie Rallins last held the position in 1993.